Monthly Archives: April 2019

“Antinomianism as Theological Method” by Paul Strawn

“The law and gospel cannot coexist. They are mutually exclusive” — Paul Strawn, on the view of contemporary Lutheran gnostic antimomianism


After reading Jim Yeago’s classic 1993 paper again this morning, I’ve decided to just post my pastor’s whole paper jumping off of Yeago right on this blog…


Antinomianism as Theological Method

Paul Strawn—Baxter, Minnesota 2017

The term antinomianism is an English derivative of the Greek ἀντί (anti “against”) + νόμος (nomos “law”). A simple definition of an antinomian is found in Mirriam-Webster: “One who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.”[1] The word is not found in Greek literature but was apparently coined by Martin Luther (1483-1546), first appearing in his brief Against the Antinomians (1539)[2] the only work from Luther on the topic that appeared in the American Edition of Luther’s Works (1971). As such, it was probably chosen because of its brevity, and its publication towards the end of a controversy that began twelve years earlier, and which had precipitated no less than six published sets of theses drawn up by Luther, and four public disputations.[3] The importance of antinomianism for Lutheran theology can be gathered from the fact that Article V (Law and Gospel) and Article VI (Third Use of the Law) would be included in the Formula of Concord (1577) chiefly to address various aspects of it. The origin of antinomianism within Lutheranism is usually dated to 1527, when it was noticed that Johannes Agricola (1494-1546), who having studied theology in Wittenberg became the director of the Latin school in Eisleben, preaching locally as well, had begun to assert that repentance and contrition should not be a result of the preaching of the law, but of the proclamation of the Gospel.

Contrition and repentance for sin, he stated, are not so much a precondition of faith as a consequence of it. What can best induce genuine sorrow over one’s sin and a turning from it is not the preaching of the law, but the preaching of the gospel of God’s immeasurable grace in Christ. And as to the guidance for the Christian life, it is to be derived not from the Ten Commandments or other aspects of the law in the usual sense, but from the apostolic admonitions which follow from the gospel.[4]

Questioning an Old Answer

The latter assertion, that “guidance for the Christian life… is to be derived not from the Ten Commandments”—traditionally understood as the “third use” of the law—recently became a point of contention once again within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) when on the heels of the publication by Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis—the publishing arm of the LCMS—of Scott Murrays’[5]  Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism (2002) a number of speakers at the annual Confessions Symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne asserted that there actually was no third use of the law in Luther’s theology. So what had been taught in the synodical (LCMS) Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism for over a century—that there are three uses of the law (political, theological and pedagogical functioning as a curb, mirror and rule respectively) was therewith thrown into question. Kurt Marquart, who also presented a paper which would not be included in the collection of those eventually published, did not see it as so, and in a few short remarks demonstrated that Art. VI of the Formula of Concord indeed reflected Luther’s Theology. And yet in his introduction to six of the papers presented there, published in 2005,[6] seminary president Lawrence R. Rast, Jr. painted a picture that indeed seemed to be somewhat murky:

Yet, while the Formula hoped that Article VI would “explain and settle” the matter, the history of Lutheranism shows otherwise. The varieties of questions that this matter has generated are remarkable: Did Luther teach that there is a function of the law for the Christian? Did Lutheranism teach there the is a function of the law for the Christian? Should Lutheranism teach that there is a third use? Was the Formula faithful to Luther? And so on.[7]

Making Luther’s Antinomian Disputations Accessible

Being in attendance at the conference, and noting that the most important source for Luther’s thoughts on antinomianism had never been translated into English, I set about to translate and adapt the six sets of theses from Luther which were then published as Don’t Tell Me That! By Lutheran Press in Minneapolis in 2004. That work would be the topic of discussion three years later at the 20th annual Minnesota Lutheran Free Conference on October 27th, 2007 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and would be followed by the publication of Holger Sonntag’s translation of the Antinomian Disputations—for the first time in any modern language—in 2008 along with the Latin text of the Weimar edition from which they were taken,[8] as well as an English-only edition as Only the Decalogue is Eternal.[9] Concordia Pulpit Resources excerpted Don’t Tell Me That in 2009,[10] which brought further attention to the work.[11] Another effort that began as a result of the publication of the six papers from the symposia in Ft. Wayne was that of Edward A. Engelbrecht, Senior Editor for Professional and Academic Books and Bible Resources at Concordia Publishing House, which appeared in 2011 under the title Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for the Christian Life.[12] What particularly had spurred Engelbrecht on was the assertion by Larry M. Vogel in his paper presented at Ft. Wayne “A Third Use of the Law: Is the Phrase Necessary?” (CTQ 69:192) that “Luther had no Third Use of the Law.”[13] Engelbrecht therefore set about in a treatment of over three hundred pages to demonstrate that Luther did actually teach a third use.

A Rejection of All Three Uses of the Law

So all seemed well and good. What started out in 2002 with a discussion of Murray’s books at a major Lutheran seminary as an open question, that is, the existence of the third use of the law in Lutheran theology, raising the question as to the essence and nature of antinomianism, seemed in 2011, with the appearance of Engelbrecht’s work, to be closed again. But already in 2009 an event within American Lutheranism had occurred that signaled that an even greater, and deeper discussion of antinomianism was needed. Meeting in Minneapolis, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved the sanctioning of homosexual behavior among its leaders, clergy and members as long as it occurred within a “committed relationship.” Here was not an issue of the third use of the law, which since the ELCA does not accept the Formula of Concord, was not an issue as far as confessional conscription is concerned. And ultimately, the approval of homosexual behavior was not even an issue of the second use of the law, its theological use, that of exposing sin. What happened in Minneapolis in 2009 really raised the question as to the law of God itself, as to whether or not it plays any role at all in the life of the Christian. In fact, what happened there was not a matter of the law of God or the gospel, but ultimately the revelation of God, the question as to why in fact God reveals himself to man: Does God do so to shape or form man into his likeness? Or ultimately, to do something else?

Antinomianism as Theological Method

Already back in 1993, David S. Yeago, now Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the North American Lutheran Seminary—the seminary of the newly formed (2010) North American Lutheran Church—had raised this question. Writing in his oft-cited article “Gnosticism, Antinomianism and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal,”[14] Yeago noted the disastrous implication of making Luther’s distinction of law and gospel into an overall epistemology (theory of knowledge) which becomes “the ultimate structuring horizon of Christian belief.”[15] In other words, instead of understanding the distinction of law and gospel as identifying when the Christian is hearing the Ten Commandments and the description therein of God’s holiness and of His ultimate will of man to “be holy as he is holy” (Lev. 19:2), over against the proclamation of the holy Christ’s fulfilling of the law, his suffering, death and resurrection, so that His holiness could be given to man, to “all who believed on His name,” (John 1:12), the law/gospel distinction is the fundamental structure of Christian theology.

The space within which all other theological concepts and categories must be placed and ordered an [sic] interrelated is itself structured by a radical irreconcilable antithesis. Law and gospel are two irreducibly opposed and incompatible words, and there is nothing behind them or beyond them which unites them except, perhaps, the inscrutable purposes of the hidden God. The antithesis of law and gospel is thus a primitive datum, which theology must simply accept as such and to which it must relate everything else on which it reflects. The antithesis of law and gospel cannot be mediated or contextualized in any way; it can only be terminated by the gospel’s negation of the law, by the victory of the one word over the other. The law is sheer oppression, the gospel sheer liberation, and this total opposition can only be ended by the negation of the law.[16]

In other words, the context of the law of God is not the creation, the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai or the Sermon on the Mount, and the context of the gospel is not the incarnation of Christ, and the recreation of man through baptism into man. Law oppresses simply “because it is an ordered demand, a requirement, a command. The law oppresses because of the kind of word it is, not because of the situation in which we encounter it.”[17] The gospel, conversely, “comes to free us from the situation defined by the law.”[18] Thus, we are not freed by the gospel from sin, death and the power of the devil—actual things existing from which we need to be freed—but we are freed by the gospel from the law, that is, freed from a demand, a requirement, a command, whatever it may be. In Yeago’s words

If it is true that the law opposes simply because of its formal character as ordered demand, then the converse would seem also to hold: anything which the formal character of ordered demand oppresses. That is to say, anything which proposes some particular ordering of our existence or calls for a determinate response from us will be perceived as being, simply as such, the oppressive law from which the gospel delivers us. And since the gospel’s liberating character is defined in terms of its antithesis to the law, it will not be our sinful abuse of the law and hostility to the commandment, and God’s wrath against us on that account, from which the gospel liberates us. Rather, the gospel will liberate us from the situation of having to hear commandment at all, from having to reckon with any word whatsoever which has the formal character of ordered demand.[19]

And even more clearly (and somewhat redundantly!):

Thus the law oppresses because it proposes a determinate ordering of our existence and calls for a specified response, and it follows that the gospel liberates because it delivers from determinate order and specified response. The law/gospel distinction thus conceived expands quite naturally into a kind of ontology of human existence, at whose heart is an antagonism, or at least an irresolvable tension, of form and freedom, of order and authenticity. Form and order imposed despair promotes self-righteousness; salvation is liberation from form and order and the law’s cruel demand for them.[20]

So here we have a concept of antinomianism that has gone far beyond being simply the question as to how and when to apply the Ten Commandments to a Christian, of whether the law should be used to work repentance in the unconverted, or whether there are two uses of the law or three. For in all such discussions what is presupposed is that the law is actually the Ten Commandments of Mt. Sinai, and the gospel something to do with the historical Jesus Christ. No. The antinomianism that Yeago is describing is simply the existential rejection of anything which would shape or mold the individual against his or her personal wants, needs or desires. This has come to include gender as that which society “imposes” upon an individual.

And we must stay with Yeago for one more point before moving on, and that is what the identifying of form, or shape or mold with a command or demand, with the law, has to do with any understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. With such an understanding of the law, is not the incarnation of Jesus Christ the ultimate form of enslavement?

The logic is simple: if form is enslavement, then a God who took form in history would be an enslaving God. The liberating God must therefore be a formless God, a God at most dialectically related to any particular form, a God who is everywhere and nowhere, whose faceless elusiveness frees us from the tyranny of the particular and ordered and definitive.[21]

Yeago then goes on to describe this understanding of Christ to be that of Gnosticism which I have no doubt is probably true. But it also relieves Yeago and the NALC and ELCA and all of their partner churches from a bit of introspection, that is, of the question as to how they have arrived at this theological construct. It is not as though as a consequence of decades of group-think, a majority of theologians within the institutions of higher education of the ELCA arrived at Gnosticism of one form or another. In other words, by noting the parallels between such thinking and Gnosticism we are led off track, away from the actual source and cause of such thinking, which seems more accurately to be that of the philosophical underpinning of Gnosticism, Platonism, mediated through the Protestant theological tradition of Caspar Schwenckfeld (1490-1561), and most recently, of Karl Barth (1886-1968). In other words, Yeago needed to go back further in history to the actual source of the idea. And then realize its continuing influence within the Protestant church yet today. For what is found in the theologies of Schwenckfeld and Barth, is that they posit a rather Platonic, radically other, God, that is, a God disconnected from His creation, but who still interacts with it, directly, but not through created means. And I am guessing that it would not take too much digging to reveal that the criticism Yeago levels against an epistemology that is based on some sort of shaping, forming or molding of man, or freeing of man, is simply a derivation of the dialetic theology of Karl Barth—taught nowadays in Lutheran seminaries throughout the world.

And Within the LCMS

And it is not as though the LCMS has not dabbled with this way of portraying God’s interaction with man. Back in 1973 Concordia Publishing House published the little volume God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.  It was a condensation of C.F.W. Walther’s (1811-1887) The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, first published in German partly in 1893 and then fully in 1897, and then in an English translation prepared by W.H.T. Dau (1864-1944) at Valparaiso University in 1929. The choice of the title of the condensed version, God’s No and God’s Yes could not have been haphazardly chosen, but most probably was used somehow to capitalize on the growing popularity of the dialectic theology of Barth, the Lutheran theologian Friedrich Gogarten (1887-1967), and Emil Brunner (1839-1966) starting to be of interest at Valparaiso University and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis at that time.  What is dialectic theology? Here is a definition of as good as any: “a form of neo-orthodox theology emphasizing the infinite tensions, paradoxes, and basic ambiguities inherent in Christian existence, and holding, against rationalism, that God is unknowable to humans except through divine grace and revelation.”[22] Of course of what exactly such “divine grace and revelation” consisted was up for debate, as Barth and Brunner’s famous exchange of 1934 demonstrated, with the question being that of how exactly God interacts with man to reveal Himself: Through history? Through Scripture? Through creation in any way? According to Barth, through creation the answer is “no.” Through God in some way, “yes.” Indeed, in his last letter to Brunner God’s relationship with mankind is described as “Yes to all”.[23] Thus entitling Walther’s thesis on the proper distinction between law and gospel, both of which are proclaimed to man through the revelation of God’s Holy Word, the Scriptures, as God’s “yes” and God’s “no” muddied the waters, presenting Walther’s classic as some sort of dialectic corrective.

But it cannot be said that it did not have its effect. For it is perhaps within the world-wide context of Protestant theology, the proper distinction of law and gospel understood even in a Waltherian fashion has indeed taken on the form of an overall epistemology driving even confessional Lutheran theology. Here the study of Walther’s classic in homiletics class at the seminary, preparing the student to preach, is juxtaposed over against the study in systematics classes of a multi-volume dogmatics textbook, like that of Francis Pieper,[24] full of obscure Latin and German terminology. The first presents twenty-five theses which become not only the basic structure of every sermon the pastor will preach, but also every Bible study he will teach and every counseling session, shut-in call and hospital visit he will make. It will also inform his decisions on pericopal systems, sermon texts, hymns, songs or worship format. The second, the dogmatics text, then only serves as the context, the historical, dogmatic and ecclesiological context in which in the first will be used. And indeed, the very usage of the content of Christian theology itself, becomes a matter of law and gospel. How so? Most obviously—but certainly not exclusively—in the compelling question as to whether or not there need be any instruction in the Christian faith like that of standard confirmation classes. Must the student attend? Must lessons be completed? Must the Small Catechism be memorized? These were not even questions years ago, but now they seem to be falling more and more under a law/gospel dialetic as in: Are we not imposing something on the students (and parents!) by insisting on learned content? Are we not insisting that Christianity have a specific shape, form or mold? And are we not, by doing so, really imposing the law of God, where the gospel should predominate? (Here we can note the title of the confirmation materials used in the ELCA for quite some time: Free to Be.[25])

No, confessional Lutheran theology has not gone so far as to embrace the idea that the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate expression of an enslaving god, and enslaving god who will force and shape and mold man against his will. But the question must be asked, every time an indifferent matter is raised within the church, whether or not the knee-jerk theological reaction has become simply that of an antinomianistic rejection of anything that may shape, form or mold? That this may in fact be happening can be determined by simply comparing the pastoral practice—even the synodical culture!—that has developed on the basis of a dialectic understanding of Walther’s Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel over against the practice, the church life, described in his newly republished Pastoral Theology.[26] There one finds not a clash between a dialectic epistemology and church dogma, but a dialectic epistemology and given pastoral practice. If the Christian life cannot take on a given shape, form or mold, how can the pastoral office? An office of the gospel? (This might also explain why no more modern pastoral theology has gained wide acceptance.)

Origins within the LCMS

I would suggest, then, that at least within the LCMS, the gradual, if almost imperceptible, adaptation of the usage of the law/gospel distinction as a foundational dialectic epistemology reveals itself ultimately in rejections of the third use of the law. How this came about practically within the synod is not too difficult to discover. Indeed, Ed Schroeder, who would become a professor of systematic and historical theology at Concordia Seminary, and then Seminex, and now is retired, took credit for it in 2004 when he posted to the world wide web:

   In the early 1950s in the Luth. Church-Missouri Synod [LCMS] Jaroslav Pelikan, young professor at Concordia Seminary (St. Louis), was recommending to us students that if we wished to escape Missouri’s “hang-up” with Verbal Inspiration of the Scriptures, we should go to Erlangen and study under Elert. Elert’s 2 volume “Morphologie des Luthertums” [literally: The Morphology of Lutheranism], was “epoch-making”–he said–with its presentation of the “Evangelischer Ansatz” [“Gospel-grounding”] for Lutheran confessional theology.

So three of us students “went to Erlangen” for the academic year 1952-53. Bob Schultz, already graduated from Concordia, became Elert’s doctoral candidate. Baepler and I were only half-way through Concordia, but had finagled scholarships to go to Germany for the year. Elert died before Schultz finished his work. He attended Elert’s funeral. Elert’s colleague, Paul Althaus, took over as his “Doktorvater.” Bob’s dissertation (written in German, of course) was a flat-out Elertian theme: “Law and Gospel in Lutheran Theology in the 19th Century.” It was published by Luthersiches Verlagshaus.

   Baepler and I were there only for the “Sommersemester” ’53. We all enrolled for Elert’s lectures and seminar. He even invited the three of us over for Kaffeeklatsch one Sunday afternoon, since he appreciated that the pioneer of the Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther, had been faithful to law/gospel Lutheranism and had even written a book by that title. At that Kaffeeklatsch Elert agreed to write an article for our Concordia Seminary student theological journal, “The Seminarian”–I can still hear him saying, “Das tue ich!”–which was then published when Dick and I returned to St. Louis. Its title: “Lutheranism and World History.” Most likely it is the one and only Elert article that first appeared in English–and probably never in German. He wrote it, of course, in German and we translated it. It was posted 6 years ago as Thursday Theology #29 in the first year of this enterprise. [If interested GO to the Crossings webpage ( and click on Thursday Theology, December 10, 1998.]

By 1957 all three of us were at Valparaiso University, and were teaching what we had learned, not only to V.U. students, but to the wider Missouri Synod. With Bob Bertram as dept. chair and Gottfried Krodel added to the staff later on, law/gospel Lutheranism became the trademark of “Valparaiso Theology.” So there were 5 of us in one place at one time. We encountered conflict within Missouri, of course, with our teaching and writing. Verbal inspiration and “Evangelischer Ansatz” were not compatible.

   This Elertian sort of Confessional Lutheranism, though hardly ever acknowledged as such, was also near the center of the eventual explosion in Missouri in 1973-74 that took place at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and then created “Concordia Seminary in Exile, a.k.a. Seminex. That is, of course, one man’s opinion. Bertram and I were then on the faculty at Concordia–and “Elertian” confessional Lutheranism, already at home there (but hardly majority opinion), got additional support.

   The fuse for the explosion was the LCMS national convention in 1973. By a 55% to 45% vote the convention declared the “faculty majority” [45 of the 50 professors at Concordia Seminary] to be “false teachers.” Three false teachings were specified. Two of the three were actually Elert’s own “heresies,” although he was never named. One heresy of the Concordia faculty was called “Gospel-reductionism.” In nickel words: grounding the Bible’s authority on the Gospel itself [ = Elert’s Evangelischer Ansatz] and not on verbal inspiration. The second heresy was on the so-called “third use of God’s law,” a constant hot potato among Lutherans ever since the 16th century. Our “false teaching” on the law’s “third use” was that we opted for Elert’s Gospel-grounded interpretation and not the one the LCMS had supposedly “always” taught.[27]

The fact that a rejection of the third use of the law, that antinomianism, was a part of formation of Seminex and the walk-out at the seminary in St. Louis is little-noted. Normally the issues involved with that event are described as those having to do with the Bible, with the doctrine of inspiration and other such matters. But also key, as David Scaer recently has noted in papers presented in Ft. Wayne, Indiana (January 2017) and Bloomington, Minnesota (April, 2017) was the rejection of the third use of the law. That this is so can be gathered from the claim noted above, but also by recent complaints within the ELCA that such antinomian ideas came into the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and the ELCA in general via the Seminex graduates who now hold positions of power and influence in that synod.[28]

Antinomian Negation of the Atonement

Of greater import to Scaer is the denial of the need for the doctrine of the atonement as can be found apparently in the writings of Oswald Bayer (University of Tübingen), Steven Paulson (Luther Seminary, St. Paul), and Timothy Wengert (Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia). But such a rejection of the atonement makes sense. In order for the law of God—if still understood as the Ten Commandments—not to accuse the Christian, ultimately, it cannot accuse Christ either. In other words, in order for the law not to play a role in the life of the Christian as traditionally understood, the crucifixion of Christ on the cross cannot be portrayed as a fulfillment of the law. So Gerhard Forde’s (1927-2005) understanding of the crucifixion of Christ has been described by Jack Kilcrease (adjunct professor at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids) :

He begins with the recognition that human beings exist under the law and the hidden God. Having God constantly impinge upon their reality, human beings cannot trust God because they recognize him as a mortal threat. In order to overcome this situation, God has sent Jesus into the world to forgive, thereby changing God’s relation to the world from one of hiddenness and law to one of love and forgiveness. This forgiveness is not brought about by the fulfillment of the law or the propitiation of god’s wrath. God as he is actualized in Jesus simply makes a unilateral decision to forgive without any fulfillment of the law. This action on God’s part is completely disruptive of the previous human situation under the law. It is an eschatological event.[29]

Kilcrease goes on to claim that Forde “is no antinomian”, for he would still seek to apply the law to the life of the Christian, if only, like Agricola, in the preaching of the gospel. But the problem, of course, with Forde (and with Bayer, Paulson and Wengert) is deeper. It is that which Yeago described above, that is, a rejection of the law—of God working through creation, even shaping and molding creation—as a fundamental epistemological assumption. Thus a “unilateral decision to forgive without any fulfillment of the law” is oddly familiar to Schwenckfeld and Barth’s idea that God chooses to act in each Christian’s existence when and where it pleases Him, like He did on the road to Damascus. Both approaches would seek to distance the creation itself from the acting of God. Indeed, God cannot ultimately do so for that would be a shaping, a molding, a directing, in other words, an application of the law.

Sure, it could be suggested that with Elert and Forde especially, that the issue is not a rejection of the law, of a radically juxtaposing the law as that of a hidden God, over against that of the gospel, that of the revealed God. But the problem is that even in such an understanding of the law of God the law and the gospel cannot co-exist. They are mutually exclusive. Where the one is, the other is not. And since that is so, where the gospel is, there can be no law—no fulfillment of the law, no pursuit of such fulfillment—but only an acceptance of thoughts and actions which a given community of Christians perceives to be acceptable. How this plays out practically can be understood by revisiting the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2009. After Timothy Wengert presented a synopsis of the paper to the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) meeting in Minneapolis in 2009, entitled “Remarks Concerning “Bound Conscience,””[30] and after much debate, the statement was adopted leading to the acceptance by the chief constitutional body of the ELCA of homosexual behavior by the clergy, and others in leadership roles in that church. According to Wengert, Martin Luther’s and Lutheran theology’s chief understanding of the Christian’s conscience has to do with the individual Christian’s view of a specific Bible passage, or a number of Bible passages. If the Christian arrives at a specific understanding of the Scriptures on a given point, and becomes conscience-bound to that interpretation, it is up to other Christians to honor the conscience of that Christian. In other words, one Christian cannot tell another that they are wrong, if the first believes that what they are doing is right. Sure, the issue is buried in the topic of conscience. But at the end of the day, it is simply a rejection of any application of the law of God in the life of the Christian.


So what ultimately is antinomianism? It is not just a rejection of the use of the law within a certain context, but it is rejection of the law understood to be given by God within any context, and thus, of God defining human life and existence. Christologically, it therefore must be a rejection of Christ fulfilling the law, and the crucifixion of Christ satisfying the demands of the law for mankind. In essence, therefore, antinomianism, as Scaer has suggested, is ultimately a rejection of God, the God of love, who through the work of Christ, would once again recreate man in such an image of love, or in other words, in His image. That such an idea is being promulgated within the Christian church, however, is understandable. For if, following the best of reason accepted today, history cannot truly be known, and the texts of history can only be a record of what was understood to have happened within history, God working in history through Jesus Christ, and the record of that working, i.e. the Bible, cease to be sources for our knowledge of God. Thus, how, can God be known? For the liberal theology of the 19th century it was through culture, the advancement of culture. World War I destroyed that idea as “Christian” societies slaughtered each other by the millions. What then? Karl Barth’s Holy Other filled that void—a God who cannot be known through created things either natural (nature/culture/government) or revealed (Scripture/church), but simply when and where and how he chooses to reveal Himself. It is assumed He exists of course, but He ultimately is to be discovered. What antinomianism in its various itterations does is affirm that this is so. Its God therefore is not—indeed it cannot be—the God who takes on definitive shape and form in nature, in history, in Jesus Christ. Rather it is the god of the ancient Greeks, of Plato, whose existence certainly can be deduced from the human experience in one form or another, but he simply can never be known.


[1], accessed on 5/11/2017.

[2] In Luther’s Works, Vol. 47, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) 101–119.

[3] For a brief outline see Holger Sonntag, “Translator’s Preface,” in Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, Trans. and Ed. by Holger Sonntag (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008), 11-14.

[4] Franklin Sherman [?], “Introduction,” Ibid., 102

[5] Senior pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas and Second Vice President of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

[6] Concordia Theological Quarterly 69 (2005). ej

[7] “The Third Use of the Law: Keeping Up to Date with an Old Issue,” Ibid., 188.

[8] See above fn. 3.

[9] Minneapolis, Lutheran Press.

[10] Vol. 19, Part 2, Series B (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 3-6.

[11] See’t-tell-me-that-martin-luther’s-antinomian-theses-translated-by-paul-strawn/, accessed on 5/11/2017.

[12] St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[13] Ibid. xii.

[14] Pro Ecclesia II, No. 1, 37-49.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 40.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 44.

[22] accessed on 5/11/2017.

[23] accessed on 5/11/17.

[24] Christliche Dogmatik, 4 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917–1924); English translation: Christian Dogmatics, 4 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950–1953).

[25] Gerhard Forde, James Nestingen (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1993).

[26] (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017).

[27] “Remembering Werner Elert-Fiftieth Anniversary of his Death,” Thursday Theology #336, November 18, 2004,

[28] Such claims (see seem to have flown around upon the publication of James C. Burkee’s Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2013).

[29] “Ford’s Doctrine of the Law” CTQ 75 (2011), 163.

[30] _Conscience.pdf.

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Posted by on April 26, 2019 in Uncategorized


Good Friday Meditation on the Messianic Prophecies, Isaiah 53, Psalm 31, Psalm 22

When He is lifted up, He will draw all men to Himself.



Good Friday Wisdom for the Win


Behold, my servant shall act wisely;[a]

   he shall be high and lifted up,

   and shall be exalted.



This is something to help you get deeply into the these Scripture readings, given that these are some of the greatest Messianic prophecies given to God’s people…

First, let me tell you a story… I’ll keep this very brief….


Adam and Eve.






Let me highlight that last one, a promise made to our first parents, by God, although spoken to Satan:

“…I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring[a] and hers;

he will crush[b] your head,

   and you will strike his heel.”

This–as the church has long recognized–is the true heartbeat of the book of Genesis, and the whole Bible. The Promise of the Messiah.

In a sense, “It is finished!” Even then… in the Garden… in this Promise of what would undoubtedly come…

God will protect, save, rescue His people from the works of the Evil One… and from all those who follow in His train….

To you they cried and were rescued;

in you they trusted and were not put to shame. (Psalm 22)


Make your face shine on your servant;

save me in your steadfast love!

17 O Lord, let me not be put to shame,

for I call upon you…

…In the cover of your presence you hide [your people]

   from the plots of men;

(Psalm 31)


You see, the Lord promises to be there for His people… to change this groaning world, under the curse.

Things will not last as they are–even if we personally haven’t thought things to be so bad!–for things are not the way they are supposed to be….

The work of the devil, and all those who put their hand to his plow, will come to absolutely nothing!

“Oh my Little Israel, trust in me…”, He urges, like the Psalmist who writes….

   …you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.

10 On you was I cast from my birth,

and from my mother’s womb you have been my God (Psalm 22)

And so, in the midst of our struggles, we cry,

Be a rock of refuge for me,

a strong fortress to save me! (Psalm 31)

Still father, why not now? Thank you for the Promise that all will be made new, but when will you come?

Devout Jews are still asking this question today, a question that many, undoubtedly, were asking in the lead-up to Jesus of Nazareth.

“We’ve been working so hard [God]. Why not just take out your weapons, your legions of angels, and fight the battle now?”

Why not just unleash your fierce and just anger vs evil now… the works of that devil, and plow him under?

Is this not wisdom? To outsmart and outflank one’s enemies? To use lethal power to kill?

To enact one’s wrath vs one’s enemies?

In this way, will not the victory be won, and the victor be high and lifted up – and recognized, exalted among all?

For if you do that, then surely, I, like the Psalmist, will say…

3 …you are my rock and my fortress….

4 you take me out of the net they have hidden for me

5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;

you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God (Psalm 31)

But our vision is not His vision, is it?

God turns our world upside down….


God wins in His way and with His tools, not man’s….

You see, the Messiah… From the outside, he is presumably a rather average fellow….

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53)

And it just gets worse, says the Psalmist, with all this losing it seems…

But I am a worm and not a man,

scorned by mankind and despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;

they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;

8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;

let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (Psalm 22)

And let’s be honest… to the world—sometimes even to us!—this just looks like despicable and contemptible weakness….

It’s foolishness!

His own people got rid of Him!

What kind of leader is this? What kind of Messiah?!

We *deserve* better! They think.

Judas thinks, for as the Psalmist prophecies…

“they scheme together against me,

as they plot to take my life”  (Psalm 31)

Indeed, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” (another prophetic word from the Psalms)

Yet, not only this betrayer is His enemy. After all Isaiah writes…

as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

   stricken for the transgression of my people?

What’s that? Transgression of His people? My transgression? My rebellion…?

I, too, am His enemy?

The Messiah was of them and among them, but in a sense, not one of them, or perhaps better, they not one of Him…:

And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53)

And yet, here… in the midst of all this seeming LOSING, God speaks of victory!

His Apostle turns the heads of the world with “foolish” words like this:

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross…”

We know that Psalm 22 begins

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?…

And yet note that it continues….

Yet you are holy,

enthroned on the praises[a] of Israel.

4 In you our fathers trusted;

   they trusted, and you delivered them.

… and finally it ends not in the cry of dereliction with which it began, but in exultation!

I will tell of your name to my brothers;

   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!

All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,

and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

24 For he has not despised or abhorred

   the affliction of the afflicted,

and he has not hidden his face from him,

but has heard, when he cried to him.

Still, what strange victory is this? After all….

He was despised and rejected[d] by men,

a man of sorrows[e] and acquainted with[f] grief;[g]

and as one from whom men hide their faces[h]

he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53)

This strange victory is nothing other than the Wisdom from God….

As the Proverb says, a Gentle Word can Break a Bone….

And so, in Mel Gibson’s movie the Passion of the Christ we see Mary run to Jesus as He carries His cross, to help Him…

And as He looks at her, He simply says the words we hear from Him in the Book of Revelation:

“Behold… I make all things new….”

Won’t you bow with me?


But how? How does He do this?

He does it all through His passivity….

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53)

For it was “the will of the Lord to crush him”. And yet, note also His activity….

when his soul makes[j] an offering for guilt,

he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53)

God’s wrath, God’s punishment which we lawbreakers deserved—God’s righteous hatred for the sins of His enemies and sinners themselves—is absorbed into God Himself…

Into the Son of God…

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53)

It might look like defeat, but you see, the world is His, for He says….

“Into your hand I commit my spirit;

you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

I hate[a] those who pay regard to worthless idols,

but I trust in the Lord.

…you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;

   you have set my feet in a broad place… (Psalm 31)

You see? His Father is on His side. Resurrection is coming.

All will recognize Him. He is exalted. And He is glorified EVEN NOW, ESPECIALLY NOW when He is lifted up before the world…

For it is not during His great miracles but right after Judas betrays Him, setting everything in motion, that He says “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him…

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,[l]

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,[m]

because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors; (Isaiah 53)

God has, frankly, overcome this cursed world that is passing away in Him. Therefore even…

Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,

for that which has not been told them they see,

and that which they have not heard they understand. (Isaiah 53)

I understood again last night, when at our church’s Maundy Thursday service we sang again these words:

Come not in terror, as the King of kings,

But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;

Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.

Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

That He abides with us is not in doubt!

Won’t you bow before Him with me?

Love the Lord, all you his saints!

The Lord preserves the faithful

but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.

24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,

all you who wait for the Lord! (Psalm 31)


His victory is our victory. Victory comes to us in the midst of our seeming defeat. For…

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53)

“Of us all.” In spite of our evil, He takes care of it all. And freed from the power of their sin, death, and the devil, these straying sheep, His precious church, rejoice.

For we can know that we approach a day when we will never stray again, and never be poor and weak again…:

All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;

   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,

   even the one who could not keep himself alive.

30 Posterity shall serve him;

it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;

31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,

that he has done it. (Psalm 22)

Be that as it may, all do not receive Him, grow in Him, pass on this glorious message to those yet unborn…

Instead… even among His own people we perform the sacrifices God does not desire…

Sacrifices to the false gods that we find more attractive and more compelling…

And even among His own people, just like in Jesus’ day, there are some who are totally false. Those for whom, the book of Hebrews (6:6) tells us, having once believed are crucifying Christ once again!

Psalm 22 again:

   ….a company of evildoers encircles me;

they have pierced my hands and feet[b]—

17 I can count all my bones—

they stare and gloat over me;

18 they divide my garments among them,

and for my clothing they cast lots…

What is this? More foolishness again from God we might think!

The church’s abusers, embezzlers, perverts… Just like Paul wrote of God’s chosen people in Romans: “The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you!”

One might expect that He would exercise some real force and get these folks in line!

And yet, might we who cling to Him in true faith, even weakly, expect a “cross-like act” once again?

Should we be prepared for Him to surprise us, whose vision is so limited, with His strength and glory shown through human weakness?

And, perhaps, there can even be a final great harvest before the End of Time?… As unbelievers from far and wide are drawn to Him?

All the ends of the earth shall remember

and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

shall worship before you (Psalm 22)

One thing I do know… He expects us, contrary to the world, to operate in the way of humility, simplicity, even weakness.

Even suffering. Like Him.

And rest assured, He will come again, in power none can mistake for weakness. As judge… to judge the living and the dead.

For all the world that does not recognize Him as the Lord’s prophesied Messiah–outside the church or within it–is still under His wrath….

Not just you and me, but the world, will bow….

Some willingly to be sure, by grace through faith in him.

Others will be made to bow, as He enacts His wrath…. A wrath not quenched by His cross.

On that day, will many long for the Christ we hear of today? Like the proverb “a gentle word can break a bone”?

Or will they insist on, receive instead, this word?:

“My word is like a hammer, that can break the rock to pieces…”

Shattered indeed were many of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and others who stumbled and fell on God’s Cornerstone.

But it is not the case for those who are built on this Stone, this Rock which cannot be shattered.

For us, Christ has absorbed the coming wrath and storm, and makes all things new… including me, including you….

It is Finished, Paid in Full, indeed.


“Let us hold fast our confession… and with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

It is a Good Friday. A very Good Friday.




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Posted by on April 20, 2019 in Uncategorized


Should You Go to a Lutheran Church This Good Friday?

Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace…



You should definitely consider it. If you go to an LC-MS, WELS, or ELS Lutheran Church, for example*, you will quite likely be impressed with the service.

The Good Friday service is one of the things these “confessional Lutherans” do best. Even if certain congregations from these church bodies, sadly, might not be riveted on the heart of the Christian faith each and every Sunday, chances are very good that on Good Friday they will get things right.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that a Facebook friend of mine, Pastor Andrew Preus, posted the following yesterday.

Often when parents or friends or pastors try to convince someone who has been despising the means of grace to come to church, they will make a renewed attempt around big holidays like Christmas or Easter. I have done this for years. We say things like, “But it’s EASTER! Of all Sundays, you can’t skip church on this day!”

But we should be careful not to persuade people to come to church by means of mere sentimental appeals to nostalgic feelings of Easter breakfasts followed by a service. Instead, keep in mind the Alleluia verse for Easter taken from 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Let us keep the feast of the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” So here is my advice for those faithful Christians who might have loved ones, neighbors, friends, relatives, or someone else who is either not familiar with the gospel or has been despising it for months or years. If you want to invite them to church during Easter, bring them instead to Good Friday service. Then ask them what they think of what they heard. Talk about our Lord’s death, the cost and payment of our sins, and the deep love of God to make atonement for them. Have a solemn assembly, so to speak.

Review the Ten Commandments, especially the third (and most likely the fourth and sixth as well!), learn to repent, and learn to take comfort in the death of Christ. Then, if this comforts you and if you are truly sorry for your sins, join us to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection in sincerity and truth!

Pastor Preus’ message was hard, but rooted in great truths. I deeply appreciate the serious way he looks at things.

One of the things his message made me think about was how years ago my family reluctantly stopped attending the Lutheran Church we were attending. Why? Because every other Sunday wasn’t enough like Good Friday…

The blood that covers sinners is for you to. “The cross is our theology,” said Martin Luther.


I am not saying that there is not time in the church for an all out Easter celebration, for Resurrection. Indeed, let the trumpets blare with a joyful noise! The point is that without Good Friday, the true meaning and joy of Easter cannot begin to be grasped: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!

In the letter I wrote to my pastor, explaining why we were leaving, I said the following:

“…Speaking for myself here, I used to ask regarding worship, “Why shouldn’t the Holy of Holies become the Friendly of Friendlies?” (Ft. Wayne theologian David Scaer’s phrase).  Was not Jesus kind to all?

This is the answer that has gradually formed in my mind over the last several years due to my reading of God’s Word, listening to many Bible teachers and commentators, and my own reflection:  Jesus, though ever-kind, only shows His “friendliness” to those who take Him seriously (fear of God)—to His own, or to those looking to become His own (if one will argue against this, at the very least could we not agree that [seriousness is at issue] when it comes to the Divine Service, to Eucharistic worship?—see Hebrews 12:22-29 for example). On the other hand, to those who do not take Him seriously—His enemies—He simply dies for them in all seriousness, with a heart of true love, which is an unpretentious, no-nonsense love, and is pure unsentimental unwavering kindness. This he does whispering “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. There is nothing that could ever possibly be construed as “cheesy” or “gimmicky” with Jesus. In short, “the Passion of the Christ” [Note: the movie had recently been released] is our theology, or we have no true theology. It alone is to be the centerpiece of our worship. And in all honesty, it’s the only way that the books of Leviticus and Revelation even start to make sense to me.

What of the lost? Well, certainly we are to be about the same business of Jesus, who came to seek and to save them. The Divine Worship, however, is serious business, and is meant for the people of God—though all seekers and even rank unbelievers may come into the presence of this wrathful and yet kind lamb—if they dare. This is the kind of worship—more—the kind of Catechesis, in which [my wife] and I desire to raise our children.

I don’t really sense much of this approach [here]….



I ended up in a much more serious church – a church where the Good Friday message was always in the background. A church where solemnity and joy went hand in hand, all the time

What is that kind of a church like? Are you not sure about this? The LC-MS church of Dr. Eric Phillips (Concordia Lutheran Nashville), who has also written for this blog in the past, has produced some absolutely standout videos (which are also short). They demonstrate, I think, the best of what the churches of the Lutheran confession has to offer.

My favorite video is this first one, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Here, Dr. Eric Phillips explains “the value of church attendance and the dangers of not regularly hearing and receiving God’s word through the gifts He has provided to nurture faith”:


So, what is in the other videos? In this second one, Pastor Phillips explains the nature of the Lutheran worship service as a whole, or as we like to say, “Divine Service”:


And here he “explains the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper from the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions.” (this is the final part of a four-part series on the Eucharist):


What about baptism? Is the Lutheran view biblical? Here, the good pastor “explains the sacrament of baptism from the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions” (this is the final part of a five-part series on baptism):


Finally, don’t those Lutheran pastors say “*I* forgive you your sins”? “How in the world can they do that!?” you might ask. This short video “discusses why absolution works”:


Again, if you don’t watch any of the other videos above, at least consider watching that first one! (and maybe the last one as well : ) )

I think it sums up well the heartbeat of Christ’s church.

For He is the Friend of Sinners.

I hope and pray that you will consider going to a confessional Lutheran church this Sunday. You may be able to find a good one here using this site (it works according to zip code). If, perchance, you will be in the northwest parts of Wisconsin, I will be leading a service in a small country church there.

Have a blessed Holy Week!



*Or perhaps, for example, an AALC or CLC church (these are even smaller, but very confessional, Lutheran congregations).

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Posted by on April 17, 2019 in Uncategorized


You Tube Livestream with Matthew Garnett

Thanks to Matthew for having me and putting up with me for 2 hours. Definitely a great act of sanctification there!

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Posted by on April 3, 2019 in Uncategorized


Is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador the “Moral Shakedown Artist of Mexico City”? Or is He Right?

Buchanan: How many people really believe that “all civilizations and cultures are equal”?


The following is a bit long. In order to facilitate a quick read, I have put key elements in bold.


In his most recent column, Pat Buchanan comments on Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s message to Pope Francis I and King Felipe VI of Spain demanding that they ask for forgiveness for Hernando Cortez’s conquering of Mexico 500 years ago.

As one might imagine, the “paleoconservative” Buchanan is having none of it.

After saying “[n]ow no one denies that great sins and crimes were committed in that conquest,” in effect admitting that what Cortez and Spain were wrong, he asks in the next breath “…But are not the Mexican people, 130 million of them, far better off because the Spanish came and overthrew the Aztec Empire?”

Buchanan on Obrador, pictured: “the moral shakedown artist of Mexico City.”


Buchanan’s article is impressive in its rhetorical force. Some of the jarring questions he asks:

  • Did not 300 years of Spanish rule and replacement of Mexico’s pagan cults with the Catholic faith lead to enormous advances for its civilization and human rights?
  • [I]s there never a justification for one nation to invade another, conquer its people, impose its rule, and uproot and replace its culture and civilization?
  • Is “cultural genocide” always a crime against humanity, even if the uprooted culture countenanced human sacrifice?
  • Did the Aztecs have a right to be left alone by the European world? If so, whence came that right?
  • Which leads to another question: Are all civilizations and cultures equal, or are some more equal than others? Are some superior?

Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell: it was “weird to receive now this request for an apology for events that occurred 500 years ago.”


Near the end of this article Buchanan states:

Behind this demand for an apology from Spain and the Church is a view of history familiar to Americans, and rooted in clashing concepts about who we are, and were.

Have the Western peoples who conquered and changed much of the world been, on balance, a blessing to mankind or a curse? Is the history of the West, though replete with the failings of all civilizations, not unique in the greatness of what it produced?

Or are the West’s crimes of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, racism, slavery and maltreatment of minorities of color so sweeping, hateful and shameful they cancel out the good done?

Is the white race, as Susan Sontag wrote, “the cancer of human history”?”…. (bold mine)

“American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist” Susan Sontag, pictured in 1979.


I point out that Buchanan brought up “whiteness” like he did and in the context that he did for a very strategic reason. While I would argue that Western civilization, or Christendom, and being white are clearly not synonymous, that distinction appears to make very little difference to many today.

Buchanan’s last paragraph is particularly interesting:

“Query: Can peoples who are ashamed of their nation’s past do great things in its future? Or is a deep-seated national guilt, such as that which afflicts many Germans today, a permanent incapacitating feature of a nation’s existence?”

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native people during the so-called conquest of America.”


To address Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell—who “wondered if Spain should seek an apology from France for the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and crimes committed by the armies of Napoleon…?”—I note with interest that after World War II, Germany actually did apologize for their crimes, while Japan did not.

I don’t think Rome apologized either… “The Romans, being conquerors, naturally considered themselves superior and entitled to rule eastern peoples regarded as militarily inferior.” (Benjamin Isaac, 510).


And, other than having some real issues currently with immigration, Germany, as a whole, doesn’t seem to be doing too badly, do they? Perhaps this kind of thing is worth thinking seriously about….


Speaking of Germany, in his scholarly book about racism in antiquity, Benjamin Isaac also talks about the desires of powerful empires to subjugate others.

I know you are probably thinking about Hitler right now (probably not Merkel and Germany’s leadership role in the E.U.), but that is actually not where I am going with this. Hold on…

In Isaac’s book, he looks into the matter of empire and race in no little depth, speaking of what we learn from the works of men like the Roman senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus:

The Roman views—and especially those of Tacitus—on the Germans are probably the best example to be found anywhere in ancient literature of a full integration of proto-racist stereotypes and imperialist ideology. To conquer and rule them was not only the ultimate test of a warrior-empire, it was also a necessity for its long-term survival. As long as the Germans would remain independent and maintain their pure lineage—as emphasized by Tacitus—they would preserve their strength. Their subjugation and Romanization would corrupt them and remove the threat they represented. Romanization represented a successful process of ethnic decomposition and imperial integration, necessary for the establishment and maintenance of full control. Where this failed, the empire was under threat. There is a continuous preoccupation with the decline of Empire in antiquity. When Gibbon chose the title of his great work, this entirely reflected ancient views of history (515, bold mine).

Cornelius Tacitus.


At the same time, not everyone in Rome shared Tacitus’ view about how to run an Empire vis a vis those whom it would conquer. In fact, in Tacitus’ own writings, (Annals 11.24.1, from the 1st and 2nd century A.D.) we hear about how the emperor Claudius had a different view than his own. Claudius, he says, believed Rome should allow men from Gallia Comata to attain public office and hence membership in the Senate, and hence said the following:

“The oldest of my ancestors, Claudius, was originally a Sabine. He was adopted at the same time into the Roman state and into the patrician class. These ancestors encourage me to follow similar ideas in governing the Republic, by relocating here anything of excellence. You are not, of course, ignorant of the fact that the family of the Julii come from Alba, the Coruncanii, from Camerium, the Porcii, from Tusculum, and—to pass over ancient history—men have been accepted into the senate from Etruria, Lucania, and the whole of Italy. Then, the very expansion of the state to the Alps united not just individual men but whole lands and tribes under our name. There was a firm peace at home and our influence abroad was strong at the time when the people living beyond the Po were given citizenship, when we accepted the strongest provincials to support our weak empire under the pretext of spreading our legions over the world. Are we truly sorry that the Balbi have come to us come from Spain? That no less remarkable men have come from Gallia Narbonensis? Their descendants are still with us and their love of our country is no less than ours(bold mine).

Claudius, 1st century Roman Emperor.


In other words, Claudius is all about, at least rhetorically, promoting multiculturalism/diversity and the sharing of power in the Roman Empire.

Now, this might seem like par for the course for us today, but I note that, per scholars like Isaac and Denise Eileen McCoskey, it has not always been this way… In fact, Isaac notes that this kind of thinking was extremely uncommon in ancient Greece and Rome, which tended to distrust foreigners.

In short, they simply did not believe that diversity or multiculturalism was a benefit to the empire. Given the sampling of documents that have come down to us intact today, they rather believed such things led to “degeneracy” (even as, in the Roman mind, “peoples who are entirely cut off from the rest of the world [also] have no merit [508]). For the Romans, it was possible for a people to regress though contact (contamination!) with outsiders but not progress – and, hence, fear of the foreigner at times actually put the brakes on imperial ambition.

The more or less universal story of the “Golden Age,” from which earth fell, and continued to fall…


Issac goes on:

At the root of these fears was, first, the idea, familiar throughout antiquity, that traveling and contact with foreigners are bad because they impair the traditional integrity of a people. Second, it was thought that a change of environment can only lead to deterioration and never to improvement. Third, there is the elementary absence of a belief in progress. Change can only be for the worse. Fourth, and connected with the third concept, we have seen that, ever since the second century b.c., Rome was preoccupied with the decline of her Empire, a process considered inevitable by many Romans. Loss of masculinity, integrity, and patriotism, factors just listed, was frequently thought to be the main cause. Thus the expansion of empire carries with it the cause of its destruction. An interesting connection between Roman stereotypes of other peoples and the self-perception of the Romans as conquerors can be discerned.

These attitudes often go far in their imperialist hostility. There are elements for which there is no parallel in modern or early modern thinking, such as the almost total absence of any belief in long-term progress….(510, bold mine)

John Gast, American Progress, c. 1872


At this point Isaac, writing in his book from 15 years ago, goes on to say something extremely interesting, and something which begins to bring us back around to this article’s main point:

…Furthermore, the deepseated mistrust of communication and contact between peoples is not common in modern western culture, nor do we encounter in the history of European colonialism anything like the Roman fear of corruption of the colonial armies by natives. In modern times, disapproval of individuals “who went native” was censure of an individual form of presumed degeneration, which could be avoided and was not regarded as a serious large-scale threat. On the whole the European colonial powers were confident of the superiority of their own Christian faith and they felt comfortable ruling masses of Moslem, Hindu, or Buddhist subjects without Old Cato’s fear that these religions, or the native cultures in their colonies, would prove stronger than their own cultures. Such fears have increased in recent times. As I write these lines, parties in western Europe are in the ascendance which warn of the dangers supposedly posed to western cultural, moral, and social identity, by immigrants who do not identify with and accept the existing values. (510, bold mine)

On the one hand, I find it interesting that Isaac attributes Western colonialism’s relative success to its confidence in its own culture, and particularly its confidence in its Christian faith. There are few these days, after all, who would find any confidence from such a thing. On the other hand, I find what he says to be somewhat mistaken. The reason for this is that my every impression is that colonialism, whatever positive benefits may have come out of it, was, according to Christ’s teachings, a deeply misguided process.

Even worse?: “For all we can tell, enslavement and the slave trade constituted the principal means of geographical and (both upward and downward) social mobility in the ancient world.” — Scheidel


After all, colonialism is fundamentally selfish and related to theft. It is like going into the home of another person and setting up shop. It’s offensive. Like the proverb says, “when in Rome you should do as the Romans do” and show respect. In fact, I think the only good kind of colonization is the Kingdom of heaven advancing! And Christians should adopt other cultures insofar as they are able to do so without sin.

Especially if you are going to live in another country, you should do everything you can, without sin, to become like them. If you are going to live there for an extended period of time, you should expect to be willing to fight in their military and die. Anything less on your part demonstrates a lack of respect and love.

Assimilation as an act of love and not of power?!


This is not like a marriage, where a man marries a woman and should expect to adjust his way of life to be a married man but to nevertheless act like headship is a real thing. It is a matter of showing proper honor to a people and their home. If Christians can’t get this, no one will.

I realize some will point out that the colonial project was more complicated than this,[i] but I will still maintain that it was evil and wrong, whatever benefits it brought. At the same time, one is not wrong to insist that those who took part in it, being as influenced as they were by Christianity (I am sure that some involved in all of this were Christians and that others were not), had, for the most part, very different attitudes about and towards the people they ruled than those in Rome… There was no doubt a lot of horrific sin there, but nothing, I think, like that found in the ancient world. Why do I say that? Because of simple little paragraphs like this found in the midst of Isaac’s massive book:

The last section of chapter 2 [sic] discusses large-scale killings and genocide. Although these happened not infrequently, it is clear that there was no accompanying proto-racist justification. It appears the perpetrators of such deeds felt no need to justify their actions (250)

And the more humane option? Of course lots of chattel slavery, particularly for Asia Minor (with “born to be slaves” Syria bearing the brunt…), as McCoskey tells us they likely made up to 3/5 of all Roman slaves…. (54, 55, Race: Antiqvity [I.E. Antiquity] and Its Legacy, 2012)

More on that:

It should not surprise us that a society which developed the amphitheatre as a form of entertainment should also enjoy graphic descriptions of slaughter in war and, more important, have armies willing to engage in them. Polybius may, of course, be right in his belief that it had a function. This is made probable by the combination of uninhibited violence with discipline: first systematic slaughter without robbery, then, upon a signal, systematic pillage. It is also quite likely that causing terror was the intention and the actual result. Furthermore, to return to the previous topic, there was no emotional need for the Romans to declare their victims animals or inferior humans. None of our sources express a need to justify such acts, unlike the alleged behavior by rebels described above. Unlike genocide, cannibalism is not permitted whatever the circumstances.

It is therefore a common accusation directed at the enemy. It is important to note that large-scale massacres were not really a moral issue. One commander was more interested in killing than another was, but it was quite possible for a commander to be a gentle philosopher and also to exterminate entire peoples, as we hear in the case of Marcus Aurelius… (222)

This, along with things like slavery, may well have been a trans-cultural and trans historical phenomenon prior to “the light shining in the darkness” and the coming of faith (see John 1 and Gal. 3 here), but try getting away with that now in a land heavily influenced by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[ii]

You can’t — at least not for long in historical terms. Even hard right Christian men like Buchanan will call you out. And here, reflecting on this, saying “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue” is not enough.

“Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld


We also need to say this:

Rationalization is also the homage that lawlessness pays to the law of God.

For those who do not believe, all they can do in the face of the evil that Christians among them will inevitably call out is to pretend there is a non-material force, being, thing, or entity which is a) not the God of the Scriptures, b) that is sufficiently good and strong enough to dissuade particular human beings who have the power to impose their evil wills on other human beings.

Steven Pinker: The technological and moral imperative for bioethics means that “dignity”, “sacredness”, and “social justice” must get out of the way…


Isaac offers no help here. At the end of his book, all he has, in effect, are damning words of truth:

“This study therefore is an attempt to give the Greeks and Romans their due: if they have given us, through their literature, many of the ideas of freedom, democracy, philosophy, novel artistic concepts and so much else that we regard as essential in our culture, it should be recognized that the same literature also transmitted some of the elementary concepts of discrimination and inequality that are still with us. It is possible also that in considering these phenomena in their early shape, we may gain a better understanding of their contemporary forms” (516).

And why doesn’t Christianity make the sub-title here? Without Christianity, we open up the West to wicked currents again….


The Bible, on the other hand, is different, as great men in history like William Wilberforce could surely tell us. As we read in Acts 17, we are all one in Adam, all God’s offspring (also see the glorious picture in Rev. 7!):

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’

“Trade and commerce are seen as the vehicles for the corruption of much that is valuable or even essential. Like mixed marriages, they harm integrity and soberness” (508).


It is indeed a cruel world out there, but Jesus changes everything. As such, we can…

  • Contra the currents of the ancient world, realistically seek some progress among the races.[iii]
  • Without any shame, marry one another, even joining one community with another and extending our bonds of family and friendship.[iv]
  • Insist that no person or group, by nature, is “born to be a slave” and deserves to be oppressed because of this.[v]
  • Even welcome the foreigner without any fear (!) — while yet insisting on the goodness of assimilation without wider imperial designs.
  • And… because of Christ, we can utterly condemn all wars of offense, especially wars waged where the main goal is perhaps to enslave and subjugate peoples.[vi]

“Roman slave society stands out for the crucial importance of the direct link between Roman campaigning and slaving: to a much greater extent than other slave-rich systems, Roman elites relied on their own military forces to procure a captive labor force.” — Scheidel


Oh yes – and getting back to the title of this article?

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador might well mean an apology from Spain for evil – in that it will make them weak – but God can use it for good, as a golden opportunity for national repentance and a turn once again to Jesus Christ!

After all, if you think an apology like this is realistic, you must also be saying that you want a Christian people!

In the end, a people will only stand before God – and stand tall before all people, including one’s enemies – in Him. When the Psalmist writes to rulers of the nations, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,” that exhortation still stands today. For there is still indeed the “hope that [the nations] might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17).

“Struggle is not the basic principle of the original creation, and a fighting attitude is therefore not a commandment by God established by the original creation.” — Bonhoeffer, in his “Bethel Confession”.


So, you kings and peoples, just apologize… turn towards Christ, and stand strong.

And to do that, consider listening to people like Matthew Cochran as he speaks of nations living in a way that accords with God’s designs….




Images: All non-book images are from Wikipedia.


[i] A smart friend, who is a linguist and pastor, says makes a distinction between imperialism and colonialism and says the latter was actually all about Western nations letting capitalistic, perhaps even “proto-globalist” impulses running wild:

“Putting aside later justifications for colonialism, such as the civilizing of barbarians etc, and putting aside the ‘colonialism’ of Spain and Portugal, which were almost entirely extractive in nature, and thus more imperialistic than colonial, properly speaking, the ‘advantage’ of colonialism was that it, in essence, established puppet governments, run by one’s own people, with which the mother government could conduct trade. It was an early way of creating a ‘trade block’ when, in general, imports and exports were, as a rule, heavily taxed by all nations. If one wanted ‘free trade’ one needed to actually secure the territory with which one wanted to trade through the formation of a colony.

There is no denying that there is a large economic benefit to free trade, and so, in an age of tariffs and imports, colonies were a good way to establish ‘free trade’.

An economic problem with free trade is that it benefits both parties involved in the trade. However, if one is not fond of one’s neighbors, you are not thrilled that trade with them is also helping them while it helps you. But colonialism also helps solve this problem, because if you only really trade with your own colonies, you are never trading with your rivals, so the parties that benefit are merely ‘the mother nation’ and ‘the colony of the mother nation’.

These things become obsolete when free trade as a policy becomes, to varying degrees, adopted by most nations, and the ‘defense’ risk of trading with other nations dissipates when those nations are your allies.

For example, it was a national security risk for Britain to trade with France, as they were rivals. It was therefore safer for Britain to buy textiles from the Northern American colonies than from the textile factories of Lile. Now, however, Britain and France are allies, so trade between the two not only makes them economically richer, but geostrategically more powerful, as they act as a single military unit due to their various alliances since 1900.”

[ii] People in west felt like they needed to rationalize their slavery also…they had no choice because while the bible does not condemn slavery it also does condemn man-stealing, even calling for the death penalty here, and the Old Testament law also required that Israelites free fellow Israelites after seven years. Katharine Gerbner, in her recent book Christian Slavery, argues that slavery developed in the peculiar way it did in the United States (race-based emphasis) because, it seems, people did know their Bibles… and didn’t like what they heard. What if all my slaves convert and thereby become my brothers? Or at least the missionaries in this Christian culture I am living in are telling them I need to treat them like my brothers? (again, on the basis of what the Bible says about how believers are to treat, and eventually free, their believing slaves)… Since I can’t say they can be my slaves now because they are unbelievers, I need another reason… Race, and the notion that some persons are “born to be slaves,” as Isaac points out. She summarizes her key arguments from her book in the following podcast: and here is a helpful book review:

[iii] Again, not in the ancient world, says Isaac:

“At another level, the third and last section of chapter 3 considers ancient doubts about the desirability of contact with foreigners. Fear of strangers and their ideas, corresponding fantasies about a golden past in which there was no need to travel elsewhere and no foreigners disturbed peace at home, are frequently encountered in Greek and Latin literature. There is a connection with the view, discussed in the first chapter, that pure lineage is better than mixed ancestry. So it is frequently asserted in ancient Greek literature that any contact with other peoples, seafaring, trade and commerce, not only endangers safety, but may also have social results: moral decline through the influence of foreign languages, customs, and trade is to be expected” (250).

[iv] Isaac:

“The idea of pure versus mixed lineage proves to be one of essential importance to many peoples of all periods. Indeed, the idea that there is a permanent connection between race and soil is a concept revived with vigor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries… The Romans did not claim pure lineage, let alone autochthony, for themselves, yet regarded the descent of other peoples as important. They shared with many others the assumption that mixed descent is a form of corruption and results in human beings of inferior quality.” (504). “There is a firm conviction, encountered in numerous texts, that mixing leads to degeneration. The idea is not so much that purity of lineage will lead to improvement; the reverse is true: any form of mixture will result in something worse” (514).

[v] Isaac:

“Most Greek and Roman authors did not feel an urgent need to justify and rationalize slavery in the manner in which Aristotle attempted to do this. Slavery was a fact of life and not a topic for active contemplation and discussion. Yet the theory was known among intellectuals and there were elements of it…

The idea, however, that long-term imperial rule reduces peoples virtually to a condition of natural slavery was very influential. Thus, paradoxically, what is seen in our days as a remarkable success of the Roman Empire, namely its

integration of subject peoples, is represented by at least some of the important Roman authors as a process which reduces those peoples from fierce and free humans to degenerate slaves. Since the common assumption is that this is an irreversible process, we end up with the image of something rather akin to Aristotle’s natural slaves….” (249).

[vi] It should be clear that Christians do not have “a green light” to bear the sword in God’s name, as some did in the new world vs. the indian tribes. That said, it is indeed a time of war for us, whether we realize it or not, but it is a spiritual war – and our weapons must likewise be spiritual – not fleshly (Eph. 6:10ff. also see John 18:36; 2 Cor. 10:3-5; Isa. 42:2-3). There are some judgments that only God is meant to administer.


“Thus this proto-racist ideology [we see in Rome] serves to justify wars of conquest. This does not mean it causes such wars, but it helps in justifying them” (506). More: “Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery influenced later writers. Several accept the natural inferiority of some peoples as a given fact and posit that this justifies their subjugation and enslavement. This was a matter of both inevitability and justice. Moreover, both sides profited from the relationship. In this form it recurs in Cicero’s de Republica. Relevant passages, however, have been preserved only indirectly, through quotations in Augustine’s City of God, where arguments are cited in favor of the justice of slavery and imperialism. The foundation for this is that some peoples are by nature suitable to be subject to others” (183)…


“From this it follows that even warfare is by nature a form of acquisition—for the art of hunting is part of it— Aristotle thus asserts that among the barbarians there are only two categories of human beings: male slaves and female slaves. Among them there are no masters by nature such as we find among the Greeks. Following his grand theory he immediately draws the conclusion that the barbarians should be slaves of the Greek (men) who have a category of masters among them. So far he has not stated whether there are any natural slaves among the Greeks, but it is clear that among the barbarians there are only slaves. Later in the work he says so explicitly again: “the uncivilized peoples are more servile in character than Greeks (as the peoples of Asia, in turn, are more servile than those of Europe); and they will therefore tolerate despotic rule without any complaint.” These are ideas that we saw in chapter 1: they first appear in explicit form in the treatise Airs, Waters, Places which is undated, but certainly belongs to the fifth century” (177, 178).



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Posted by on April 2, 2019 in Uncategorized