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.

-ism This!

In the heat of debate with my WELS brethren about church fellowship, I was accused of antinominianism and gospel reductionism. I, in turn, accused my brethren of legalism and traditionalism.

So I figure we were pretty much even on the -ism accusation scorecard. If I could have hurled one more -ism at them, I’m sure I would have won the argument.

Recently I learned of repristinationism. This is the tendency to thoughtlessly and mechanically repeat the theology of the past, blindly accepting the beliefs, wording, doctrines and proof passages of prior theologians as primary authority, rather than restudying Scripture afresh.

This is an -ism that everyone should carry around in their arsenal. If you sense you are losing the argument, accuse your adversary of repristinating and just walk away.

Be careful though. As ye repristinate, so shall ye be repristinated upon. And let he who has not repristinated, hurl the first charge of repristination. And… Ok, enough already.

Great word.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Smell of an Old Wineskin

Luther’s understanding of the law developed from the way Paul speaks of it in contrast with the gospel, particularly in Romans and Galatians. In this context, Paul does not so much describe the law by what it is is, but by what it does. The law accuses, binds, condemns, curses, terrifies, and kills. The gospel acquits, frees, saves, blesses, comforts and brings to life. In this dialectic, Luther saw the law and the gospel as necessary opposites, but with the law always hand-maiden to the gospel - never the other way around.

In the Lutheran confessions, Melanchthon described the accusatory function of the law with the latin phrase lex semper accusat (the law always accuses) and Lutheran theologians have thence referred to this function as the “semper”. So now we have the simul and the semper. Both are necessary to understand Luther - and all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the third use of the law.

The semper fits properly with the first and second uses of the law, both of which confront me as a sinner, whether Christian or not. First, it always (semper) demands and threatens, thus bringing about some level of restraint, civic righteousness and moral behavior. This promotes a peaceful society, but cannot reconcile me to God. So the law continues to always (semper) accuse and condemn me. It does not remove my guilt, but rather magnifies it - making me always (semper) more aware of my sin, shame and broken relationship with God. And so comes the second use of the law - to dramatize my need for help beyond the law, namely the Savior who fulfilled the law for me and takes away my guilt (the gospel).

Now, however, when I come to the third use, the semper does not fit. In Christ, the new me is fully clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I am no longer subject to the coercion or accusation of the law. So is the semper no longer semper? Has the law changed? No, it continues to accuse - but it accuses Christ. So Christ became guilty, was condemned and crucified. And thus Christ became the end of the law for me.

In view of the cross, I live as the new me and the semper does not apply. Nothing can accuse me or shame me or condemn me. In this new me, I can (by faith) come to the law and delight in it. It is no longer a threat. However, I am not convinced that this is necessarily the point of the new me. In the righteousness of Christ, a return to the Ten Commandments (minus the semper) seems strangely anticlimactic. I think there’s more to it.

What of the possibility that the moral law was indeed fulfilled in Christ and now the “law of Christ”, the “walking in the spirit”, the “fruits of the spirit” - all this is something entirely new - something way different from perfect obedience to moral law - or law of any kind?

The first two uses of the law no doubt continue in effect for the old me. But (to the new me) the third use smells a bit like an old wineskin.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Law Cannot Make us Willing

Born in the shadow of a law-dominated Roman Catholic church, Luther’s theology recovered the priority of the Gospel and then emphasized a proper distinction between Law and Gospel. And yet, the heirs of Luther (and all Christianity for that matter) continues to struggle with the lawful use of the Law. To say that the issue was settled by Luther (or the Lutheran confessions) overstates the case.

First, Luther’s views did not necessarily hold sway over Calvin and the other reformers - so modern evangelicalism has evolved a different view of the Law than Lutheranism. Beyond that, Lutheran theologians themselves have continued to struggle with how the Law fits into the life of the Christian. And this struggle spills over into the pastor’s way of preaching the Law and how the individual Christian responds to such preaching.

The debate within Lutheranism revolves around the so-called three uses of the Law commonly called the mirror, the curb and the guide. For Lutherans at least, the first two uses are never at issue. The third causes all the mischief.

The essence of the controversy was brought home to me when I recently went back to my little brown catechism, the version I used in confirmation classes fifty years ago. There I found the three uses, just as I had remembered them:

1. As a mirror it shows us our sin and the need of a Savior.

2. As a curb it checks to some extent the coarse outbreak of sin, thereby helping to preserve order in this sinful world.

3. As a rule it guides us in the true fear, love, and trust in God, that we willingly do according to His commandments.
- Luther’s Catechism (1956), Explanation p. 90-91

Immediately I noticed parenthesis inserted around the last clause of use #3. (that we willingly do according to His commandments.) and hand-written in the margin was the sentence: “Law cannot make us willing.”

The handwriting was not mine however. I recognized as it as my father’s. And it was written in ink! (a sin of the first order). What was up with that? Had my dad at some point taken my catechism and made his own editorial comments in it?

I flipped through the rest of the catechism. There were no other entries anywhere. This was the only one.

Then I looked at the inside front cover, where I saw my father’s name - Edgar D. Hahm. This was not my catechism after all.

Sometime between 1956 (when this catechism was published) and his death in 1991, my father felt compelled to blog this single sentence (in ink) in his own copy of Luther's Small Catechism.

He obviously had his own concerns about the misuse of the Law.

I wish I could talk to him about this now.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Now What? Moral Progress?

Luther’s simul (simultaneously sinner and saint), according to Forde, eliminates the notion of moral progress, even (or should we say, especially!) for the Christian. This, in turn, also eliminates the notion of the so-called 3rd use of the Law (which I will describe and discuss at another time). These are two of the major theological flash-points which I think make Luther so radical and his theology so unpopular. It is where Forde’s idea of a more radical Lutheranism parts company not just with popular Catholicism and Evangelicalism, but also, it would seem, with modern-day Lutheranism.

So what is this really all about? It is about the so-called “Christian life” or the doctrine of sanctification. It is about the “Now what? question. I am a Christian saved by grace, now what am I to do? Well, the Christian bookstores are filled with ideas, as are almost all Christian Bible study guides, Sunday morning sermons, and so, we might think, the Bible itself.

But for Forde, the Biblical teaching regarding sanctification can only be understood in terms of a completed justification through faith in Christ, and Paul’s simul found in Romans 7. Thus the believer’s state of being righteous by grace is total and cannot be improved on by us. And the believer’s state of being unrighteous is also total, and similarly cannot be made better by us, since it has been crucified with Christ and is dead. So our righteousness is total and our unrighteousness is total - all at the same time. In such a state of affairs, there is no movement from one to the other possible.

This simul is difficult to come to grips with. We would prefer the idea of movement, and our human effort in cooperating with that movement. We take to the idea of spiritual disciplines, buckling down and somehow growing. We enjoy the psychological rewards that come from seeing at least some improvement. Even our failures encourage us - just try harder next time. We have no problem giving God half the credit, because certainly it would not happen without him. But it certainly also would not happen without us. That just seems logical, and even Biblical.

But the Bible does not so much talk about our progress as it talks of absolutes. And the absolutes confront us in ways that make a mess of our talk of progressive sanctification. We read such things as “The one who practices sin is of the Devil.” (I John 3:8) Here we must invent different levels of sin (willful and unwilful) in order to deflect the passage away from us and on to someone else. It does not fit a scheme of Christian moral improvement. Or how about “Pray without ceasing.” (I Thess. 5:17) Praying 99% of the time falls short of the mark. What makes us feel satisfied with slight progress here? What would be the Biblical basis for gritting our teeth and aiming at a mere 50%?

The simul, which grants us the perfect righteousness of Christ from the moment we are justified through faith, and yet also acknowledges the continuing full wretchedness of our sinful nature (of the devil), seems to bring passages like this to life. They are not just theoretical concepts or goals, but the actual reality of our everyday life, and there is no need to interpret the life out of them. They can be allowed to mean precisely what they say.

But what are the practical implications of such a way of being and thinking? If the simul were really true, are we not still confronted with the question of “Now what?” If moral progress and spiritual growth are no longer necessary. what are we to do? Luther answers this question, I think, in his doctrine of vocation - an area which I have yet to study in much detail and which seems too often overlooked in the church, perhaps because it seems too earthly. But earth happens to be where we live, and, given the state of the nation (and others), it would not seem that difficult to find a job that needs doing, and just do it. Such a simplistic sanctifiction theology could put the Christian bookstores out of business, but it might be worth the risk.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

In somewhat the same class as “Napoleon Dynamite” (with an entirely different style) some will find this movie stupid and offensive, and even not all that funny, if indeed it was even meant to be a comedy. But I liked it. Enough to root for it as Best Movie of 2006, though I haven’t seen the other four nominees, so my endorsement may not mean much.

The movie portrays the human experience of aspiration, failure, conflict, love, hate and redemption in such a freshly odd mix that I found myself wondering why I so quickly liked each and every character, in spite of themselves. I need to see the movie a second time to perhaps find out. In that respect (for me) the movie is actually a mystery. What was it about each of these characters that made them so lovable? It certainly wasn’t their humanity. Or was it? There are clues throughout the movie, but even the ending does not clearly offer up the answer. The answer is somewhere else. It is somewhere in me.

The writers went out of their way to try to offend most Christian moral sensibilities, capping off the attempt with the teen-age son who wears the T-Shirt proclaiming “Jesus Was Wrong.” I’m sure we will start to see more of those in the mall, alongside “Vote for Pedro.” In spite of that, I found Christian websites that recommend the movie, with, of course, all the obligatory warnings.

What does this have to do with Luther or theology? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. When in doubt, I can justify discussing almost anything under the category of Luther's simul, which is the starting point for discovering all the paradoxes of human behavior. Recognition of the simul may also be one key to accepting others as God accepts us. And this (I suspect) has much to do with solving the mystery of this movie.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Assumption of Bondage

“If you begin with the assumption of freedom, the preoccupation is always how to keep freedom in check, how to bind; But if you begin with the assumption of bondage, the preoccupation is always how to set out the word that frees.”
- Gerhard Forde. The Captivation of the Will. p.21

This statement reflects one of the non-apparent truths that Luther argued in The Bondage of the Will. If it were more universally understood and accepted, it might transform the predominant religious worldview.

The error begins when we assume humanity’s basic problem (and its only hope) lies in its own innate freedom. We see the problem as this - that people are way too free to do evil, free to indulge themselves in worldly pleasures, free of God and free of God’s righteous will. In other words, people seem to be having way too much fun without God. So the primary business of religion is preoccupied with reigning in that freedom, bringing it back into check, redirecting it, spoiling the fun, getting all of us back under God’s law (and his thumb) where we belong. In doing this, we seem to think people will become more moral and the world a more fit and happy place to live. We wonder why things seem to get worse, and why religion makes us so unhappy.

If, on the other hand, we begin with the assumption that humanity is actually in captivity, not really having any fun, bound to do evil and suffering its consequences, under the curse of a world gone sour, already under God’s law, and thereby also under his thumb, and also the thumb of an unmerciful self (as well as an ever-accusing unmerciful and real Satan) - then the message of the church is radically different. It does not try to fix such a mess with additional formulas of moral improvement based on some legal code - God’s or any other. The business of the church is now this - to get out the word of the cross - that we are all no longer captive to such religious requirements. We have been set free - free of the law and its curse, and thereby also free from the necessity to do evil, the punishment for evil, Satan and the tyranny of self. We become preoccupied with freedom, the kind of freedom that actually could make the world a truly happy place for us to live.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Misunderstood Imperatives

One of the great problems of Biblical interpretation (and theology) involves the precise nature of Biblical commands, specifically noting the difference between Gospel commands such as “repent, believe, trust, etc.” and commands of the moral Law, such as “Thou shalt have no other Gods” or “Honor your father and mother.”

Whether to recognize this distinction (or not) was one of the major points of contention between Erasmus and Luther when they debated our ability (or inability) to contribute to our own conversion. In his Diatribe, Erasmus argued that God would not give a command that we did not have the wherewithal to accomplish. So, if God commanded us to “Believe”, then we must certainly have within us at least some small ability to get the job done. Luther of course disagreed, setting forth his argument with great passion and force in the “Bondage of the Will.”

I recently ran across Prof. John Schaller’s essay “God’s Will and Command” (1915). In this essay, Schaller explores in some detail the nature of the Gospel imperative and how it differs from the commands of God’s moral law. Stated briefly, Schaller argues that we must think of these commands given under grace as having within them the enabling power of God’s will. They can indeed produce what they command, without our assistance. Thus the command to “Repent” is like the command Jesus spoke to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come forth.” Although Lazarus did indeed obey the command (dead as he was), no one would claim that Lazarus had within him the ability to do so. The power to obey came from Jesus. In other words, God willed him to will what he willed. Bottom line - Lazarus could take no credit for his obedience, just as we can take none for our faith.

What I found most helpful in Schaller’s essay was his use of the simul - how the old me will continually react badly to Gospel imperatives as though they were Law, even though the new me knows better. This explains why I so often have a legalistic reaction to such commands.

"Man by nature stands under the Law, as Paul states it in Gal. 4:3 in so many words…. He hears God's will and command that he should repent, be converted, and believe in Christ. All this he presumes to understand, because what is said appears as imperatives. But not only does the true thought-content of God's commands remain incomprehensible to him, but he also does not notice that here is an imperative which in its nature is entirely unfamiliar to him. Therefore the imperative form evokes from him only wrong notions and thoughts. He regards these commands as new demands made upon him, of the kind that have always plagued and made him unhappy. And because he seems to have the freedom of choice, he sets himself against these demands and formulates with more or less clarity the reason for his refusal to obey.


What, however, is true of the nature and character of the unregenerate, that also still clings to the regenerate, because he carries the old nature with him alongside the new man. While his ears and eyes have been opened so that he sees the wonders of grace and understands the Word of the cross for his salvation, and he also rests his faith on this Word, he nevertheless has learned all this as a new language, which he appropriates completely only gradually; and his thoughts move about in this new environment or sphere of understanding with more or less helplessness.


In every Christian there remains a rather large remnant of legalistic thinking. Because this new way of thinking has not yet taken complete hold of the Christian's flesh and blood, it will happen that in his thinking he will, without being aware of it, enter upon and follow legalistic paths, which should long ago have been done away with, until it dawns upon him with consternation that he has gone astray. So it becomes understandable to us why not only in the Reformed Church, but also among Lutherans much legalistic thinking and application of God's Word has from time to time come to light. Here again the misunderstood imperatives are seen in action. Instead of understanding them as addressed to the new man, who has been freed from the Law, one falls back into the way of thinking of the old man and converts the evangelical, creative commands of God into moral precepts, the fulfilling of which God's righteousness requires."

- John Schaller, God’s Will and Command (1915)

Schaller’s essay made me want to reread the New Testament to find all those misunderstood imperatives - those that may indeed carry with them the creative will and enabling power of God - addressed to the new me under grace, not the old me under law. In addition to repent and believe, perhaps the Gospel imperatives include more than even Schaller dared consider - like seek, come, walk, avoid, give, rejoice, pray, go, love, etc.

At the same time, I wonder how we are to preach these imperatives without conveying the spirit of the Law, burdening people with just so much more to do - along with the accusation, guilt and curse that comes with the failure to do it. It seems to me that we must be very careful here, because my old me is still very active and seems to pick up on all such talk as just additional demands, impossible to carry out.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Finding Fault

Finding hypocrisy, false teaching and judgmentalism in the church is easy. Finding it in myself is impossible.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Robert Farrar Capon

I recommend Capon to anyone - especially anyone going through that Christianity-is-stale-and-boring phase of life.

I first met Robert Farrar Capon in the book Health, Money, and Love & Why We Don’t Enjoy Them (1990), which is an easy read. Capon is an Anglican scholar, priest and theologian with a fresh way of expressing the outrageousness Gospel. He is a bit unsettling at times, but as one reviewer put it: “Jesus and Father Capon have at least one salient personalitiy trait in common - they both love to shock people - jar us out of our complacency.”

Some of his other “easy read” books in my library are these:

- The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost and Found of Church History. 2003

- The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images. 2003

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The End of Religion

If Gerhard Forde is one of my favorite entrees, Robert Farrar Capon is my dessert of choice. He puts the fun back into chewing on seriously offensive theology. And he makes grace so real you can taste it.

It is Capon who introduced me to the proposition that Christianity is not a religion.

For some time now, we’ve been treated to a good deal of heavy breathing and earnest thumbsucking about the plight of the Christian religion and the problems of the institutional church. Almost all of it is wildly off the mark. While it is true that our present dishevelment may well be one of the larger crises (or opportunities) the church has bumped into over its long career, our real difficulty is something else: we have an almost continuous track record of hitting the Christian nail squarely on the thumb. All our noisy hammering to the contrary, the problem is not that we need to get back to the truth of our religion or to get on to some better version of the ecclesiastical institution; rather we need nothing so much as to stop acting as if we’re either a religion or an institution at all.

To begin with, Christianity is not a religion; it’s the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however - the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over, period.

All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices - all the chicken sacrifices, all the fasts, all the mysticism, all the moral exhortations, all the threats - have been canceled by God for lack of saving interest. More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death and resurrection of a Galilean nobody.

Admittedly, Christians may use the forms of religion - but only because the church is the sign to the world of God’s accomplishment of what religion tried (and failed) to do, not because any of the church’s devices can actually get the job done. The church, therefore, must always be on its guard against giving the impression that its rites, ceremonies, and requirements have any religious efficacy in and of themselves. All such things are simply sacraments - real presences under particular signs - of the indiscriminate gift of grace that God in Christ has given everybody.”

- Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History. 1996. p. 1-2

Capon is not simply playing with definitions here - redefining the word "religion". He is more radical than that. He redefines Christianity.

It is one thing to say (as I have often said) "Christianity is unique among the world religions in that it...." or "Christianity is the only true religion because..." This kind of talk (as I see it now) could simply be "product differentiation" - a strategy used to increase market share - and the church may not be in that kind of business.

It is a matter of a different sort entirely to proclaim "Christianity is not a religion. Christ put a stop to all such nonsense." This, it seems, might capture some attention - though not necessarily. And attracting attention may not be good enough reason to change our language. I would say it merely because it more closely captures the actual truth of the matter.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Elephant in the Room

I wish I could simply say, “I am a Christian” and everyone would know what that meant. Given the wide diversity of Christian churches and beliefs (and the bad reputations enjoyed by most), I feel the need to immediately add “but I’m not typical. I’m not that kind of Christian.”

I find myself wanting to clarify exactly what the Christian label means. And I want to apologize for all those other Christians (legalists, hypocrites, profiteers, snake-handlers, etc) who have scandalized Christianity over the last 2000 years. I need to defend real Christianity, which, by happy coincidence, is my particular version of it. I want to vindicate Christianity. I want to justify it.

The reality is, however, I am more interested in vindicating myself - justifying myself. Some would call this self-justification. And a few (rightly) would point out that my spirit of self-justification is contrary to the spirit of the Christian Gospel, which tells me it is God who justifies - and, in fact, has already done it. I am caught in a trap. My righteous desires to defend the truth are invariably spoiled by my self-righteous spirit. The moment I think of myself as one of the “good Christians”, I am no longer. I am the Pharisee.

This dilemma is at the heart of the problem that faces all who strive to be a “good Christian”, behave as a “good Christian”, or believe as a “good Christian”. It is the elephant in the room. It stands in the middle of the church, crapping large turds all over our brave, pious talk. It makes a mess of our most reasonable theologies, turning our good works into evil deeds, our faithfulness into betrayal, our success into failure, our strength into weakness. It blocks all the exits. It allows no visible means of escape. In the end, it kills us. (One might say, it crucifies us.)

Such is the scandalous message of the cross. Jesus comes to save us and we kill him. We are then somehow crucified with him. Christ goes down, and we go down with him. The crucifixion is the end of our righteousness and the beginning of His for us. This puts to death all our failed attempts to please God, reach God, obey God, become like God. It kicks the ladder out from under us, ending our prospects of climbing into heaven.

This theology of the cross is not the birth of a new religion. It is the death of all religion. And the birth of a new us. In the rebirth of us there is hidden new life in our dieing bodies, new sanctity in our wickedness, new freedom in our captivity, new peace in our chaos, new joy in our suffering.

This (in brief) is the seldom-preached-because-it’s-too-hard-to-believe Gospel message of Christianity. It is the unequivocal announcement that God finally got sick of religion and chose to have it killed.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Conventional Wisdom on Its Head

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul calls the message of the cross foolishness. Other translations say:

“doesn’t make any sense”
“sheer silliness”

Paul goes on to quote God from Isaiah, where He says:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.”

or in modern language:
“I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head.”

Rather than trying to make sense of the cross, it seems Luther simply accepted Paul’s view that it was foolish and went about the task of trying to figure out what made it so foolish.

In other words, how exactly does the cross turn conventional wisdom on its head?

According to Forde, Luther saw the cross as primarily God’s attack on human sin. Ultimately it is also our salvation from sin, but to grasp the foolishness of the cross, we must first see how it attacks us as sinners, not just as sinners in our bad works, but sinners in our good works.

This, to Luther, was the key to understanding the offensive illogic of the cross and lies at the root of how a theology of the cross differs from a theology of glory. As Forde puts it:

“The offense consists in the fact that unlike other theologies it attacks what we usually consider the best in our religion. Theologians of the cross do not worry so much about what is obviously bad in our religion, our bad works, as they do about the pretension that comes with our good works.”
- Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross. p.2

It is not any particular doctrine of the atonement that made the cross nonsense for Luther. It was his understanding of what the cross says about our sinfulness, that such a radical act would be necessary.

In a nutshell, according to Luther’s offensive theology, all of our good works were actually sin - sin that needed to be destroyed at the cross along with our more obvious bad works. In fact, Luther seemed to claim that good works were humanity’s biggest problem. In a sense then, what appears to be the very best of us, is actually the worst of us.

If this is actually true, as Luther tried to prove with his Heidelberg Disputation, then God certainly has kept his promise to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shut Down the Blog

One of the problems I considered when I started this blog (and consider every time I write) is the matter of offense. I suspect much theological writing comes across to the reader as offensive in that it is dogmatic, argumentative and judgmental. These are cardinal sins, particularly to the postmodern mind (as I understand postmodernism).

Dogmatism represents a closed mind; it is the source of bigotry and most other evil in the world. Dogmatic assertions must be replaced with stories. Argumentation is inherently divisive and annoying. It is to be replaced with a more civil discourse, something called conversation. And judgmentalism is the worst sin of all. It reveals a self-righteous and arrogant spirit. I may hold my beliefs, (which are true for me), but I dare not judge yours (which are true for you.) Judgmentalism must always yield to toleration, not just in the normal sense of the word (no burning at the stake), but in the moral obligation to accept opposing ideas to be of equal value with your own. That may paint postmodern thinking with too broad a brush, but, no matter. I could use the same brush for modern thinking or any other kind of thinking.

Any theology, it seems to me, will inherently be offensive to someone. To “take a position” is to risk offense, regardless of how loving the intent or how sweet the tone. That’s why politics and religion are forbidden topics at the Thanksgiving table. In contemplating all this, I began to doubt whether any of this is worth it. What is the point of it all? Does not almost all theological discussion just create more confusion, more insecurity, more doubt, more division among Christians, more offense to the non-Christian?

I have seen theology divide fathers from sons, children from parents, brothers from brothers, friends from friends. All in the name of God’s honest truth. Is this really what God's truth is intended to do? (Some would say yes.) But does anybody really have any idea what they are talking about? Do I? (Some would say no.)

At this point in my thinking, I could have gone either way. Shut down the blog or forge ahead. ” Then I reread Forde’s introduction to his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross where he cited I Corinthians 1:18-25. I read and reread. Finally, I had an “aha” moment of sorts. I think I’m beginning to understand. The theology of the cross is not just one more theology that will offend some people and not others. It offends everybody! It offends me.

One reason it offends me is that it is not a theology (at least not in the normal sense), but rather an attack on theology. In fact, it puts an end to theology. Now I think I know why Luther never wrote a systematic theology. (Or Paul, for that matter) It also dawned on me that the theology of the cross (which is not a theology) could, in fact, be very postmodern (as well as modern, medieval and ancient.)

As I forge ahead, the reader should be aware that I may truly have no idea what I’m talking about. But I will continue to explore this strange new world of the theology of the cross (which is not a theology) and will (probably) continue to blog.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Essentially Lutheran

When I call myself essentially Lutheran, I mean to say that I am basically Lutheran, or in the main Lutheran, or for the most part Lutheran. The adverb gives warning that stereotypical assumptions about Luther (or Lutheranism) may or may not apply to me. The word is used in a liberating sense, allowing me to go wherever Scripture and conscience leads, not necessarily bound by the doctrinal assertions of Luther, the early confessors or of any of today’s Lutheran church bodies.

At the same time, by using the word “essentially” I hope to convey the meaning that I am in accord with the essentials of Luther’s theology or the essence of it - the core of Luther’s thought - that which makes Luther Luther. This essence refers to Luther’s way of knowing God always through the message of Christ crucified - what has come to be known as his theology of the cross.

Now, this little self-description (essentially Lutheran) may not satisfy many people. Many may not know all the radical implications of Luther’s theology of the cross. On the surface it sounds agreeable enough and uncontroversial, so they will want to know more about what really matters. Like where do I fit on the conservative/liberal theological spectrum?

For Luther, such a spectrum was not relevant. The question was always, were you a theologian of the cross or a theologian of glory? There was no spectrum. It was either/or. Of course, there were in his day a broad spectrum of theologians of glory. These may have run the gamut from conservative to liberal (no doubt defined by different issues then), but that would be of little consequence to Luther. What mattered was that they were all on the glory road and did not comprehend the cross.

For me, to be essentially Lutheran quite simply means to be a theologian of the cross and not a theologian of glory, as Luther understood these two different ways of thinking.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Curious Faith

To have a curious faith is to have a faith that is ever questioning, often doubting, constantly wondering. It is the kind of faith that can get a person into trouble with religious authorities, with one’s own conscience and, some would say, with God - though God is the most likely to forgive.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Can God Prove He Exists?

Let's say God really wanted to give us convincing proof that he exists. How would he do it?

In the following passage, philosopher Robert Nozick explores the characteristics of the proof that would be required.

"The history of thought is littered with attempts to prove the existence of God. Since it is not at all easy to imagine how God could provide a permanently convincing proof to us of his existence, the failure of people to do so is not surprising. Any particular signal announcing God’s existence - writing in the sky, or a big booming voice saying he exists, or more sophisticated tricks even - could have been produced by the technology of advanced beings from another star or galaxy, and later generations would doubt it happened anyway. More promising is a permanent signal, one so embedded in the basic structure of the universe that it could not have been produced by any of its inhabitants, however advanced.

What then would an effective signal be like? Understanding the message should not depend upon complicated and convoluted reasoning which is easily mistaken or faulty. Either people wouldn’t figure it out, or they would not trust it if they did. To cope with the fact that anything can be interpreted in various ways, the signal would have to show its meaning naturally and powerfully, without depending on the conventions or artificialities of any language. The signal would have to carry a message unmistakably about God, if about anything; its meaning should shine forth. So the signal itself would have to be analogous to God; it would have to exhibit analogues of at least some of the properties it speaks of and itself instancing part of its message, the signal would be a symbol of God.

As an object symbolizing God, it would have to command respect - no people traipsing all over it, cutting and analyzing it in their laboratories, or coming to dominate it; best might be for it to be unapproachable. For people who don’t yet have the concept of God, it would help if the symbol also gave people the idea, so they could know what the symbol was a symbol of.

A perfect symbol should be spectacularly present, impossible to miss. It should capture the attention and be available by various sense modalities; no one should have to take another’s word for it. It should endure permanently or at least as long as people do, yet not constantly be before them, so that they will notice it freshly.

No one should have to be an historian to know the message had come. The signal should be a powerful object, playing a central role in people’s lives. To match God’s being the source of creation or standing in some crucially important relation to it, all life on earth should depend on the signal and center about it.

If there were some object which was the energy source of all life on earth, one which dominated the sky with its brilliance, whose existence people could not doubt, which couldn’t be poked at or treated condescendingly, an object about which people’s existence revolved, which poured out a tremendous quantity of energy, only a small fraction of which reached people, an object which people constantly worked under and whose enormous power they sensed, one they even were unable to look at directly yet which did not oppress them but showed how they could coexist with an immensely dazzling power, an object overwhelmingly powerful, warming them and lighting their way, one their daily bodily rhythms depended upon, if this object supplied energy for all life processes upon earth and for the beginning of life as well, if it were dazzlingly spectacular and beautiful, if it served to give the very idea of God to some cultures that lacked the concept, if it were immense and also similar to billions of others scattered throughout the universe so that it couldn’t have been created by more advanced beings from another galaxy or by any being lesser than the creator of the universe, then that would be a suitable message announcing God’s existence."

- Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations, 1989. pp 49-51

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Gerhard Forde

Gerhard O. Forde (1927-2005)
pastor, scholar, teacher, writer
Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, MN
Lecturer in Church History, 1959-61
Instructor of Systematic Theology, 1964-74
Professor of Systematic Theology, 1974-98

While an ELCA theologian may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for an old WELS-bred conservative like myself, I have found Gerhard Forde to be a breath of fresh air - daring to preach and teach the more radical Gospel I have come to believe. It is a Gospel I believe Luther preached, and which Luther believed Paul preached. The writings of Gerhard Forde, more than any other source, helped me to interpret Luther’s theology in a way that I could understand. And it was remarkably consistent with what I had already come to believe through a hodgepodge of other means.

I first met Gerhard Forde in the book Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (1988).

The book dealt with the question of the Christian life, addressing the following kinds of questions:

- How do we grow closer to God?
- Is there a secret to the spiritual life?
- Do we need a second blessing?
- Is sanctification God’s work or ours?
- Is it instantaneous or is it a process?

Five scholars from different traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, Pentecostal and Contemplative) were brought together to write and respond to one another’s views. Forde was asked to present the Lutheran view.

As I read Forde’s description of sanctification, I was struck by just how clearly and calmly he said some very radical things. It was the clearest description of the unconditional Gospel I had seen in print since first reading Jeff Harkin’s Grace Plush Nothing. Forde seemed to dodge the issue of sanctification as he preached the unconditional Gospel, and this seemed to baffle the other four writers who had to respond to his views. But he was not dodging. He was merely allowing the cross to inform his view of sanctification. He was doing the theology of the cross in plain sight, and his critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.

After that brief introduction to Forde, I bought and read five of his books. I am now in the process of re-reading each one of them. I have decided that, for a book to be truly worth recommending, I personally should have been driven to read it twice or more. These five books, in my view, are worth reading at least twice:

Monday, January 8, 2007

The Simul

The old me rationalizes himself out of his troubles. He hears the Law and sees his salvation. He tames it first, to make it doable (at least for him, if not for those of weaker stuff). He redefines obedience and perfection in his own image - what is reasonable for him. Then he uses it to medicate his own guilt, salve his own conscience. He can do the Law. Just follow the program. Self-will, self-discipline, self-control, self-improvement - all will lead him ultimately to self-righteousness - and he will be ok with God and his fellow man. His troubles will be over.

On the other hand, the unconditional Gospel confronts the old me and causes him grief. He cannot believe that his valiant efforts are not needed, his sacrifices useless, his righteousness as filthy rags, his cooperation a sham, his faith a gift. Everything is already finished, done, accomplished. Someone else came and did his salvation business for him. This wrecks his self-esteem, turns him into nothing, defeats his purpose in life, kills his ambitions, crushes his ego, makes all things meaningless. What is the point of living now? There is nothing left to do, to think, to feel. He senses himself dying, and fights for life, as he understands life to be - the only life he knows. He sees only one option. He must fight against this Gospel. This Gospel must be silenced, compromised, watered down or ignored.

In his struggle to survive, the old me grabs for the most powerful weapon he has. He grabs the Law of God. He uses the Law as a weapon against the Gospel. He elevates it above the Gospel. He has to. The Gospel is killing him. The Law is his only defense. If it fails him, he will surely die. And that is exactly what happens. It is not a quick and painless death. It is a slow death that lasts a lifetime. The old me was as good as dead from the moment the Gospel told him so. But he fights on, oblivious, unconvinced and unconverted. He will never admit defeat. That is why he continues to vex me, and why he must eventually be put to physical death. In my physical death, the final victory of the new over the old will be complete. The old man will be gone, annihilated, never to be seen, heard or felt again. The new me, the true recreated one, will live on.

But this new man, the “me” who is born from above, is a present reality from the moment the old man is crucified with Christ. Without the new me, there would be no hope for me at all. The new me is the real deal, my true identity, a new creation of God. This me does not need self- esteem, because this me has the esteem of God. This me does not wonder about the will of God - my will and God’s are one, in Jesus. This new me thinks, acts and loves in harmony with the God who (re)created him and gave him life. He is a perfect re-creation of what God intended, because he is in Jesus. The new me is patient, kind, does not envy, does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The new me never fails.

This new me is not a puppet on a string any more than Jesus was a puppet of the Father. This me is a unique person of God’s own design - incomprehensibly one with God in Jesus, and yet still a separate person who loves and is loved. He is not a god, but he is in the image of God - just as his first parents were made in the image of God.

Like the first Adam, this new me has no sin. But this new me is superior to the first created Adam in a most important way. This new me, because he is in Jesus (the Last Adam), will not ever sin. This new me has the mind of Christ, and Christ has the will of the Father. So the Father’s will, through Jesus, is now my will. And this will, and the faith to believe it, is actually mine. It is gifted to me for no reason other than God wants to gift it. God loves me in spite of my old me, which is hopelessly lost and beyond repair.

So where exactly is this new me? I don’t often sense him or feel him. I would have to say that I don’t even know him. I can’t even imagine him. He would have to be so vastly different from the old me that I’m not sure I would recognize him if he showed up. If he did show up, I fear I would not even like him. Does he stay completely hidden within me? Does he ever reveal himself to me or others? Am I to think of myself as two people - the good me and the bad me? Or am I to think of myself as one person in two parts - the greater part evil, and some tiny (hopefully growing) part that me is pure and good? If there is truly an old me and a new me, who on earth am I?

This doctrine is ridiculous!

Ah, there it is - the logical mind of the old me at work, fighting for life. The old me is always recognizable. He is the one who will question the existence of the new me, for the new is the death of the old. The new me is recognizable only by faith. And here is the secret to recognizing the new me. Just as I cannot see the Father, except by looking at the Son, so I cannot see the new me, except by looking at the Son. For the new me and Jesus are one. I cannot dig down deep into myself to find the new me. It is pointless to look for the new me in my own thoughts, feelings, words or works - for all those can so easily be counterfeit - the old me, dressed up in self-righteousness, fighting for survival.

The only way to see the new me is in Jesus, and him I can see only through the eyes of faith. This faith is given and nourished by the Holy Spirit through the message of grace (the Gospel). Thus the grace message becomes a mirror that reflects the new me. Just as the Law is a mirror that shows me the utter sinfulness of the old me (even when I am being good), so the Gospel is a mirror that shows me the glorious righteousness of the new me (even when I am being bad). It does this by showing me Jesus (Christ in me). The Gospel shows me the Jesus who was born for me, lived for me, was crucified for me, rose again for me and then gave me the faith to believe on Him. Through these divine acts in history past, and by the power of the Holy Spirit in history present, Jesus created the new me to live forever in history future. I can gaze upon the new me any time I want, simply by holding up the Gospel mirror. There is no evidence of outward works or inner thoughts that could confirm the existence of the new me more powerfully than the Gospel proclamation, for it is the promise of God himself.

This, briefly, is my interpretation of Luther's doctrine of simul iustus et pecator - we are simultaneously saint and sinner. Lutheran theologians sometimes affectionately refer to this as - The Simul.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

My Land

My house is set on an elevated corner of a two acre plot of land which slopes down to a pond and overlooks another ten acres of nature preserve, with wetlands and two more ponds. Trees and brush hide most other houses that border this preserve. Between the house and my pond lie the gardens and grasses of a natural hillscape, designed and planted by the former owner in cooperation with nature’s Creator. Together they built the pond, planted the trees, flowers, bushes and grasses - then invited the birds and butterflies, the fish and the frogs.

The former owner was an undertaker who spent most of his working life in the basement of a funeral home - making the dead presentable to the living. Much of his free time, I surmise, was spent on this land - dressing and keeping it, as did the first Adam. His wife was an artist - the house filled with her paintings. The man did his art outside (and in that funeral home basement).

I met the man, but did not get to know him. This leaves me free to imagine him as I want. I speculate on his life - a life lived between the living and the dead. What was he thinking? Was he thinking of his land while he dressed the dead? Did he think about the dead while he worked the land? Was the seasonal cycle of the land (which died in the winter, but always came to life in the spring) a source of constant hope and joy for him as he went about the gruesome tasks of his profession. I think so. He was a happy man.

I bought this land and with it the necessity of caring for it. I wonder what I can possibly do to improve it. To change it in any significant way seems strangely sacrilegious. It is twice not mine. It belongs to an undertaker and his God.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

McLaren and The Lost Luther

Soon after being excommunicated from my Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) congregation in Milwaukee, I found myself standing in the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, gazing on Luther's tomb. I wondered, were he alive today, what he would think of me and my petty struggle with ecclesiastical authority. I wondered more generally what he would think of the modern Lutheran church, with all its obvious flaws. Would he recognize his theology in it? What would he think of the Christian church at large, fractured into the thousands of denominations that grew from the seeds of protest he planted? Finally, what would he think of the new emerging church movement, kingdom theology, church growth, and the host of other modern and postmodern contributions to church history?

What would Luther think? WWLT? Is this a slogan that would sell armbands? Not likely. And perhaps rightfully so. Luther himself said “People try to make me a fixed star. But I’m not. I’m a wandering planet. No one should look to me for guidance.” Modern Christianity, it would seem, agrees. Luther is a rogue planet. And few there are that look to him or his theology for guidance.

Much of what Luther considered important and essential seems to have fallen out of favor. His beliefs are not so much refuted or thought false as they are simply ignored, deemphasized or overshadowed by the seemingly more reasonable, more relevant, and more rewarding theologies of modern Christianity. Luther, in other words, seems to have fallen off the theological map.

Brian McLaren, a leader in the emergent church movement, exemplifies the Rodney Dangerfield-like attention given the heirs of Luther. You need only read the subtitle of his book A Generous Orthodoxy to get the picture:

Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

As cutely inclusive as McLaren wants to be, he apparently found no need to be Lutheran.

What are we to make of this? Is Luther’s theology considered so odd and out-of-date that it does not merit mention in a book with orthodoxy in its title and generosity as its theme? Or did McLaren simply find nothing positive to say about Lutheranism and therefore kept silent. (If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.) Or did he, like so many others, lump Luther with Calvin and treat them as essentially of the same ilk, with Calvin as the more substantive? Or a fourth possibility. Modern Lutheranism might have appeared to him such a hodgepodge of legalism and liberalism that he didn't quite know what to make of it. Finally, perhaps he simply didn’t know anything about Lutheranism. It was not on his radar screen. Lutheranism, in its shy, Garrison Keillor-like self-consciousness - not wanting to draw attention to itself - may have left the building before McLaren arrived.

McLaren’s motives don't really matter. I will forgive him his affront to Luther for now and return to some of his more interesting ideas later, because he is helpful in understanding how Luther’s thought might relate to the postmodern mind. In the meantime, McLaren provides us with a useful illustration of the seeming disappearance of Luther’s essential theology. I can’t fault McLaren for not appreciating Luther's legacy when I myself, a lifelong Lutheran, lost sight of much of it myself. For that matter, maybe I never really saw it.

Friday, January 5, 2007

My Confirmation

My confirmation, as I recall, had nothing to do with me confirming anything. I suppose I must have said vows, but I don’t recall exactly what they were. I don’t believe they had much meaning for me then, nor any now. To me, the confirmation process was a picture of the grace of God at work. It was an enacted parable in which I and all my 14-year old classmates were allowed to play a part.

The classes leading to confirmation were different from all other grade school classes. There were no grades, tests, compulsory memory work or homework. We sat and listened twice a week as our pastor explained the truths of the Bible from Luther’s Small Catechism.

In this class, we were never put on the spot. The pastor asked questions, but he only called on those who raised their hand. He assigned memory verses from the Bible and the catechism, but when it came time to recite he always asked for volunteers or we recited together as a class. His class was so different because he treated us with the same respect given to adults. But it went beyond that. His way of teaching was not some kind of method. He did not demand so little of us as a way to make us responsible for our own learning. He truly seemed to take no responsibility for us. He was not trying to convince us or indoctrinate us. There were never any lectures about “how important this was” or anything like that. He lectured, and we listened and learned (or not). It was no more complicated than that.

I loved my little catechism and my Bible. They represented something I knew to be important. They were ancient books, written by famous people, containing serious ideas. The books had no pictures. This alone put them in a way different category of textbook. In those day it was considered a desecration to write in books, and we didn’t, except to put little x’s (in pencil) by the assigned passages we were encouraged to memorize. We didn’t take notes as I recall. Taking notes was unnecessary, since there were no tests. And besides, little was spoken that was not already in print.

Examination Sunday in front of the entire church preceded confirmation. We sat in chairs facing the pastor on the altar, our backs to the congregation, as if it were a normal class, but with an audience. We knew in advance the questions we were going to be asked, but (as in class) no one was called on who had not first raised their hand. I’m not sure of the origin or purpose of examination Sunday in the Lutheran church. Perhaps at one time it was supposed to be a true exam, where we as students were to prove our mastery of the subject matter. But such (thankfully) was not the case for me or my classmates in the early 1960’s. Examination Sunday was a parable of the Gospel’s power to fulfill the Law. Under the pastor’s grace, there could be no failure of this exam. We were all going to pass, and so by grace we were saved any embarrassment. Confirmation was a gift, so no one could boast.

Thirty years later I would do battle with other pastors to try and save the confirmation grace parable for my own children. But I would fail. Tests and grading had invaded the instruction classes. Homework was common place. Papers had to be written. Church attendance was used as a measure of eligibility for confirmation. The secularization of confirmation classes made them indistinguishable from other kinds of classes. The Law had triumphed over the Gospel and the parable was no more.

The Sunday following my examination Sunday was Confirmation Sunday. As part of the ritual we were assigned a single Bible verse to say on the altar. As I recall, I was more nervous on confirmation Sunday than I was for the examination Sunday, simply because of this mandatory recitation. Although I was an above-average memorizer, I was always terribly anxious about reciting - fearing I would blank out and look stupid. My verse was 1 Timothy 6:12:

Fight the good fight of faith. Lay hold on eternal life,
whereunto thou art also called, and hath professed a good
profession before many witnesses.”

I don’t know how the pastor assigned the verses to us. It could have been random, but at the time I thought not. It was apparent he was giving short, easy verses to those who were known to have difficulty reciting. And the best students in the class normally got the long, difficult verses. Mine was somewhere in between, assigned for different reasons (or so I thought at the time.) I was convinced I got my verse because I had told people I wanted to become a Lutheran Day School teacher. Thus I had “professed a good profession before many witnesses.” I have never forgotten my memory verse, in spite of the fact that I misunderstood its meaning then and, for the most part, do not entirely understand its meaning now.

All these details, of course, muddle the main point of the confirmation parable. Through confirmation, I and all my pre-adolescent classmates were accepted into the congregation as an automatic rite of passage - based entirely on our age. From the slowest to the brightest, we all wore the white gown and the flower. There was no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no success or failure. We were accepted into the adult world of the church simply by the grace of being there.

I was never asked if I wanted to be confirmed. Such a question would have been inappropriate. This was not for me to decide. This was not about my wants or desires, my commitment, my faith, my mastery of anything. I could no more make a lifelong commitment to God than I could make a commitment to my future profession. I was, after all, just a 14 year old farm kid.

In my confirmation, I supposedly confirmed what took place at my infant baptism - speaking for myself now what was spoken for me then. But the reality is, I did not confirm anything. I was confirmed. Not by the command or the power of God, since God and Scripture know nothing of confirmation. I was confirmed by a congregation of people, according to the tradition of the church, accepted as an adult Christian and now allowed to sit at the Table with the big people. It was a simple rite of passage based on age and grace. In that light, excluding all other grand intentions others may ascribe, it was (for me) a great success.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Hinge on Which All Turns

To Luther, the essential issue of Christianity was the question of the freedom or bondage of the human will, calling it the “hinge on which all turns.” By his own account, he hoped that his book The Bondage of the Will would survive, even if all his other writings perished. The book did survive, but unfortunately it is fairly difficult to read and digest. After muddling my way through it, I bought Gerhard Forde’s commentary on it, The Captivation of the Will - Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage. This was extremely helpful and a fair substitute for any who want to know the essence of the matter without having to endure Luther’s bombastic and sometimes tedious 16th century polemics.

For an even quicker summary of the matter, what follows is an excerpt from J.I. Packer’s introduction to his translation of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will:

“What is the modern reader to make of The Bondage of the Will? That it is a brilliant and exhilarating performance, a masterpiece of the controversialist’s difficult art, he will no doubt readily admit; but now comes the question, is Luther’s case any part of God’s truth? and, if so, has it a message for Christians today? No doubt the reader will find the way by which Luther leads him to be a strange new road, an approach which in all probability he has never considered, a line of thought which he would normally label ‘Calvinistic’ and hastily pass by. This is what Lutheran orthodoxy itself has done; and the present-day Evangelical Christian (who has semi-Pelagianism in his blood) will be inclined to do the same. But both history and Scripture, if allowed to speak, counsel otherwise.

Historically, it is a simple matter of fact that Martin Luther and John Calvin, and, for that matter, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation, stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points, they had their differences; but in asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them, these doctrines were the very life-blood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s great work underscores this fact: ‘Whoever puts this book down without having realized that evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain.’

The doctrine of free justification by faith only, which became the storm-center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is hardly accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed with varying degrees of adequacy by Augustine, and Gottschalk, and Bradwardine, and Wycliffe, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only. The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration - the doctrine, that is, that the faith which receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God, bestowed by spriritual regeneration in the act of effectual calling.

To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith; whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort.”

- J.I. Packer, Introduction to his translation of The Bondage of the Will (1957) p. 57-59.

One sentence in this excerpt struck me as particularly provocative. That was the comment that suggested that orthodox Lutheranism has abandoned Luther on this crucial issue. In the same sentence he indicated that the modern evangelical ("who has semi-pelagianism in his blood") has done the same. In other words, he is saying that the Reformation failed.

I found this same assessment of the "unpopularity" of Luther in the forward to Forde's book on the bondage of the will, written by Steven Paulson. Paulson writes:

"There are not many who have been willing to follow Luther as he is 'forced to confess' the captivation of the will. There are even fewer who will confess with him just who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing with sinners. Just so, there are not many who have been willing to embrace what this implies for preaching. Yet what a vast difference it makes for a preacher to stand before a congregation and assume their wills are bound rather than stand before a group and assume their wills are merely in need of motivation."
- Steven Paulson, Forward to The Captivation of the Will, by Gerhard Forde, 2005. p xi

I am inclined to agree with all this. The Reformation has seemd to have failed. It is obvious that Pelagianism and its many flavors is winning the day in evangelical Christianity and has certainly infected Lutheranism in many ways. So if I stand on Luther's side of the hinge (which I do), and the hinge is truly the crux of the matter (as I believe it is), then I need to get used to being in a very tiny minority.

On the other hand, I am less inclined to divide Christianity by this hinge and exert a lot of energy lamenting the lost Luther. I think we all have semi-pelagianism in our blood. It is part and parcel of the original sin and therefore ought not surprise us when it rises up and tries to dominate. I don't mean to minimize the matter by saying this. Original sin is clearly a serious problem. So serious that only God could handle it, as Luther's theology attests. But rather than seeing Christianity as divided by this hinge, it might be more useful to see the individual Christian divided - including myself. The hinge divides the old and the new me. The old me will always be Pelagian and convinced of my own freedom to accept or reject God, obey or disobey, trust or not trust, believe or not believe. The old me is dead but doesn't know it. So it fights for its own survival. The new me, created by the Gospel, will always know that it was God who gave me birth, God who will preserve me, and God who will enable whatever is required of me. The old me will not be convinced or converted with reason or Scripture. The old me must be killed by the Gospel.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Unreasonable Opposites

I have struggled, like many others, with Biblical contradictions. They made me angry, resentful and distrustful of the Bible. How could two seemingly contradictory statements both be true? It was foolishness. The theology of the cross, as a different way of thinking, rescued me from my misery. How did it do this? It started when I finally came to understand the cross itself as an eternal contradiction.

The crucifixion is the ugliest event in human history. It is also the most beautiful. It is an act of utter injustice and perfect justice at the same time. It is love and hate, victory and defeat, strength and weakness, judment and grace. And on and on. If I had a quarrel with Biblical contradiction, I would have to argue with the cross. This I was incapable of doing. Eventually my discomfort with other Biblical contradictions yielded to comfort. Paradox lost its power to confuse or upset me. This is not something I remember reasoning out for myself. No "aha" moment. It just seemed to happen the more I absorbed Luther’s Theology of the Cross. I can now see how Luther so firmly and confidently held to his unreasonable opposites - an ability which infuriated his scholastic opponents at the time and continues to marginalize him in Christianity today. If the cross is true, then I can be simultaneously sinner and saint. I can be crucified with Christ and still not dead. Jesus can be human and God. The Bible can be words of God and words of men. The Gospel can kill and bring to life. A baby can be baptized and believe. The body of Jesus can be eaten with bread, His blood received in wine. If the crucifixion of Jesus happened, many unreasonable opposites can be true because of it.

Luther never abandoned reason, as some have accused. The cross simply humbled him to the Scriptures in such a way that he was compelled to interpret all Scripture in the light of the cross. In that light he saw no need to resolve Biblical conflict. While others plodded on, he was able to admit defeat and just accept opposing truths. He did not hold them "in tension", as we like to say today. That notion, I think, would be foreign to him. He saw paradox, but seemed to see harmony, not tension. And he did not really hold to anything. The cross held him - and would not let him go. This is how he could preach that Scripture was clear, everyone should read it and anyone could understand it. This is perhaps one of his most outrageously unreasonable doctrines (one I still have a hard time believing), but it illustrates his level of confidence in the power of the Gospel over against the power of us. He certainly must have known that for most people the Bible was not clear. He put no confidence in people's ability to figure it out. He just trusted that the Gospel of the cross would do unto others that which it had done unto him.

Monday, January 1, 2007

All of us are theologians

"...all of us are theologians, in one way or another. Being a theologian just means thinking and speaking about God. True, we may not do much of that. We might go for days and weeks without a thought of God entering our heads, but that is usually impossible. Things happen. Acccidents. Tragedies. Deaths and funerals. Natural disasters. Illness. Loss. Suffering. Disappointment. Wrongdoing. And so on and on. There is also good fortune. Experience of great beauty or pleasure. Sheer grace. Chance encounters that determine our lives. Love. We begin to wonder… wondering if there is some logic to it all in our lives, or some injustice. We become theologians."

- Gerhard O. Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 1997. p 10-11