Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Grammar of the Gospel, Part 2

Continuing with the focus on the grammar of the Gospel, here is a quote from Martin Luther’s Theology by Oswald Bayer (Eerdmans, 2008), a work which is densely packed with subjects for theological reflection. My own comments follow beneath in the 'unbolded' font.

“The Word is fundamental for the activity in which human beings go about the work of developmental learning, for which the divine gracious gift of the Spirit sets one free: hearing and speaking, reading and writing; ‘there is no more powerful or more honourable task for a human being than speaking, since the human being is most specifically to be distinguished from other animals by the ability to speak (Gen 2:19f.), more than by means of the bodily form or other actions’ (Heinrich Bornkamm,ed., Luthers Vorreden zur Bibel, 3rd ed. 1989:66). Thus in the first place, the sedula lectio (constant, concentrated textual study) admittedly refers most specifically to the daily activity of the ‘regularly called’ theologians, who ‘publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church’ (cf. CA XIV); it refers to constant, concentrated interaction with the biblical texts, to the lifelong practice of careful meditation on the texts: ‘that is: not only in the heart, but also publicly speaking the words and a constant pursuing and scouring, reading and rereading, diligently noticing with great care and reflecting on the literal Word in the book, to discern what the Holy Spirit means to convey.’

For Luther theology is primarily a practical ability exercised in the parish ministry by the regularly called pastors. In Germany to this day it is not only the professional theologian but also the parish pastor who may be referred to as a “theologian”. Most pastors in English-speaking Lutheranism would eschew such a title out of modesty, ceding the role of theologian to the professional university or seminary lecturer, thus unintentionally devaluing their own calling.
Indeed, the usage of theologian for parish pastor seems to have disappeared entirely from English-speaking Lutheranism. A German theology student once applied to Luther Seminary in Australia to do his vicarage here, requesting the supervision of a “theologian”; the seminary replied that they could not possibly spare a lecturer for that task and declined his request. The student had actually been requesting the supervision of a parish pastor.

This calling of being a practical theologian working at the coal face, so to speak, undoubtedly places a heavy responsibility on men who are often deeply conscious of their merely average ability, academically speaking. But ability with languages can always be improved by working with the sacred text, and there is no shortage of grammatical aids available today that can make up for shortcomings in this area. What is really crucial is reliance on grace, experience, tentatio (spiritual struggle) and being alert to the timing of pastoral counsel. In the final analysis, being a theologian is a God-given ability (Cf. Bayer). Many a student with only average results at seminary has gone on to have a deep impact in pastoral ministry.

One must also take note here of the reason why a knowledge of grammar is necessary: it enables us to interpret the literal word of scripture, by which the Holy Spirit teaches us.

A further, very practical suggestion: pastors could benefit from having a large, wide-margin edition of their favourite translation (those proficient in the Biblical langauges could have a Hebrew OT & a Greek NT for this purpose) in which they make notes or glosses in the margins, recording their rich gleanings from the sacred text, beginning with language notes. Over the years, this could become a repository of gradually maturing insights into the sacred text and its applications for the day. Just as the lines on ones face mark the impact of engagement with the world, so the lines on the page mark the impact of one's engagement with the text. - M.H.

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