Friday, November 23, 2007

The Economist and a Defense of Christendom

I recommend taking a look at the November 1st issue of the Economist, which features a number of articles on the role of religion in the coming century. The magazine points out that religious observance is rising worldwide and that "faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century." The approach the Economist takes towards religion is refreshingly fair and neutral - it is not blind to the dangers of fundamentalism but, at the same time, it understands the amazing complexity and vibrancy of the world's religions. It also understands that faith is flourishing, in part, because of globalization - something the Economist vigorously supports:
"The idea that religion has re-emerged in public life is to some extent an illusion. It never really went away—certainly not to the extent that French politicians and American college professors imagined. Its new power is mostly the consequence of two changes. The first is the failure of secular creeds: religion's political comeback started during the 1970s, when faith in government everywhere was crumbling. Second, although some theocracies survive in the Islamic world, religion has returned to the stage as a much more democratic, individualistic affair: a bottom-up marketing success, surprisingly in tune with globalisation. Secularism was not as modern as many intellectuals imagined, but pluralism is. Free up religion and ardent believers and ardent atheists both do well... From a classical liberal point of view, this multiplicity of sects is a good thing."
The issue also contains an article on the state of Christianity in Europe, which may not be as moribund as most people think. In many parts of Europe, smaller churches of evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals are growing rapidly. But the state churches are still hurting, with active church attendance reaching new, pathetic lows. But the empty pews should not necessarily be interpreted as a lack of faith. Grace Davie of the University of Exeter argues that many Europeans regard the state churches as a sort of "'public utility': there is one state-backed supplier, and most Christians follow their religion vicariously (in the sense that somebody else does your churchgoing for you). For instance, around 75% of Swedes are baptised as Lutherans, but only 5% regularly go to church. The church pockets a staggering $1.6 billion in membership fees, collected by the state through the tax system. It has been rare for Swedes to opt out, though that seems to be changing."

This situation in Sweden (and other Scandinavian countries) is interesting because, while active religious participation is rare, the state church itself is not unpopular or discredited. It still plays a welcome, albeit small, role in the lives of the Swedish people. Most people still pay their church fees, baptize their children, get confirmed, and have a church funeral when they die. But otherwise they rarely set foot inside a church.

Of course, the notion of "vicarious Christianity" is exactly what Kierkegaard was railing against in his Attack on Christendom. And it would be tempting to say, with him, that the Church of Sweden (or Denmark) is a sham, no more than kulturprotestantismus at its worst. But that judgement might not be entirely correct. The fact that people still turn to the church in "life changing" moments - birth, marriage, death - is significant, I think. Indeed, it may be that the states churches, by encompassing the entire nation and not just a small group of "true believers", are a testament to the sovereignty of God over all Creation. As the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren writes in Creation and Gospel:
"By their very existence the national churches of Europe represented a form of faith in Creation, even in those times when the Creation faith was neither theoretically articulated nor the subject of reflection in university theology. Parishes with geographical boundaries are purely external arrangements, it appears; but built into this arrangement is a profound faith in Creation: the place of work, birth, death, matrimony - everything is encircled by the church and therefore by the Father of Jesus Christ."
Whether the state churches of Europe will be able to continue to play this role in the future remains to seen. It may be that they're merely "running on fumes"; after all, no church can survive for long on mere tradition and convention. Most damningly, the national churches may be serving as obstacles to a genuine revival of faith, since they encourage the complacency of "vicarious Christianity." Christianity on European soil might have to begin anew, and this would entail the demise of the national churches. But I'm not sure. Would Swedes miss the national church if it was gone? Would anything take its place?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Sacrament as Christ's Availability to Himself

In case you missed it, First Things posted an interesting commentary last week on Bill Bryson’s science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. The article, written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, discussed the fact that our bodies are continually exchanging atoms with the environment, such that "every seven years all the cells in a human body are replaced." Moreover, as Bryson writes, “every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name."

This result certainly has theological implications, and Mathewes-Green explores some of them. For instance, the "resurrection of the body" cannot be understood as the simple reassembly of the same atoms that comprised our bodies at death, since these atoms are not essential to who we truly are. Our continuity over time lies in the pattern of our bodies, not in the identity of their physical components. Thus, speaking of the resurrection of the dead, John Polkinghorne can write that "it is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is me will be remembered by God and its instantiation will be recreated by Him when he reconstitutes me in a new environment of his choosing."

This concept also raises interesting implications for the sacraments. Most of the controversy surrounding the Lord's Supper has focused on the meaning of "is" in Jesus' statement "This is my body", i.e. should "is" be taken literally or does it really mean signifies. Comparatively little thought has been given to what "body" means in this context, perhaps because it is assumed that everyone knows what body means. But, as Bryson's book makes clear, the body is a more dynamic concept than previously thought. So how are we supposed to understand the true presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist?

Robert Jenson gives a very compelling answer to this question in his Systematic Theology. He writes that, according to Paul, "someone's 'body' is simply the person him or herself insofar as this person is available to other persons and to him or herself, insofar as the person is an object for other persons and him or herself. It is in that Paul is a body that persecutors can mark him as Christ's; it is in that Paul is a body that he can be seen and interrogated by one of his congregations, or be remote from this possibility; it is in that Paul is a body that he can discipline his own self. In Paul's ontology, such personal availability may or may not be constituted as the biological entity moderns first think of as 'a body'" (I, 205).

The question then becomes: where is the risen Christ available to us, where is he an object for us? Drawing on 1 Corinthians, Jenson's answer is two-fold: "The body of that Christ that the Corinthians culpably fail to discern is at once the gathered congregation, which is the actual object of their misbehavior and to which Paul has just previous referred as the body of Christ, and the loaf and cup, which are called Christ's body by the narrative of institution he cites in support of his rebuke." (II, 211) Thus, Christ is an object for us in church and sacrament, although in somewhat different ways. The Church is Christ's availability to the world at large, while the Eucharist is his availability within the congregation. "The object that is the church-assembly is the body of Christ, that is, Christ available to the world and to her members, just in that the church gathers around objects distinct from herself, the bread and cup, which are the availability to her of the same Christ." (II, 213).

At first glance, it may appear that Jenson is endorsing a purely symbolic interpretation of the sacrament in which the Church regards the load and cup "as if" they were the body of Christ, although the remain mere bread and wine. However this is not the case, because Christ himself recognizes these objects as his body. "The church with her sacraments is truly Christ's availability to us just because Christ takes her as his availability to himself. Where does the risen Christ turn to find himself? To the sacramental gathering of believers. To the question 'Who am I?' he answers, 'I am this community's head. I am the subject whose objectivity is this community... And again: 'I am the subject whose objectivity for this community is the bread and cup around which she gathers.'" (II, 214)

To question of how this is possible, Jenson simply remarks: "All that is needed is that the risen Christ's personal self-understanding determine what is real, that is, that he be the Logos of God... As he is the Word of God by which all things are created to be what they are, no further explanation is needed or possible." (II, 215). This is essentially the same explanation as provided by Luther in his defence of the Real Presence, which I described in an earlier post. The Word of God effects what it says. The sacrament is simultaneously the body of Christ and bread and wine, just as we are simultaneously sinful and righteous in faith. In both cases, it is the mighty Word of God that holds the paradox together, that creates a new reality.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hauerwas at the University of Minnesota

Last Thursday I walked across the Mississippi river to hear Stanley Hauerwas speak on the West Bank of the U of M campus. He was giving the 12th Annual Holmer Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Maclaurin Institute (whose admirable mission is to "bring God into the marketplace of ideas" on the Minnesota campus). The event was a rare opportunity for those of us at this public university to hear from an honest-to-goodness Christian theologian and, appropriately, Hauerwas spoke about the role of theology in the modern university, the subject of his most recent book.

Since you can read a good summary of his remarks here, I won't try to recreate the lecture. I generally agree with his main point that we need to find a way to bring theology back into higher education. The university needs theology, and theology needs the university.

I had never heard Hauerwas speak before but I've read plenty of stories concerning his explosive and colorful personality. So I naturally went in with high expectations. Hauerwas, though, was surprisingly tame, using occasional profanity but never reaching a full boil. Despite this, he made a number of memorable comments, especially in the question-and-answer section. For instance, he said "I'm a theocrat but I'm also a pacifist. And I don't know how to rule the world nonviolently, but I'd like to have the chance." Also, "For a Christian college to offer the same education as a public school but say that they're educating the 'whole person', that's bullshit. That's not Christianity, that's just hand-holding." In response to a question about Bob Jones University, he said "Bob Jones, they're just dumb, it needs to be said. It's sort of a learned ignorance, but they know nothing about Christianity, that's their problem."

I enjoyed the lecture but it raised a question that perhaps some of my readers can answer: why do academics in the humanities read their lectures straight off the page? I've always found this strange and somewhat annoying. In the sciences, we speak freely in our lectures, with nothing prepared except our visual aids or a few notes. Such talks are more natural and pleasant to hear than someone monotonously reading. Thankfully, Hauweras often departed from his prepared text, and it was in those moments when he was most genuine and interesting. I wished the entire lecture was that way. If scientists and preachers can speak in public with only notes, why can't English or theology professors? Why do we expect so little from them with regards to presentation style?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

More Thoughts on Closed Communion

I've been delving into Robert Jenson's theology of the sacraments, as found both in his Systematic Theology and in Visible Words (1978). I hope to write a post outlining his overall sacramentology soon, but for now I will simply share his thoughts on the open vs. closed communion debate:
"Disagreement about the interpretation of Christ's presence has been a profound and continuing occasion of the church's disunity, especially at the table itself. There is a terrible irony in this; since in fact Christ's presence as the bread and cup is not separable from the unity it creates as those who share the meal.

Many rationalizations have been attempted, all of them sophistical. The simple case is this: if I and my group celebrate the Supper, and do not admit you, this is excommunication; and if we indeed belong to the body of Christ, as we claim merely by our celebration, it is excommunication from the body of Christ. If you then otherwise celebrate the Supper with a group of your like, we are bound to maintain that this celebration is a mere attempt, in which Christ is not present. If we fail to maintain this, either we are merely being inconsequential, or we revoke our right to exclude you in the first place.

There is no middle ground. If you acknowledge that I belong to the church, you must admit me to your Supper. If you will not admit me to your Supper, you should not then talk about my nevertheless being your 'fellow in Christ.'" (Visible Words, 113)
It is worth noting that Luther held essentially the same position as Jenson, although to much different effect. For Luther, the anti-sacramentalists, whether Reformed or Anabaptist, were genuine heretics and not Christians in the least, as dramatically emphasized by his refusal to accept Zwingli's hand in Christian brotherhood at Marburg. So Luther would have no problem with the logic of Jenson's thinking; that is, for Luther, the table was indeed open to all Christians, as he defined it. You can call him divisive and intolerant, but at least he was consistent.

The same cannot be said of modern Lutherans who practice closed communion. They are guilty of what Jenson calls "inconsequential" thinking - they forbid table fellowship with baptized Christians not in communion with their denomination, but they do not deny that such people may be Christians. That this is the case is amply evident in Missouri Synod documents that explain their stance on closed communion. For example, in response to the question whether the sacrament can be provided to "relatives who are very close to us but who are members of other church bodies", the LCMS writes: "This question is often a very difficult and sensitive one on an emotional level, because we feel united with those whom we love - especially when they are fellow Christians!" (emphasis mine). In the same document, we find the following Q&A:
Question: How can we possibly say that all those Christians from other church bodies are unworthy to receive the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t that what we are saying?

Answer: Absolutely not! There are two reasons why people can be refused admission to the Lord’s Supper. The first has to do with faith and discerning the body. Those who do not have such faith and discernment would commune in an unworthy manner and thereby receive God’s judgment. But the second reason has to do with the need for a fitting confessional unity among those who commune together. Roman Catholic Christians, for example, may be perfectly prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper in their own churches in a worthy manner and so to their own great blessing. But it would be unfitting for them, as confessors of their church body’s error, to receive the Sacrament in our churches.
This is an interesting position. The LCMS does not deny the validity of the Roman sacrament; quite the contrary, they call it a "great blessing". But this is only true for Catholics! The same sacrament is presumably damaging for a Lutheran participant, hence the prohibition against LCMS members communing in other church bodies. But isn't the same body and blood of Christ present at both altars? And if so, must it not be acknowledged that some form of unity does indeed exist between the Lutheran and Catholic churches, even if there is disagreement on non-sacramental matters?

I have previously expressed reservations about "wide-open" communion and I generally stand by those statements. But I also think there are serious theological problems with closed communion as practiced by the LCMS and RC churches. For me, the decisive point is whether a given church group "recognizes the body of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:29), that is, whether they acknowledge the Real Presence as generally understood by Luther. If they do, then I see no problem with permitting table fellowship, regardless of other differences. As Jenson says, "The old question about whether fellowship is a means or consequence of fellowship in the faith is an entirely perverse question; fellowship at the Supper is fellowship in the faith."

That said, it seems to me that where there is no agreement concerning the Lord's Real Presence, there can be no table or pulpit fellowship. So, as you can imagine, I am not a fan of the ELCA's full communion agreements with Reformed bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ. Does this mean that I regard members of these denominations as non-Christians? I won't go that far, but it may be true that by failing to recognize the body of Christ in the sacraments, these denominations forfeit their claim to be part of the body of Christ that is the Church (for Jenson, it is axiomatic that the existence of these two "bodies of Christ" are interdependent. However, it is not my place (or nature) to make drastic statements. I will leave it to others to decide whether the ELCA's agreements with the Reformed churches go too far and thus establish nothing but a false unity. But I don't think it's extreme to maintain that the celebration of the Lord's Supper in these churches is "a mere attempt, in which Christ is not present," and that this must have severe consequences for ecumenism.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Barth on Luther's Doctrine of the Eucharist

In relation to my previous post, I've been reading and enjoying Karl Barth's article "Luther's Doctrine of the Eucharist", written in 1923 and published in Theology and Church. Barth, of course, ultimately disagrees with the direction that Luther took regarding the Lord Supper's, but he remains astonished at the force and boldness of the Reformer's thought. At one point he writes, "It is possible to understand the step which Luther took [with regards to the Lord's Supper] as the act of pure Christian faith in revelation, or as an act manifesting truly demonic force... Actually it was both." Nevertheless, with his penetrating intellect, Barth is able to cut to the heart of the matter as few can. One might even say that he understands Luther better than Luther understood himself, even if he ultimately rejects the Reformer's position.

Barth rightly dismisses the notion (common among Reformed) that Luther's insistence on the Real Presence is an inconsistency in his overall thought, a lingering hangover from medieval Catholicism. "There can be no doubt that what we find here is not a slip in logic, but the purpose which manifests itself with compelling inner necessity... One can say confidently that he would not have been Luther if he had not taken this step."

So what drove Luther irresistibly to the Real Presence? The answer, for Barth, is to be found in Luther's dynamic understanding of the Word. But this insight is misunderstood if the Word is thought to refer only to Christ's words at the Last Supper, "This is my body,... this is my blood." Luther's doctrine of the Eucharist was not merely the product of simple-minded biblical literalism, although later generations of Lutherans have often understood it this way. No, the reason lies deeper. Luther can see Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist because God's Word is a creative word that establishes the reality it promises. "The word brings with it everything of which it speaks, namely, Christ with his flesh and blood and everything he is and has."

Barth sees this as the truly original aspect of Luther's thought. It is the "predicate of identity", "the identification of the signifying with what is signified, of the sign with the signification." Whereas others played the signum and res of the sacrament against each other, Luther held them tightly together. Another way to say this - citing my earlier post - is that Luther emphasized the signum et res of the sacrament, although he never used this exact formulation. Take the following quote:
"So that this divine promise [of forgiveness] may be to us the most certain of all and render our faith most secure, he set upon it the token and seal which is the most trustworthy and precious of all, as he himself was the price of the promise, his own body and blood under the bread and wine. By this he guarantees that the riches of the promise are given to us; and this requires our acceptance of the promise."
Here it is clear that Luther regards Christ's body as both signum and res: it is what is signified by the bread and wine and it is a "token and seal" of the divine promise of forgiveness. This is not a trivial point for Luther, since it reflects the fact that it is only through Christ's humanity, his body and blood, that we have salvation and the forgiveness of sins. The connection between Christology and the sacrament is clear here. As Luther says, "he himself was the price of the promise." This is the essence of his insistence on the "identification of signifying with what is signified", on the signum et res, and ultimately on the Real Presence itself. The "predicate of identity" is derived from the Incarnation, where the body of Christ both is and signifies our salvation. A disembodied, "spiritual" Christ does not save. Thus, Luther's belief in the Real Presence is nothing more than his belief in the saving power of the Incarnation, where the promise is true because it is "in, with, and under" the flesh.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Augustine and the Sacraments

I've been reading and thinking a great deal about the sacraments lately, which has been interesting due to the sheer variety of positions that have been adopted by Christians through the centuries regarding what the sacraments are and mean. It seems that sacramentology is an area of theology where confusion has generally trumped consensus, often because people can use the same language but mean something entirely different (just think, for example, of the various ways that the word "presence" can be (mis)understood). Despite this diversity, no matter which book I turn to, I invariably encounter St. Augustine's definition of a sacrament: "The Word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word." That is, every sacrament has two components: the physical object(s) - the sign (signum) - and the invisible reality (res) that is thereby signified and proclaimed. Thus, in baptism, the element of water signifies the res, which in this case is the word of justification (or participation in the church of Christ).

At first glance, Augustine's definition of sacraments as "visible words" seems admirably straightforward, until one realizes that every faction in the history of Western Christianity - regardless of their sacramentology - has claimed to be faithful to it. Of course, by the standards of modern ecumenism, this may be considered a good thing; after all, if everyone agrees with Augustine, then perhaps we can leave behind the divisive battles of the past. But, to my way of thinking, such universal consensus merely points to the inadequacy of Augustine's thinking on the sacraments. Any definition that can encompass both Luther's and Zwingli's positions on the Lord's Supper is dangerously vague.

The medieval scholastics implicitly acknowledged this shortcoming when they introduced a third sacramental reality that is both sign and res (signum et res). This signum et res is most obvious in the case of the Lord's Supper, as concisely described by Robert Jenson in his Systematic Theology:
"There are of course many sorts of signifier-signified relations, most of them involving nothing remarkable beyond the wonder of language itself. The relation between the bread and cup as signum and Christ's mystical body as res is exceptional in the way called sacramental in that there is a middle reality between what is simply sign and what is simply res; this is the body and blood of Christ. The body and blood are at once signum et res: they are the thing the bread and cup signify but in turn they are signs, the visible Word of God that promises our communion with God and with one another.

To be signs Christ's body and blood must be there, available to our apprehension. Yet they are no more apparently present than is the mystical body they signify; they are visible only as the bread and cup that signify them. It is this identify between being visible only as signified and being visibly present so as to signify that makes the peculiar sacramental reality."
Jenson thus locates the essence of sacrament in the "middle reality" of the signum et res, and he goes on to show how it applies to all traditional sacraments.

Of course, this raises the question: why is it necessary to invoke this middle term, the signum et res? Why isn't Augustine's definition sufficient? The complete answer to these questions, which I hope to provide in a latter post, is grounded in Christology and our understanding of the incarnation. But suffice it to say, the signum et res is essential for any doctrine of the sacraments that affirms the real presence of Christ's body. As Jenson puts it, the signum et res is the sacrament's true "character," its "potentiality." It is that thing "in, with, and under" the element that makes it an effective sign, and not just a sign. It thus allows the elements to actually "contain the grace they signify" (a formulation from the Council of Trent that Lutherans can also affirm).

From this, we can conclude that any account of the sacraments that takes Augustine's definition as exhaustive is bound to end-up with a non-realist (Zwinglian) sacramentology. The common feature of all such teachings is that they dismiss the signum et res, leaving only the signum and res of Augustine's formulation. But this vitiates the sacrament. The signum is inevitably regarded as secondary to the res and eventually the element is trivialized or discarded altogether. It is no wonder, then, that Hermann Sasse in This is My Body blames Augustine for the anti-sacramentalism that has been so prevalent in the Reformed tradition from Zwingli to Barth.

Much more needs to be said, particularly concerning the intimate connection between the sacraments and the incarnation. But this post is already too long, so it will have to wait.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Jüngel: God's Being is Realized in Contradiction

For those of you wondering what I've been doing lately in my free time, I've been working my way through Eberhard Jüngel's Theological Essays II. That partially explains my lack of posting, since, among modern theologians, Jüngel is perhaps the most difficult to blog about. This is due to the depth and rigor of this thought, which is impossible to summarize in short posts, combined with his lackluster prose. Simply put, he's not quotable! Regardless, I would like to discuss some concerns regarding the most thought-provoking essay in the collection: "The Revelation of the Hiddenness of God."

Jüngel's goal is to rectify misconceptions regarding the deus absconditus that have historically appeared in Lutheran theology (those familiar with this blog will know that this has also been a concern of mine; see here and here). Jüngel begins by saying that if God is hidden and dark to us, "it cannot imply that God himself is dark." Instead, God is concealed because he "dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6.15).
"The absolute invisibility of God is, therefore, the expression of the excess of light that God essentially is. This light, one might say, is unbearably intense and blinding in its pure illuminating power. In this light, in the light of his own being, God is not visible, he is hidden. If there is in him an inaccessible depth, it is in no way a dark depth or a murky abyss, but rather the depth of his glory, the unfathomableness of primal light. It is the majesty of God that lets him be hidden for us."
Here, Jüngel discredits the notion, which can be traced to Luther, that there exists a terrible and wrathful God behind (or separate from) the God we encounter in Christ. For Jüngel, it is of the utmost importance that the God we meet in Jesus Christ be fully and truly God, such that there is no deus absconditus contrary to this revelation. But, in agreement with Luther, Jüngel argues that it is proper to speak the hidden works of God. These alien works of God (opus dei alienum), manifested as wrath, serve the purpose of God's proper works (opus proprium). "The work of God's left hand is always related to the work of God's right hand. God kills so that he can bring to life. Luther can also say: God annihilates, so that he can create the new out of nothingness."

It seems to me that Jüngel is walking a thin line here. Is it so easy to separate God's nature from his works? Is it not a contradiction for God to act in a manner "alien" to his being? Jüngel doesn't say, but the issue becomes even more problematic when, drawing on Barth, he writes:
"God does not contradict himself... Even in the greatest of all imaginable contradictions, even in the contradiction of eternal life and earthly death [in the crucifixion], God corresponds to himself. The being of God is capable of this contradiction. Indeed, God's being is realized in this contradiction without being destroyed by it. God endures it. And this endurance of the contradiction of life and death is God himself, it is the depth of God's glory."
Jüngel seems to be saying that contradictions cannot contradict God because he is contradiction. But how is this consistent with the statement of 1 John that "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all", which Jüngel himself cites in the essay? Moreover, how is it compatible with his earlier remark that "if there is in him an inaccessible depth, it is in no way a dark depth or a murky abyss, but rather the depth of his glory, the unfathomableness of primal light"?

I'm not convinced that Jüngel's efforts have resulted in a gain over Luther's original position. Luther understood the hiddenness of God under its opposite (the essence of his "theology of the cross") as an inscrutable paradox that could not be resolved dogmatically. But Jüngel, who shares Barth's distrust of paradox, attempts just this. In the end, he merely succeeds in moving Luther's paradox into the very heart of God's being.

Interestingly, towards the end of the essay, Jüngel appears to circle back to something akin to Luther's anti-speculative position. He writes:
"The ancient need for an explanation of evil and so for a justification of God in the face of evil, the ancient human need not only to pose, but also to solve, the question of theodicy, does not in fact stop outside the sacred halls of dogmatics. Dogmatics cannot ignore this ancient need. But neither can dogmatics satisfy it. And dogmatics should not act as if it could do so. Dogmatics must not even want to satisfy this ancient need."
Exactly! But Jüngel then goes on to say :
One can only speak of God as the uncompromising enemy of evil. There is only one, but one decisive, connection of God and evil. And that is the cross of Jesus Christ, the fundamental fact of Christian faith: that God conquers evil in that he suffers it himself."
Which raises my final question: does God really conquer evil (and death) if evil (and death) become part of the very being of God, even in such a way that they lose their power over humanity? Would it not be better to say that God remains free of contradiction even in the horror of the cross, although this statement involves a seeming paradox?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Bitter Brew

The Brewers' quest to reach the post-season for the first time since 1982 is over. Their 6-3 loss to the Padres last night, combined with the Cubs' victory, has eliminated them from contention. Thus ends a season of high hopes that started strong but ended with a series of maddening breakdowns. Now the goal, however pathetic, is to win at least one of their final two games in order to finish with a winning record, something the Brewers franchise hasn't done since 1992.

Perhaps I shouldn't feel so disgusted. The future remains bright - they're a young team that will certainly contend for the NL Central title next year. But let's review the events of the past 11 days, and maybe you will better understand my smoldering rage:

Sept. 18: The Brewers win their fourth game in the row, a 9-1 trouncing of Houston, and move into a first-place tie with the Cubs. But Ben Sheets, Milwaukee's perpetually injured "ace", leaves the game with tightness in his hamstring. His season is over.

Sept. 22: Against John Smoltz and the Braves, the Brewers tie the game on J.J. Hardy's two-run homer. In extra innings, Corey Hart leads off the top of the 10th with a solo shot but the Brewers can't get any more, leaving the bases loaded. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the 10th, Brewer's closer Francisco Cordero gives up a home run to Scott Thorman (average .221!). In the bottom of the 11th, the Braves win thanks to a fielding error by Rickie Weeks.

Sept. 23
: The Brewer's bullpen suffers another meltdown, surrendering a 4-1 lead by giving up six runs in the 7th and 8th innings. Milwaukee manger Ned Yost is thrown out of the game for arguing with the umpires. He would be ejected from two of the next three games, and is currently serving a suspension (vide infra). The Brewers are now 3.5 games behind of the Cubs.

Sept. 24-25
: Milwaukee takes two from the Cardinals in dominating fashion, while the Cubs lose. The gap is closed to 2 games. Do they still have a chance?!

Sept. 26: No, they do not. Even though the Cubs lose again, the Brewers suffer the most aggravating loss of all. Trailing the Cards 3-2 in the 7th and with one out, idiot manager Yost sends in pitcher Seth McClung with orders to drill Albert Pujols in the ribs (McClung gets this done with one pitch) in retaliation for St. Louis hitting Prince Fielder earlier in the game. Both Yost and McClung are ejected, and later suspended. Turnbow relieves McClung, strikes out the first batter, and then forgets where the strike zone is located, eventually walking in a run. The Cards go on to get four runs in the inning, thanks in large part to Yost's macho posturing.

Sept. 27-28: Brewers lose badly to the Padres, twice. In the first game, they somehow manage to commit five errors! It's over.... Now all of America gets to cheer for those lovable Cubies (excuse me while I swallow my own vomit).

Where do we go from here? Like I said above, this is a team with a bright future, but it's a future that needs to be actualized now. Given the meager size of Milwaukee's payroll, we're not going to be able to keep all these players together for very long. So time is crucial. Hopefully, GM Doug Melvin will acquire some much-needed pitching in the off-season. And another question needs to be answered: is Ned Yost up to the task of leading the Brewers to the post-season? His performance down the stretch has been miserable - clearly, the pressure got to him. So perhaps it's time to make a change. Regardless, it will take a good deal of winter to get this bitter taste out of my mouth.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

God's Word in Filthy Language

In a previous post, I quoted from Heiko Oberman's biography of Luther to illustrate how the Reformer's frequent talk of the Devil, while often extreme, usually served evangelical purposes. It turns out the same can be said for another of Luther's embarrassing traits: his penchant for scatological language. Indeed, talk of Satan and talk of crap often went hand-in-hand, usually as a way of expressing contempt for the adversary. Once, after professing his faith in Christ, Luther added: "But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite." As Oberman writes, "Luther's language is so physical and earthy that in his wrathful scorn he can give the Devil 'a fart for a staff': You, Satan, Antichrist, or pope, can lean on it, a stinking nothing... A figure of respect, be he Devil or pope, is effectively unmasked if he can be shown with his pants down."

Luther's filthy language undoubtedly had something to do with his physical ailments. He suffered frequently from constipation, hemorrhoids and perhaps anal fissures. He once wrote to a friend that "after five days of constipation his bowel movement had caused him such pain 'that I nearly gave up the ghost - and now, bathed in blood, can find no peace. What took four days to heal immediately tears open again."

Most shocking of all, perhaps, is Luther's claim that he had his Reformation breakthrough while sitting on the toilet: "The Spiritus Sanctus gave me this realization in the cloaca." Catholic polemicists have seized on this comment as proof of Luther's depravity, and Protestant apologists have tried to explain it by saying he didn't mean the actual toilet, merely the study in the tower above it. But Oberman insists that we take Luther at his word:
"The cloaca is not just a privy, it is the most degrading place for man and the Devil's favorite habitat. Medieval monks already knew this, but the Reformer knows even more now: it is right here that we have Christ; the mighty helper, on our side. No spot is unholy for the Holy Ghost; this is the very place to express contempt for the adversary through trust in Christ crucified... Luther attests to the birth of Christ in the filth of this world. The Son of God was truly born into the flesh, into the blood and sweat of man. He understood men because He experienced - to the bitter end - what it meant to be human."
Luther was not some 16th-century Lyndon Johnson, using crude language to humiliate and intimidate. Instead, his goal was to express the profound earthiness of Christianity, the supreme condescension of God Incarnate who is "with us in mud and in work, so that his skin smokes." As Hamann understood well, God's Word often appears in filthy and vulgar language: "How the Holy Spirit humbled himself when he recorded the most trivial, and the most contemptible events on earth, revealing to man in his own language, in his own transactions, in his own ways, the mysteries and the ways of the deity."

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Denominations: What are they good for?

This is a bit belated, but D.W. Congdon has a must-read post at The Fire and the Rose on the future of Protestant denominations. It is no secret that the Protestant churches are in crisis, both here in America and abroad. D.W. cites Bruce McCormack, who has written that "if current rates of decline in membership continue, all that will be left by mid-century will be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and non-denominational evangelical churches... The churches of the Reformation will have passed from the scene – and with their demise, there will be no obvious institutional bearers of the message of the Reformation." A chilling thought!!

What I find so valuable about D.W.'s post is that he locates the problem in worship and tradition, not theology (although he admits that the two issues are not unrelated). Simply put, the established Protestant churches have failed to "inculcate an ecclesial tradition." I couldn't agree more. What's missing from many Protestant churches is anything distinctive, anything to give their members a unique identity. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others have all merged into a bland, homogeneous soup. These denominations have different histories and theologies, but most members aren't aware of these differences since they rarely manifest themselves on Sundays.

D.W. helpfully identifies five means by which traditions have historically been preserved in Protestant churches: sacraments, liturgies, catechisms, confessions, and hymns. All five have been marginalized in recent decades - the sacraments ignored or trivialized, liturgies radically revised or discarded, catechisms not used for the young, confessions unread and unknown, and hymns replaced by contemporary praise songs. To borrow Tillich's terms, gone is both "Protestant principle" (in the form of catechisms and confessions) and "Catholic substance" (in the form of sacraments and liturgies). It's no wonder that the churches are emptying. Of course, it's possible that this decline can be reversed but I'm not sure the leaders of mainline churches are up to the task. In their urge to be relevant, they keep repeating the same mistakes. They don't understand that the way forward requires going back to the past and reclaiming the traditions that have been lost.

In the end, it may prove impossible to save the "denomination" precisely because it's not worth saving. It's an artificial concept that emerged fairly recently and only in the American context. Moreover, it's profoundly uninspiring - who wants to be a member of a mere denomination when they can be part of The Church. That's why I've always been attracted to Robert Jenson's notion of Lutheranism as "a confessing movement within the church catholic." This movement transcends the boundaries of any particular denomination and has no existence apart from the universal church. Denominations are at most emergency institutions with penultimate significance. So perhaps we should shed no tears at their demise. But the question remains: can the confessing movement known as Lutheranism survive in America without them?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

On WTM's recommendation, I've been reading Heiko Oberman's impressive biography Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. As the title implies, Luther's vivid conception of the Devil figures prominently in the book, perhaps because one of Oberman's goals is to present Luther in all of his glorious strangeness. Here we do not encounter the tame and enlightened Luther of latter Protestant hagiography, but the bold, brilliant, shocking, and apocalyptic monk who turned Christendom upside-down. Regarding Luther and the Devil, Oberman writes:
"Luther's world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle...

"There is no way to grasp Luther's milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan's power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ - and Luther's faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of the time."
It's not surprising that latter generations of Lutherans have often been embarrassed by Luther's apparent obsession with the Devil. He sometimes sounds like one of those paranoid street-corner preachers who see the Devil everywhere. For modern folks, the Devil is either nonexistent or understood in a thoroughly demythologized way. Thus, Luther's worldview is bound to regarded as strange at best and dangerous at worst. After all, wasn't fear of the Devil behind all of those gory witchhunts? But Oberman is quite sympathetic towards Luther on this point. He stresses that Luther's talk of the Devil was usually done, not to terrify, but to comfort; it served evangelical and pastoral purposes. Take the following passage from Luther's Table Talk:
"[Luther said:] When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins - not fabricated and invented ones - for God to forgive for God's beloved Son's sake, who took all of my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny, but want to acknowledge and confess."
To which Oberman writes: "Luther's purpose is not to spread fear but to strengthen the resistance of the faithful.... As a rule [these stories of the Devil] have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generation for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of Gospel... They are not meant as horror stories to keep the overly audacious in line but as consolation and strength to timid and tired souls."

Oberman assumes that modern people are no longer capable of taking the Devil seriously, at least not to same extent as Luther. Satan's gone and he's not coming back. Which raises an interesting question for Lutheranism today: given the centrality of the Devil to Luther's thinking, are we really capable of understanding this man? More importantly, is Oberman right is saying that "without a recognition of Satan's power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ"? Is there any way to reclaim Luther's understanding of the Devil for the present age that isn't unbearably offensive?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Evangelicals Head East

A recent article in the New Republic - strangely entitled “The Iconoclasts” - discusses the growing number of American evangelicals who have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. While the author of the piece, Jason Zengerle, expects us to be amazed by his findings, nothing in the article will come as a shock to those who pay attention to the religious scene in America. The Orthodox Church has gained a number of high-profile converts from Protestantism over the past few decades and it appears that the trend is only accelerating. Not surprisingly, when asked to explain their decisions, most of the coverts in the article cited their dissatisfaction with the insipid liturgies and anti-intellectualism of American evangelical churches, as well as their belief that the Orthodox Church comes closest to replicating the early church.

The article is most interesting when it discusses the trend towards Orthodoxy from a political angle:

Although the culture wars seem like a staple of evangelical life, the converts suggest that there is a growing fatigue with this worldly fight. One of the more striking things about the Orthodox Church is that it's not very political. That's not to say it isn't conservative. "As Orthodox, we don't believe that being gay is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, we believe it's an aberration. We also say abortion is murder," says Gillquist. But, unlike in many evangelical churches, these views--while strongly held--tend not to come up in the course of worship. As Daniel Larison, a conservative writer and Orthodox convert who attends a Russian Orthodox Church in Chicago, says, "As a general rule, the sermons are going to be related to the gospel and that's about it. Political themes and political ideas don't come into sermons directly. That's not why people are there. They want to keep that as far away as possible."

And, by keeping it far away, the Orthodox Church has been immune to the social and political conflicts that frequently flare up in the Anglican and Catholic Churches, where disaffected evangelicals once typically sought refuge. "In the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, there's a lot of dialogue with the culture: For instance, what do we do with the whole creation versus evolution thing? Where does science play in?" says Andrew Henderson, an evangelical-turned-Anglican who recently converted to Orthodox Christianity and worships at Holy Transfiguration. "In the Orthodox Church, with that Eastern mindset that's just so ancient, those questions haven't really arisen. It just isn't a concern."

I’m intrigued by that last statement – “those questions haven't really arisen.” Does he mean to say that things move so slowly in the Orthodox Church that issues like homosexuality, evolution, and women’s ordination just haven’t come up? If this is the case, I can understand the appeal of a church that is so isolated and so consumed with the gospel that it hasn't gotten around to fighting the culture wars. But with so many outsiders moving in, I wonder how long this "splendid isolation" will last.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Theresa and Doubt

As the Guardian regularly makes sport of religion (and Christianity, in particular), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the inane column that appeared today, where Andrew Brown asks the question, “Was Mother Theresa an Atheist?”. The basis for this provocative title are some recently publicized letters in which the saint describes her crisis of faith. Brown writes: “Even as she was receiving the Nobel prize, she asked her confessor to pray for her because she could feel nothing when she prayed herself and no longer had any experience of God.” He cites the following letter, written at her confessor's request, in which he claims that Mother Theresa “sounds like an adolescent Dawkins”:

‘I call, I cling, I want ... and there is no One to answer ... no One on Whom I can cling ... no, No One. Alone ... Where is my Faith ... even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness ... My God ... how painful is this unknown pain ... I have no Faith ... I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart ... & make me suffer untold agony.

'So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them ... because of the blasphemy ... If there be God ... please forgive me ... When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me ... and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.’"

(How does this sound like Dawkins at all? Dawkins has never experienced the “dark night of the soul” – his faith in Reason is far too strong for that. Who could ever imagine him saying, “If there be God ... please forgive me”?). Regardless, from this quote Brown concludes that Theresa was a full-blown atheist, and thus nothing but a hypocrite and a fraud (although he admires her determination to stick with an institution that she no longer believed in). He even mocks her earlier professions of faith, saying that her talk of a “union” with Christ “seems to have come from a bodice-ripper.” Clearly, Brown is aroused by his irreverent tone and shocking language; he perhaps imagines himself brave, although he is merely engaging in adolescent iconoclasm.

Brown is most surprised that “the letters have not been revealed by one of her avowed enemies, like Christopher Hitchens, but by the man who is responsible for promoting her canonization, the Rev Brian Kolodiejchuk.” Shouldn’t the Catholic Church be scandalized by these professions of doubt? After all, it turns out that one of their star players was really a double-agent, working for the other side. But apparently the Church is taking it all in stride; indeed, some in the Church say that "it will give a whole new dimension to the way that people understand her." Brown concludes: “Only the most hardened atheists will not be shocked by the ease with which the Catholic church has assimilated the news that its most famous saint thought of herself as a hypocrite when she talked about the love of God.”

But this goes to show that Brown understands nothing about the nature of real faith. For him, any expression of doubt indicates that the so-called believer is really just an atheist who is lying to themselves. The slightest wavering and your faith is a lie, as true faith necessarily excludes doubt. But Christians have always understood doubt to be a integral part of faith (see my previous post on this topic here). Mother Theresa continued to trust Christ even when she couldn’t trust herself. This is not so unusual. God’s hiddenness has been experienced by nearly all “great” Christians through history (just think of Luther, to name one), and, most significantly, Christ himself felt forsaken by God on the Cross. So why should it be any surprise that this saint was granted the opportunity to follow Him into the darkness of faith?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Oswald Bayer: Faith and Lamentation

In my last post, I mentioned that for Luther faith means "against God to force its way through to God and call upon God, ... to break through to God through his wrath, through his punishment, and through his disfavor." I take this to mean that one must strive with God, wrestling with him until he gives us a blessing. As the Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer writes in Living by Faith: "Faith does not conduct a debate about God and God's righteousness, as does the natural, the redeemed, or the presumably already glorified reason before its own forum. It conducts a dispute with God in prayer and lament." Indeed, Bayer understands lament against God as one of the most profound expressions of faith. This is because the foundation of lament is belief in the essential goodness of God and his creation:
"Lament is only possible because of the promise that it will be heard. Without promise there is no cause for lamentation... Lament is an eminent way of perceiving and experiencing the world. For it never surrenders the faith that the creation is 'very good,' nor does it make evil and suffering harmless, regarding them as nothing. In lament pain is felt in all its profundity. Our most profound testing is that God, who has promised us life and external communion, who has guaranteed them, is still the God who does not lament death or destroy it, but who is at work in life and death and all things."
Faith allows space for lamentation, but comprehensive systems do not. Here, Bayer contrasts the theodicies of Hegel and Luther. Hegel's "contemplative theodicy" tries to rationalize evil, to locate its place in the larger picture in such a way that it serves the greater good. In the System, "the misery and suffering of this world are ultimately regarded as irrelevant. This contemplative theodicy supposes the painful difference between the promise of life and all that contradicts it to be already resolved. The passion of lament, which perceives this difference, dissolves and gives way to 'the passionless stillness of knowledge that only thinks'." Suffering is not real or serious for Hegel - it's merely a principle. By contrast,
"Luther never downplays or treats as harmless the situation of temptation and testing when God withdraws and conceals himself. He confronts it in all its depth and sharpness. He does not ignore experiences of suffering. Yet he refuses to accept their finality. He flees from the hidden God to the revealed and incarnate God. He presses on 'toward God and even against him calls upon him.'"
It seems to me that the spirit of striving and lamentation are sorely lacking today. Not that there is no suffering in the world -there surely is, often on an unprecedented scale. It's just that most people, whether they believe in God or not, have their preferred method of explaining away evil and suffering. Even in the church, there is a sense that we should never protest against God, that God is our friend and he only wants the best for us. Like Hegel's system, our theologies absolve God and try to erase the pain by explaining that "it's all for the best." But this is simply not biblical (just read the book of Job!).

Bayer's book reminds us that "Luther's Reformation theology does not mean to justify the world as it is." Honest Christians are compelled to admit that "we cannot demonstrate the goodness and the love of God... The nexus of the world [is] no nexus at all, but foremost an embattled and lacerated world in which creation is 'rent and torn from top to bottom.' There is no agreement, no harmony in the world. It rings out like 'cracked bells.'" Such a world requires faith and lamentation. It requires that we strive with God, holding fast to existence and remaining in the flux, accepting both joy and suffering from his hand, and trusting his promises in Christ.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"God Against God" in Luther's Theology

In an effort to get back to basics, I'm currently reading Paul Althaus's The Theology of Martin Luther. I would recommend this book for two reasons. First, Althaus was a Luther scholar of the first rank and he presents the various facets of Luther's theology in a clear and comprehensive manner - no easy task given the notoriously complex and unwieldy nature of Luther's thought. Secondly, he always supports his statements with extensive quotations from the Reformer's writings and sermons, both in the main text and in footnotes. Thus, the book serves as a sort of condensed version of the Weimar Edition, and is a handy reference for anyone (like me) who is always saying, "I know that Luther said such and such, but I'm not exactly sure how or where...".

Reading this book has certainly heightened my admiration for Luther's theology, but it has also reminded me of some of its problematic aspects. I found the chapter "Man Between God and Satan" particularly difficult, not because my modern mind has trouble believing that the devil exists, but because of what it implies for Luther's doctrine of God. Althaus stresses that Luther took the devil seriously in a way that exceeded the medieval tradition: "Luther's devil has, one might say, more hellish majesty than the medieval devil; he has become more serious, more powerful, and more terrible." This was borne out of his personal experience; Luther once remarked that "by the grace of God, I have learned to know a great deal about Satan." Althaus makes it clear that Luther conceived of the world as a battlefield between God and Satan, with humanity as the prize: "God and the devil are fighting for men, for humanity and for the lordship. Here there is no neutrality, no buffer state."

Thus "the devil stands in opposition to God." But this isn't the end of the story. Althaus continues:
"Although [Satan's] power and his claim are so great that he can be called the 'god of this world,' there is never any doubt that only the true God is God. Luther holds dualism within the boundaries set by God's omnipotence, which works all in all. This means that the devil must still serve God's will for men and for the world - in spite of the fact that his will and activity are directed against God. God keeps him in his service and uses him for his own work. He uses him primarily as the tool of his wrath. As Luther wrote, "God indeed uses the devil to afflict and kill us. But the devil cannot do this if God does not want sin to be punished in this way." What God's wrath does and what Satan does frequently appear to be one and the same. The devil is 'God's devil.' And yet at the same time he remains the devil, the enemy of God, who wants the opposite of what God wants."
It's passages like these that set my head spinning. Althaus himself admits that this aspect of Luther's thought is highly contradictory. Yet we dare not back away from the implications of God being God. "It is God himself who lets us die: 'Thou causest men to die.' In death man has to do with God. Under no circumstances may he attribute misfortune and death to some other demonic power. To do that would be to deny the unity of God."

But it is precisely the unity of God that seems to be compromised by this line of thought. Luther seems to require a dualism in the nature of God. This is evident is his distinction between the "alien" and "proper" work of God: "God uses Satan for his 'alien work' (opus alienum) but in so doing is always aiming at his proper work (opus proprium)... God uses misfortune, suffering of body and soul, and death in order to humble those who belong to him and to lead them from trust in something earthly to trust in him alone." Thus, God often acts in a manner contrary to his own nature. Indeed, although "wrath is the undeniable reality between God and [man], it is false to speak of God's wrath as though it were an essential part of God's true being." But this begs the question: how can God act in manner contrary to his own being? Is his wrath real, or is his love only perceived as wrath by a sinful humanity?

This is the "God against God" motif in Luther's thought. And like all aspect of Luther's theology, it is situated in a christological framework. It is Christ who reconciles the division within God: "Christ acts in the name and in the power of God in such a way that he not only deals with humanity and the powers to which it has succumbed but also with God himself. He acts also in relationship to God; he 'reconciles' God, or we may also say, he reconciles humanity with God (Luther uses the expression interchangeably). God in Christ deals also with himself, in himself, and in an inner trinitarian relationship." Luther makes this very clear in a dramatic passage from Bondage of the Will. Reflecting on Christ's weeping over the lost in Jerusalem (Matt 23:37: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together and thou wouldst not'), Luther writes:
"Here, God Incarnate says: 'I would, and thou wouldst not.' God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God's secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering.... It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish. Nor is it for us to ask why He does so, but to stand in awe of God Who can do, and wills to do, such things."
Here, Luther seems to be teaching that the will of God Incarnate is opposed to the will of God in his Majesty; or, said another way, that the revealed God and the hidden God are not necessarily the same thing. God the Son wants to save all, while God the Father condemns many. Such comments, if understood metaphysically (that is, as objective statements about the nature of God), would be highly unorthodox.* But it would be wrong to construe Luther this way. As I have discussed elsewhere, Luther is (usually) not interested in providing a comprehensive doctrine of God or a system that nicely resolves the thorny problems of free-will, evil, predestination, etc. Instead, he gives us a theology "from below", one that, through faith, is able to live with the paradoxes. Luther writes in BotW that "God in His own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish us to deal with him. We have to do with him as clothed and displayed in his Word, by which He presents himself to us." Faith means "against God to force its way through to God and call upon God, ... to break through to God through his wrath, through his punishment, and through his disfavor." The God that is against God and humanity is ultimately the God "for us" in Christ. Only faith in Christ is able to perceive this.

* With regards to this matter, I recommend an old post by Chris Atwood at Three Hierarchies in which he defends Luther's position against a Calvinist critic.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Lutheran Canon

Last week, Edward T. Oakes wrote an interesting article for First Things about the nature and role of canons. He made the valid point that canons are indispensable in any field, despite efforts by postmodernists to dismiss the very idea of the canon as hegemonic and imperialist. He also mentioned his candidates for various canons - theological, philosophical, and literary - and remarked on their differing criterion for admittance (style is crucial for the literary canon, whereas orthodoxy is decisive for the theological). It's a fascinating subject, one that appeals to my need to classify and delimit, to formulate my "best of" list.

Of course, Oakes's piece got me thinking about the Lutheran canon. What theologians (other than Luther) and books (other than the Book of Concord) are central to Lutheran self-understanding? Who is on the Lutheran All-Star team? At first I thought it would be easy to answer such questions, but I soon realized that it was no easy task. Indeed, it became apparent that the composition of the Lutheran canon would be a contentious issue, one that would easily divide along denominational lines. We can all agree, of course, that Luther is the standard-bearer of our theology, but who are Luther's true successors? Questions like these have divided Lutherans from the very beginning.

After writing down a few names, I concluded that "canonical Lutherans" can essentially be divided into two lineages, with Luther as their common ancestor. Here's my preliminary list,* which includes Lutherans from every century except our current one (the verdict is still out on living theologians). Please feel free to suggest additions and/or subtractions:

Group 1: Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), C.F.W. Walther (1811-1887), Werner Elert (1885-1954).

Group 2: Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705), Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

The two groups can perhaps be labeled "insiders" and "outsiders", although some may call the latter group "confessional". Another distinction might be "pietist" (or "existential") versus "orthodox", although this is also imperfect. Regardless, members of Group 2 were typically devout Christians raised in Lutheran countries who often clashed with the established church of their day (Kierkegaard is the classic example). These thinkers were unmistakably Lutheran in their theological orientation, but they were in no sense trying to repristinate Luther's theology. They admired Luther but did not feel beholden to him. In contrast, those in Group 1 were determined to preserve the "pure doctrine" of the Reformation. They viewed their task as principally one of expounding upon what had already been perfectly revealed in Scripture and the confessions - style was less important than a clear and forceful exposition of the faith.

Readers of this blog should not be surprised to learn that I am most drawn to the "outsiders" wing of the Lutheran canon - Kierkegaard and Hamann are particular favorites of mine. It is also this group that has received the most attention from non-Lutherans, perhaps because they better capture the boldness and excitement of Luther's theology, if not always the exact content. But I really believe that the two groups need each other, since they represent the tension that is always present in Lutheran theology between radicalism and conservatism. As I've mentioned before, this tension can be traced back to Luther himself, who led a very conservative Reformation with one foot in the Catholic Church and one foot outside. But it's my belief that this incongruity has contributed to the incredible richness of Lutheran theology.

* I have deliberately left Lutheran church historians and biblical scholars off the list, although Bultmann and Harnack would probably make many people's list of most influential Lutherans. I also omitted philosophers that had been heavily influenced by Lutheran theology, such as Hegel and Nietzsche. Finally, I did not include musicians, although some would say that J.S. Bach is the greatest Lutheran to have ever graced our planet.