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Monthly Archives: January 2017

How Can Christian Schools Shine in a “Doubling Down” World?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. -- John 1:5

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:5

 

It has become a “don’t back down, double-down” world.

Many increasingly feel like they are being pushed too far. The “other” is more so all the time… and there is felt to be little truth in them. As time rolls on we seem, as Charles Murray has put it, to be “coming [further] apart”.

No!

No!

Tomorrow, several lawmakers plan on boycotting the inauguration of the President of the United States. In like fashion, pro-life woman, out of step with modern feminist ideology, are being excluded from participating in the Woman’s March on Washington. Many on the left also wish that they could boycott Peter Thiel, whom they consider to be insufficiently gay or not really gay at all. And among calls for government and big business-assisted action, more conservative reporters and news organizations were basically identified as a contagion to be isolated by the New York Times already in last November (right before the election of Donald Trump) for producing “fake news” (see my own analysis on the “fake news” issue – in short, “selective reporting” is a common human practice).

I am therefore not surprised when a Pew study shows that those who are “consistently liberal” in their politics are much more likely than those who are “consistently conservative” to “drop a friend” because of politics.

But politics, as we Christians know well, it is not all there is. For we know of the news that is really important and interesting. That is, the good news that Jesus Christ is the light of the world – the light no darkness shall overcome!

And now is the time for the church to shine!

This doesn’t mean that we can avoid “doubling down” ourselves. It means that we “double down” in a peculiar kind of way, a way that is distinct from the world around us. “Repent!,” in fact, is the language of love. Unlike many harsher phrases, it, even if it is said badly, must not mean “to cut-off” or damn. No. It must look to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

So how, in particular, can Christian schools continue to remain Christian, looking to be that shining city on a hill (no that is not America!) that Jesus spoke of?

And, perhaps, all in the name of evangelism? No!

And, perhaps, all in the name of evangelism? No!

First, we need to realize that, generally speaking, we really are much more eager be kind and patient with those we disagree with than they are us. When people say we are being unreasonable, mean, harsh, demeaning, close-minded, intolerant, etc. – and that they are even thinking about “unfriending” us – we typically want to know just what we are doing wrong. Truly saddened by their evaluation, we want to listen. We don’t want them to feel “unsafe” around us!

But we cannot be so blissfully unaware, so hopelessly naïve. Rather, because it is the truth which frees us, we need to be “anxious for the fray” – loving them by anticipating their moves and planning ahead. After all, when it comes down to it, there is nothing less safe than being outside of Christ and His love – and hence, His people, His beloved bride, His church.

This leads to the second answer, which is the main one: to realize that the positive message we proclaim – Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection that saves from sin, death, and the devil – is a treasure beyond all human comprehension.

Not only does the world not even begin to realize this – the bride of Christ itself, the church, does not even understand just how good this message is. Just like Jesus’ twelve disciples were perpetually clueless and of little faith, the same holds true for us!

And, perhaps, sometimes it takes outside voices to help us see this… Teaching an introductory class to Christianity at Concordia University – Saint Paul for six years now, I’ve been blessed to interact not only with students who are Christians, but also those who are nominally Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, animist, black, white, gay, lesbian, agnostic, and atheist. Given the fact that I try not to water anything down – teaching about both God’s law and gospel – what I hear from many of them has often surprises me.

In sum, I see, from unsolicited words that I have received (they are required to do two-sentence journal entries about anything they want), that God has made helped many of them see more clearly….

Just a few examples from the last year (here is a more complete list of quotes I published yesterday)….

A married atheist-lesbian student wrote to me:

“I have a greater understanding of the salvation Jesus gave when he offered his life as payment for sin. Most importantly, I have a greater respect and admiration of Christianity and the hope and positivity it offers.”

The first week, knowing full well where I stood, she said this to me:

“I don’t know for sure if my religious beliefs will change, but I know the Bible has enriched my life. To me that is a good enough reason to keep pursuing it. Thank you for offering this course with such grace and honesty.”

One of my Jewish students, recalling the required church-visit assignment, noted the following:

Going to this service was quite an eye-opening experience. Reading the Bible over the past few weeks has been interesting, and reading the commentary in the NIV study bible even more interesting… However, hearing the Bible verses, teachings, and lessons from the Church was a whole different experience, especially when you add the community aspect. I can now see why the Bible states that Church is so important. These words could not be more true: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17)

An animist student writes:

“As someone who knew nothing about the religion, it continues to interest and provide me with a different perspective of certain situations whether around the world, or here at home.  What has st[]uck out the most with me is the love God and Jesus has for human beings… I enjoyed the class and learning about the Christianity faith!  Thank you!”

And then, getting away from all of this “identity” stuff, there are also these general reactions (again, all of these are unsolicited comments from the past year):

  • I enjoyed your class! It has put a new perspective on the bible for me now and has also encouraged me to read it more often!… I adore Concordia university curriculum and even more that there is a theology requirement because if it were not I probably would not have had taken the class. Again, Thank you for everything!!!”
  • “I’m enjoying this class more than I thought I would which is great. My home dynamics are changing around dinner discussions and plans of finding a “home” church, I didn’t like the idea of the school having this class as a requirement, but I think it’s great and everyone SHOULD at some point take this class.”
  • “As I wrapped up my last week, I had a co-worker sarcastically ask me did I really learn anything. I was offended and by the end of our conversation she was in tears with all that I learned and the testimony I told her about of the person I interviewed.” (one assignment in the class is interviewing an active Christian known to the student)
  • “There is a lot about the Bible that I maybe did not put all together before now, but this class has honestly made it extremely interesting and made a difference in how I am viewing reading the Bible.  Like you said in class, I think that many individuals just see the Bible as a what God wants us to do and what God doesn’t want us to do, but looking at the Bible as an epic story of God’s love for us and how He sent His only son here to die for our sins is one of the greatest stories that I have ever heard.”
  • “I have taken many courses and by the end of them, I have generally been able to see how the content contributed to a more well[-]rounded education by adding professional skills and preparing me for career advancement.  I feel like this course is different (in a good way.)  I can see how the content from this course helps me as a human being and prepares me for flourishing as a human being, living a thoughtful and purpose filled life.  I hope you are aware of how much the work you do matters.”
  • “Last night when I was working on my paper I realized that it would be the last week of class and it made me feel a bit sad. I’m not really sure why since I will continue to have God in my life. But I think it might be because this class brought me closer to God. I usually don’t really have time to read and actually study the Bible, but this class gave me a reason to study it and to see the Bible in a different way.”
  • About three years ago, I was confident in my beliefs.  This has since changed. There are events in life that can shake you to your core and make you question everything, even your own existence.  This is where I am now in my life.  Trying to sort through what I believe to be true and what others want me to believe…. Reflecting on this class I see that it was exactly what I needed at this point in time.”
  • “What I did not realize is that this course would become more than a requirement.  At a time when there is so much chaos in the world I have looked for something to hold on to… through this course I have realized something, I can hold onto God…. This course helped me to reopen a chapter in my life that I thought I knew all about. I am so happy that I took this course and took the time to understand the Bible and Christianity better.”
  • “I think with this knowledge [of Christ] I feel safe. I feel as though no matter what I have God on my side, and that’s the most important thing I can take away from this course. I feel with this knowledge I feel comfortable sharing the Bible with others. For there is nothing for them to lose, except gain a relationship with an ever-loving and forgiving God.” (italics in quotes above mine)

So much hope! So much light! So much life! “God,” we Christians know, “is love”.

But how we tend to lose the plot! One might think that it would be obvious for example, even to the world, that there is something wrong with reading the Koran in a Christian worship service (more! – even reading a specific passage from the Koran that asserts that Jesus Christ is not God’s Son!). One might think that it would be obvious, even to the world, that a military chaplain’s first responsibility is not to his earthly masters, but to the glorious, beautiful, wonderful King of Heaven and Earth.

To many it is no longer “obvious” (even if, deep down, they know this…we suppress it!). Not even to many who claim the mantel of Christianity.

So these are the days when we must politely resist those who would gently try to help us be more accepting of supportive of “diversity” (oh, how much is subsumed under that term!) … in part by urging us to establish “safe spaces” at our schools and universities.

The promised Savior: "I am the light of the world."

The promised Savior: “I am the light of the world.”

These are the days where we absolutely must, taking our cue from the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul, run to the Scriptures and test all we hear against them (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).

If we do not, we ourselves will lose the One who will not lose. The One who scatters the darkness and is the only source of Goodness – Love, Light, and Life.

To conclude, I’ll say “Amen” to another student’s comments (even as she gives me an “Amen” herself):

“The more that I read of the Bible, the more firm and faithful I feel when it comes to God. I have read so many of these passages before but at this time in my life, they seem to be taking a greater effect. I’ve always been a Christian but I am realizing how blessed I am to be a Christian. It really is a faith unlike any other… Kind of like you said it class, that you’re glad Jesus is God.”

FIN

 

Images:

Candle: Sara K, Aphotic Melancholy 1, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 
3 Comments

Posted by on January 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Surprising (?) Power of God’s Word: Unsolicited Feedback From the Beginning Christianity Class that I Teach

"Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house." -- Matthew 5:15

“Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” — Matthew 5:15

 

Article summary: I’ve been keeping positive feedback regarding the class I teach now for about five years. I recently read through some of many pages of quotes that I’ve collected, and took out some of the quotes from the year 2016 that I think best sum up the effect this class has had on people’s lives

In general, the class that I teach at Concordia University Saint Paul does not tend to focus on subjective experiences. Rather, the focus is on Jesus Christ and the Bible as our authority – as the infallible Word of God.

That said, experience certainly is not an unimportant thing! I think the author of the course, Jim Gimbel (now President of Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta up in Canada) did a fantastic job designing the course to not only focus on core biblical content, but to also encourage students to interact with and relate to one another (and the professor). As one student put it, “with all the information that is covered in class I believe the way you have things organized and set up in class it works out perfect” (I always let them know I didn’t do it!).

And one of the most rewarding things about teaching an introductory course on Christianity is the unsolicited feedback that I receive regarding how the class has affected the students (and as much as I love being a librarian, I confess I enjoy this teaching even more).

As a Christian committed to the 1580 Lutheran Book of Concord, I’d be considered by many to be a pretty radical guy. And in the class, I try very hard not to dilute anything.

More specifically, this means that even though I do my best to make all feel welcome (as one student puts it, “I feel that everyone is respectful towards all of the different backgrounds we have”), I am absolutely firm about God’s law and gospel. Even though I tell all my students to ask hard questions and push-back – I don’t hesitate to try and “contend earnestly” for the Christian faith, and to remember, as best I can, 2 Tim 2: 24-26:

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

…and to practice, as best as I can, I Peter 3:15-16:

… but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

….whenever I can.

And yet, in spite of what many would no doubt consider a heavy-handed curricular set-up, unsolicited feedback I get from journal entries, emails, and papers (yes, it is possible it is “blowing smoke” to the one in the position of power, though I would contend its usually unlikely, particularly given my praise for the atheists and other non-Christians I’ve had in the class – and the fact that the anonymous, online, end-of-class evaluations rarely contain any negative feedback), always leaves me with the general impression that students….

Appreciate getting informed (despite its being required and the class’s very demanding workload![i]) (italics mine):

  • “There is a lot about the Bible that I maybe did not put all together before now, but this class has honestly made it extremely interesting and made a difference in how I am viewing reading the Bible.  Like you said in class, I think that many individuals just see the Bible as a what God wants us to do and what God doesn’t want us to do, but looking at the Bible as an epic story of God’s love for us and how He sent His only son here to die for our sins is one of the greatest stories that I have ever heard.”
  • I enjoyed your class! It has put a new perspective on the bible for me now and has also encouraged me to read it more often!… I adore Concordia university curriculum and even more that there is a theology requirement because if it were not I probably would not have had taken the class. Again, Thank you for everything!!!”
  • “As I wrapped up my last week, I had a co-worker sarcastically ask me did I really learn anything. I was offended and by the end of our conversation she was in tears with all that I learned and the testimony I told her about of the person I interviewed.”
  • “I’m enjoying this class more than I thought I would which is great. My home dynamics are changing around dinner discussions and plans of finding a “home” church, I didn’t like the idea of the school having this class as a requirement, but I think it’s great and everyone SHOULD at some point take this class.”
  • “Initially hesitant to take the course, but knowing that it was mandatory. I decided why not just get it over with… I can honestly say I’m a better person since taking this course. It’s ironic that prior to this class I would read signs posted on message boards outside of a church and not really give it a second thought. Now when I see the message boards my mind automatically goes through the remainder of the story, of that particular verse of Scripture….”
  • “I really am enjoying this class. I like that I am recognizing the names of people in the bible and the stories now… I like that if someone talks about the Gospels, I []now have a good idea of what they’re getting at.”
  • “I felt [this class] would be a waste of my time because it doesn’t pertain to my degree. To my surprise I came to enjoy the class and felt I learned a lot, regardless of the fact it might not be something I use daily in my future work life. I feel like understanding everyone’s religions and being respectful is a valuable life lesson.”
  •  “….enjoyed this class and learning all about the bible… very appreciative for this learning experience.
  • “Overall the experience of this class was memorable! I have learned more than in ANY other class thus far.”
  • “This class has really helped me to make time for God and to actually read the Bible and focus.”
  • “I was one that really originally thought that the Bible is a nice book with nice people and a nice happy ending. However, its not really the case, reading the Bible has actually opened my eyes with how different the Bible actually is, it’s real and raw! I am enjoying the class.”
  • “I did learn a lot in this course, and I feel better prepared to understand and relate to my Christian friends and colleagues.”
  • “I really enjoyed this class especially because it made me reflect on the teachings of the Bible as well as my own beliefs.”
  • “I must admit I absolutely love this class! haha!”
  • “I am softening myself to the power of religion and understanding the good that comes from prayer and worship…. I actually find myself bringing up religion and God more than ever before in conversations.”
  • “I enjoy this class so much and I wish that it was a regular semester and not a condensed semester there’s so much. I don’t feel as if I’m learning less because its condensed at all I’m really into this class and I don’t want it to end.”
  • “This class has benefited me in more ways than you can imagine. To list [one:] the ability to understand what I stand for.”
  • “I am very pleased with the way you present both the Bible and the Gospel. While you and I clearly differ on points of contention: [millennial reign, confession needs between a pastor and an attendee] – at least we have Jesus in common.”
  • “I have enjoyed this class and will miss having this as part of my weekly routine.”
  • I never looked at things the way I have until we started to analyze them this way in class. It makes me feel better that I am actually gaining more knowledge into the bible and its meaning.”
  • “I am very eager to continue the reading throughout this class and hope I am able to focus a bit more and understand/retain the material compared to when I was younger.”
  • “I’m happy to say that I got much more from this class than I expected. I was raised a Christian, and I did not really expect to learn anything new.”
  • “I can’t express to you how much I appreciate this class and everything you’ve taught us.  I have learned so much within these last few weeks and I wish we could continue the class (without all of the homework)!”
  • “I think we’re all taking this class as a required course, but we all seem to enjoy it and I like that it’s like it’s own bible study, that I never thought I would enjoy.”
  • “…since I have started this class I talk about it with one of my coworkers. We have some great conversations about the bible…”
  • “What a course!… grew up going to church, but I have learned more in these 7 weeks than I have in my 20+ years… Is that a good or a bad thing?!
  • “What a ride it’s been.  I have enjoyed this class so much!… I am so happy I got the opportunity to take this course and to get to know the beliefs and opinions of others.”
  • “Thank you again everything! I REALLY enjoyed taking your class.”
  • “I have found that I am surprising myself with how I am feeling about the material I am learning. Through all of the faith formation and religious exposure I have had throughout my past, I have surpassed everything I have learned just through two weeks!”
  • “Thanks again for an awesome class! I got a lot out of it and am looking at taking another religious course for the summer.”
  • “Throughout the weeks of this course there has been many things that I have learned about the bible and about God. Each week I am intrigued by the amount of information that I have had no know[]ledge about in the past… With this course rapping up here shortly I really want to continue to learn more about Christianity, the bible and stre[n]ghthen my relationship with the Lord.”
  • “I really enjoyed this class. It helped me understand more about being a Christian and God.  I always felt I knew Jesus pretty well because his disciples wrote about him but God was always this mystery to me.  Yeah He is our Father and He sent His only son to save us but I never thought too much more about him till I took this class.”
  • “My past that I learned from and my love for the faith has made this class truly special and dear to my heart…. I really enjoyed getting to talk to people of many faiths and having a professor who has such a deep love of the faith and desire to preserve and teach the Word of God to all people. I loved being able to confess Christ Boldly.”

Experience a degree of personal – even radical – transformation:

  • “I do have a different outlook on life…”
  • Before this class, I was going through the motions of going to church…”
  • “[I] have been really surprised how much more understanding [I]’ve gained from just one week. I admit it [–] this approach has brought life back into what was lost interest.”
  • “This class has motivated me to… uphold my commitment I made to God when I made my marriage vows and when I committed to raise my children in the Christian faith.”
  • “I have lost faith these past few years.  While I’ve always believed in God and Jesus, I didn’t necessarily believe in organized religion… I now see why it is important to take the time out to worship our Lord… in a public setting.”
  • “The more I learn in this class and from your lectures, the more comfortable I am being able to talk about it with others. My family watched the movie Jesus with me and I was able to tell them more about what was going on based on the readings in the Gospels this week.”
  • “Taking this course really has made me want to find a church home and start attending church regularly. As a father of one and another on the way I want to raise my children to have integrity and to Love God. I know as the better my relationship is with the Lord the more I will be able to lead my sons in the direction of God.”
  • “I am actually reading the bible more not only for the class, but i have been reading one new book of the bible every week to read. Thank you for this enjoyable journey this semester.”
  • “…a part of my childhood is being restored, a subject that brought me such great joy is returning, and for me that brings peace…”
  • “I am truly blessed to have been told to take this class because it brought me back to such an important thing.” (after the first week, this student wrote: “This is the week I learned that this course would be far more than just a requirement. It would allow me to reconnect with a childhood happiness; religion.”)
  • “I went in [to the worship service assignment] with an open mind and tried to erase all previous prejudices I had. I left feeling closer to God and ready to start worshipping our Lord once again…”
  • “Overall, this experience has been extremely spiritual. I know it is a college course and I earn credit, however, it was almost like I was engaging in a personal Bible study! I have learned so much about the history of the Bible, and details of Jesus’ accounts…. It really made a huge impact on me, and I am so grateful for this experience.”
  • “I think God has put me in this class at this point in time for a reason. I don’t know the full reason as to why, but I can say for sure it is to learn how to forgive, which it has started to do. I have been praying for a while now to be able to forgive my sons dad, but it wasn’t until the readings in this class that have helped open my eyes more as to how. So thank you for being a part of the process of my learning.”
  • “Prior to this course, I was nervous about reading the Bible. It always seemed a bit confusing. After I faced my fear, I could not be more proud of myself. Not only was I enjoying what I was reading, I was able to attend mass and grasp what was being read. I feel as though I am more confident in my faith, which is what I was striving for in the beginning…”
  • “I am not going to lie, I was hesitant when I knew I had to take this class, but wanted to keep an open mind going into it. This class has not been easy for me and it has shown that I am weak in certain aspects of the Bible. I have not spent much time in recent years attempting to gain a better understanding of the Bible and now realize I should have… I am only hurting myself, by not taking the time to fully understand it. I know that I have a long way to go, but hope as I continue my religious journey I will be able to share my newfound knowledge with my family and friends. On a lighter note you would be happy to know you had two extra students this week in class my 10 and 7 year old. It was interesting to see their reaction to your teachings and I think you made a positive impact on all 3 of our lives. Thank you again for your help along the way and I wish you and your family the best in the future.”
  • “I am very much enjoying the more thorough break down of the bible and the discussion around it.  I am actually beginning to feel my relationship with religion starting to ignite again. I do not think I have ever lost my faith or relationship with God but in these first two weeks I have felt a stronger interest in attending church again.  I am also finding value in having a stronger relationship with religion so that I can find the sort of worship that works best for me and hopefully pass it on to my daughter.”
  • “I put off taking this course… because I often struggle with faith and I feared this course had the potential to be intellectually and emotional draining.  I wanted to prepare myself for it…I am so grateful that I was able to take this course at this particular time in my life. Gaining a more in depth knowledge of Christianity, God, Jesus, Sin, Suffering, Forgiveness, Grace, etc…. has brought something to my life that I didn’t really know was missing.  It has been especially meaningful while facing the reality of losing my father…
  • I have taken many courses and by the end of them, I have generally been able to see how the content contributed to a more well[-]rounded education by adding professional skills and preparing me for career advancement.  I feel like this course is different (in a good way.)  I can see how the content from this course helps me as a human being and prepares me for flourishing as a human being, living a thoughtful and purpose filled life.  I hope you are aware of how much the work you do matters.”
  • “I got way more out of this class than I have gotten anywhere else. I have not spent the time to go to my church’s Bible study because it is for adults only. So next year when my two year old starts sunday school (at three years), I plan on sitting in on the Bible studies so that I can be better aquainted with the in[-]depth teachings of the Bible.”
  • “I found the class highly interesting as it has been a long time since I have done any reading/studying of scripture… The class has provoked religious discussions at home….”
  • “Last night when I was working on my paper I realized that it would be the last week of class and it made me feel a bit sad. I’m not really sure why since I will continue to have God in my life. But I think it might be because this class brought me closer to God. I usually don’t really have time to read and actually study the Bible, but this class gave me a reason to study it and to see the Bible in a different way.”
  • “This class has opened my eyes to many different aspects of my adult life and will carry things that I have learned in this class with me for years to come. I… am actually even a bit ahead in this class because I am enjoying getting back into the Bible. This has been the little push that I needed. I think my mom is appreciating it the most!”

Are comforted by what they learn from the Scriptures…:

  • “I really like how I am understanding the bible and the lessons more now [than when I was younger]. I feel like maybe I do because I am able to relate to some more? I am not really sure, but it is a comforting feeling.”
  • About three years ago, I was confident in my beliefs.  This has since changed. There are events in life that can shake you to your core and make you question everything, even your own existence.  This is where I am now in my life.  Trying to sort through what I believe to be true and what others want me to believe…. Reflecting on this class I see that it was exactly what I needed at this point in time.”
  • “I think with this knowledge [of Christ] I feel safe. I feel as though no matter what I have God on my side, and that’s the most important thing I can take away from this course. I feel with this knowledge I feel comfortable sharing the Bible with others. For there is nothing for them to lose, except gain a relationship with an ever-loving and forgiving God.”
  • “What I did not realize is that this course would become more than a requirement.  At a time when there is so much chaos in the world I have looked for something to hold on to… through this course I have realized something, I can hold onto God…. This course helped me to reopen a chapter in my life that I thought I knew all about. I am so happy that I took this course and took the time to understand the Bible and Christianity better.”

Even those who do not come to identify with Christianity during the course of the class experience have many positive things to say about the faith….

As one student summed up the atmosphere of her class:

  • “Overall, I really enjoyed my experience in this class. I learned a lot about God, Christianity, and surprisingly a lot about myself. I really like being able to talk about such a sensitive topic in a public setting. So often it seems that discussions related to religion are uncomfo[r]table. I did not feel that in this course. I also really liked the diversity of the class. There were many people who were not Christians and it was interesting to see what kind of questions they had about the faith.”

A married atheist-lesbian student wrote to me:

  • “I have a greater understanding of the salvation Jesus gave when he offered his life as payment for sin. Most importantly, I have a greater respect and admiration of Christianity and the hope and positivity it offers.”

The first week, knowing full well where I stood, she said this to me:

  • “I don’t know for sure if my religious beliefs will change, but I know the Bible has enriched my life. To me that is a good enough reason to keep pursuing it. Thank you for offering this course with such grace and honesty.”

One of my Jewish students, recalling the required church-visit assignment, noted the following:

  • Going to this service was quite an eye-opening experience. Reading the Bible over the past few weeks has been interesting, and reading the commentary in the NIV study bible even more interesting… However, hearing the Bible verses, teachings, and lessons from the Church was a whole different experience, especially when you add the community aspect. I can now see why the Bible states that Church is so important. These words could not be more true: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17)

An animist student writes:

  • “As someone who knew nothing about the religion, it continues to interest and provide me with a different perspective of certain situations whether around the world, or here at home.  What has st[]uck out the most with me is the love God and Jesus has for human beings… I enjoyed the class and learning about the Christianity faith!  Thank you!”

A man who practiced paganism wrote the following:

  • “Around the halfway point of this course understanding took over. I gained a greater understanding of the Bible, the mindset of the believers, the works of Jesus and why those who work on his behalf do so. I gained a greater appreciation of the Bible and the Christian faith in general. What I respect most about Christianity are the people on the front lines for Christ. As I’ve stated before it’s not the words alone, but the actions of the believers that I give the utmost respect. Professor R[]inne I thank you for your patience and tolerance and for the additional light you shared on numerous topics of the Bible and the Christian faith.”

Atheist students tend not to talk about enjoying the content (e.g. “I certainly haven’t changed my beliefs but It is interesting to pour over this text that I haven’t read since I was young.”), but are nice to me and Christian classmates : ) :

  • “I would like to thank you for an interesting class, for humoring me my inquiries, and your patience in humoring the village heretic.”
  • “Keep up the good work. You are a patient and intelligent professor. I wish you the best.”
  • “I opened myself up to this experience and it has by far been the most interesting and rewarding class I have taken here at Concordia.  I now can understand Christianity from a Christian’s perspective. Previous to this experience, my experiences with Christianity have been from afar, like an outsider looking in. I was intimidated, fearful, and quite doubtful of the validity of the Bible. I now can say that even if I am not convinced the Bible is historical rather than fictional, I am not doubtful of the beauty of believing. To believe in something bigger than you can guide you, keep you sane and honest. Those who believe live happier lives and live with less fear. I used to not understand why when people turn to God they change and it seems to monopolize their lives but I understand the concept, like when you first fall in love and all you want to do is see that person, talk about that person and tell everyone about that person.”

Sometimes, these kinds of comments make me wonder if I am doing my job! : )

What does all of this mean?

In all seriousness, none of the comments you read above from non-Christian students means that there is still not some kind of rebellion vs. God going on in them. It just means that, at some level, they are able to appreciate, respect, and, overall, see some value to the Christian message – hopefully delivered with conviction and love – that they receive.

In other words, there are many, many persons in our country who, when they are exposed to the Bible, are either converted to Christ (but even here, we think about the parable of the sower) or are otherwise transformed in a “civil righteousness” sense. They, even like the “old Adam” that remains even in the Christian, may ultimately be God’s enemy (and hence will re-interpret or dilute in their minds what is clearly there in God’s word), but they also might also have convictions about the beneficial practical effects of Christian faith – and might even be unable to stop – if they wanted to! – the real love they feel for the Christians around them (note God’s goodness to both the righteous and unrighteous in Psalm 145, Matthew 5 and Acts 14, for example).

To conclude, I’ll say “Amen” to this students comments (even as she gives me an “Amen” herself)

  • “The more that I read of the Bible, the more firm and faithful I feel when it comes to God. I have read so many of these passages before but at this time in my life, they seem to be taking a greater effect. I’ve always been a Christian but I am realizing how blessed I am to be a Christian. It really is a faith unlike any other… Kind of like you said it class, that you’re glad Jesus is God.”

FIN

 

[i] “I will be honest with you Professor….this class really tested my time management skills due to the level of weekly assignments. At times I felt very overwhelmed and sometimes found myself scrambling to finish the assignments on time. This class was good and I enjoyed it very much.”

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Resolved: Why We Should Recognize, not Emphasize, the Christian’s Freed, New Will

A recent translation of Martin Luther's "On Christian Freedom," retitled, from Lutheran Press.

A recent translation of Martin Luther’s “On Christian Freedom,” retitled, from Lutheran Press.

There is a brutal honesty in the 16th century Lutheran Confessional documents. At one point, we are asked the question:

“Who does not frequently doubt whether human affairs are ruled by God’s counsel or by chance? Who does not frequently doubt whether he be heard by God?”

Still, the God revealed in the Bible ultimately delivers faith and certain hope. In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness, life and salvation. The sure and full transformation of the world – and we who believe to – is coming! And because God is free (II Cor. 3:17), He makes us free, and we have the beginnings of this now (whether you see it or not! – see II Cor. 3:18).

Therefore, a la Paul in Romans 12:1-2, we are resolved.

And did you, in your Christian liberty, decide to make a New Year’s resolution this year? If not, that is certainly not a problem. A couple of years ago however, Tullian Tchividjian got some major media attention for saying that things like New Year’s resolutions were a part of the problem! He complained thusly:

“….underneath our New Year’s resolutions is the drive to save ourselves by generating our own value, significance, meaning, and security by what we do and by who we can become.” (see here)

I use Tchividjian’s argument, not as a reason to pile on him (as he has certainly had some major difficulties of late, to say the least), but because I think his words can very effectively lead us into reflection on this important issue.

After all, had Tchividjian spoken about the drive that lies underneath many New Year’s Resolutions,[i] he would undoubtedly have been correct. And even if we, through God’s Holy Spirit, resist the impulse that tells us we can stand before God’s throne of judgment by what we have done in our earthly lives, we nevertheless tend to believe that we can at least, through freely chosen actions enacted through the sheer power of our will, be masters of our own fate. A kind of “gorilla mindset”, as a popular bestseller puts it, is all we really need to attain the good…the success…we seek.

And of course, in America in the early 21st century, the idea of human freedom has reached fantastically absurd proportions. It was almost 25 years ago that a majority on the United States Supreme Court (!) said, with a straight face, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Or, as a Sprint advertisement put it succinctly a few years ago – at least in regards to our digital uploading powers! – “I have a right to be unlimited”! (here)

Luther on gods not strong and free enough to save: “the Gentiles have asserted an inescapable fate…for their gods” who cannot foresee future events or are deceived by events.

Luther on gods not strong and free enough to save: “the Gentiles have asserted an inescapable fate…for their gods” who cannot foresee future events or are deceived by events.

I think it is helpful to think about this concept of the freedom of the human will – and how we certainly can effect change in the world – in a larger context. Led by the West, the predominant themes in the world today – even taking into consideration recent events – are arguably those of progress and destiny (similar to the notion of fate, but with largely positive connotations). This has not always been the case. In the ancient world, the predominant motifs, despite some ideas of order, were those of chaos and fate (which has negative connotations).

Like the Indian writer, Vishal Mangalwadi, I believe that the reason for this shift in attitudes has largely to do with Christian influence. In his book The Book That Made Your World, he writes of the fatalism and determinism that dominated the ancient world and still affects his native India:

“Determinism (and other forms of reductionism) implies that we don’t exist as individual selves but are only products of our chemistry, genes, environment, culture, or language. My professors [in India] couched these ideas in scientific/academic termninology. Did that make these ideas any better than traditional fatalism? Fatalism is a worldview with huge social consequences that I could see all around me: poverty, disease and oppression. Cultures like mine had historically resigned themselves to their “fate.” Western civilization, on the other hand, believed that human beings were creative creatures and therefore could change ‘reality’ for the better. This enabled the West to virtually eliminate many of the ills that still plague my people.” (p. 48)

Christians are the heretics who don't bow to Fate and Fortuna.

Christians are the heretics who, like their God, don’t bow to Fate and Fortuna.

I think that words like these from Mangalwadi are very important. At the same time, there is no doubt that we post-Augustinian Christians look back at the way that the early church defended the doctrine of free choice with a bit of horror. The fact of the matter is that these early Christians, eager to counter these pagan notions of chance and fate, often seem to have severely underestimated the doctrine of original sin!

There is no doubt that the church, through a man like Augustine, needed to counter the excesses and errors of Pelagius, who insisted that man in his nature was capable of meriting God’s approval. At the same time, Augustine would not have been eager to disregard the concerns and teachings of those who had gone before him. As the above quotation from Mangalwadi makes clear, there was a very good reason the early church fathers stood firm in their insistence of human free will over and against fate and determinism. Human beings, created in the image of God, were morally responsible creatures who answered not to the stars[ii], but to the One True God!

And in some sense, in spite of his doctrine of double predestination (where God appoints some to heaven and others to hell), Augustine seems to stand with the early church fathers when it comes to the freedom of the human will not only as regards growth in the Christian life but our becoming Christians as well. As regards both of these, Augustine emphasized God’s initiative. For example, as regards our growth in the life of faith, he said:

“God brings it about that we act. The Psalmist says to him: “set a guard, lord, upon my mouth” [Ps. 140:3 (141:3 rsv)]. This is to say: bring it about that I set a guard upon my mouth. The one who said “I have set a guard upon my mouth” [Ps. 38:2 (39:1 rsv)] had already obtained that benefit from God.” (On Grace and Free Choice, see p. 161 here).

Hart discusses Augustine's influence on American ideas and ideals.

Hart discusses Augustine’s influence on American ideas and ideals.

At the same time, writing to Firmus a man of nobility who had read and appreciated Augustine’s work but had resisted becoming a Christian, he said the following….

“Do not wait until he wills it, as if you were going to offend him if you willed it first. For, whenever you have willed it, you will be willing it with his help and by his working. His mercy, of course, anticipates you so that you may will it, but when you will it, you yourself certainly will it. For, if we do not will when we will, then he does not give us anything when he makes us will.” (Epistle 2*.8 (A.D. 428); in The Works of Saint Augustine, II/4, 236)

This, of course, does not really seem to emphasize the heart and core of the Christian faith: that we freely receive, in Jesus Christ, forgiveness, life, and salvation from sin, death and the devil! Further, it seems to be in real tension with what Augustine writes elsewhere, namely that our initial conversion is something that God does to us, period! (where we are, in truth, wholly passive like infants at their mother’s breast). It was Martin Luther of course, who, in the interest in making this absolutely clear vs. Erasmus (who had attacked Luther’s position), put forth an argument in his Bondage of the Will that, to some, seemed to disregard the human will, and hence human responsibility, altogether.

Erasmus, certainly thought that this was the case, and replied to Luther again in his Hyperaspistes I and II. After this, Luther’s trusted colleague Phillip Melanchthon urged Luther to let him do the responding to Erasmus this time, and he did so (indirectly) in editions of his commentary on Colossians that was popular during the years 1527-1529. As Timothy Wengert notes regarding Melanchthon’s take on the situation (at least in the 1520s!):

“Questions arose which were not edifying for the church, including ‘whether God causes evil things.’ Taken out of context, this point might be misconstrued as an attack on Luther. Instead, as we have seen again and again, Erasmus’s challenge to Luther was the real culprit [for Melanchthon]. To pose the question of the pagans, whether God was the cause of evil, showed an improper understanding of rhetoric and dialectic. Yet this was in fact what worried Erasmus!” (p. 100, Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness).

“…when [God] acts by the Spirit of Grace in those whom He has made righteous, i.e., in His own kingdom, He… impels and moves them; and, being new creatures, they follow and cooperate with Him; or rather, as Paul says, they are led by Him." -- Martin Luther

“…when [God] acts by the Spirit of Grace in those whom He has made righteous, i.e., in His own kingdom, He… impels and moves them; and, being new creatures, they follow and cooperate with Him; or rather, as Paul says, they are led by Him.” — Martin Luther, BOTW

It is important to see a book like The Bondage of the Will in light of Luther’s wider work. For example, Luther himself certainly never would have wanted anyone to believe – as Erasmus implied – that God had intended for Adam to fall (this can be clearly seen by looking at his Genesis commentary, written in his later years). And as is evident in the widely accepted confessional writings of the early Lutherans, they, like Augustine, also did not want to disregard the wisdom of the church’s earlier fathers, but wanted to be attentive to their concerns (see here, for example, in Art. II on Free Will in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord).

In sum, what all of this means is that while the human free will is not something that we should be fixated on (impossible as that often is in our world), it is something that we should assert exists, and that has no small degree of importance.

As I put it in five points from a New Year’s Resolution post last year….

  • The law cannot inspire the obedience it demands – but the Gospel can inspire us to say “Amen!” when we hear the beauty that is God’s law/will![vi]
  • If the Western church is indeed “weak in sanctification”, it is because it is looking to Christ less, not more; for less, not for more.
  • We should not focus on our ability to [weakly] cooperate in sanctification. We should just recognize it, affirm it, and look to Christ for all good things.
  • There is a “positional” sanctification (us in Christ – this goes with justification) and a “deepening” and progressive sanctification (Christ in us).
  • And finally, if you doubt your sanctification, look to Christ whom you are in: for us, He “became perfect” on earth, according to His human nature.[vii]

Ken Miller, in a comment responding to a blog post about Tchividjian’s New Year’s resolution ideas, had some good words with which to close this post:

“I think New Year’s Resolutions are a good thing, provided that they are coming from a place of complete security in the finished work of Christ. The gospel calls us to do good works, not to earn our salvation or even to prove it, but because of our salvation. If our resolutions are intended to make ourselves more lovable or to earn someone’s favor, then they’re misguided. If they are made out of a pure love for God and a desire to put on Christ Jesus, then I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

I would tweak that last sentence a bit, noting that our love for God won’t be pure this side of heaven. That said, the basic thought is right on target. Through the gift of faith which cling’s to Christ’s perfect righteousness, our sincere resolutions to love God and neighbor more are certainly pleasing to him. Even if there is nothing that we are able to do to make Him love us more than He already does!

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] Wise words from Pastor Cooper (I’ve taken six successive tweets he recently made and strung them together): “Let’s not assume that everyone who speaks like Tullian or uses his language are using their own theology as an excuse for sin [as] he did. He reached a lot of vulnerable people who genuinely were beaten up by legalistic backgrounds. Recognize that. However, this should also be an opportunity for those who use the kind of language he did to clarify it, and see the dangers in such talk that downplays the necessity and importance of Christian obedience and daily repentance. From my own talks with him, I thought he was simply unbalanced. He always affirmed third use/ progressive sanctification etc. But simply affirming Biblical doctrine is not enough if we never actually talk or think about it.” (see first tweet here: https://twitter.com/JustandSinner/status/804783343074181120 )

[ii] Again, it is very interesting to note that the God found in the Bible “demystifies the natural world by taking personal benevolence and malevolence out of the account of sun and moon an natural phenomena” – people of the Psalmists day really did worry that the *gods* of the Sun and Moon “might strike you by day…[and] by night”, respectively! (James V. Bachman, “Lutheran Theology and Philosophy”, The Idea and Practice of a Christian University, p. 174).

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

 
 
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