Friday, August 17, 2007

The Foolishness of God

Does Christianity make sense? Do all its various teachings add up? Is it logical?

For a time, I began to think - yes. It must make sense.

Something within me demanded logical explanations to all the haunting questions of the ages. “Why am I saved and not others?” “Why do the innocent suffer?” “What is the point of my life?” “What is the REAL truth and how am I to know it?” etc. etc.

I started to think that if Christianity can’t answer these big questions in a logically airtight, satisfying way, what good is it?

But this kind of thinking and search for logical answers (thankfully) proved fruitless.

Oh, I know there are Christian pat answers to these big questions. The best theological minds down through history (and continuing mercilessly in our time) offer us lots of ways to explain God and try to harmonize human logic with what we find in the Bible. But most of this is just interesting speculation. What I found was - regardless of which logical path I followed - God eventually ended up being either non-existent, impotent or a monster. So much for my logic.

Now I am certain that Christianity does NOT make sense. Christian theology is the very opposite of philosophy. It springs from different premises, operates by different rules, and in most cases (perhaps all?) cannot be reconciled with natural reason.

And that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. If God is to stay God, it is the way it must be. When God and my reason collide, my reason necessarily yields, whether I like it or not. And I admit I seldom like it.

I am currently re-reading a book that has been in my library for many years - The Foolishness of God, The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther by Siegbert Becker. It is a fascinating and comforting book, because Prof. Becker (correctly, I think) uncovers the key to understanding Luther’s seeming anti-rationalism. He explains and defends Luther’s way of fitting Scripture, faith and reason together by relegating reason to its proper place - as a servant of Scripture and faith, not their master or judge. Put in a somewhat more spiritual way, faith inevitably puts natural reason to death, giving birth to a sanctified use of human reason, ruled by faith. (We don’t check our brain at the door. It is exchanged for a new one.)

The irony of the book is that it obviously employs human reason (as any book written by humans must) in a way that makes Luther’s unreasonableness totally reasonable. Or, as one commentator put it, “Luther may have been antirationalistic, but he was not irrational.”(David Scaer)

While all this sometimes makes my head swim, (using human reason to analyze human reason is a somewhat circular process), I believe that a simple recognition of the limits of natural reason is a gracious ingredient of the gift of faith. And it is immensely freeing.

Prof Becker’s book is not just a key to understanding Luther. It provides, I believe, a key to understanding Christianity itself. An escape, if you will, from the bondage of the fallen mind.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Bad Grammar of Tragedy

One of my pet peeves is politicians and news reporters who consistently torture the language in times of tragedy. The Minneapolis bridge collapse serves as but the latest sad reminder.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.”

This cliché contains two errors.

First, our thoughts do not really go anywhere. They either stay in our head, or, if they go anywhere, they “go out” to God. They certainly cannot “go out” to the victims and their families.

Ah, you say, but this is just an idiom. Well, actually it’s not. Unless we corrupt the language enough to make it one. The proper idiom is “My heart goes out.”

I could perhaps tolerate a new idiom where “thoughts go out” to someone, but the second error is not tolerable. Prayers ought never “go out to” the victims, nor to their families. Prayers can only go out to God, “on behalf of” or “for” the victims and their families.

Why politicians and news reporters want to continually tell us that they are praying to the victims and their families is beyond me. Don’t they know how silly this sounds? I’m guessing that many of them don’t even believe that God hears their prayers. Why would they believe the victims and their families can hear their prayers?

Maybe this is just a petty pet peeve.

But for some reason I want to throw a brick at the TV every time I hear the language tortured in this way. The suffering is bad enough at a time like this. People ought not be adding to it.

“My heart goes out to the victims and their families and I am praying for them.”

There.

Is that so hard to say?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 8)

Now to Luther’s fourth “exit”, which is to stop searching for a logical exit and simply accept and believe both sides of the paradox.

Luther believed that theological exit strategies too often lead us astray, in circles, or down blind alleys. We are so desperate to escape our Biblical paradox that we will, at great cost, reason our way out of it.

And on the subject of human reason, Luther had much to say. It is precisely here where Luther is most misunderstood and most criticized. This is because Luther believed human reason itself was paradoxical. He called it the devil’s bride and a damned whore. But he also called it God’s greatest gift to man, a glorious light.

So although Luther’s theology used reason to discover Biblical truths, his resultant theology sometimes ended up being quite “unreasonable.” That is to say, it embraced logical absurdities. He would simply not allow reason to stand in judgment of Scripture.

Luther believed that if something was taught in Scripture it didn’t matter to him if he and others thought it to be absurd. He saw, as did few before or after him, that logical attempts to escape from something clearly taught in Scripture often just ended in another kind of contradiction - contradicting the words of Scripture itself. This, to him, was more absurd than accepting a Biblical paradox on pure faith.

So Luther had no difficulty teaching contradictory absurdities. The saved are predestined to salvation, but the lost are not predestined to damnation. The saved cannot lose their salvation and, oh, by the way, yes they can. No one can make a decision to accept Jesus, but we can make a decision to reject Jesus. The saved are saved entirely by God, but the condemned are condemned entirely by themselves.

These are, to most theologians and philosophers, logical absurdities.

So it would be quite in keeping with Luther’s way to accept and believe in the universal restoration of all, and - at the same time - accept and believe in the eternal punishment of some. Both are taught in Scripture, so both can be believed and taught.

Logically absurd?

Maybe so. But it seems to me that one could hold to both sides of this paradox and still remain quite Lutheran.

Perhaps more Lutheran than Luther.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 7)

The third (and supposedly final) exit from a Biblical paradox is theological.

Here at last is where most find their exit from the contradictory teachings of eternal hell and universal restoration. The problem is, there are two exits. The traditionalists find one, the universalists find the other. Then they each go back to re-exegete the critical passages, reinterpreting them in light of their preferred exit - their theological grounding. Suddenly one set of passages becomes much clearer than the other. And, one way or another, the other set is (even if with some difficulty) re-explained in light of some other overriding theological precept.

So what theological issues are really in contention here? There are several I think, but the overriding one is the nature of God’s love (or mercy) and God’s righteousness (or justice). How will these two (seemingly conflicting) attributes of God ultimately influence what God will actually do with all us sinners - believers and unbelievers? And then secondarily (or perhaps primarily) what does Christ’s death and resurrection have to do with it all?

Now we find ourselves at the very soul of Christianity. And this explains why the question of universal restoration pushes people’s buttons and stirs the emotions to the boiling point. It is why some have to use pseudonyms when they write about it.

There are many who believe that Christianity has no meaning without an eternal hell. To them, a temporary hell - regardless of how severe - is no hell at all. Being saved from such a hell depreciates Christ’s atonement, compromises God’s justice and makes being a Christian meaningless. What’s the point, after all, if everyone will be saved in the end? Why not eat, drink and be merry and believe whatever you want? Nothing matters anyway.

On the other hand, universalist theology believes that Christianity has no meaning with an eternal hell. An eternal hell represents the ultimate failure of God and a permanent victory for sin, death and Satan. It makes man’s will sovereign over God’s will, compromises God’s power, love and mercy, and ultimately turns Christianity into a self-centered, exclusive, highly judgmental religion based on fear. It is, in the end, no different from any other religion - where we are ultimately responsible for saving ourselves and others.

To those of us Lutherans who take a high view of Scripture, the question becomes - which of these two theological exits is the most consistent with the overarching message of Scripture?

When Law and Gospel collide, what is trump? Does love prevail or does it fail? When God appears to be defeated by man's rebellion, is he really?

Does Scripture portray God’s wrath and judgment as disciplinary and redemptive? Or is it portrayed as purely punitive - something God is required to do because of his righteous nature?

What are we to make of Jesus’ teachings to forgive seventy times seven and love our enemies? Does God ask this of us without requiring it of himself?

Are the chosen of God (Israel and the church) portrayed as the “frozen chosen” or are they the first-fruits, the part that represents the whole, the visible pledge of God’s promise to the whole world?

Does the Bible ever portray God’s attributes of mercy and righteousness to be in conflict, so that sometimes one wins out over the other? Or are they essentially the same, always in harmony - so that God’s mercy is righteous, and God’s righteousness is merciful? And if that is so, is it possible to reconcile this nature of God with the concept of an eternal hell?

Theologically, it seems to me that a Lutheran can believe in a universal restoration without being in conflict with any other of Dr. Luther’s teachings. In fact, it seems to me that all Lutheran doctrines fall much more neatly into place with universal restoration than without it. So (to me) it is quite remarkable that there is not much more interest, study and discussion of it within Lutheranism.

That brings me to my final point - Luther’s mysterious fourth exit from a Biblical paradox.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 6)

The second exit from a Biblical contradiction is hermeneutical - the art of interpretation.

Here, if we are good Lutherans, we lean not on our own understanding (or tradition), but we “let Scripture interpret Scripture.” And anyone can do this, since we believe in the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Thus hermeneutics in not some magic art performed by professionals. It centers on the process of letting the clearer passages of Scripture shed light on those that are less clear.

How this plays out in actual practice, of course, is not so simple. Lots of things get in the way, not the least of which is our own preconceived ideas (or the ideas of others whom we respect). So the paradox is this. Although Scripture is clear, there is no guarantee that it will be clear to me.

This in itself is an odd doctrine, and one which tends to drive me just a little crazy. It can also stop me from reading the Bible entirely, which is unfortunate. Nevertheless, I have found that - when confronted with a Biblical paradox - examining the Scriptures which create the paradox has always been a profitable exercise.

In the case of the universalist and never-ending punishment views of God’s judgment, the critical issue is not the reality or nature of a literal hell, the wrath of God, the seriousness of sin, the role of faith in salvation, salvation through Christ alone, or any such matters. It is a very narrow question. Is God’s judgment on the lost the final word? Yes or No?

There are some passages that seem to say yes, others say no. But which are actually the the clearer passages? Which ones are so clear that they are very difficult (impossible?) to “interpret away” or ignore?

Because this is a blog and not an essay (although I fear it could turn into one), I’ll just select ten passages at random that seem to speak to this question - five on one side, five on the other. There are obviously many more.

Five “Eternal Punishment” Passages

1.) Matthew 25:31-46, (Jesus foretells His return and the Day of Judgment) especially the words “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’ “ and also “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

2.) Luke 16:19-31, (Jesus parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus) especially the words “Between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

3.) II Thessalonians 1:6-10, especially the words “these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”

4.) Mark 9:43-48, especially the words “unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

5.) Revelations 20:10-15, especially the words “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

Five “Universal Restoration” Passages

1.) Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33, especially the words “His compassions never fail” and “Men are not cast off by the Lord forever.”

2.) I Corinthians 15:12-28 especially the words “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” and also, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all.”

3.) Matthew 16:15-19 especially the words “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

4.) I Peter 3:18-4-6 especially the words “For Christ also died for sins once for all” and “He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient” and “the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”

5.) Phillipians 2:8-11 especially the words “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ I Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

So which of these sets of passages is the clearer?

Should the universalist passages be used to shed light on the supposed never-endedness of God’s wrath? Or should the eternal punishment passages be used to shed light on the supposed never-endedness of God’s mercy?

The “orthodox” view has treated the eternal punishment passages so crystal clear that it required all the universalist passages to be interpreted away.

The question for the inquiring Lutheran is this, “Are not the universalist passages just as clear?” If they are, then we are still mired in a Biblical contradiction.

Hermeneutics doesn’t seem to help us. (Or I should say, it doesn't seem to help me.)

Where’s the next exit?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 5)

As I understand it, professional theologians offer us three exits from a Biblical contradiction. (Actually, Luther offers a fourth, but I will deal with that later.)

The first exit is exegetical. We study passages of Scripture in their context, word by word in the original language, trying to ascertain the plain meaning as intended by the original writer and his intended readers. Perhaps there is a contradiction only because we have misunderstood the actual meaning of the text.

For example, in the apparent contradiction between universal salvation and unending torments, much of the exegetical discussion centers on two words - the word “all” and the word “eternal”.

Does the word “all” in the universalist passages (like Romans 5:18) really mean “all without exception?” Or can it mean something else, like “all of a particular kind” or “all without distinction”? On the other hand, in the passages about eternal judgment (like Matthew 25:46), does the Greek word for “eternal” really mean “without end?” Or does it mean “age enduring”, “pertaining to an age” or “from the Eternal One?”, thus opening the door to post-mortem redemption?

We dig a little deeper. Studying the immediate context, we find a second usage of the word “all” in the same passage of Romans 5:18. “through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all.” Since most agree that the first all means “all without exception,” it follows then that the second all would have the same meaning. The universalists appear to be on firm ground.

However, in the Matthew 25:46 passage, we find a similar parallelism with the use of the word eternal. “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Here it can be said that we know “eternal life” to be unending. And so it follows that eternal punishment would have the same meaning - torment without end. The traditionalists also seem to have exegetical support.

On and on it goes, from passage to passage, from word to word, we search for an exit. In this arcane world of exegesis, as fascinating as some of us might find it, we seem to be at the mercy of the scholars’ research and expertise. It seems we are the jury, weighing the evidence, judging which scholars make the most convincing case. But the evidence is technical and sometimes difficult to understand. And both sides seem sincere and credible. So what are we to do?

We need more evidence.

We look for another exit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 4)

One of the grand paradoxes of being Lutheran is this - that, as devoted as we may be to the historic, orthodox teachings of the Christian faith, everything we believe and confess still falls subject to correction by the Word of God. A single, small word or phrase of Scripture has more power in it than all the volumes of Christian theology ever written.

A lone monk, standing on mere phrases of the biblical text (“the just shall live by faith”, etc), challenged a thousand years of learned thinking, “common knowledge”, official councils, pure reason, and “orthodox” teaching. Following such an example, even the most confessional, conservative among us will still, if we want to remain truly Lutheran, humbly subject ourselves to the power of the Word - through which God speaks - regardless of where it takes us, and what consequences we might suffer along the way.

To the Lutheran, tradition is allowed to speak softly, but the words of Scripture will always carry the big stick. And so if a Lutheran is to contemplate the final fate of the damned and reexamine the doctrine of unending torments, he or she must put aside tradition and treat it as nothing compared to the plain words of Scripture.

If the words of Scripture teach of punishment without end for the condemned, and no final restoration for all, then the Lutheran must accept that, even if it seems unfair, unmerciful, and contrary to the nature of God as we have come to know Him.

And if the words of Scripture teach of a final restoration of all, and do not teach of unending torments, than we must accept that also, even if it overthrows two thousand years of majority Christian thought, turns us into “heretics”, and results in countless new ways for the old man in us to abuse the grace of God.

And then there is the final “if.” What if the words of Scripture seem to teach both? What is a Lutheran supposed to do with that?

This, I submit, is what appears to be the actual case.

And Lutherans, in my opinion, are better equipped than most to deal with such a powerful Biblical contradiction.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 3)

We Lutherans like to believe that “the tradition of the church” holds little sway in our theology. Sola Scriptura precludes it. And our long-running dispute with Rome over the role of tradition and church councils demands that we poo-poo tradition in favor of the Biblical text.

However, it seems to me that we huff and puff a bit too much about all this. We are, I think, in denial on the matter. I discovered this in my little controversy with the WELS regarding church fellowship, where I learned just how powerful the “tradition of the church” can be. In that controversy, Scripture itself consistently took second place to the church’s traditional interpretation of Scripture. There was far more emphasis on the actual meaning and interpretation of the wording of the church doctrine (and the books that tried to explain it) than there ever was concerning the words of Scripture. In the end, my own (and others) beliefs and actions were judged against the wording (and supposed meaning) of the church’s written documents - not the words of Scripture. Of course, my adversaries claimed that they were essentially one and the same - which is precisely my point.

So as I assess the obstacles to Lutheran universalism, I believe the tradition of the church, the rulings of councils, the thoughts and writings of the most dominant theologians, and ultimately peer pressure - all these will present far more difficulty to the Lutheran universalist than the Biblical text. Although closet universalists may be many, there are few today who are willing to publicly challenge traditional church teaching on the everlasting destiny of the damned.

It is not without good reason that Gregory MacDonald (whoever he is) used a pseudonym when he wrote his book The Evangelical Universalist.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mercy is Falling

Mercy is falling, is falling, is falling.
Mercy it falls like a sweet, spring rain.
Mercy is falling, is falling all over me.

Hey-oh, I receive Your mercy,
Hey-oh, I receive Your grace!
Hey-oh, I will dance forevermore.

Announcing the birth of Mercy Rain Arn (grandchild #3).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 2)

It seems to me that evangelicals attempting the move toward universalism have a longer, harder road to travel than do Lutherans. With a salvation theology that is either Calvinist or Arminian, evangelicals come to the issue facing major theological obstacles.

Calvinist theology is committed to a limited atonement, thus ruling out any means of salvation for those God did not choose to love. Arminian theology, on the other hand, is committed to man’s ability to choose to love God, placing salvation (or at least the final, most decisive piece of it) in the hands of unreliable people. Under such a system it is simply not plausible that all people would choose God.

Lutherans, on the other hand, have neither of these obstacles to contend with.

Lutherans already embrace a universal atonement. Unlike Calvinist theology, Lutherans believe that God loves everyone, Christ died for all, nobody has been elected or predestined to damnation and God wants all to be saved.

Lutherans also reject the doctrine that man chooses to love God of his own free will. Unlike Arminian theology, they believe repentance, faith and salvation is a gift of God - entirely a work of God’s grace. There is therefore no theological basis to believe God cannot (or does not want to) give this gift to all people.

Without these two theological obstacles, a Lutheran seems well down the road to universalism without even working up a sweat. But there are still two other obstacles in the way.

The first is the traditional teaching of the church. The second is the Biblical text.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part I)

I am currently reading The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym), 2006.

MacDonald has also written a shorter paper entitled “Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?”, which is posted on Brian McLaren’s website.

Seeing the title of this article, I ask myself the same question about Lutherans.

I’ve read a fair number of books and articles defending Christian universalism (or the doctrine of final restoration, as some prefer to call it.) A lot of them, to my way of thinking, aren’t very good. Universalism comes in a lot of flavors, even including non-Christian universalism, which teaches salvation apart from Christ. Authors come at the issue from a wide variety of perspectives - as very liberal theologians, as legalists (we can all earn our way to heaven eventually), as former Calvinists, Arminians, or even Unitarians. Some are overly argumentative, seemingly just out to condemn the harshness of the traditional church and its teachings. The variety of perspectives and agendas results in a kind of smorgasbord of thought on the matter, most of which I can’t relate to.

Some of the better authors, however, approach the issue with great clarity and honesty, evidencing a high regard for Scripture and “Luther-like” principles of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. MacDonald appears to be one of these. Other authors I have appreciated are:

- Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (1999)
- Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (2003)
- Andrew Jukes, Restitution of All Things (1867 - Out of Print)

I am on the lookout for a Lutheran theologian who has studied and written extensively on the subject (either pro or con) - so far without success.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Providence of God

This morning my wife was parked along the road visiting a rummage sale.

She was returning to her car (the white Toyota), when it was struck from behind by another car. The driver had been speeding, got distracted, lost control, side-swiped another parked car and then hit our Toyota from behind - pushing it about 30 feet and into the ditch.

No one was hurt.

Ten seconds later, my wife would have been walking behind the car and would have been crushed between the two vehicles.

Fifteen seconds later, she would have been in the car - about to buckle her seat belt.

The Lord gives and takes away.

This morning He gave.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Ideal Sermon

In response to my last post about “self-improvement” sermons, I was asked the question, “What would an ideal sermon look like in your world?”

I don’t think there’s a formula for an ideal sermon. However, I do find that at least some mention of Jesus usually helps it along its way.

If the sermon topic relates to my self-improvement (sanctification), then I would hope that the sermon would not play to my old self-righteousness nature, but rather would point me to the righteousness of Christ in me - my new self. When Jesus is mentioned, I would hope it would be the Jesus who does not condemn me, but accepts me as I am, loves me, gives himself up for me, gives me new life, sets me free, empowers me, blesses me, sanctifies me, etc. In other words, the Jesus who is for me, not against me - the Gospel Jesus. This Gospel Jesus is the death of my old self, and the hope of the new.

Recently, I heard a sermon in a Presbyterian church. The topic was patience - a subject that could easily have been moralized into a typical “how to” sermon - how to become more patient. The pastor skillfully avoided doing this. A significant portion of the sermon dealt with the patience of God - His long-suffering nature. Then it also dealt with our human failures to be patient. In other words, we are not at all like God in this way. We are by nature impatient.

At this point, he could have launched into the “how to” portion of the sermon, which (to me at least) would be telling me how to get my nature to become like God's nature. He began with a few practical tips and tricks that people have found to help (counting to 10, etc.) But then he immediately told us that while such methods may help us in some sense, patience is not something we achieve. It is a fruit of the Spirit, not something we go about “getting” through our own efforts.

In fact, he said this quite bluntly. “We can’t try to GET patience. It is a gift of God.” So the first, last and best thing to “do”, is simply ask God for it. Then, if we recognize it in us, we know where it came from, and we have no reason for boasting, except in our Jesus.

To my way of thinking, this sermon “told it like it is.” It did not hold out the false hope that I could “self-help” my way to becoming more patient through some 5-step program. And it did not lay any new burdens on me. It left me in the care of the Burden-Carrier - the All-Patient One.

It may not have been the “ideal sermon”.

But it was pretty close.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Self-Improvement Sermons

I’ve grown quite intolerant of self-improvement sermons.

You know the ones I mean. They are the “How To” sermons. “How to” be a better spouse, “how to” be more loving, “how to” pray, “how to” be this, “how to” do that. The topics are infinite.

The sermons usually contain 3-5 bullet points. In the more clever sermons, the bullet points all have key words that begin with the same letter. Or the first letters of the main points form an acrostic. Each point has appropriate Bible passages to back it up.

“How to” sermons are most common in the mega-churches. So I’m guessing this is what the majority of Christians are looking for - practical ways to improve themselves and their lives.

I guess this can be beneficial, as long as the Gospel doesn’t get lost in the process. But it’s been my experience that the Gospel does get lost. So at the end of the sermon I am left with one more program to carry out. One more set of items to add to my already long “to do” list. One more area of my life to work on fixing in the coming week. One more burden on my back. It’s like the pastor is saying, “Here. Carry this burden. It’ll do you good - make you a better, stronger Christian. There’s more where that came from. I’ll have another one for you next week.”

I sometimes look around at all the other faces in the pews and wonder, “What are they thinking?” Do they really think they can do all this stuff? Does that guy up front think that he can do it? Am I missing something? Is the Christian faith just one big complicated self-improvement program - a long “to do” list of ways to make myself a better person?

Call me old-fashioned. Or maybe just old. But I can’t buy what the self-improvement folks are selling.

It’s not that my self doesn’t need improving. It’s just that I have a radically different view of self-improvement.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Working for God

Recently one of my daughters asked me the question, “What do you think is the purpose of your life?” My first reaction was to say, “I don’t know.”

Of course I couldn’t leave it at that. So I jabbered on about love, ever-changing life circumstances and my aunt Tanna, a seemingly selfless person who seemed to find her purpose in the most mundane of life’s chores - cooking, baking, cleaning, washing and ironing (while raising an orphan child without aid of a husband).

But I never really answered her question directly.

The way the question was worded, it seemed to differ from the more general “meaning of life” question or the “Why are we here?” question. Two words seemed to make the question different. The word “purpose”. And the word “your.” These made it too specific and too personal to answer with fine-sounding cliches. It brought to mind the whole question of vocation, a subject which I have been reading about in Gustaf Wingren’s “Luther on Vocation.”

I suppose it is a little late in life for me to be thinking about such things. My so-called career is mostly behind me. But career (defined as job or primary means of support) is, as Luther saw it, not necessarily vocation, but merely a part of it. I am in the early stages of studying this, and I don’t yet have a unified understanding of Luther’s theology - at least not one that will help me answer my daughter’s question directly. But the theological context for Luther’s thought is quite clear.

Luther’s views on vocation were born, in the main, as a response to monasticism. At first blush, this may not seem relevant today. However, the fundamental flaws of monastic thinking persist today, perhaps now more among Protestants than among Catholics. It is based in the attraction of “working for God.”

As I think about vocation (or “purpose of my life”) , I can appreciate the lure of this kind of thinking. If indeed I am personally called by God to some purpose, I am tempted to elevate that purpose into the heavenly realms. My purpose must be some grand spiritual purpose related to God’s Kingdom - maybe involving some great self-sacrifice. Not on a par with Paul or Mother Theresa, of course, but of the same general stuff. My purpose is to serve God - or “work for God” in some way, be it large or small.

If I travel down that road far enough, I run the risk of monastic thinking, which makes God the object of my vocation. When God is the object, then the focus of my attention is on hearing God’s call, obeying God, carrying out God’s wishes and pleasing God.

All this sounds good and righteous, and in some sense, it may well be. But Luther’s theology of vocation appears to be about none of this. It leaves God in heaven and keeps us and our vocation on earth. For Luther, the object of vocation is not God. The object of vocation is always my neighbor, who is not in the spiritual realms, but in plain sight - perhaps in the next room.

The needs of my neighbor rule the province of vocation. And although God surely puts these neighbors in my life (spouse, children, friends, work colleagues, strangers, etc.), my calling is to love, befriend and serve them, not concern myself with pleasing God. If there is an element of sacrifice in this service, it is sacrifice for neighbor, not for God.

One could say that this is not an either/or situation. For as we serve our neighbor, we are surely also serving and pleasing God. But working for God and pleasing God is not my purpose, since God is already well-pleased with me in Christ. And so my works are not for God, but for my neighbor. To the extent that I forget that, and spiritualize my efforts into the heavenlies, I can actually do harm to my neighbor. Now my neighbor becomes a project - a rung in my ladder to reach God - a means to my personal end. I set out to please God, searching for neighbors to help, meddling where I am neither wanted or needed, ignoring the needs of the neighbors God has already placed in my life.

Luther believed that love discovers for itself what is the greatest benefit to neighbor. And so vocation is always plural (vocations), not just because we simultaneously hold more than one station in life (spouse, parent, child, employee, friend, etc), but because the needs of our neighbors are ever-changing. Thus vocation can never fit into any prescribed program. Each person finds and follows his vocations, his purposes, in true freedom - freedom from any requirement to please God - motivated by the power of mere faith and love.

What this means to me personally and practically is still unclear. Except for this. I cannot answer my daughter’s question about my purpose with a generalized cliché, such as “to glorify God” or “to discern God’s will and do it.”

I would rather answer as I did - rambling on about love, changing life circumstances, and my Aunt Tanna. At least in that convoluted answer, “working for God” was not mentioned.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What the Bleep Do We Know!?

As a Christian, there are two ways to react to a book like this.

One can be put off by the often obvious “We can be as gods” new age/eastern religion philosophy that seems to run as a subtheme throughout the book, often masquerading as “a new way of thinking.” Or one can be surprised and encouraged by some of the many possible hidden truths which the authors suggest, recognizing that their discoveries are entirely consistent with what Christians have long believed about the relationship between the physical and spiritual dimensions of reality.

It is an intriguing book from both vantage points.

The authors argue that scientific dogmatism and religious dogmatism have taken turns stifling each other’s work - giving rise to an unnecessary and harmful hostility between the two. It is now time to recognize that the physical world and the spiritual world intersect to such an extent that the paranormal is just as real as the normal. Examples of this are found throughout the book, making for some fascinating reading.

Unfortunately, the book sometimes seems to devolve into just another “power of positive thinking” self-help, “change your paradigm” sermon, dressed up in a blend of spiritual and scientific garb. This, however, is not without value. I think there are some important truths in their particular version of positive thinking, as they explore the actual power of faith, the subconscious connections between people (even in different times and places), and the ultimate importance of a reality that we do not see.

All these are basic ideas consistent with a Christian worldview, though the centrality of Christ as a unifying figure is obviously missing.

I learned some new things reading this book. Not necessarily a new philosophy of “doing life”, but a new appreciation for the way science is apparently expanding its investigation into the non-physiscal universe. It is interesting to note that not all scientists fall into the traditional categories of evolutionist or creationist thinking - presupposing the non-existence or existence of God. Some remain open to either possibility. And this apparently opens up whole new dimensions of experimentation and investigation.

I doubt that science will necessarily discover God or prove His existence to anyone’s satisfaction. God seems to want to reserve this task to himself. But the persistent yearning of the human spirit to know more and more (whether good, bad or sometimes ugly), comes through loud and clear in this book. And there is a certain intellectual humility evident in the title that carries throughout the book.

It is most certainly true that we know less than we think we know.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Barren Rocks and Smiling Cornfields

There seems no question that, if God exists, then Nature itself is certainly one of the revelations of God. To be sure, man has instinctively sought God in Nature more than anywhere else. Whether through pantheistic worship, Thoreau-like contemplation, or even agnostic science - we look for God (or to be god) through understanding the majesty and mystery of the natural world.

But, as Andrew Jukes points out, the revelation of God in Nature is veiled and hidden - just as he is veiled in Jesus and Scripture. Nature contains the same kind of inherent inconsistencies, such that one can be led to question whether, in fact, the Natural world was indeed the work of a single God. Or was it, after all, a result of mere chance - or, worse, the handiwork of competing gods?

Andrew Jukes goes so far as to suggest that Nature seems to misrepresent God, saying,

Does it not seem also to contradict itself, with force against force, heat against cold, darkness against light, death against life, its very elements in ceaseless strife everywhere? On one side showing a preserver, on the other a destroyer; here boundless provision for the support of life; there death reigning. Are there not here exactly the same contradictions and the same difficulties which we find in Scripture? Either therefore we must say, Nature is an inconsistent and lying book, and therefore we will not believe the testimony either of its barren rocks or smiling cornfields; or else we must confess some veil or riddle here.” (Restitution of All Things, p 10)

The history of science demonstrates that the reality of nature is indeed veiled, containing hidden contradictions that conceal the truth of it. The classic example of this is the rising and setting sun, whose movement was obvious to all for thousands of years. And yet it took a higher faculty to reveal that the sun does not move. Or does it? We still speak of the rising and setting sun. This is what most of us non-scientists can actually see and know, though we also know (by faith?) a contradictory truth - that it neither rises nor sets.

Such a paradox (now apparently resolved) is but one of many in Nature. The discovery of such a grand contradiction does not cause scientists to give up on science, declare Truth unattainable, and reject the natural world as some kind of fantasy. Dare I say, in their persistence to continually seek the truth about the physical world, they are an example to all of us who seek the truth about God

We are all dealing with revelations of a God hidden by the same veil. And yet this is a God who makes Himself known, in His good time and manner. The difference between the scientist and the theologian is that the scientist has limited himself to a single revelation. The theologian has more than one. But all the revelations are under the same veil.

The veil often frustrates me. But it teaches me that God himself decides when, where and how He will be found. That is part of what makes him God (and me not so much).

Maybe that's the point of the veil.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Humanity of Scripture

Andrew Jukes begins his little book “The Restitution of All Things” (1867) with a refreshingly honest look at the nature of Biblical contradiction. Obviously, the Biblical text which tells of the many who are eternally lost seem to contradict those texts which speak of the reconciliation of all. So prior to embarking on his own explanation of this riddle, he offers his view of the nature of Scripture.

He begins with Christ, who is the primary revelation of God. The nature of Christ, he argues, is not (in principle) any different from all other revelations of God, in that “the divine is revealed under a veil, and that veil a creature-form.” God is both hidden and revealed at the same time - in Jesus first, but similarly also in Scripture, Nature and Providence. These four revelations of God, he asserts, all contain apparent contradictions because they are both natural and super-natural, human and divine - God hidden in the humble.

Jukes maintains a high view of Scripture, ridiculing those who would pick apart Scripture to prove its human origin. Of course it’s human! He compares all such efforts to picking away at the flesh of Jesus (even to the point of killing him) just to prove He was human.

He writes about Scripture “…it has humbled itself so to come for us, out of the heart of prophets and apostles; in its human form, like Christ’s flesh, subject to all those infirmities and limitations which Christ’s flesh was subject to - thoroughly human as He was; yet in spirit, like Him, thoroughly divine, and full of the unfathomed depths of God’s almighty love and wisdom.”

When I am confronted with Biblical contradiction, the human side of Scripture, my first instinct is to run away, to deny, to reject or to attack. These riddles make me angry, doubtful, anxious, and fearful. Why couldn't God have been more clear and logical? What is the point of presenting us with such difficulty?

Jukes reminds me that the human and contradictory Jesus, the perfect (yet veiled) revelation of God, had a similar effect on people. And people asked the same kinds of questions.

Jesus was not what we expected of a Messiah.

And Scripture is not what we expect of a divine message.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dark Conversations

Twice during the last week I found myself involved in conversations that ”went dark.” To me, a dark conversation has three characteristics.

First, the subject matter is some specific evil in society. Like sexually transmitted diseases, dishonest politicians, bias in the news media, random gun violence, war, poverty, high taxes, bad schools, welfare abuse, etc. The possibilities are infinite.

Second, the focus is on judging the people involved - their irresponsibility, stupidity, inconsideration, selfishness, incompetence, hypocrisy, ignorance, bad behavior or just plain evilness. This sometimes takes the form of anecdotal one-upmanship. Like, “You think that’s bad. Just the other day I was in a grocery store line and you’ll never guess what this lady was buying with her food stamps!”

Finally, the conversation has a turning point. Either it degenerates into extended whining about more and more injustice in the world, with lots of shaking of heads and “Tsk, Tsk’s.” Or, it turns toward talk of one or more of the pat solutions - all of which are political. That is to say, government must do something - change a law, create a new one, or enforce an old one. In other words, "There oughta be a law!"

At this point, the conversation runs the risk of going even darker, as disagreement arises regarding the proper legalistic solution. Or, if all parties are in political agreement, it can darken into now judging the political opposition - those who are too stupid or evil to see the solution as clearly as we do.

Eventually, someone puts the conversation out of its misery by changing the subject. (“So how ‘bout them Brewers?”) Often, that person is me. I like a good, dark conversation as much as the next guy. But there comes a point...

I’ve been trying to figure out ways to end these conversations without involving a sports team. Like I could say “There but for the grace of God go I. I could see myself buying Twinkies with food stamps.” That might stop the conversation. Or at least refocus it.

Or, I could say, “You know what Ghandi said -‘Be the change you want to see in the world’." That might redirect the conversation.

On the other hand, I could just end up sounding trite and sanctimonious.

Better stick with the Brewers. At least until they start to lose. If that happens, don’t know what I’ll do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

As many churches and schools plan memorials for the the Virginia Tech slaughter, some want to include the tolling of a bell, once for each victim killed.

They are faced with the question, how many times should they toll the bell - 32 or 33?

It’s a tough question - one that is generating a lot of discussion (and emotion.)

For me, there are two right answers.

One is technically and theologically correct. The other is the right thing to do.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Children's Sermon

I’ve never been a big fan of the so-called “children’s sermon” in public worship. I trust the motives are good, whatever they may be. But these little vignettes make me uncomfortable. I feel like I am a party to an intrusion into a sacred space - the gentle faith of a child. And I’m always fearful that the sermonizer will moralize (which they often do).

The low point for me (maybe the high point for everyone else) is that moment in the message where the sermonizer poses a question and invariably some four-year old answers in a way that causes the entire congregation to burst out laughing.

Now, God knows I’m all in favor of laughter and joy in church. The Gospel is a party. But more often than not, I don’t think the four-year old is trying to be either funny or joyful. He is dead serious. And normally his answer is more honest than funny. We adults just happen to find such honesty hilarious, especially in church.

Kids will say the darndest things (like the truth, for instance.)

And I can’t help myself. I laugh too.

But it makes me uncomfortable.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Misproclaimed Absolution

In two different Lutheran churches I attended last Sunday and this Sunday, the pastor “misproclaimed” the absolution (the announcement of the the forgiveness of sins) by using his own creative wording. I’m beginning to wonder how widespread this practice might be, and whether it is intentional or accidental.

After the public confession, rather than personally announcing the forgiveness of sins to the congregation (in the first and second person, i.e. “I forgive you your sins” or even the second person passive "your sins are forgiven"), the pastor used third-person grammar in a more generic statement about God (i.e. God is merciful to man, blah, blah, blah).

I know God is merciful. But is he merciful to me?

Unless God forgives my sins, he is a God no different from the god of Islam - who also is said to be merciful, is he not?

I realize this may sound nitpicky. And I don’t consider myself liturgically legalistic, by any means. But I can appreciate why some churches insist on precise liturgical language - at least in the case of the absolution, because it is the one event in the public service where, if the pastor doesn't mess it up, you cannot avoid hearing the Gospel. Even if the entire rest of the service is filled with legalism (i.e. the praise songs, the sermon, the prayers, the announcements - yes, especially the announcements!) the forgiveness of my sins is (or ought to be) pure Gospel.

“I announce the grace of God to all of you and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Opiate of the Masses

One of Luther’s most startling claims was that what seemed to us to be so good and holy was actually sin and evil in the sight of God.

How are we to understand such a claim?

He was speaking of our religious and spiritual efforts - all of which is as filthy rags to God.

But if this is true, what is the point of obedience, morality, Bible study, prayer, meditation, worship, church attendance, sacrifice, the doing of good deeds, the refraining from evil? Are all such things just ways we delude ourselves into thinking we are satisfying God or getting closer to him? Is religion itself void of any true meaning and purpose? Is it just the “opiate of the masses”, as Karl Marx suggested?

In a word, yes.

Religion is an addiction that temporarily makes us feel good, but is ultimately self-destructive - harmful to ourselves and to others. It is, as the atheists claim, the primary cause of the greatest of evil in the history of man.

Thank God we can be free from religion!

The Christ of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter has destroyed the need for religion, thus setting us free from its control. We now know that God is already satisfied with us and closer than we can imagine - all without any of our religion. So religion (and all that is practiced in its name) really has no point - at least not insofar as God is concerned. Religion is the waging of a war that is already won.

Freed from this burden, we can live in peace - not judging ourselves or others. We can approach life as it comes, love ourselves, our family, our friends and even our enemies, meditate if we wish, converse with God at will, worship under no obligation, listen to the preaching of the Gospel and read the Holy Bible as often or as little as we find necessary, pursue a happy, productive and satisfying life in our vocation, recognize what is good and do it, recognize what is evil and shun it, love, learn, sing, dance, play and work - never alone or afraid, for God is always with us.

Life without religion is life worth living.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Were You There?


"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"
African American Spiritual


Since reading Gerhard Forde (...and Paul) (...and a little bit of quantum physics), the question in this song has new meaning for me.

Paul writes in Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ” The same thought is expressed in Romans (“We were therefore buried with him”) and Colossians (“having been buried with him”). Metaphorical expressions? Or were we really there -physically, metaphysically, spiritually, mystically, or some other way our adverbs can’t fully explain?

If we do not take Paul’s wording as mere metaphor, the answer to the song’s question is a resounding “Yes, we were there!” All mankind was there. Somehow, mysteriously (to us), the incarnation of Jesus put God in communion with humanity in such a way that he made it possible for us to be with him in his death. This is how our sin-filled nature was vanquished, and also how we received a righteous new life in the resurrection.

Forde calls this “getting caught in the act.” We participated in the crucifixion. On the one hand, we were there to crucify Jesus. On the other hand, we were also there being crucified with him. Impossible? Makes no sense?

While Einstein scratched the surface on the relativity of time, quantum physics is just now beginning to understand how matter can be in two different places at once. Beyond that, the scientific study of consciousness (including consciousness that transcends time and space) opens up possibilities that heretofore seemed far-fetched. Perhaps science itself will eventually be capable of substantiating our presence with Jesus at the cross. One day every knee will bow - even the knee of science.

In the meantime, faith is all we have.

And faith tells me, "We were there."

Monday, April 2, 2007

Giving Back to God?

Every now and then I hear the phrase “giving back to God.” Normally it is in the context of the passing of the plate, or some other church-related offering. In that context (or any other for that matter), it strikes me as an odd phrase.

First, I don’t believe I have anything that God doesn’t already own. So “giving to God” seems like a weird idea in itself. But the notion of “giving back” makes it even weirder. Did God give me something and now wants it back? That doesn’t sound like God.

Ok, maybe what is actually meant is this: God has given me so much, not just my money and other material blessings but also life and salvation, including his one and only Son who died on the cross for me. In return, the very least I can do is drop a few dollars in the collection plate. This, it seems to me, is the most ludicrous and grotesque idea imaginable.

The way I figure it, when Jesus died on the cross, he removed all my debts and obligations. I now owe him nothing! I'm sorry if that sounds radical, but I think that’s the way he wants it. There’s nothing I am obligated to give him, and there is nothing I can give him. We both have everything. I have everything in Jesus. And Jesus got everything he wanted when he reconciled me (and the whole world) to himself. Anything further we might do for each other is just for fun.

In the meantime, there are people and organizations who need my gifts.

So I give to my local church, some para-church groups, some charities and (on occasion) to individuals in need.

But I never give to God.

And I certainly never give back to God.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jesus Camp

When I checked out “Jesus Camp”, the documentary expose on the threat posed by the indoctrination of the kids of the Christian Right, I was all set to be outraged. I figured I could enjoy being outraged on two fronts at once.

First, I expected to be outraged at how Hollywood would edit and skew the storyline to mock Christianity. Second, I expected to be outraged at how badly the Christian Right would represent the Christian Gospel, if in fact they mentioned it all amidst their legalism and political action agenda.

So I pulled up my chair, braced myself with popcorn, and prepared for the worst.

What a disappointment.

The so-called “threat to America” turned out to be a portly, middle-aged Pentecostal lady who ran a summer camp for a bunch of sweet kids from Pentecostal families. The camp meetings resembled a typical Pentecostal meeting, with lots of hollering, repenting, crying, repenting, falling on the floor, speaking in tongues, repenting, condemning of the devil, sin and the worldliness of the world, etc. etc. The woman’s arsenal consisted of a bunch of object lessons that included foam rubber brains, a cardboard cutout of George Bush, and a cute stuffed tiger that represented sin (The kids were warned that it would grow up into a big stuffed animal [which still looked cute to me] and they would end up having “a tiger by the tail.”

Ok, I know it wasn’t intended to be a comedy. And I shouldn't have really chuckled at all this. I knew I was supposed to be outraged. But if this is the best they could find to scare America, I think America is safe. Filming Pentecostals doing their Pentecostal thing is not exactly tough journalism. It doesn’t take much editing effort or storyline skewing to make a Pentecostal meeting look ridiculous. But I don’t think this lady speaking in tongues holding a stuffed animal is going to frighten, shock or scare anyone.

Most of the Christians in the documentary, of course, did focus their passion on a legalistic and moralistic message. The Gospel was absent, except for one small slice which came from an interview with Ted Haggard (filmed before his fall). He said something like this, “Of course the kids love to come here (to his church). At the public schools they are taught that they are cosmic accidents - animals descended from monkeys. Here we tell them that they are precious souls, loved by God. Why would they not love to come?”

That little excerpt redeemed the dominant legalism of the Pentecostal lady and (especially coming from Ted Haggard) eliminated any last vestige of hope for my outrage.

Lacking outrage and anything remotely informative (Religious people are teaching their children what they believe. Imagine that!) , the movie is not worth the time it takes to watch it. It was nominated for an academy award, probably not for its quality, but for its political agenda. It lost out to another second-rate documentary (An Inconvenient Truth), which was probably nominated for the same reason.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Limiting the Atonement to “Just Us”

The great debate between Calvinism and Arminianism has been around for over four hundred years. Their differing views of salvation essentially center on the question “How shall we go about explaining how it is that Christ’s saving work on the cross is limited to ‘just us?’” Or, put more respectably, “Why are we saved and not others?”

Simply put, the Calvinist says, “Because God chose us and not others.” The Arminian answers, “No, because we chose God and others did not.”

These two answers are diametrically opposed. But they have four things in common. First, they are both wrong. Second, they can each be proved and disproved with Scripture and sound reason (as evidenced by the four hundred year old debate.) Third, they both put God’s reputation in jeopardy. Calvinism questions God’s love (He arbitrarily loves some and hates others.) Arminianism challenges God’s power (He loves all, but is powerless to save all.) Fourth, and what I want to address here, is that each theology necessarily limits Christ’s atoning work on the cross - turning it into something less than what it actually was.

Calvin, with logic proceeding from his understanding of divine election, concluded that when Jesus died on the cross, his death atoned only for the sins of the elect - the chosen of God. Thus the “L” in reformed theology’s TULIP acronym stands for “limited atonement.” Jesus work on the cross was, by God’s design, limited to “just us.”

Arminians find too much Biblical support for the universality of the atonement and claim to believe in an unlimited atonement. However, they teach that the atonement only becomes real when an individual, by an act of their free will, chooses to believe it. Thus the death and resurrection of Christ did not actually save anybody - it only made salvation possible. So IF and WHEN an individual believes in the atonement, then the atonement actually atones. In this way, Arminians limit the atonement perhaps even more than Calvin - subjecting it ultimately to the capricious and powerful will of man.

Luther, of course, had little tolerance for either of these two theologies. His belief, as we might expect, was far more radical. According to Luther, Scripture clearly taught an unlimited, universal atonement that actually saved the world. (“Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!”) Thus he believed that when Christ died on the cross, the entire world - and every creature (then or ever) associated with the world - was reconciled to God. (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” )

This simple trust in a universal atonement harmonized with Luther’s trust in an unconditional Gospel. For only an unlimited atonement can be grounds for an unconditional Gospel. Calvin’s gospel (IF you are among the elect) and Armininius’ gospel (IF you choose to believe), are both conditional gospels which spring from the limitations they have placed on the atonement. The Gospel according to Luther knew nothing of such conditionals or limitations.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Blog Break

On two week break - returning March 5.

Did I say two weeks? I meant five - returning March 26.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Conclusion

As I stated at the outset, I don’t think Forde necessarily denies vicarious satisfaction in toto. Rather he dismisses what might be considered the cruder forms of it - those forms that make God the primary obstacle to reconciliation, rather than us. Such thinking can turn God into a blood-thirsty God who demands his pound of flesh before he can show mercy. Such a view makes God out to be neither righteous nor merciful.

Forde concedes that certainly the work of Christ does satisfy God’s wrath. But he insists on placing this in a context that does not ignore the real problem - our wrath against God, and specifically our wrath against his mercy.

“There is indeed a sense in which we must say that Christ’s work is to “ satisfy” the divine wrath. But it is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God’s honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be “ satisfied “ before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God.”

Forde clearly does not deny that the death of Christ removes God’s wrath against us. He writes,

“As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally.”

At the same time, Forde does not deny the victory motif either. The cross absolutely marked the defeat of Satan, sin and death itself. Forde would not argue with this. He simply recommends that this victory be placed in a context that does not remove us from the scene. He says about this view:

“Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys.”

In the end, it seems to me that Forde does not discard any of the atonement theories entirely. They each display some aspect of what actually was accomplished at the cross. I think he is merely reminding us to be careful when we search for the necessity of the cross, especially if that search takes us away from the actual event itself, our personal involvement with it, and the unconditional love and mercy of God. ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son...")

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 4

Forde says that we move too quickly past the “brute facts” of the crucifixion in search of our atonement theories. He suggests that before trying to look at it from God’s point of view, we would do better to start with looking at it from ours. Only then will we perhaps get “’caught in the act’ in more ways than one: caught at it and at the same time caught by it.

So when we look at the actual facts and consider the question, “Why could God not just up and forgive?”, we find that the simple fact is, he did!

"Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his “Father.” The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our complaint against God is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that."

Forde says we are all implicated in the universal rejection of such unconditional forgiveness. We do not necessarily reject the idea of unconditional forgiveness in the abstract. We could maybe handle that. But we could not handle the actual forgiver himself - the one who actually did the deed - actually forgave sins without conditions. We could not tolerate the one who “actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort.”

The crucifixion exposes us for who we really are “sinners, fakes, liars, deniers, unbelievers.” We don’t really want uncondtional forgiveness, because it is a threat to our conditional world and all our religious ambitions. To consent to such forgiveness would mean that we would have to give up on ourselves - essentially lose our own lives (our old selves). So Jesus had to go. It was a matter of self-defense.

In looking at the facts in this way, from below instead of from above, we are able to see that it is not God who is the obstacle to reconciliation. It is us. This is Forde’s main point. God did indeed have a problem. But his problem was not necessarily how to satisfy his righteous wrath against us. His problem was how to get us to stop rejecting his mercy. Put another way, the problem was never reconciling God to us. The problem was reconciling us to God. God needed a way to put an end to us and our religious ambitions. When we finally let him have mercy on us, only then would he be "satisfied." And this could only be done by killing us.

So here is how we get “caught by the act.” Through faith, we are crucified with Christ. The old self, which refuses to accept unconditional forgiveness, is destroyed. It is put out of business. The final obstacle to reconciliation between God and man is removed.

His death is, therefore, our death. As Paul put it, Christ “has died for all; therefore, all have died” (2 Cor 5:14).

So Forde concludes, when looked at from our point of view, the cross must always be understood as an act of God's mercy toward us - one in which we participate personally. We first participate by killing Jesus (we reject the God of mercy and get him out of the way). Then we die with him (he gets us, our sin and our spiritual ambitions out of the way) and a new us is born. Now there is true reconciliation.

Atonement theories which put us on the sidelines, abstractly assessing the crucifixion from afar (or from above), can distract us from knowing the cross in this way.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 3

In the section of his essay subtitled “Theories Aside”, Forde brushes away the other two atonement theories as faring no better than vicarious satisfaction. The theory of moral influence centers on the idea that Jesus' sacrificial act was needed to serve as an example to inspire human selflessness and faithfulness. Forde merely asks a few rhetorical questions.

“How can God possibly be “justified” in sending his Son into this world to be cruelly murdered at our hands just to provide an example of what everybody already knew anyway? If the cross does not actually accomplish anything new, is not the price too great? Is not a God who would do such a thing fully as thoughtless and cruel as the God of vicarious satisfaction?”

He disposes of Gustaf Aulén and the “victory motif” just as hastily. Under this theory, Christ’s work in incarnation, death, and resurrection was required to conquer Satan and the demonic powers that hold us in slavery to sin and death. But Forde says that under this theory, like the others, the actual act of us killing Jesus is ignored.

“Once again the killing has been covered up. Jesus’ death is somehow necessary to defeat the demons. We are exonerated because the demons did it. God, too, is exonerated in the process because he can appear as the hero of the piece, the mighty conqueror of the demons.”

Forde points out that this theory seems to undermine God’s sovereignty, as he again asks the unanswerable questions.

“Why should the cruel death of Jesus be necessary to defeat the demons? Surely if God is God, he could just put the demons out of commission whenever he wished.”

He then briefly references the troubled history of atonement theories, pointing out that even the early church fathers struggled with this question, as they pondered the idea of “ransom” and debated to whom the ranson was paid. He also notes that the vicory motif, popularized by Gustaf Aulen in his 1931 book, Christus Victor, was the classic view that both Anselm (vicarious satisfaction) and Abelard (moral example) were contending with in the 12th century when these theories were first developed. Thus we have come full circle.

Having brushed the theories aside, Forde restates the issue before moving toward his goal.

"So we come back to our original question: Why the murder of the innocent one? What does that accomplish for us—or for God? What is “the word” of Christ? What does he actually do for us that God could not have done with greater ease and economy in some other way? The crucial and persistent question emerging from discussion of the various views seems always to be that of the necessity for the concrete and actual work of Christ among us.

It is, of course, ultimately the question of the necessity for Christology at all. Cannot God just up and forgive and/or cast out demons? Or to use another current form of the question: Is there not grace aplenty in the Old Testament? Or in nature? Or in other religions even? Why Jesus? Why the New Testament?"

Monday, February 12, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 2

I base my understanding of Forde’s atonement views on his essay “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ.” This essay is not an exhaustive theological work (thankfully), but a relatively short essay. Actually, it’s more like a very long sermon.

Forde introduces the essay by briefly discussing the shortcomings of the three most prevalent atonement theories - vicarious satisfaction, moral influence and the victory motif. But as he goes through these, I sense he is in a bit of a hurry. He is on his way to the “brute reality” of the cross itself - the actual event and our involvement with it. This is the main focus of his essay, and the atonement theories are but the path he uses to get there.

So while Forde does not expend much energy debating or debunking the major theories, it is clear they don’t much impress him. He dismisses them as insufficient to prove the necessity for Christ’s death (which may not need proving). More importantly he argues that atonement theories can distract us from the message of the cross, obscuring the very thing they are designed to explain.

“Indeed, the fatal flaw in most thinking about the atoning work of Christ is the tendency to look away from the actual events, translate them into “eternal truths,” and thus to ignore or obscure what actually happened and our part in it. We interpret Christ’s death as though it were an idea, a necessary part of a logical scheme of some sort, as though God were tied to a scheme of honor or justice making him the obstacle to our reconciliation. We exonerate ourselves, so to speak, by blaming the necessity for the cross on God.”

With this he begins to explain his complaint concerning the vicarious satisfaction view of atonement.

“..it is maintained that God needed the death of Jesus in order to be able to be merciful to us. God is the object of the atoning act. The demands of his law, or wrath, or justice had to be “satisfied.” So we are exonerated because the cross was necessary to God. But the inevitable consequence of such thinking is that it doesn’t finally reconcile us to God. If the cross is necessary to pay God, God will be pictured as at worst a rather vindictive tyrant demanding his pound of flesh or at best an inept subordinate caught in the same inexorable net of law and justice as we are. The theory intended to foster reconciliation actually contributes to further alienation.”

“The persistent criticism of doctrines of vicarious satisfaction and substitutionary atonement since the enlightenment have the same root. The picture painted of God is too black, too contrary to the biblical witness. If the death was payment, how could reconciliation be an act of mercy? Mercy is mercy, not the result of payment. If God is by nature love and mercy, why could he not just up and forgive? Jesus, it seems, forgave sins before his death. Why then was the death necessary? The logic of the theory threatens the very thing it wants to promote: the mercy of God.”

Forde, of course, is not the first to question the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction. As I understand the historic criticism, it is rooted in the rather straightforward logic that grace and mercy cannot be made dependent on payment or satisfaction, else grace and mercy cease to be.

Forde does not dwell on this problem, but is moving on toward his main point. First, however, he quickly deals with the two other popular atonement theories.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 1

It may seem odd that Christian theology is still struggling with what actually happened at the cross. We’ve had two thousand years to consider the matter. One would think it not that difficult to come to some conclusion, especially since it stands at the heart of Christianity - the sina qua non, if you will.

But the cross event is unique. And it is called foolishness by the Apostle Paul. So perhaps it is not unusual that our explanations don't necessarily measure up to the event itself. I won't criticize those who struggle to comprehend the cross. I've found that I’m certainly not immune from wondering about the wonder of it all myself.

I don’t wonder about the historical accuracy of the event or who exactly was involved. Questions of this nature don’t interest me. The crucifixion itself and the divine nature of Jesus have long ago been settled questions - settled at least to my satisfaction and most who consider themselves Christian. But the question of why still lingers, and the why raises questions of what actually took place - beyond the physical crucifixion of the Son of God.

Why did Jesus have to die? Could not have God reconciled the world to himself some other way? When we enter this realm, we encounter differing theories of the atonement, and now even the word theory sounds strange. Don’t we know for sure? Are we still speculating about all this? The use of the word theory seems dangerous in itself. But that is what we seem to be faced with - atonement theories.

I was first confronted with the whole notion of atonement theory when I discovered that my new-found theological hero, Gerhard Forde, was accused of denying the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. Now, as it turns out, I don’t believe he really denies it so much as challenges us to think of it in an entirely new way. But I will get to that later. The point is that vicarious satisfaction is but one of several theories of atonement, all of which come in various flavors. It is the most common and the one I had always believed without question. It was also the one I assumed Luther taught, and what had been taught down through the ages.

Christ had to die because the justice and wrath of God against us had to be satisfied. The sins of the whole world had to be paid for, and the sacrificial death of Jesus was the only price acceptable. Theologically, this is called vicarious satisfaction - Jesus taking our place in satisfying the justice of God the Father. It is also sometimes called substitionary atonement - Jesus substituting himself for us in order to make us acceptable to God.

So I was faced with the question, why would a Lutheran theologian, especially one of Forde’s stripe - someone obviously devoted to Luther’s theology of the cross and the radical preaching of the unconditional Gospel - why would such a person seem to question the vicarious satisfaction view of atonement?

Friday, February 9, 2007

Hier Ich Stehe

There is a Luther gift shop across the street from the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It was here that my friend Jerry bought me a pair of souvenir socks imprinted with the words “Here I Stand” (in German, of course.)

I wonder if some are offended by the gift shop and the socks. They might seem to trivialize the importance of what took place on the door across the street - and what Luther was actually risking when he said those words in front of Emperor Charles V himself, heir to the 1000-year-old Holy Roman Empire.

"Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning - and my conscience is captive to the Word of God - then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.

Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen"

There have been numerous movies made of Luther. Most portray this scene of Luther at the Diet of Worms as a towering, heroic figure - defying Emperor and Pope with certainty and courage. But I like the most recent movie (Luther), where the filmmakers tried to more honestly capture Luther’s terror and doubt. He was, after all, just human.

And I think Luther would approve of the socks - at least in this sense. They bring us back to earth. Luther was nothing if not earthy. “We are all still beggars,” said Luther, shortly before his death. Shoeless beggars - in ridiculous looking socks.

The socks remind me to not take myself too seriously - even while considering the weightiest of matters, the defense of the very Gospel of Christ itself. This is useful to remember when blogging. Or when doing anything else, for that matter.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Post-Lutheranism

In our postmodern world, we are now also confronted with postmodern Christianity, post-Evangelicalism, post-liberalism, post-conservatism, post-denominationalism, and even post-Christianism.

Whence cometh post-Lutheransim?

Alas, there is no such beast. My Google search comes up empty.

Sigh. What to make of this. Does not Lutheranism need some post-like improvement along with all the rest? If we have no post-, we have no future. For that matter, we may have no present, since it seems everyone else is already living in their post-ness.

Well, whatever.

I now have at least one blog entry on post-Lutheranism. I’ll see if Google can find it. Maybe it will inspire some creative Lutheran to get off the dime and discover post-Lutheranism before it’s too late.

Monday, February 5, 2007

God Hidden

Growing up Lutheran, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were inseparable from my concept of church. Like pulpit and pew, the font and altar table were part of the architecture. I suppose I just took them for granted. I did not question the Lutheran view of the meaning of the sacraments as I learned them in confirmation class. I could recite the orthodox explanations. On the other hand, I never quite understood it all. The more I was exposed to other Christian views about them, the more confused I got. Eventually I arrived at a point where the diversity of explanations, coupled with the apparent Biblical ambiguity, caused me to not even want to think or talk about them. They were just one more theological minefield, and a bit of an embarrasment. Now, the more I study Luther’s theology of the cross, the more I am beginning to appreciate the meaning and mystery of the Christian sacraments.

It seems as if nothing has divided Christianity more than differing views over the theology of the sacraments. But I think this is somewhat of an illusion. What divides Christianity is still (I believe) the theology of glory over against the theology of the cross - an emphasis on the works of us over against the works of God. The sacraments are just one of the battlegrounds, albeit a highly visible one. They are out there in plain sight, confronting us, speaking to us. But what do they say?

The theologian of the cross hears the sacraments as simply another form of the Gospel. Nothing more. Nothing less. The sacraments speak the language of the cross, the language of salvation, forgiveness of sins, and life eternal. As the Gospel clothed in physical forms, they have somewhat of a mystical edge, but they are, underneath, no more or less mysterious than the Gospel. There is no difference. Thus it is not proper to elevate them above the Gospel - as was common in the church of Luther’s time - nor is it proper to lower them beneath the Gospel - as is common in our time.

The Gospel itself is a sacrament - the power and glory of God hiding in the humblest of places. The Gospel hides in a baby born in a barn. It hides in an ordinary man with little to recommend him (no visible means of support and no place to sleep.) It hides, finally and most dramatically, in a horribly shameful execution - nailed to a cross.

This Gospel in human form then rises from the grave, but does not announce the triumph to a skeptical world. Rather, he remains still humble and hidden among the people - so hidden that it later seems almost too easy for his enemies to claim that somebody made the whole thing up. Then this Gospel seems to disappear entirely - except for the word of it, spoken and written.

So now, to us, the Gospel is mere words - a bit of human language - recorded in a book written by many different authors who sometimes (to us) seem not to have gotten their stories straight. This same Gospel also comes to us verbally and extemporaneously, in the lame and tired phrases of cracked-pot preachers - people who often don’t seem to know what they are talking about and tend to be more than a little annoying. And yet, in this word of the Gospel is hidden the power of God’s Holy Spirit, testifying of a humble Savior who also happens to be the God of the Universe. And in this person of Jesus we are shown the nature of God’s interest in us - how much he loves us! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.

The Gospel is, therefore, not just a story or a piece of language. It is love clothed in language, and love has power unspeakable. The love of God hidden in the Gospel has a power that can be found in nothing else. It is a love that requires a faith to believe in it, and then it creates the faith that it requires. Thus it is a love that does not allow itself to be unrequited. One way or another, not with glory but with power, it has its way with us.

In this context, I understand the sacraments as but another form of the Gospel. This seems even more humble (and perhaps more foolish) than words alone. Now we have common water, bread and wine - nothing special. But they are not water, bread and wine alone. They come in communion with the word of the Gospel, and so they are not religious rituals we perform. They are the real presence of God hidden - not just hidden in the word, but now also hidden in the physical elements that we can actually see, touch, taste and feel.

If this were not hard enough to believe, the doing of the sacraments comes clothed in the humblest garb of all - the church. Jesus (for some odd reason) gives to the church the job of distributing his Gospel. At the same time, he seems to have allowed his church to be the most unlikely candidate to conduct such holy work. What a train wreck, this thing we call the church! This church is us! Who can honestly say they can find one speck of goodness among such self-righteous sinners?

But that is precisely the point. While we are yet sinners, God loved us. If the church were righteous, it would have no need of any gospel, much less this one. This Gospel is exclusive - it is for sinners only. And it is distributed by sinners only. Then, in the heart of the sinner, God finds his final hiding place. What more humble, unlikely place to hide than that?

So now, in light of what the Gospel actually does (as opposed to what it is), and its final hiding place, the sacramental form of the Gospel becomes clearer, at least to me. Like the Word of the Gospel, the Gospel of Baptism requires faith, and it creates what it requires. No where is this drama more clearly hidden than in the baptism of infant children. Here is perhaps the only time and place where the work of God in reaching us cannot be mistaken as our own work to reach him. The work of God in the baptism of believing adults is not so apparent, but it is nevertheless the same work. And the Gospel of the Lord’s Supper is also the same work of God. As Gospel, the bread and wine, the body and blood, come to us again and again. Each time they require a renewed faith, and then create what they require - sustaining us in the absolute certainty of God’s love and forgiveness.

We can try to attach other meanings to the sacraments. We can try to strip them of all meaning. We can try to turn them into religious rituals, signs and symbols. Or we can load them up with rules and regulations to try to convert them into laws we must obey (or suffer the consequences). But there is no law in them, and therefore no condemnation. The sacraments are the Gospel, and as such contain the real presence of the Hidden God of Love. And this Love will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish, whether we see it or not.

I understand that this does not answer my every question. Maybe it answers very few. The sacraments will always remain a source of mystery. But it is a mystery I can live with. Because while I know God is hidden in them, I also know that God is revealed in them. And the God revealed is the Jesus of the cross - the one who gave himself up for me out of love.

Friday, February 2, 2007

No Ifs in the Gospel

“In defining the essence of the gospel, everything depends on whether it is a conditional or an unconditional message of grace.”
- August Pieper, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel and Its Application for Pure Teaching and Spiritual Life (1910)

One of the characteristics of Luther’s more radical theology was his understanding of the gospel as an unconditional proclamation. He did not see it as an invitation. Or an explanation. Or an argument. Or a theological contruct. It was a proclamation preached without conditions.

The gospel can be said in many different ways, but, to be the gospel, it cannot contain any if’s. So it sounds something like this:

“Your sins are forgiven.”
or
“God loves you just the way you are, for Jesus sake.”
or
“Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins.”

This is in contrast to a gospel with conditions, which might sound like this:

“Your sins will be forgiven if you repent and are truly sorry for them.”
or
“God loves you and wants you to accept his love. If you do, you will be saved.”
or
“Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins. If you believe in him, you will be saved.”

These conditional gospels are very common in the church, and sound entirely Biblical. True as they might sound, however, they are not the gospel. This took me a long time to really understand.

I think maybe I always believed in an unconditional gospel, but never quite understood how it could be preached so boldly - especially in the face of what seems to sound like a whole lot of conditions in the Bible. Both Forde and the Wauwatosa theologians were of particular help to me here.

In the essay quoted above, August Pieper lays out the Biblical case for preaching the gospel promise without any conditions. He does not mince words. A gospel preached with conditions is not just an impure gospel, or a watered-down gospel, or a hedge-your-bets gospel. It is no gospel at all.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Wauwatosa Theology

With Forde as my main course and Capon for desert, I like the writings of the Wauwatosa Theologians as vegetable side dishes. Not necessarily tasty or easy to chew, but highly nutritious.

They taught in the fledgling Wisconsin Synod seminary in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in the early part of the 20th century (roughly 1900 - 1930). Their names were J.P. Koehler (pictured), August Pieper and John Schaller. Highly gifted, and perhaps a bit outspoken (Koehler was kicked out in 1929), their spirit and devotion to Scripture is now looked on as representing the golden age of the WELS.

What made them unique within conservative Lutheranism was their antipathy toward blind dogmatism based on the work of prior theologians (repristinating), openness to being taught by Scriptural authority and renewed emphasis on Biblical exegesis. In the words of Pieper:

… we submit to no man, be his name Luther or Walther, Chemnitz or Hoenecke, Gerhard or Stoeckhardt, so long as we have clear Scripture on our side. . . . We esteem the fathers highly, far higher than ourselves as far more learned and more devout than we are. Therefore, we want to use them, particularly Luther, as guides to Scripture, and to test their doctrines a hundred times before we reject them. But authorities equal to Scripture or opposed to Scripture they may never become for us, or we shall be practicing idolatry. . "

They saw that the conservative synods of the Lutheran church were falling victim to the same error that Luther denounced - putting the authority of the church fathers above that of Scripture. Pieper called this authority-theology.

"We renounce this authority-theology anew. It causes so much damage to the church. It is unfaithfulness to the Lord; slavery to men; it brings errors with it. But it also makes the mind narrow and the heart small. . . . Dogmatic training perhaps makes one orthodox, but it also easily makes one orthodoxist, intolerant, quarrelsome, hateful, and easily causes division in the church.
. .
Scripture is at once narrow and broad. The study of it makes the heart narrow to actual false doctrine and heresies, but broad toward various human expressions and presentations. It does not accuse of false doctrine unnecessarily; it teaches us to bear and suffer in love the mistakes of the weak. It keeps the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Therefore we want to entirely do away with this dogmatic authority-theology, and to sink ourselves ever deeper into Scripture and to promote it above all else. We know that in doing so we will best serve the church.”

- August Pieper (1913), Quoted by Mark Braun in The Wauwatosa Gospel (2002). p 25.

The Wauwatosa theologians proved that it is possible to keep dogmatics in its proper place without sacrificing it to skepticism or liberalism. In so doing, they brought fresh clarity to the Gospel which, to ears dulled by dry dogma, sounds somewhat radical.