Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Each Misunderstanding of the Sacrament is Bound to Lead to a Wrong Concept of the Gospel"

In the introduction to This is My Body, Hermann Sasse argues that the Lord's Supper is so central to Christian life and thought that "every disease of the Church becomes manifest at the Lord's Table." This was true even in the early church, as Paul's first letter to the Corinthians demonstrates. Sasses writes that:
"The schisms and heresies against which Paul had to fight in the Church of Corinth seem to have become noticeable first in the celebration of the Lord's Supper... Thus the controversies over the Lord's Supper, which have so often provoked the criticism of Christians and non-Christians - Holy Communion having become the cause of unholy disunion - go back to the time of the New Testament. The reason for such controversies may be found in a lack of love, as seems to have been the case at Corinth. But it may be found also in the fact that every dissension concerning the Gospel necessarily expresses itself in a dissension over the Lord's Supper. Just as the Church of Christ becomes conscious of its own nature as it gathers around the Lord's Table, so its weaknesses, errors, and sins also become manifest on that occasion. Each misunderstanding of the Gospel must lead to a misunderstanding of the Sacrament. Each misunderstanding of the Sacrament is bound to lead to a wrong concept of the Gospel."
In other words, the Lord's Supper is not simply one element of Christianity among many, unrelated to other matters like soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. Since it serves as the center of Christian piety and worship, a person's understanding of the Lord's Supper will inform their thinking on all other matters of faith, and visa verse. Thus, Sasse's words should serve as a warning to all those who would sweep aside differences regarding the Sacraments in the name of ecumenical progress. Disagreement with regards to the Lord's Supper is a sign of major disagreements elsewhere. In Here We Stand, Sasse illustrates this point by referring to the Lutheran/Reformed split that occurred in the 16th century:
In the 16th century it was the question of the Lord's Supper which first brought to light the great doctrinal differences between the two churches which claimed to be evangelical. It is not true, as was later contended.., that there had been agreement in all essential points of evangelical doctrine until Luther's stubborn insistence on his exposition of the words, "This is my body," wrecked the unity which had already been achieved. The Sacrament of the Altar was rather the point at which, despite every good intention, the utter impossibility of reconciling two fundamentally different conceptions of Revelation and Gospel were clearly demonstrated... What was really at stake was revealed during the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, when Oecolampadius exhorted Luther not to think so much about the humanity of Christ, but rather to lift up his thoughts to His divinity. Luther replied that he knew and honored no other God than the one who became man. And this God is present in the Sacrament just as substantially as He was born of the Virgin. Apart from Him there is no God who can save us. Consequently the humanity of the Lord dare not be underestimated or neglected... Consequently, Luther's insistence on the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament is at the same time an insistence on the reality of the Incarnation."
Here we see how Luther could not abandon his belief in the Real Presence without destroying his whole understanding of the Gospel in the process.

Sadly, latter generations have failed to appreciate the intimate theological relationship between the Sacrament and other areas of doctrine. For example, the ELCA, since 1997, has been in "full communion" with several Reformed churches that do not share Luther's insistence on the Real Presence, meaning that Reformed ministers can now preside over Lutheran altars. That such an arrangement is considered generally acceptable is an indication that the Sacraments have a diminished standing in both churches, such that it's not considered important what we or other Christians believe about the Lord's Supper. Apparently, "it is enough" if we all agree to simply ignore our differences and treat our confessional heritage like trivia. Sasse's book is valuable corrective to this trend, because it reminds us how vitally important a correct understanding Lord's Supper was to the Reformers. There can be no unity where there is disunity about the Sacraments.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Too Hungry, For Dinner at Eight

Sadly, I haven't had much time to blog lately, as I was in Palo Alto for several days running experiments at the Stanford Synchrotron (trust me, it's not as cool as it sounds). The weather in the Bay Area was (to quote Sinatra) "cold and damp", with highs in the low 50's and periodic rain showers. But compared to our current weather in Minnesota, it was paradise.

Thankfully, the plane rides and the long hours spent collecting data gave me plenty of time to read. In particular, I read two works by the German Lutheran author Hermann Sasse - Here I Stand and This is My Body (I have just started reading the latter title). I hope to have something to say about these titles in the future.

In the meantime, please amuse yourself with the song Alando - a tribute to Wisconsin basketball star (and Player of the Year candidate) Alando Tucker. The lyrics, composed by a Madison DJ, are set to the ABBA song "Fernando". Beware - the song will get stuck in your head!!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Luther's Two Theodicies

Midway through Bondage of the Will (section V), Luther takes up the problem of theodicy, which is intimately connected to the matter of free will. After all, if there is no free will and all occurs by necessity, then God becomes the author of evil and suffering. Indeed, this constitutes one of Erasmus's main arguments in favor of free will: if God gives us freedom, then we can blame the presence of evil in the world on sinful humanity, thereby absolving God of any possible crimes. But Luther will have none of this. He deals with the question of theodicy in two separate ways, which I will label "existential" (for lack of a better term) and "speculative". In this post, I argue that these two approaches are somewhat at odds with each other, and that this may be an area where Luther's thinking is not entirely consistent.

The point of departure for this discussion in BotW is the following passage from Exodus: "The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh". Erasmus writes: "It seems absurd that God Who is not just but good, should be said to have hardened the heart of a man so that by means of his iniquity God should show his power." To resolve this absurdity, Erasmus argues that God did not actively harden the heart of Pharaoh, but merely permitted Pharaoh's heart to harden itself. That is, God did not correct Pharaoh's sin, thus allowing it to take its own evil course. But Luther rejects this interpretation for many reasons. Firstly, he thinks it goes against the plain meaning of Scripture. He also points out that it doesn't really absolve God in the matter, since presumably He could have corrected Pharaoh's behavior instead of allowing him to languish in sin. Finally, and most substantially, Luther argues that this whole business of trying to justify God is misguided to being with. It is not the job of human reason to justify God. Instead, reason must be silent before the holy mystery of God:
Reason will insist that these are not acts of a good and merciful God. They are too far beyond her grasp; and she cannot bring herself to believe that the God Who acts and judges thus is good; she wants to shut out faith, and to see, and feel, and understand, how it is that He is good and not cruel... It is along this line that reason storms and contends, in order to clear God of blame, and to vindicate His justice and goodness! But faith and the Spirit judge otherwise, believing the God is good even though he should destroy all men...

This must be said: if you want the words 'they were very good' to be understood of God's works after the fall, you will notice that the words were spoken with reference, not to us, but to God. It does not say: 'Man saw what God had made, and it was very good.' Many things seem, and are, very good to God which seem, and are, very bad to us. Thus, afflictions, sorrows, errors, hell, and all God's best works are in the world's eyes very bad, and damnable. What is better than Christ and the gospel? But what is there that the world abominates more? How things that are bad for us are good in the sight of God is known only to God and to those who see with God's eyes, that is, who have the Spirit.

Here, Luther rejects any speculative theodicy that presumes to reconcile the existence of evil with the goodness of God. In its place, he offers an existential theodicy based on faith, not understanding. For Luther, as for Kierkegaard*, the highest expression of faith is to believe that God is loving and good even in the deepest suffering. Indeed, a central insight of Luther's "theology of the cross" is that God's presence is to be found, not in glory and happiness, but in the dark night of suffering. As he says in the Heidelberg Disputation: "He deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." Or as Kierkegaard wrote: "Faith sees best in the dark."

So far so good. The problem is that in the following sections (starting with V(iv)), Luther engages in the same type of speculative theodicy that he just condemned in Erasmus. Granted, he appears somewhat reluctant to do so, saying that he is only attempting to "humor reason". But, nevertheless, he pushes forward with his own apology for God. Luther says that God works on all humans "according to what they are, what He finds them to be: which means, since they are evil and perverted themselves, that when they are impelled to action by this movement of Divine omnipotence they do only that which is perverted and evil." Thus, God is the engine, so to speak, of all human action. But if the machines themselves are wicked and evil, then this divine power will result in evil acts.
Here you see that when God works in and by evil men, evil deeds result; yet God, though He does evil by means of evil men, cannot act evilly Himself, for He is good, and cannot do evil; but He uses evil instruments, which cannot escape the impulse and movement of His power. The fault which accounts for evil being done when God moves to action lies in these instruments, which God does not allow to be idle.
As with all speculative theodicies, this explanation raises more questions than it answers, and it in no way lets God "off the hook." After all, why doesn't God make the evil instruments good, as he certainly has the power to do so? More to the point, how is Luther's position different than the one offered by Erasmus, which he trashed just a few pages ago? In both cases, God allows evil to remain; the only difference is whether he tolerates evil actively or passively. And that doesn't amount to much of a difference from the perspective of a suffering humanity.

In the end, all speculative theodicies flounder upon the following paradox: that a God who is loving and omnipotent has created a world in which suffering and evil run rampant. No explanation that takes both God and evil seriously will ever be able to solve this contradiction. The advantage of Luther's existential approach is that it doesn't try to resolve the paradox, but instead incorporates it into faith itself. Of course, this won't satisfy the theologian of glory who craves an all-encompassing explanation, but it will suffice for those who "know God hidden in suffering."

* Not to beat a dead horse, but Kierkegaard and Luther are on the same "wavelength" here. In his Gospel of Sufferings, SK writes: "If God is love, then he is also love in everything, love in what you can understand and love in what you cannot understand, love in the dark riddle that lasts a day or in the riddle that lasts seventy years... Right here is faith's struggle: to believe without being able to understand."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Command as Promise

The nagging problem of free will, which I discussed in a recent post, has compelled me to read Luther's Bondage of the Will in its entirety (previously, I had only read excerpts). I'm approximately half way through the book and, frankly, I'm ashamed that I didn't read it sooner. It's truly Luther at his best - polemical, insightful, often quite funny.

Most of Luther's arguments in BotW are familiar ones, at least to those acquainted with his theology. But one theme was new to me. In section IV(ix), Luther challenges Erasmus' interpretation of three Old Testament passages: Zech 1.3, Jer 15.19, and Ezek. 18.23. The first two verses exhort the listener to "turn" (or return) to the Lord. Erasmus, of course, argues that these passages contain an implicit endorsement of free will, since they seem to suggest that the individual is capable of choosing whether or not to "turn" to the Lord. However, Luther understands these passage quite differently:
The word 'turn' is used in the Scriptures in two ways, one legal, the other evangelical. In its legal use, it is an utterance of exaction and command, requiring, not endeavor, but a change in the whole life. Jeremiah frequently uses it in this sense, saying: "Turn ye unto the Lord' (Jer. 25.5, 35.15, 4.1), where it is plain enough that he includes a requirement of all the commandments. In its evangelical sense, it is an utterance of divine consolation and promise, by which nothing is required of us, but the grace of God is offered to us. Such is this, in Ps. 15: 'When the Lord shall turn again the captivity of Zion'; and this in Ps. 22: 'Turn again unto thy rest, O my soul!'. Zechariah has therefore set out in the shortest compass the proclamation of both law and grace. It is the whole sum of the law when he says: 'Turn ye unto me'; and it is grace when he says: 'I will turn unto you'. -- Bondage of the Will (165-166)
Luther interprets the command as promise. God, in effect, says to the sinner: "You will return to me, not on the basis of your own power, but because my Spirit will work in you. Do not despair of fulfilling this command. Instead, hold on to my promise, that you will return to me because I will see to it." The command is both law and grace, which "raises up and comforts the sinner as he lies under [the] torment and despair" of his sin.

After thinking about Luther's remarkable words for a time, it occurred to me that I had heard a similar approach before. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard, while discussing the command that one "shall love his neighbor as himself", briefly mentions what a blessed comfort this shall is. In fact, like Luther, he asserts that the divine command cures the despair it creates:
"It is indeed most strange, almost like mockery, to say to the despairing person that he shall do that which was his sole desire but the impossibility of which brings him to despair... Who would have the courage [to say this] except eternity, which at the very moment love wants to despair over its unhappiness commands it to love... When eternity says, "You shall love", it is responsible for making sure that this can be done. What is all other comfort compared to that of eternity!" -- Works of Love (41-42) [Note: for Kierkegaard, eternity = God].
Viewed this way, the command to "love our neighbors as ourselves" acquires a whole new dimension. It loses its heaviness and becomes positively light. The command still stands, but we are no longer abandoned to our own resources. It is as if Christ says to us: "Trust in me and I will teach you to love. You shall love, I promise." What a merciful thought!

P.S. The similarity of Luther and Kierkegaard on this point is further proof of my proposition #4, which asserts that "Kierkegaard was a very good Lutheran". In my estimation, few theologians have so thoroughly internalized Luther's law/gospel dialectic as SK.

True Colors, Shining Through

As the Wisconsin men's basketball team is now ranked 2nd in the AP poll (and 3rd in the lousy ESPN/USA Today poll), it's high time for Without Authority to start sporting the Badger red-and-white. With Alando Tucker and Coach Bo Ryan, I have a feeling that this team (probably the best in Wisconsin history) will be playing long into March. On Wisconsin!!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Best Contemporary Theology Meme

I've been tagged by Patrik:
Name three (or more) theological works from the last 25 years (1981-2006) that you consider important and worthy to be included on a list of the most important works of theology of the last 25 years (in no particular order).
To make my decision a little easier, I've decided to confine myself to Lutheran authors. Also, I won't include the very deserving Systematics of Jenson or Pannenberg because: a) many others have already included these volumes, and b) these theologians are borderline Lutherans. So here are my picks:

1) Eberhard Jüngel: God as the Mystery of the World
2) Gerhard O. Forde: Theology is for Proclamation
3) Oswald Bayer: Living by Faith - Justification and Sanctification

P.S. I've decided to add a fourth: Eberhard Jüngel's Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Scientific Assault on Free Will

John Rose at First Things has some worthwhile comments regarding a NY Times article about science and free will. Apparently, there are a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that free will is simply an illusion, a trick played on the mind by the mind. According to neurobiologist Mark Hallett, "Free will does exist, but it's a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free... The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don't have it."

Someone should remind these scientists (and the NY Times, as well) that the debate over free will is not one that can be resolved by science. Why? Because science itself does not have free will when it comes to this question; that is, science is forced by its own presuppositions to conclude that humans lack free will. This is nicely illustrated in the article by Dr. Silberstein, who notes that "every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random." But these are the only two possibilities that science allows itself to consider! Science regards all systems as machines whose behavior is determined by fixed laws of cause and effect, and any system whose behavior is not predicable in this fashion is labeled as "random". Thus, when approaching the brain, the neurobiologist is essentially forced by the scientific method to think of this organ as a machine, a fancy computer that (by definition) lacks free will in any meaningful sense. It's not surprising, then, that they have found some aspects of what they were looking for, but the overall conclusion was determined in advance (but then again, that shouldn't surprise the scientists, because they lack free will themselves).

Quoting Dr. Silberstein, the article goes on to say that "if human actions can't be caused and aren't random, 'it must be - what - some weird magical power?'... People who believe already that humans are magic will have no problem with that." So apparently anyone who believes that there is a qualitative difference between a human being and a machine is guilty of "magical" thinking. Of course, this is a not-so-veiled shot at those religious types who stubbornly cling to the notion that humans have an intrinsic dignity greater than birds, bacteria, and PCs. Indeed, as Rose points out, it seems that the urge to expose the "free will delusion" is largely motivated by the desire to debunk religion. After all, if there is no free will, then there can be no soul or spirit, or so the argument. But this is not a good strategy, as the lack of human free will is hardly incompatible with theism; in fact, there are various strands of Christian theology, in particular Calvinism, that have long advocated determinism. The findings of biologists that some of our actions and decisions are out of our control would come as no surprise to Calvin or Luther (the latter even wrote a book entitled "The Bondage of the Will").

What the scientists fail to realize is that the real casualty of their assault on free-will will be humanism, not theism. If there is no free will, then there really is no democracy, no ethics, no art or literature, no science, no love. If free will is an illusion, then all these other things are illusions too. Is this really what the scientists want? I somehow doubt it. But in their quest to destroy religion, they should take care lest they accidentally destroy humanity instead.

P.S. The article also contains some baffling comments from Daniel Dennett, in which he essentially claims that "free will and determinism can coexist". Anyone who understands what he's saying here, please help me out. He makes no sense to me.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ten Propositions on Kierkegaard

Over at Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius has written several "ten propositions" posts on topics ranging from the Trinity to Karl Barth to Hell (a nearly complete list can be found here). I have enjoyed these posts immensely and now it's time for me to rip-off the idea. So here, without further ado, are my ten propositions on Kierkegaard:

1. To fully understand and appreciate Kierkegaard, one must share his faith in the God-human [Gud-Menneske] Jesus Christ. This is because SK, in many of his works, is not writing for the general public; he is writing so that the “single individual” may develop a deeper commitment to New Testament Christianity. To approach these works in a detached manner is to miss the point entirely.

2. Kierkegaard's second (i.e., Christian) authorship should be given priority over his first authorship, and thus his early works should be read in the light of his latter works, and not vice versa. A SK novice should therefore begin with For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself and work back to Either/Or (never, never start with Fear and Trembling).

3. It is a fatal mistake to assume that the various pseudonyms speak for Kierkegaard himself. To know what SK really thought, go to his Upbuilding/Christian Discourses or to his Journals.

4. Kierkegaard was a very good Lutheran - a "theologian of the cross" par excellence. He never wavered with respect to solas of the Reformation - sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide. And his Communion Discourses make it clear that he was a firm believer in the real presence. By stripping off the metaphysical baggage that had accumulated during Lutheran orthodoxy and Hegelian idealism, Kierkegaard liberated the essence of Luther's theology for the modern world.

5. Kierkegaard's theological brilliance was equalled by his literary genius. No other theologian in the entire history of the Church has been so skillful with the pen, so witty and imaginative. I dare you to name another theologian or philosopher that is as fun to read as SK (Thomas Oden has issued a similar challenge in this book).

6. While Kierkegaard was certainly the first existentialist (and perhaps the first postmodernist), his Christian faith makes his identification with these latter-day movements problematic. Bultmann and Barth are his true 20th-century heirs, not Heidegger, Sartre, or Derrida.

7. Anyone who claims to completely understand Fear and Trembling or Repetition is either a liar or an idiot (or both).

8. Kierkegaard's Attack on Christendom was a justified assault against the liberal, bourgeois Christianity of his day, and it is relevant wherever the Church transforms itself into the "established order". However, the shrill and bitter tone adopted in these final writings should not be emulated.

9. Kierkegaard's life and his writings are intimately intertwined - it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. For this reason, virtually none of writings cannot be read apart from his Journals. If you don't know about his relationship with his father, his aborted engagement to Regine, or the Corsair affair, you will miss a great deal.

10. Anyone who thinks that Kierkegaard was an acosmic misanthrope should read Works of Love. And even if you don't think that about SK, you should still read Works of Love!!