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The Christian and Nationalism: Examining Bonhoeffer’s Anti-Nazi “Bethel Confession”

“Right-wing populist parties in European national parliaments (March 2016).” (see here) Support for far-right parties has increased across Europe since 1999, per British journalist Nafeez Ahmed…

God brings His Kingdom in Jesus Christ, so what is His attitude regarding earthly nations, or, “ethnos” (from where we get the word “ethnic”)?[i] Just what should the Christian think about a phenomenon that appears to be rapidly emerging once again: nationalism?

Christian commentator Al Mohler: idolatries of globalism…and nationalism…

This week, Albert Mohler devoted almost a whole show to stories related to the topic[ii], where he argued that in Europe there are “two forms of nationalism” – one healthy, concerned with matters of subsidiarity, and one unhealthy, “often reduced to a form of racism.” And when it comes to our own American context and concerns about movements on the increasingly “non-religious” political right (note Ross Douthat), look at what Pastor Todd Wilken tweeted out a little over a year ago:

At the time, I responded to Pastor Wilken’s tweet with some mild pushback, including the words “Just seems to me like all sense of proportion is lost with stuff like that” (he disagreed). A week later I followed up with a tweet (not only responding to Pastor Wilken!) that he also took issue with: “Anti-Trump postings & articles I see increasingly seem less measured/honest & more hysterical/overstated. Doesn’t serve #NeverTrump well.”

In any case, with the recent failure to pass the Republican’s health care bill, Dilbert creator and cultural guru Scott Adams contends that the media Narrative about Trump has now changed: he is not Hitler, but incompetent.

Incompetent?: “Trump hollowed out the GOP and he’s wearing it as a skin” — Scott Adams

Even if it is the case that we will now hear less of the Trump/Hitler comparison, it is, of course, still informative to think about nationalism – and the response of faithful German Christians to it as it occurred in their homeland in the 1930s.

First of all though, we should take a look at what the Bible has to say.

Paul says that God’s “purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two.” Is this not why the early Christian apologist Aristides said that Christians were now a “Third Race,” set apart from both [unbelieving] Jews and Greeks?[iii] (apologia 2). This is the core thing that we as Christians want to communicate: the newness that we all have in Christ.

Christians are now a “Third Race,” set apart from both [unbelieving] Jews and Greeks… – Aristides

That said, when it comes to politics in this world, there are other things we must keep in mind. Not long ago, I tweeted the following: “We will be infected with sin until Christ returns. We will be many nations until the One Kingdom of heaven.” When I wrote that I had in mind what is said by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:26: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands,” as well as the harrowing words spoken by Jesus about the Last Days from, e.g. Matthew 24:7: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

And of course, even in heaven, we evidently will not lose the ethnic diversity that is a part and parcel of the traditional notion of nations (again, “ethnos”) – and which evidently emerged after the fall and the tower of Babel. For Revelation 7:9 gives us this amazing picture:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Therefore, while uniting all persons in Christ, Christianity, counter the Left, also gives us a favorable picture of what we call ethnicity – a term that has both culture and family ties in mind. The fact that mothers have a natural inclination – and equipment – to nurture their young[iv], that we might speak of our “fatherland,” and that “Nature produces a special love of offspring” (Cicero) – these are all good things. The cultural Marxist Left, on the other hand, hates the natural family – and hence nations[v] – for the same reasons it hates marriage: these are living icons of the church.

Our marriages are living icons proclaiming Christ and His bride, the church…

I had in mind these kinds of things when I declared some months ago that I was, in a sense, embracing identity politics and labeling myself a “Liberal Christian Nationalist” (yes, I know that sounded frightening to some people).

….And our families, living icons of the Church: our common Father – Jesus’s to – protects us!

With this said though, I wondered how this view would stack up vis a vis the response of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the other Christians who penned the Bethel Confession penned in 1930s. As we take a look, keep in mind that it was written to help the church theologically counter Hitler’s efforts to appropriate the church for his own racial program (the Bethel Confession never gained wide acceptance and the Barman Declaration become the document of choice for most who resisted ; you can read more about the Bethel Confession in Lowell Green’s book Lutherans Against Hitler: the Untold Story)

According to the Bethel Confession:

  • Jesus is “a member of the Israelite nation from the family of David…. All nations and races, also the noblest ones, are also guilty of his death and daily become guilty of it anew, when they insult the Spirit of grace (Hebr. 10:29).”
  • “God chose Israel to be his people among all the nations of the earth. He did this only in the power of his word and for the sake of his mercy, by no means for the sake of some natural prerogative (Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:7-11).”
  • “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.”
  • Christians “must reject all attempts to place the natural phenomenon of race on the same level as the institutional orders that are grounded in a direct divine commandment to man.”
  • “God’s Holy Spirit alone works faith in man. He alone creates the fellowship of confessing rightly. The fellowship of such confessing is never coextensive with the boundaries of a certain ethnicity.”
  • “We oppose the teaching that it belongs to the essence of the church to be a national church [“Volkskirche”]. The church is free to be national church, so long as this form is a means to carry out its commission.”
  • The church can live even where there is no nation, for “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:20].[vi]

In a core passage, we read that the church rejects the view that “the church is the religious organization of one nation,” and that “it should give religious support to ethnicity; that the boundaries of the church and the nation should be identical (religious nationalism).” (italics in B.C.)

An alternate view: “[Religious] identity endures through change. Indeed… it only endures by change….
I think we should be masters of [all] our identities and not let them master us.” (listen here)

“God’s kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus informs us, and therefore two realms must be kept in mind.

The role of the government, of the fatherland, of the nation, on the one hand, is ultimately to bear the sword to punish the evildoer and enact justice. This is not the proper role of the church, and therefore, “[we] reject the false doctrine of a ‘Christian state’ in every form.”

On the other hand, the realm of the church is to share God’s forgiveness in Christ through the means of grace, His Word, come to us in the Scriptures, and His sacraments.

“Behold the man.” His Kingdom is not of this world.

A longer section goes into some great detail providing guidance as this regards the church vis a vis diverse ethnic groups and “nations” that are held together more by force than culture. There is much nuance here, and so I quote in full not to miss any of it:

Christ is sent as the Redeemer of the whole world. This is why he commissions the church to bring the gospel to all nations. As it carries out this commission, it enters into the forms and structures of the nations of their time. It can live among a multitude of nations as the one church regardless of political boundaries. It can be a national church within the boundaries of a realm regardless of ethnicity. It can be church within a certain ethnicity while transcending political boundaries. It can be church within a certain ethnicity without transcending political boundaries, but within the boundaries of this ethnicity. Its external form is not subject to duress, but is determined by the only rule, namely, “by all means to gain some” [1 Cor. 9:22]. This is why it becomes a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, a Chinese to the Chinese, a German to the Germans. The manner and extent of such entering into time can be determined only based on the commission of the church.  The proclamation of the church always remains the alien grain of seed that is planted in the ground. Where the content of a specific time becomes the content of the proclamation the gospel is betrayed, because it is no longer said to the time, but absorbed by it….

We reject the false doctrine that the church belongs to the nation, or that it is there for the nation. The church does not belong to the nation, but to Christ. He alone is its Lord. Only in intrepid obedience to him it truly serves the nation in which it lives. It is there for every member of the nation, to gain it for the congregation of Jesus (italics in actual document).

All, in all, after reading the Bethel Confession, I find myself saying “Amen!” and marveling at its confession of Christ and His Church. I come to the conclusion that it is indeed fully compatible with my thoughts about Christianity and nationalism.

Can you have America without Christian influence?

One more very interesting thing. Taking a turn that would be considered very politically incorrect this day, the Bethel Confession also says the following:

No cultural or political considerations can liberate the church from the duty to call Israel to repentance and to baptism. Just as little can the Gentile Christians separate themselves from the Christians out of the nation of Israel. Their fellowship in word and sacrament is the sign for the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is the heir of Abraham’s promise. This is why the church must resist every secularization of the mission to the Jews which views the reception into the Christian church only the sign of the reception of the Jews into Western civilization.[vii]

This brings me to my closing thoughts.

As best I can tell, the rise of Nazism, a race-based ideology, was more theological than anything else. Hitler’s desire was not only to destroy the Jews, but eventually, Christianity as well. In sum, those who the Bible says were God’s chosen people by grace were to be replaced by the race that Nature had chosen. Its winners.

Most all of us are rightly horrified by the thought (though listen to this). Now without losing any of that horror, listen to the popular novelist Andrew Klavan, who says the following about his own conversion from Judaism to Christianity:

The Holocaust was the crucifixion compulsively reenacted on a grand scale: an attempt to kill God’s people in order to extinguish the Light of the World that shows us who we are…There are some people who say that an evil as great as the Holocaust is proof there is no God. But I would say the opposite. The very fact that it is so great an evil, so great that it defies any materialist explanation, implies a spiritual and moral framework that requires God’s existence. More than that. The Holocaust was an evil that only makes sense if the Bible is true, if there is a God, if the Jews are his people, and if we would rather kill him and them than truly know him, and ourselves. (Chapter 12, emphasis his, The Great Good Thing)

Worth pondering? I think so.[viii] God cares deeply about all people, all nations – even if here we need eyes of faith to see. His love is why in Christ He unites Himself together with us, first as regards the Jews, and then as regards the Gentiles – and promises them that in Him, we are a part of the family that will never perish.

FIN

 

Images: Right wing parties in Europe ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) ;  Al Mohler, James Thompson, Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Donald Trump Arizona, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, CC BY-SA 2.0 ; Aristides public domain ; Kwame Anthony Appiah, by David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; Christian flag from Pixabay (free use).

Notes:

[i] As will be seen below the biblical idea of “nation” has more in common with the idea of “people” or “people group” than it does “country with borders” or modern “nation-state”. That said, during the era of Romanticism there was in Europe, starting in Germany (and here with strong anti-semitic overtones and undercurrents), a strong backlash against the universalistic project of the Enlightenment. It would no doubt also be a good idea to explore further just how the notion of “people” and “nation” we find in the bible may have shifted in meaning during the last few centuries.

[ii] Relatedly, he also spoke about the secularization of Europe, where Christianity is seen as an embarrassment, evidenced by efforts to expunge Christianity from the record of how Europe came to be.

[iii] Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the concept of “ethnos,” from which we get “ethnicity”. In like fashion “genos”, from where we get “genes,” can be translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that both of these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our notions of culture.

Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth. In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen ethnos” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9). Ultimately, the Church is a new Nation that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or more accurately, Kingdom.

[iv] For more along these lines, see my satirical article here.

[v] Note that Karl Marx was in favor of free trade, largely because of the effects he said it would have on families and nations. Ideological forms of capitalism do not get a pass here either (see this from Chesterton). Steve Keen’s work, Debunking Economics, is worth noting here.

[vi] Also from the Bethel Confession: “We reject the false doctrine that the existence of the nation is presupposition for the existence of the church, or that the existence of the church is presupposition for the life of a nation….

A nation can live and have a grand history, even where there is no church. Nations live within the natural world and have incurred the law of death that reigns over all creation. This is why a nation as a whole cannot be redeemed, for redemption is always God’s act upon an individual. However, the church, grateful to God, always lays hold of the assistance offered to it in the ethnicity or other natural orders for the execution of its commission.”

[vii] I think what the Jewish conservative writer Ben Shapiro says here really does not evince the proper kind of nuance:

“For folks who don’t know what the alt-right is, it might be worthwhile to just sort of start at the beginning and talk about what the alt-right is—because there are a lot of these various definitions floating around, nearly all of which are wrong.

Basically, the alt-right is a group of thinkers who believe that Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity—which is racist, obviously. It’s people who believe that if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve the interior collapse of Western civilization. As you may notice, this has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It has nothing to do actually with Western civilization. The whole principle of Western civilization is that anybody can involve himself or herself in civilized values. That’s not what the alt-right believes—at least its leading thinkers, people like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor and Vox Day. Those kind of folks will openly acknowledge that this is their thought process.”

I do not believe that the beliefs and moral values, influenced by Christianity, that many civilizations have are “inseparable from European ethnicity”. On the other hand, we do call Western civilization “western” for a reason (and some have argued that this simply became an appropriate way [code!] of talking about Christianity in recent years… whereas “Christendom” was the term that said much the same thing before that), and I do not think that the beliefs and values they possess—even though they are not necessarily tied with ethnicity—are easily transferable or guaranteed transferable in any sense (hence appropriate and measured concern about immigration issues). Finally, of course, I also think that ethnicity needs to be distinguished from ideas of biological race (see note 3 above).

[viii] Please note that in favorably quoting Klavan I am not saying that those who do not trust in Jesus Christ will be saved (nor do I believe he is saying this).

 

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Millstones, Judas Iscariot, and the Little Ones

“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” — Matthew 18:6

As I hope you know, despite what you might hear from your Calvinist friends, Lutherans (and Luther) do not believe in double predestination. Even for Judas.

So, what should we think about Judas’ tragic demise? What lessons can we gather from it? The season of Lent is a good time to think about this. Years ago, I wrote this short piece, which I’m republishing at this time…

Thanks be to God that the Church is called to administer the His Word and Sacraments – and not millstones.  With relief, we leave that job to God, in the mystery of His Providence.  The Church does things like judge (like your dentist judges) – and sometimes even “hands members over to Satan” (!) – only so that they may be saved – to turn from their sin to Christ and His forgiveness, life, and salvation.  In fact, we are told that God desires all people to be saved (I Tim 2:4, II Peter 3:9, Romans 11:32).

But when it comes to this salvation, what about Judas, one of the 12 disciples – chosen by Christ Himself (see John 6:70,71)?

That this is such a common question should not surprise, given his very tragic and sad story…

Lutherans believe that God’s Word is “efficacious“, meaning He creates faith in the hearts of people when and where He pleases.  But, one may ask, if He really desires *all* people to be saved, why did God allow Judas, whom He chose, to damn himself?  Why did He not turn him again (presuming Judas at some point believed), as He did, for example, King David?  After all, one may argue, if I have no intention of acting to prevent a murderer from utterly deceiving, maiming and destroying the one I say I love – or if I have no intention of acting to save the one I say I love after they have destroyed themselves – when I am the only one who has the power to do so – what kind of lover would I be? (see I Cor. 13 here)

Really now, if Judas really was truly sorrowful and broken by his sins (“I have betrayed an innocent man!”) – as he certainly appeared to be – why did God allow those to whom he confessed to say “that’s your problem” (i.e. “its not our burden” – see Gal. 6:2)?  And if none of those who sat in “Moses’ seat” (Mathew 23) were willing to lift a finger to offer Judas any words of comfort, why did the Lord not save Judas like he did Paul – by perhaps at least sending an angel?

Ah, the mysteries of God, who yes, really does desire all men – even the one Jesus called “a devil” – to be saved.  In one sense, such questions: “Why are some saved and not others?”, cannot be answered.  We can say that God gets all the glory when someone is saved, and that a man gets all the blame when he is not – but that is about all we can say with certainty.  This is commonly called the “crux theologorum“, or the cross of the theologian.

But still, as ones who follow the One who said “Father forgive them….” must we not wonder about – and mourn for – this man, who God created in His image?  Why… why then did God not just turn Judas to Himself – creating faith in him where and when He pleased?  (like He restored Peter or converted Paul, the persecutor?)

I tread lightly here, but I suspect it is because God means for us to see Judas as a sign against spiritual apathy.  When we sin, it is God’s Spirit who turns us again, convicting us, breaking us, and leading us to Christ (see John 16).  We would not do this apart from Him.  And yet – we dare not presume on such kindness and grace… God may not renew.  While God’s redeeming grace is always free and unearned, there is indeed a “cutoff” point… we must all face our final judgment or the Final Judgment…  Therefore, we disciples must be wise about how we walk, so a loss of faith does not result – we walk in danger all the way.  Don’t say of sin “its something I want… yeah, I know its wrong, but…”.   Instead, always huddle close by the Shepherd!  Could Judas be a sign that God may indeed, at some point, give us over to the un-Life we, in our flesh, are prone to seek?

But do you say “Why?” again?  Consider this: when we seek un-Life, we become the odor of death, devoid of the Gospel and its power.  We rob God, rejecting His will for us and our neighbor.  “God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”, Paul asserts, echoing the Old Testament.  Understandably, God desires that His people to point to Him.  He desires that we be hot or cold, not lukewarm.  “Why” again?  Perhaps for the sake of our neighbor?  He desires that they to be saved, for they, like us, are among “the whole world” for whom He died for, and is, in fact, already reconciled to.  As those who are either “hot” or “cold”, we can be seen as “clearly with Him” or “clearly against Him” – for the sake of the world.

Judas was not damned because God didn’t deeply care for him.  The Son of God wept over Jerusalem, and I believe He weeps for Judas – for He never desires the death – especially the eternal death – of the wicked.  God takes no pleasure in the millstones administered for the sake of the children, but perhaps, He simply does what He needs to do.

So perhaps, for the sake of the children, God administers not only millstones, but Judas’ fate as well.

In which case, better to have never been born indeed.  May this not be the case with us.  Lord have mercy.

FIN

 

Images: Millstone: “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Cdogsimmons” ; Judas: Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation de Moulins; vitrail néogothique du XIXe siècle. La Cène. Détail: Judas.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

“This is Not a Story of Jesus Reaching Out to the Marginalized”

I’ve been looking closely at commentaries about the story of Jesus and the Canaanite in Matthew 15:21-28. This is an absolutely fascinating — and I think very important — story, from Matthew’s Gospel. To re-fresh your memory, here it is:

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.[a]

I’m trying to do a rather exhaustive search of the commentaries on this passage. One very interesting take comes from Grant R. Osborne (Matthew, 2010), who points out 3 core themes found in this passage (on pp. 594, 595)

  • Persistent faith and humility
  • Place of Israel and Gentiles in salvation history
  • Jesus’ authority over creation

In addition, he notes that Matthew calling the woman a Canaanite and mentioning Tyre and Sidon is meant to “highlight the negative connotations behind the woman’s ethnic origins”. People would expect, Osborne contends, “the rejection of the repugnant unclean Gentile” (597), for she “represents everything reprehensible about Gentiles to Jews” (Osborne, 597-598). This makes me want to read more about what we know about the Jewish treatment not only of Gentiles in general, but also proselytes and “god-fearers”.

Even though Matthew does indeed set the stage this way (to some degree, at least), Nolland (Gospel of Matthew, 2005) points out that “[t]hough occasionally construed so, this is not a story of Jesus reaching out to the marginalized.”

His comments are certainly thought-provoking:

“As with all forms of particularism, the affirmation of Jewish privilege here sits uncomfortably with postmodern sensibilities (or even modern sensibilities!). The woman is not being treated with dignity. We would be deeply offended if a doctor refused to treat a child because the mother was of the wrong race or religion. The biblical tradition, however, while not without sensitivity to such concerns, is committed to a metanarrative that inevitably involves particularity. We do not have to face the full impact of particularity in this story because it has a happy ending. But the initial failure to answer in v. 23 implies that, had the action developed a little differently, there would not have been a happy ending. Important questions of theodicy surface here….

The woman accepts that she has no claim to be put on a par with the Jewish people in benefiting from God’s present intervention for the sake of his people, but even the dog get scraps, and that is all she asks for. This is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities, but not to Matthew and not to the Jewish tradition more broadly. In the biblical materials they saw Gentiles, when beneficiaries of God’s activity, as fringe beneficiaries (footnote: “E.g., Is. 2:2-4; 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:10-14; Je. 16:19; Mi 4:1-4; Zc 2:11; 8:0-23; 14:16-19. There is a wider vision in Is. 19:18-25; 49:6; 56:3-8, etc) Mt. 28:19 breaks through, not the sense of Jewish privilege, but the marginality of Gentile involvement. The existence of such Gentiles as this woman prepares the way, but despite the popularity of the view that this is a story about how Jesus changes his mind, the present episode can in no way be represented as a breakthrough. Jesus does not change his mind at all (vv. 24, 26 are in no way retracted, even by implication); what becomes clear to him is what is appropriate in the case of this particular woman.”

In a footnote, he shares related thoughts:

“G. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy,’ maintains that Matthew’s account is informed by traditions of Gentile women becoming converts to Judaism as proselytes. Though there are some similarities, the case is not strong, and even if such traditions are being echoed, the image of dogs eating the crumbs suggests, contra Jackson, that, despite her very Jewish faith, the Canaanite woman becomes a beneficiary of Jesus’ ministry not as a freshly made Jewess, but as a Gentile (pp. 635-636).

Keep in mind, that at this point, to say this is to say that she was still, to some degree, on the outside. People who would have been ideal believers at this time in Israel’s history were persons like Jesus’ parents, who valued and followed the ceremonial practices of the Jews (circumcision, food laws, sacrifices, Sabbath), even as they also, like the “true Israelite” Nathaniel, recognized Jesus as the Messiah. While Jesus gave very clear hints that the Pharisees had wildly misunderstood the point of the Jewish ceremonial practices (particularly the Sabbath and the food laws), it is not until Acts 15 and Paul’s epistles where we see a more definitive understanding of these practices, that is, as their being shadows that were to fade and disappear (at least insofar as they were in some sense required of believers to perform) once the Messianic Age had been inaugurated.

God willing, more thoughts on this story in the future. Its making me think and pray a lot these days.

FIN

Image: http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/did_jesus_lie_to_the_canaanite_woman

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Hollywood Moral Awareness vs. Christian “Ash Wednesday” Moral Awareness

Irving: Be intolerant of intolerance.

Irving: Be intolerant of intolerance.

“The folly of a man perverts his ways, and in his heart he holds God to blame” Prov. 19:3

As Albert Mohler reports in a hard-hitting Briefing today, prior to the Oscars last Sunday night the Hollywood Reporter published an article titled “Oscar Winner John Irving Urges Hollywood to Get Political With ‘Outright Bias'”. In the article, Irving, echoing the 1960s philosopher Herbert Marcuse, pushes for his “artist community,”  to be “intolerant of intolerance”. “In our community”, he said “tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable”. Of course persons like Irving certainly have their own kind of morality. As sociologist Jonathan Haidt points out, they are like any other human being in that they have their list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

Why they are so confident of their specific lists may be in question — just how does what they push for not simply amount to saying “You disagree with me and so I’m tolerant and you’re not”? — but we can even say that persons like Irving, like Christians, may be capable of getting a bit “meta,” speaking of things like “honest hypocrisy”.

That said, enough about Hollywood “moral awareness,” which, frankly, leaves much to be desired. Let us explore the Christian position, which, in addition to promoting specific ideas of what virtue looks like (from things like the 10 commandments) recognizes that, ultimately, there is a distinctive kind of “meta” life to be lived in this world.

In our Christian life, the layers go deep. As God works us over, transforming us into His own Christ-image, there is a lot that we go through. Romans 7 shows us the struggle of Paul as a Christian, a “sinner-saint” we Lutherans like to say – he speaks about not understanding what he does, not wanting to do what he does, and doing that which he hates – there is clearly a difficult and sometimes bewildering battle raging within him.[i]

All this means that we — in spite of understandable desires for simplicity — can get rather “meta” very quickly.

For example, often we have no desire to do a wrong thing until someone tells us we should not do it – sin “deceives us” in this way. Another example related to this is that the law can exacerbate the sin of [religious] pride and self-righteousness: even if being told “don’t look down on others” does not create a desire in us to do so, we may become proud of being unlike those who look down on others – or even take pride in realizing that we are proud of being unlike those who look down on others![ii]

metaThe main point is not to spend our time digging to get to the bottom of it all — or to come to the conclusion that acts of repentance are futile (otherwise what are customs like Ash Wednesday and Lent for?) — but rather to realize that human beings are thoroughly infected by sin — sin which will not be fully irradiated until the Last Day.

In short, self-obsessed persons all, pure love for God and neighbor evades us and opportunities for “false humility” abound! We have begun to know what goodness is in the deepest sense (Christ and His love!) but we are nevertheless deeply wrong, even if the Lord is often exceedingly gentle with His children in revealing this to them.

What follows is a short reflection along these “meta” lines when it comes to the question of the proclamation of God’s law – His word of judgment based on what we have failed to be, say, and do[iii] – and His Gospel – the giving of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus for those needing and ready to hear this word. This dynamic is often captured in the shorthand phrase “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” (note, interestingly, that this concern also has to do with why Lutherans, for example, treat the topic of predestination much like St. Prosper of Aquitaine did).

Recently, I heard an argument something like this:

“Even though we sin, God always considers us worth loving – and He will always continue to love us no matter what we do or don’t do.”

Elder Sophrony: “a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation... Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

Elder Sophrony: “a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation… Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

When it comes to issues like this, there is always a Law and Gospel answer – should one aim to afflict, to comfort, or to do both? And what if instead this person had, terrified by the Law of God, asked: “Does God consider us worth loving despite our sin and will He continue to do so whatever we do or don’t do?”

A statement like that coming from such a person would surely have been worth paying close attention to! That said, that is not the kind of thing I heard. Rather than getting such a question I heard a blanket assertion. Furthermore – to offer more context – this person was actually dismissing, and evidently opposing, a solid Law and Gospel answer I had previously given, and went on to say something like this: “[After all,] you just said this [yourself], and are you going to dispute the judgment of God?”

How to respond?

First of all, we affirm this truth: just because God continues to love us does not mean that we will not be judged in hellfire, which Scripture clearly affirms. The “hard” way of putting matters here is that if we deny Christ or even embrace false doctrine about Christ, we will be damned. A “softer” way of saying this is that even if we embrace some kind of view of Jesus, if we have a “different Jesus” and thereby reject the true One, good and strong enough to save, we reject God’s salvation.

Second, regarding the one who asserts something like the above, it might seem that I am missing something critical: after all, are they not emphasizing grace? Not necessarily – and it actually may not difficult to diagnose that this is the case. What often happens in situations like this is that a person, bolstered by hereitcal things like antinomian tendencies, universalist tendencies, and/or a faulty view of predestination, is attempting to rationalize sins, and therefore, ultimately sin.

I think it does us well to recognize that all of us, devout Christians included, are not excluded from being tempted by these tendencies.[iv] The question however, is what we do with them when we face them – what teachings curb, guide and comfort us in the midst of them? This is of critical of course, because when a person excuses their sins (and thereby their sin), they often find themselves simultaneously reflecting on their lives but not in a good way: they rationalize, telling themselves “rational lies” ; they are, in fact, attempting to justify themselves according to what they have done (but we want to flee from this danger — even at the level of our felt desires and thoughts).

"The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector." -- Luke 18:11

“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.” — Luke 18:11

In short, in spite of their “wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin,”[v] or to bolster those who do, they want God to pay attention to the good they are sure they have done. They might say something to the effect that God always looks for the best in his children because of who God is and because His creation was originally created good, but that is really a cover for their evil. What they really mean is that God is obligated to accept them because if He were really loving, He would see the best in them. He would see that there is real goodness in them.

To this, there can only be a….

Law answer:

Maybe we even have the nerve to say something like “God hates the wicked. God damns the unrepentant. Here, there is no equality before God, except in that all are fallen.”

Or, maybe we, noticing an extreme stubbornness, relay to them that God demands perfection from them. After all, we do preach the law to the impenitent. As He spoke through the prophet Jeremiah: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”

Perhaps though, we determine that our opponent is not so hardened. In which case, we might say something like:

“God can’t not hate those who oppose the whole creation He loves (Psalm 145), particularly those who fear, love, and trust in Him. If we are not with Him, we can certainly expect to get run over in His judgment. He will not hesitate to run us through.

And yet, the prophet Isaiah says to “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found”. He also continues to show love to all His offspring, born of Adam (see Acts 17), by doing good to them: giving the righteous and the wicked rain (Matthew 5) and even filling all of their hearts with joy (Acts 14). For He loves us not because there is anything that we have done in the body that makes us acceptable and worthy before Him – able to stand in His holy presence – but because He is good to deeply evil persons. Period!

In sum, God loves His concrete enemies. The concrete wicked. The concrete rebels. Those specific persons – everyone – who have made themselves worthless. He comes for concrete sinners only. Hence, He dies for them all in Christ, taking their evil and the results of their evil into Himself, abolishing sin and death.”

True enough, right!? (yes, yes, I know I got the Gospel in there to!) So we say this to those who think that by their own deeds – or even acts of grace-filled faith, decisions they have made as a result of their own impulse – God will be obligated to receive them.

On the other hand: what if a believer genuinely fears that God will not give them perseverance? In this case, we give the…

Gospel answer:

Saint Augustine, devastated by his sinfulness, even stealing pears just to be evil...

Saint Augustine, devastated by his sinfulness, even stealing pears just to be evil…

“Do you not want to know and love Him more? Do you not desire to hear His word, love His word, and to even run after His word? And then, in your heart of hearts to run the way of the commandments of your Lord? How do you despise the Word and Sacraments meant to sustain you in your earthly journey? You don’t, for you have known, and know, the forgiveness, life, and salvation granted to you in Christ!”

In like fashion, Saint Augustine, keeping in mind Paul’s statement, “What do we have that we have not received?” also encouraged us by pointing out that it was God Himself was always making the first move:

“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)

…but now, perhaps you say:

But that shows that we have a role to play in our perseverance of faith! This shows that our will and our works do matter!

Actually, according to the Psalms, echoed by the Apostle Paul, there is a sense in which all are worthless.

Actually, according to the Psalms, echoed by the Apostle Paul, there is a sense in which all are worthless.

Well, no one ever said that spiritual justification before God did not simultaneously take place among other human persons, in our variety of circumstances, and completely separated from the fact that we perform all manner of actions in the world! In like fashion, as Luther put it in the “Disputation Concerning Justification”, trying to thread the needle, good works are not necessary for salvation, but to it.[vi] The point, however, is that, by the grace of God given us in Christ, we are justified in the law, in our works, and not by them. We are justified by faith in Christ, which is the thing that makes us want to love his law, run in the desires, thoughts, words and deeds it commands… exist in a life that is wholly godly… (as Luther put it in his Genesis commentary).

For the Lutherans, the point, over and against their Roman Catholic opponents, is that it is a child of God – at real peace with the forgiving King – who does these things.[vii] And it is precisely because of the peace and joy that they have in the Lord that they do these things, all the while saying “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.

For the 16th century Reformers like Martin Luther, being fully dependent on God does not mean being under God’s thumb and an unbearable loss of personal freedom! Rather, it means we can trust Him and His intentions because of the spiritual security we have that He is good – particularly seen in the promises that He gives us (ultimately, embodied in Jesus Christ and His mercy – all God’s promises are “yes” in Him!).

Fallen man, and wayward theologians, hate this message. They do not want to be reduced to nothing — to utter ashes.

"By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” -- Genesis 3:19

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” — Genesis 3:19

They ultimately want God to answer to them, as they stubbornly and doggedly make their case for why He should accept them and those they desire to associate with.

No. Jesus doesn’t play that game. He rather says to us” Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

FIN

 

Images: John Irving pic by Elke Wetzig Elya, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; “Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged” by KAZ Vorpal,CC BY-SA 2.0 ; Elder Sophrony, by Jack1956, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; Pharisee and publican, public domain ; Unworthy but not worthless, from http://marieldavenport.com/unworthy/ ; Ash Wednesday by Jennifer Balaska, public domain

Notes:

[i] And although he is writing about his struggle as a Christian, many have noted that even unbelievers feel the conflict between the standards they hold to and their actual practice of those standards (see the “Honest Hypocrisy” article quoted above).

[ii] Another example: In my own life, I have realized that sometimes, I just start praying what really are good words in a rather uninvolved, “going through the motions”… mechanical way – kind of like a mantra or maybe even “magic words” (At the same time, this Lutheran will insist that there is real importance behind Robert Louis Wilken’s statement that “There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing…”) For me, I am quite sure that even asking God for help can be an unreflective reflex which actually amounts to me indirectly accusing God of not having already helped – of not having given me the impulse, will, or power to simply do what I should. I recognize that we are urged to pray without ceasing (see I Thes. 5:16-18) and that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, under great duress, prayed the same thing three times, for example – but I also recognize that my prayers, even if they aren’t “set prayers” can actually be me being lazy, stupid, and even “passively aggressive” towards God. (I’m also alternatively feeling pretty good about noticing that stuff above, and, when I proofread this, wondering if it’s somehow an indirect form of bragging about my prayer life…. yes, I’ve got issues!).

[iii] As Augustine put it: “…under [the Law] are those whom [God] makes guilty by giving his bidding without giving his assistance.” (On Grace and Free Choice, see p. 161 here).

[iv] Ambrose’s words here come to mind:

“…our heart and our thoughts are not in our power. When they flood in unexpectedly, they confound the mind and spirit, and drag you elsewhere than you intended to go: They call you back to worldly things, they entangle you in earthly matters, they suggest voluptuous pleasures, they weave their allure, and, at the very moment when we are getting ready to raise up our mind, we are entangled in vain thoughts and often thrown down into earthly matters…” (quoted in Augustine, On Perseverance, see p. 231 here)

[v] http://bookofconcord.org/sd-goodworks.php#para15

[vi] From “The Disputation Concerning Justification,” LW, 165:

“I reply to the argument, then, that our obedience is necessary for salvation. It is, therefore, a partial cause of our justification. Many things are necessary which are not a cause and do not justify, as for instance the earth is necessary, and yet it does not justify. If man the sinner wants to be saved, he must necessarily be present, just as he asserts that I must also be present. What Augustine says is true, “He who has created you without you will not save you without you.”1 Works are necessary to salvation, but they do not cause salvation, because faith alone gives life. On account of the hypocrites we must say that good works are necessary to salvation. It is necessary to work. Nevertheless, it does not follow that works save on that account, unless we understand necessity very clearly as the necessity that there must be an inward and outward salvation or righteousness. Works save outwardly, that is, they show evidence that we are righteous and that there is faith in a man which saves inwardly, as Paul says, “Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” [Rom. 10:10]. Outward salvation shows faith to be present, just as fruit shows a tree to be good.”

This, of course, would sync with what is found elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, namely that

“…until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community of Christendom, through which he heals us and which he uses to proclaim and propagate his Word, whereby he initiates and increases sanctification so that we grow daily and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which he creates” (italics mine, Luther, Martin, Book of Concord.  Ed. Theodore Tappert.  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959; Solid Declaration, Article II, Free Will, quoting Large Catechism, Pt. II, Art. III)

Luther has not only the believer’s active sanctification but passive sanctification in mind here, i.e. justification. In this way our salvation is certainly dependent on, and bound up with, our neighbor’s, as is his with ours – for God has arranged things in just such a way.

[vii] This is why we read in article IV of the Solid Declaration of The Formula of Concord on good works:

“Since, then, it is manifest from God’s Word that faith is the proper and only means by which righteousness and salvation are not only received, but also preserved by God, the decree of the Council of Trent, and whatever elsewhere is set forth in the same sense, is justly to be rejected, namely, that our good works preserve salvation, or that the righteousness of faith which has been received, or even faith itself, is either entirely or in part kept and preserved by our works.

For although before this controversy quite a few pure teachers employed such and similar expressions in the exposition of the Holy Scriptures, in no way, however, intending thereby to confirm the above-mentioned errors of the Papists, still, since afterwards a controversy arose concerning such expressions, from which all sorts of offensive distractions [debates, offenses, and dissensions] followed, it is safest of all, according to the admonition of St. Paul, 2 Tim. 1:13, to hold fast as well to the form of sound words as to the pure doctrine itself, whereby much unnecessary wrangling may be cut off and the Church preserved from many scandals.”

(see quote in context here)

After all, just prior to this passage, the following was said:

“But when and in what way the exhortations to good works can be earnestly urged from this basis without darkening the doctrine of faith and of the article of justification, the Apology shows by an excellent model, when in Article XX, on the passage 2 Pet. 1:10: Give diligence to make your calling and election sure, it says as follows: Peter teaches why good works should be done, namely, that we may make our calling sure, that is, that we may not fall from our calling if we again sin. “Do good works,” he says, “that you may persevere in your heavenly calling, that you may not fall away again, and lose the Spirit and the gifts, which come to you, not on account of works that follow, but of grace, through Christ, and are now retained by faith. But faith does not remain in those who lead a sinful life, lose the Holy Ghost, and reject repentance.” Thus far the Apology.

But, on the other hand, the sense is not that faith only in the beginning lays hold of righteousness and salvation, and then resigns its office to the works as though thereafter they had to sustain faith, the righteousness received, and salvation; but in order that the promise, not only of receiving, but also of retaining righteousness and salvation, may be firm and sure to us, St. Paul, Rom. 5:2, ascribes to faith not only the entrance to grace, but also that we stand in grace and boast of the future glory, that is, the beginning, middle, and end he ascribes all to faith alone. Likewise, Rom. 11:20: Because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Col. 1:22: He will present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in His sight, if ye continue in the faith. 1 Pet. 1:5. 9: By the power of God we are kept through faith unto salvation. Likewise: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”

 

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Want to Save Free Speech? Listen to Rod Dreher, Jordan Cooper, Issues ETC., etc…

Stefan Molyneux: "Free Speech is All That Matters."

Stefan Molyneux: “Free Speech is All That Matters.”

 

Popular libertarian You Tuber Stefan Molyneux argues with all his rhetorical might that “Free Speech is All That Matters”.

I balk at his insistence. I don’t like the way he puts that. While I find his supporting arguments for this persuasive and important when it comes to politics, overall I wonder about the implications of such words, such devotion. It almost sounds religious to me. Molyneux talks about the importance of humility and self-doubt, but of this he is certain!

Why the intensity of such conviction? In a related comment, Rachel Fulton Brown, University of Chicago professor, interestingly argues that:

“….the freedom of speech enshrined in our national culture was established first and foremost as a freedom to wrestle with religion. Freedom of speech means little without this religious content, which is why cries for contentless “free speech” are so vacuous.”

Versus Molyneux, I would argue that it is only in cultures influenced by Christianity that you get the fruits he so treasures.

So where is the West, guided thusfar by Christian rails, going? Will speech remain free? Is the artistic expression of a florist speech that should be protected, and not extracted as a mere product to be sold? Should local practices of “Christian-only prayer” at public meetings be ruled unconstitutional? (see yesterday’s unanimous decision at the Washington state Supreme Court and the decision by a federal appeals court) Will Christians remain free not only to believe what they want, but to speak their faith in the public square? To practice it not only on Sundays, but in public? What of their schools and universities?

And should we, like the Apostle Paul, insist on our rights by fighting politically – at least to some degree? Or by withdrawing in the hope of being strengthened to “give an answer for the hope that we have” when the world if finally ready to hear – and believe – again? This brings us to the ideas of Rod Dreher, the cultural observer at the American Conservative and a thoughtful Eastern Orthodox Christian. A few days ago, the well-known Christian commentator Albert Mohler had Rod Dreher on his show Thinking in Public to talk about Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option.

benedictoption

It was a fascinating and informative conversation, and one which I would recommend to everyone (I first talked about Dreher’s “Benedict Option” a couples years ago here).

The conversation between the two men ended with the following exchange, always a bit biting for folks like me (I need to hear it though!):

DREHER: …The Lord gave me a second chance, and I would have all your listeners realize that if they’ve got their heads buried in books–I love books, I write books–but it’s no substitute for the life of prayer and service.

MOHLER: Well, a classical historic Protestant can only say amen to that. Thank you, Rod, for this conversation; I’m deeply indebted to you.

That said, earlier in the conversation both men had clearly dealt with the importance of doctrine (note my bold in particular):

MOHLER: I read the articles that you wrote in the beginning, frankly I follow your column very closely at the American Conservative, and we’ve been watching you make this argument out loud for some time. And reading the book, it seems to me it’s significantly different than what I might have expected in terms of some your early articles on the Benedict Option, so let me just spell that out. You began by saying you’re not calling for us to head for the hills—you just used an illustration of heading for the hills—and as I look at those early articles in the American Conservative, it did appear you were calling, more or less—and those are of course partial arguments, just a few hundred words—but it appears you were calling to head for the hills. Nuance that a bit in terms of where you are in the book.

DREHER: I appreciate the chance to clarify this, and in fact my own thinking has been clarified through exchanges with my readers, through talking with Catholics and evangelical friends, and sort of working through these ideas. When people hear, “Head for the hills,” they think, you know, to light out for the mountains and build a compound and sit there and wait for the end. I don’t think we’re called to that. I know I’m not called to that; most people aren’t called to that. But it does mean doing what these monks in Norcia did initially. They were living right there in the town, but they were behind monastery walls. What does that mean for us? It means as lay Christians, we have to build some kind of walls to separate ourselves from the world so that we can continue to go out into the world and minister to people and be who Christ asked us to be. The culture itself is so toxic and so anti-Christian that we’re just not going to be able to make it if we let anybody and anything come into our hearts, into our imaginations. The monks in Norcia say, “We’re called to be monks, but we cannot be for the pilgrims who come to this monastery what Christ asked us to be if we don’t have that time away behind our walls for prayer and study and work.” I want to take that ethic and take it to lay Christian life. We need to have, for example, Christian schools. Not to shelter our kids from any bad idea that comes from the outside, but in order for them to be nurtured and to build that resilience within so when they do get out into the world, they know who they are, they know what they believe and why they believe it. And more importantly, they have participated and built practices necessary to live out this faith and to get the faith in their bones. Because if the faith is only in your head, if it’s only a series of arguments, you’re not going to make it.

MOHLER: You talk about a conversation, rather haunting actually, at a Christian university or college campus where the professors were telling you that so many Christian young people come, and even though they basically hold to some knowledge, genuine knowledge, of Christianity, it’s so superficial that it tends not even to last very long inside what’s defined as a Christian college and university.

DREHER: That’s true. I mean, the situation is horrible with Catholics, but this conversation you’re recalling was on an evangelical campus and the professors were saying, “We try our best; we can only have these kids for four years.” And these are all kids who came out of evangelical schools and evangelical churches. But this is the youth group culture. All it gave them was emotion and having fun. And one of these professors even said to me, “You know, I doubt that most of our kids are going to be able to form stable families.” That shocked me. I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because they’ve never seen it.”

MOHLER: I thought in reading that, once again, place still matters a great deal—and I mean place not just in terms of geography, but that and social context and social placement—because I think of the students at our school and I think the vast majority of them did see an intact family It was still close enough to them, if they didn’t come from it, then they saw it. But even in talking with students, you realize in concentric rings of their relationships, you get just one ring out, and then not to mention two or three rings out, and it’s very hard to find. And I think that’s so well documented in something like J.D. Vance’s work now. Where once you would have thought that respect for family and a traditional Christian morality and sexuality and all of that would’ve been taken for granted, it’s now hard to find on the ground….

I do not fully share Rod Dreher’s attitude when it comes to how we as Christians should engage the culture. That said, I can certainly say “Amen” to this exchange above. Because, to ape Molyneux, Jesus Christ is all that matters.

When I look back at my own life, I have no idea why I am as ferociously Christian – Lutheran – as I am. Not everyone in my family has kept the faith I hold on to. I think, however, that one thing that was very helpful for me was learning about the history of the Lutheran Church. I am thankful that I learned the content of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as a child, but the importance of the words found therein really changed for me when I learned about the 1580 Book of Concord, otherwise known as the Lutheran Confessions (not even reading Martin Luther’s Large Catechism in college really helped me like this did).

Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison shows off a copy of his Book of Concord.

Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison shows off a copy of his Book of Concord.

Actually, not even that is the full truth. More accurately, the Small Catechism became much more important to me after I learned about the history of the church that produced the Lutheran Confessions. For me, getting in touch with the living history underlying the doctrines in the Book of Concord was essential. As the Reformed commentator Michael Horton likes to put it, “the doctrine is in the drama”. One notes that this is definitely the case for the church’s book, the Bible. We are creatures who hunger not just for “propositional truths,” but the meaningful stories that help situate the important things we should know.

To that effect, I can’t help but recommend some of the podcasts Pastor Jordan Cooper has been doing on his show lately where he digs into the Lutheran Confessions, giving a good deal of background knowledge along the way.  The Small Catechism does indeed cover the core elements of the Christian faith, and we can never get to the bottom of the truths it contains. That said, as we mature and look to get our bearings in life, I think that knowing more about Bible, church history, and the history of the Reformation is critical in these last days to ground us in the faith.

An Introduction to Confessional Christianity

The Ecumenical Creeds and the Augsburg Confession

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Smalcald Articles, and Luther’s Catechisms

The Formula of Concord

(I’d also be remiss to point out that the fine show Issues ETC. also has done many excellent shows on the Book of Concord).

And that, I think, can’t not be good for any nation, including ours.

undertheinfluence

FIN

 

Images: Molyneux picture from Wikipedia Commons: “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license” ; Pastor Matthew Harrison with BOC from http://mercyjourney.blogspot.com/2009/04/minnie-me-book-of-concord.html

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Certitude vs. Certainty: What Can Neil Gorsuch and Martin Luther Teach Us About Knowledge and Truth?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

 

Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s widely lauded pick for new Supreme Court Justice, will be big news for weeks to come. Gorsuch is, like Antonin Scalia before him, an “originalist” judge, meaning that he “interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.” (see here)

According to Wikipedia, “originalism is a way to interpret the Constitution‘s meaning as stable from the time of enactment” (italics mine). Stanley Fish however, rightly argues that “[originalism] is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words?” (italics mine; see more on Fish’s view and my response here). Therefore, the originalist is one who takes the words of the Constitution very seriously.

I suggest that Christians can see this as an opportunity for having discussions about the Bible and what it means for people today (which yes, many people are open to exploring when given the opportunity!). Particularly, we can appreciate how Christians like Martin Luther believed that hearing the words of Scripture not only brings personal certitude, but certainty. The distinction is subtle but important…

certitudecertainty

We will get to that below, but first we need to cover some preliminary ground. Here we go…

How does the judicial philosophy of originalism connect with Scriptural interpretation? The main point is this: like the originalist with the Constitution, the Christian takes the words of the Bible very seriously. And, in a critical difference, he does this not only because these words are thought to be wise, like the Constitution, but because they are believed to be the very word of God.

Not only this, but the Christian even talks about knowing these words to be the very Word of God. And this, of course, means Truth with a capital T. Knowledge. Wisdom. And Certainty. And the really crazy thing? It is not only Christians who know this, but at some level those who hear the word and do not put their trust in it know it as well.

Is this a Lutheran thing to say? Is this a Christian thing to say?

Yes. For example, Martin Luther not only held to a view of the Holy Scriptures that is similar to the way originalists deal with the constitution (directly comparing the Bible to the laws written in societies), but he also believed, contrary to many theologians today, that God made Himself and His will known to all though these words.

Seriously? Again, yes. Lutherans who adhere to the Lutheran Confessions today like to emphasize, along with the giant of 20th century theology Karl Barth, that unbelievers are not able to understand the true meaning of the Scripture (see I Cor. 2:14, for example). Luther, of course, believed that this was true as well in a sense: unbelievers could not begin to discern the depths of the Bible – its spiritual meaning. That said, at the same time he also taught, per passages like John 16:8-11, that the unbeliever could be given real knowledge of the truth though the Scriptures.

bondageofthewillIn his famed work The Bondage of the Will, we see concrete examples of this (all following quotations are from the J.I. Packer translation).

Luther begins his teaching on the nature of Scripture by noting that Isaiah 40:13 “does not say: ‘who has known the mind of Scripture?’ but: ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’” Not only does God reveal His own mind in the Scriptures, but He also brings clarity:

“the perspicuity [i.e. clarity] of Scripture is twofold… The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word [“all that is in Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world”!]: the second concerns the knowledge of the heart [“nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures”!]” (BOTW, Packer ed., 73, 74).

This only gives us a clue of where Luther is going. Later in this book he uses Isaiah 8:20 (“…to the law and to the testimony…”*) to circle back to the importance of the clarity and decisiveness of Scripture. Simply from the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, he marshals passages from Deuteronomy 17:8, Psalms 19:8 and 119:130, Malachai 2:7 and more to make his case. He writes:

“if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.”

Luther goes on to point out that Stephen, in the book of Acts, quotes Isaiah 66:1, “What is the house that ye build unto me?,” to prove to the Jewish council that God did not command his people to build a temple to Him. And here, he notes that Luke writes “they could not resist the spirit and wisdom with which he spake” (Acts 6:10), and that Jesus Christ Himself says of the words His heralds speak, “your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” Luther recalls that in response to Stephen’s words the council “shut their eyes and summoned false witnesses against him” – to which he replied “Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”

Luther than drops the hammer: “He says that they do resist, although they could not resist”, meaning that they very well knew the truth the external word brought but internally suppressed it in unrighteousness (see Romans 1). With Erasmus (and Rome) in his sights, Luther asks, with great rhetorical effect: “What is this but to say that their actual resistance will show their inability to resist?” (130-131)

In other words they know.

Do we have such confidence of the external clarity of the Bible – and the knowledge of truth that it brings? If not, why not? Should we seek such confidence? If not, why not?

Quoting Isaiah 6:10, “Hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand and seeing ye shall see and shall not perceive”, Luther is absolutely relentless:

“…reveal… how mighty is the dominion and power of Satan over the sons of men, which prevents them from hearing and grasping the plainest words of God, and makes them like men whom an illusionist has mesmerized into thinking that the sun is a cold cinder, or believing that a stone is gold… [Satan is the cause of man’s failure to grasp God’s words, and] if [he] did not do so, the whole world could be converted by a single word of God, hear once; there would be no need of more” (133-134).

From the parable of the sower: "the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart."

From the parable of the sower: “the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.”

Man’s failure to grasp God’s clear words (i.e. trust) does not result from weak understanding, as men like Erasmus claim, but on the contrary, weak understanding is ideal for grasping God’s words (133-134). Of course the Holy Spirit figures into all of this as well, as He works according to and through God’s word…

Can we, if we adopt the more subjective posture invoked by many modern biblical scholars, ever hope to nurture such confidence? That we possess knowledge of the truth and can and should assert the same to others?

Where was Luther wrong?

Is he wrong about the perspicuity, i.e. clarity, of Holy Scripture? Is he wrong about the knowledge that it brings those who hear it?

Today, we are told that even though we as Christians believe in Christ and know Him and His word to be true (and that we grow in this understanding!) this is, really, ultimately about our own personal certitude. In other words, this means that certainty is no longer associated with something that we can call real knowledge, but is actually just individual confidence, assurance, etc.

Regrettably, the fact/value split put forth most aggressively by the 18th c. philosopher David Hume has comes to an ever-greater flowering in what remains of Christendom.

I suggest that even one of the most conservative and respected Lutheran theologians of the last century got inadvertently caught up in this trap, saying the following almost 50 years ago:

“Scientific knowledge is evident knowledge; theology is by no means evident in the same sense, for it deals not with things to be known but things to be believed (τά πιστά). Therefore theology insists that reason that seeks to know theological matters be taken captive…”

The unintended implications of this view, I think, are that we lose Luther’s ability to assert. Luther believed that the Scriptures granted all persons true knowledge – even if that knowledge was suppressed and not understood in its full spiritual sense. And objective certainty triumphed over mere subjective certitude.

What does Christ’s church today believe? When He returns, will he find faith on earth?

Run for your life – to the Word (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).

FIN

 

Notes:

*Of the Isaiah passage in particular he says it “dispatches all questions ‘to the law and to the testimony,’ and threatens that unless we comply the light of dawn must be denied us” (126).

 

Image credit for Gorsuch:

As a work of the United States Federal Government, the file is in the public domain in the United States.

The sower, Kew Gardens in London. Picture by mira 66, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Neil Gorsuch, Stanley Fish, Martin Luther, and the Bible: Whither Authoritative Interpretation?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

A couple days ago, President Donald Trump’s proposed replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was announced. We read in Slate about U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit judge Neil Gorsuch:

“Gorsuch identifies himself as a textualist and an originalist in the tradition of Justice Antonin Scalia, meaning he interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.”

Across the board, American Christians seem quite happy about the decision (see here), and much of this has to do with the fact that Gorsuch is not an “activist judge” but an “originalist”.

What is this originalism and why is it so significant? You can delve into a helpful explanation here, but not too long ago on Albert Mohler’s show Thinking in Public, public intellectual Stanley Fish gave a helpful and very engaging overview of the different kinds of “originalism”:

Justice Scalia and I are—or were, I guess in his case, unfortunately—both originalists, and originalists at least in the context of constitutional interpretation, as someone who believes that basically the act of interpretation is the act of trying to figure out what the text originally meant when it was produced at whatever date. And I would say that that understanding of interpretation—that you’re trying to figure out what some speaker or writer meant—is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words? Where Scalia and I diverge is that he is a textualist originalist, and I am an intentionalist originalist. A textualist originalist thinks that the answer to the question, “Well what was meant by this text at the time of its junction?” is to be found by examining the text in and of itself independently of any consideration of intention or, Scalia said, independently of any consideration of legislative history. I, on the other hand, am firmly persuaded that the only way to get at the meaning of a text is to figure out what the author had in mind, or authors had in mind, at the moment of its production, and that if you just look at the text in and of itself it won’t tell you anything, or it will tell you too many things. But if you can at least make a good guess based on the available evidence about the spirit of purpose within which this utterance emerged, then you will have a way of determining what the text meant. So that we’re both originalists, but we diverge in the version of originalism each of us follows.

MOHLER: You know that’s really interesting because toward the end of his life, Justice Scalia actually preferred not to call himself an originalist at all, but rather a textualist, which just kind of affirms your analysis there.

NY Times op-ed columnist, Stanley Fish.

NY Times op-ed columnist, Stanley Fish.

FISH: Well yeah, that’s right. His textualism and my intentionalism are both variants of originalism, but originalism is I guess the mothership that houses us both.

MOHLER: So that leads to a couple of questions to me. The first is you said that that is not a method of interpretation, it is interpretation. So how can it be that in the modern academy interpretation is evidently something other than what you just to find it to be?

FISH: Well it’s because people have confused interpretation, and therefore meaning, with communication. Many have observed that any text that has either been uttered or written is available to many interpretations, and that has led people incorrectly to assume that texts or spoken words are irremediably ambiguous. And I would reply no, that’s not the case. The debates about interpretation, the interpretive debates over a text, either written or oral, are always debates about the spirit within which the text emerged—always debates about what the author or authors had in mind. And people who have different answers to that question—what the author or authors had in mind—will then see the text as meaning differently. And there’s been the unwarranted conclusion from that picture of interpretation that interpretation is entirely subjective and can go in any direction one likes. It’s not subjective, neither is it objective in the sense that there’s any machine for producing correct interpretations. What you have to do, and it’s an empirical exercise, is to try to figure out as best you can what the author or authors had in mind. Let me give you an example. My wife and I got off a plane in the small town of Stewart, Newburgh, rather Newburgh, New York, Stewart Newberg Airport at quarter to twelve in the evening, fifteen minutes before midnight, and we were immediately met as we stepped off the plane into the terminal by a sign that said, “Hot panini sandwiches now being served in the Euro Café.” So the question is, “What does that sign mean?” And it’s obvious that the sign could mean at least two things—actually more, but we’ll stick to two. It could mean either, “if you trot down the hall right now to the Euro Café, you will be able to enjoy a hot panini sandwich,” or it could mean, “we have now added hot panini sandwiches to our menu.” So how do you figure out which it means? And the answer is that you have to put yourself in the place of those who produced the sign, and you have to also note that you’re in a rural airport in upstate New York, and that in almost any airport in this country, aside from O’Hare and a couple of others, no restaurants are open at quarter to twelve in the evening. And therefore, through that kind of empirical reasoning, you can figure out what author or authors of the sign had in mind. The text itself won’t tell you, and that’s why I’m an intentionalist, not a textualist.

Fish’s objection to textual originalism is interesting. Clearly, sometimes when we look at a sentence the words and grammar make perfect sense but the sentence could have more than one meaning. For example, in a biblical Greek class I am taking right now, we translated a sentence into English that could have meant either “The slaves were killing the children with the disciples” or “The slaves were killing the children along with (i.e. “and”) the disciples”. We opted for the latter translation! (of course, as I recently heard someone say [Todd Wilken!], sometimes the words “good night” can also mean “leave me alone” but that is a different kettle of fish!)

And, of course, Fish’s example about the panini sandwich is  interesting and illuminating. Context is always an important element of any interpretation, and in the example he gives above, immediate contextual clues and background knowledge, of course, are critical. That said, while I am no expert in this topic, it seems to me that Fish’s objection is handled fairly easily. After all, in trying to make his case for “intentional originalism” I note that he does not use an example from the law. If he did that, of course, any sentence he might give would be surrounded by a great many more words in a document carefully crafted by lawyers or judges to be clear and concrete – aware of the fact that the words we speak and sentences we write are often liable to more than one interpretation.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

And of course, the primary author of the Bible, God Himself, would be aware of things like this as well. As Martin Luther said in the Bondage of the Will:

“…if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.” (p. 126, Packer edition)

When it comes to biblical interpretation, the most important contextual information in interpreting any particular sentence would be the words surrounding that sentence, including the rest of the entire book the words are drawn from (e.g. the book of Matthew). And then, going broader and deeper, we would look to the entire Bible that the church has recognized as the Word of God. Talking about things like geographical, historical, and cultural context are certainly important as well (see the amazing Acts commentary from Keener!), but even here, a great deal of this context can be found in the biblical books themselves. All of this information should give us our primary context for understanding what we read in the Bible.

Furthermore, given our view of the clarity that is found in the Bible, it would be safe to say that when it comes to Scripture, the “original meaning” (i.e. what reasonable persons would have understood the text to be saying) cannot be explicitly divorced from the intent of the biblical authors, and ultimately, the Author (not to say that the understanding of the text’s meaning might not become deeper and more full as time goes on). Not only this, but we will become better interpreters of particular things that God says the more familiar we are will all that He has said. In other words, the more familiar we are with Him (see more thoughts on how we should see the Bible and apply it to our lives here).

Lastly, as Luther never tired of reminding us, all of these biblical words give us Christ, who reveals to us the fullness of God’s heart towards His fallen creatures. The Bible, in other words, is the cradle that introduces us to the Word made flesh, for us.

FIN

Note: minor changes made to text after initial publishing.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

 
 
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