Friday, 29 October 2010

Theologia Est Habitus Practicus

There was among the theologians of [Lutheran orthodoxy] a deep awareness of man's - and this means also the theologian's - waywardness and sinfulness and congenital blindness, which pervades also the realm of the intellect...Correlative to this view of man was a recognition amongst the theologians of that period that the theologian in particular was in constant need of God's grace and of the Spirit's enlightenment, that the theologian to carry out his calling must depend on faith in Chirst and His Word and be a man of prayer. In other words, the personal experience of the Law and the Gospel in one's faith-life is the indispensable condition for all one's theologizing.
Robert Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism (Concordia, St Louis/London, 1970), Volume 1, pp406-407.

Theologia est habitus practicus (theology is a practical aptitude) is an axiom of Lutheran theology. This means that theology is not simply a body of abstract truths, nor only the knowledge of these truths, but also the experience of these truths in life and the God-given ability to apply them to the Christian life (2 Corinthians 2:16ff, 2 Tim 3:16-17, Hebrews 5:14). Thus knowledge and faith, theology and piety, head and heart cannot separated.

Reflecting again on the "great theologians", a notable characteristic of them is that they were godly men; many of them (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Gerhard) wrote profound hymns, prayers and devotional works as well as producing theology of the highest intellectual order (for some, prayer was itself the highest expression of theology). There was in them no separation between faith and life, knowledge and piety, head and heart.

This seems to me to be in contrast to the theologians of the modern period (with conspicuous exceptions). The post-Enlightenment period marks the beginning of a separation of theology from the life of the church, as theology is consigned to a "department" in the now increasingly secular universities (no longer the "queen of the sciences", but an increasingly despised hand-maiden). Theology welcomes the release from the constraints of confessional commitments and the freedom to seek open inquiry. The noetic effects of sin, even on the mind of the theologian liberated from confessions, become ever more apparent even as the reality of sin is denied.

Having given up solid ground on which theology once stood, the professional theologians should have been the last to be surprised when the role of theology departments in secular universities was relativised completely and they become mere centres for "religious studies". Confessional theology survives, by and large, only in the seminaries and church run colleges, where it can at least conserve the tradition relatively unmolested, but only at the expense of exile from the centres of intellectual life of the wider world. Few theologians manage to bridge the gap and obtain a hearing in both church and academy. The professionalisation of theology in the second half of the 20th century sees the Ph. D. become the "indispensable condition" for theologising, rather than "the experience of Law and Gospel in one's faith-life". Man, with his parchments and acclaim, now makes theologians, not God.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A 'Catechism of the Lutheran Faith'?

One of the most well-thumbed books in my library is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). It came out in during the period I was "seeking" a church home and so I picked one up on the day it was available in the city where I worked. It was a very large, cheaply made, bound-with-glue paperback which has since fallen apart and been been replaced by a smaller, better quality vinyl-bound version which I have filled with copious notes, as I did my first copy. The chief virtue of this catechism - and let me say there is much in it one can agree with, along, of course, much which one bound by scripture alone must reject - is its lucid text, and the fact that it contains footnotes which refer one back to the official church documents if further reading is desired.

It occured to me recently, as I was hunting around for suitable adult education materials, that there is no real present-day Lutheran equivalent. Of course, we have Luther's Small and Large Catechisms, and I have no desire to see them replaced, but I do wonder whether there is a need for a contemporary 'Catechism of the Lutheran Faith'? Several attempts at such have been made in the past, but they are now obsolete and to my knowledge nothing has replaced them. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has a surprisingly good Catechism of Christian Doctrine which is designed for personal study and meditation, but it is perhaps a little too brief. I have in mind something that is discussional, but also conducive to meditation (i.e. Scripture based), and somewhere between the Small Catechism and a basic doctrinal handbook for adults, or the Large Catechism. It would be more official than, say, Veith's Spirituality or Preus's Why I Am A Lutheran (both excellent in themselves), and would follow the usual catechetical outline.

Luther's Small Catechism could even feature as the primary text, as it does with the Finnish catechism, being printed on one page with the expanded commentary on the other. As in older catechisms, Bible references could be included in footnotes or elsewhere, along with Confessional references and recommendations for further reading in some of the excellent Lutheran literature that is now available in English. Theologians and/or pastors of churches associated with the International Lutheran Council could author the catechism with an appropriate editor. The final text could then be approved by the synods and/or church councils of the relevant church bodies. It could be given to confirmands as a Confirmation gift, representing the next step in their internalisation of Christian doctrine. Of course, it must also be affordable and available for wide and easy distribution electronically, perhaps by licence to congregations/pastors.

The Lord knows, we need something like this desperately. Such a text could serve as a powerful statement of the orthodox Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith at a time of much confusion in world Lutheranism generally, and thus cultivate both unity and uniformity of teaching, both of which are sound, confessional objectives.

[Pic: The Catechism Lesson, by Jules-Alexis Meunier]

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Great Theologians II


Following on from my review of Dr McDermott's interesting but imo flawed book, this is my list of great theologians:

Irenaeus
For his anti-Gnostic theologising (thus Irenaeus rather than Origen gets a seat at the table).

Athanasius
Almost single-handedly saved orthodox Christianity from the Arians.

The Cappadocians: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus
For their contributions to Trinitarian orthodoxy, Christology, and Pneumatology.

Augustine
For his anti-Pelagian works, and for his substantial part in laying the foundations of theology.

Anselm
For his work on the atonement and his more philosophical theology. The first scholastic, who attempted a rationally coherent theology in the round (this is also his chief weakness, as it is of later scholastics).

Bernard of Clairvaux
The last of the Fathers. Defeater of Abelard's rationalism. Essentially Augustinian, although his Mariolotry renders his position on this list open to question.

Thomas Aquinas
Still arguing with myself on this one; either saved the church from Aristotelian philosophic rationalism or compromised helplessly with it. Gerhard (see below) rehabilitated Aquinas into Lutheran theology.

Martin Luther
God's instrument in restoring the Gospel in its purity to the church.

Martin Chemnitz
Confessor, patristic scholar, intellectually rebutted the Roman Counter-Reformation, systematised the teaching of his teachers, Luther and Melanchthon, as well as making a beginning on integrating the patristic witness into Reformation teaching, and thus set the Reformation on a firm foundation. "Without the second Martin (Chemnitz), the work of the first Martin (Luther) would not have survived."

John Gerhard
Architect of Lutheranism as evangelical-catholicity. Synthesiser of catholic orthodoxy for the post-Reformation era; the 'Lutheran Aquinas' whose definitive work is only now being published in English.

There you go. If you were stranded on a desert island, the works of these men would sustain you with a veritable feast of theological reflection.

Q. What criteria have you used?
A. 1) Saved the church from a Gospel-perverting heresy (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Chemnitz); 2) made a signal doctrinal contribution (Athanasius, Anselm, Luther, Chemnitz); 3) synthesised the Christian theological tradition in a way which was both apologetic and genuinely progressive (Aquinas, Chemnitz, Gerhard).

Q. Why no other Eastern theologians? John of Damascus? Symeon the NT? Gregory Palamas?
A. Athanasius was Eastern. I nearly included one of the Cappadocians as a representative of what the church owes Eastern theology, particularly in Christology (I still might. Which one?) (Correction: All three have now been added). I guess Irenaeus is Eastern as well. But ultimately I reject the notion that Eastern theology is categorically different from Western theology; a theology is not Eastern or Western, it is either soundly based on scripture or not, that is really the fundamental category. To deny this is to give up the clarity and primacy of scripture, and this the Eastern fathers themselves would not approve of. Later Eastern theology precludes itself by failing to assimilate Paul's teaching on justification.

Q. Why not Newman, Edwards, Barth, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, et al?
A. Well, because in my view subscribing to a fundamental, Gospel-undermining error in a doctrine or article of faith precludes a theologian from inclusion in this list. Each of the theologians mentioned at the head of this paragraph subscribed to a creed or confession which I am bound to say was in formal error, and to a greater o rlesser degree also expressed erroneous teachings in their personal theology.

For me, there is no expression of 'catholicity' that does not express itself in a particular confessional language which can be judged by scripture, the 'norming norm'. Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, Weleyanism and Neo-Orthodoxy all fail this test. Likewise, C. S. Lewis notwithstanding, the notion of a 'mere Christianity' that is common to all confessions regardless of their particular doctrinal distinctives is a chimera; rather, the various confessions are each versions of 'mere Christianity', mutually exclusive on one or several points of doctrine, which call for a judgment, positive or negative, on the contents of their confession. Since all Christian creeds and confessions implicitly or explicitly appeal to scripture as the ultimate authority, let it be so.

Q. But this list is too partial to Lutheran theologians.
A. Well, what do you expect, given my confessional commitments? Actually, I think it's quite catholic in the genuine sense, after all it includes theologians recognised or owned in a sense by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed Christians. And really, including someone like Chemnitz or Gerhard is, I think, more defensible than including someone like Newman. Once, and not that long ago, Chemnitz and Gerhard were held in high regard and cited positively and often in Anglican and Reformed circles, so their value as theologians is actually more widely attested than is the case with Newman. Then also, in my view almost every major work Newman wrote is seriously flawed in some way (and demonstrably so, but that would require a book!) which fact alone precludes him from my list, even if he were thoroughly orthodox in doctrine.

Q. Why no moderns?
Here I agree with Thomas Oden, generally, the further back in classical theology you go, the better it gets, and the modern stuff just doesn't compare. Historical theology is a subject with diminishing returns after the 17th century. The 19th C. contains more riches than the 20th (for example, for all his prolixity, and despite the fact that he continues to stimulate us, Barth will be but a footnote to Liberalism in the definitive history of theology, if it is ever written), but the 18th C. was by and large a benighted time (which admittedly makes the singular Edwards stand-out all the more).

Q. Who are you to say?
No-one of any consequence; but it's my blog so I get to call it as I see it :0)
If you disagree, come up with your own list and show me why.
I'm open to discussion, it's all part of the rich and endlessly fascinating tapestry that is theology. I doubt you'll move me to reconsider in any major way, but my list is still open to revision. I would like to see some Reformed people make their case...after Calvin, William Perkins would have to be a contender, and then also the already mentioned Edwards.

The Great Theologians


A review of The Great Theologians by Gerald McDermott (IVP Academic 2010, US$20.00US; AUS$19.95 214pp.)

According to the author’s account, this book was ostensibly written as a brief guide to the great theologians for the educated layperson. The author is Dr Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College in Virginia and “teaching pastor” at St John Lutheran Church in Salem, Virginia. The book is published by an evangelical publishing house (IVP in the US) and from several asides in the text itself would seem to be written with a broadly evangelical readership in mind (with several in-text nods to the author’s fellow Lutherans as well). The author, however, seems to be more sympathetic to Catholic than Evangelical expressions of Christianity.

The great theologians in question are Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Such a list inevitably invokes reaction and/or criticism. The first six theologians listed would certainly not provoke much argument, although some may aver that Origen’s condemnation for heresy rules him out as a great theologian. However, the author makes a good case that this condemnation was not only posthumous but probably carried out on dubious grounds. I tend to agree with McDermott; as the church’s first systematic theologian in the post-apostolic era, Origen deserves a place at this table.

It is the last five names that will provoke the most debate, though: Edwards, Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth and von Balthasar may be important, even seminal theologians for understanding modern theology, but are they “great” theologians? In what sense, for example, is Schleiermacher “great”, when every aspect of his theology tended to undermine Christian orthodoxy? Certainly, a familiarity with Schleiermacher’s thought is necessary for understanding Liberalism, and subsequently Fundamentalism and Barthianism, but that places him in the category of essential rather than great theologians.

Likewise Edwards is a curious inclusion. That he was brilliant no-one would question, perhaps he even bordered on greatness, but it is his sectarianism that perhaps precludes him from a place on a list of great theologians. A great theologian should be a catholic theologian, with something to say to the whole church. Edwards’s theological concerns are too limited to the world of New England Congregational Calvinism, and even in that world his contributions were not altogether happy. It is perhaps as a philosophical theologian that he is included here? It is curious too that McDermott follows Jenson in labelling Edwards as ’America’s Theologian’; Edwards may arguably be America’s greatest theologian, but surely the title of ’America’s Theologian’ belongs to Charles Finney? (I’ll admit my tongue is partly in cheek here. If anyone can persuade me otherwise on Edwards, go ahead. I note that Dr McDermott is an Edwards scholar of note.)

Newman is important, mostly to Anglo and Roman Catholics of course, but I think that as a student of the Fathers himself even he would eschew the term “great” in regard to himself. Unlike Athanasius, he made no signal contribution in an area of doctrine. Unlike Aquinas he was not a systematic thinker whose comprehensiveness impresses even as it inevitably fails. Catholics may claim that, like Augustine, Newman is epochal in that he has shaped post-Vatican II Catholicism, and that is an argument of some merit. But then, as McDermott points out, most Protestants are bound to reject Newman’s ideas, and the most Newmanesque aspects of the teachings of Vatican II, e.g. the primacy of conscience and the development of doctrine, are yet to be completely proven in the life of the Roman church. The "jury" is still out on them, and it will likely take another 100 years or so to reach a decision. Then there is the problem that Newman made some stunning errors in his theology which he never revised, such as his notorious misreading of Luther’s doctrine of justification. If he had recognised these errors, the course of his theology and life may have been quite different.

Barth and von Balthasar are alike in that both are too close to us in history for an objective assessment of their theology to be made. Placing them in the company of Luther and Calvin, for example, not to mention Augustine, seems to be over-stretching things a little. This is not to say that we cannot learn from these men; on the contrary, as McDermott ably shows, there is much that is positive that can be taken from both men without accepting their theologies as a whole.

This extended introductory discussion allows me to make an important point: there is an inherent weakness in taking theologians out of their historical and confessional context and labelling them as “great”, with the value judgment that term implies. Perhaps “epochal” would have been a better term, recognising the way some of these theologians shaped the development of the church’s life for centuries after them. Or “essential”, meaning that one cannot essentially understand theology without being familiar with these names. But “great” is too ambiguous a term for my taste. But then, one must allow for McDermott’s stated goals. McDermott states that he chose the eleven on the basis of them having the “greatest influence”, but acknowledges that other names might just as well be submitted on such a basis, for example the Cappadocians, Anselm, John Wesley, and Charles Hodge. Wesley , for example, a more theological thinker than is usually realised, influenced millions directly or indirectly, and continues to do so (for good or ill), whereas von Balthasar is still an enigmatic and esoteric name known only to the theological cognoscenti.

But, this caveat aside, how well is the book executed? Very well in parts, not so well in others. The strongest chapters are those on Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas and, interestingly, Newman. These chapters would be quite accessible to the educated lay-person who has at least a nodding acquaintance with theological history and terminology, not to mention philosophy. The question is, how many of such persons are out there? That this book has been produced under the academic imprint of the publisher might reveal that the demand for it is actually quite low. This is a pity, but it is a reality; I suspect that a church attending, literate agricultural worker in 19th Century America would probably have been more familiar with theological discussion than a university educated arts graduate is today. Having said that, the discussion questions included at the end of each chapter provide a helpful guide for discussion if the book was used in a group setting. There are also suggestions for further reading as well as brief extracts from each theologians’ works to give a taste of their writing.

A review of this book cannot be concluded without reference to the author’s comments on Luther and Lutheranism which make one suspect that he is living somewhat in tension with his own confessional allegiance. It is one thing to be self-critical, but one does wish that the same yardstick was applied evenly throughout the book. The chapter on Luther is probably the weakest in the book, and concludes by implying that Luther’s theology would only be of interest or help if one was in exactly the same existential situation as Luther was when he made his “breakthrough” to the Gospel. The treatment of Luther’s theology of justification is welcome in places (acknowledging the Christological and Trinitarian ground of Luther’s theology, something which was continued by later Lutherans such as Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard) but tendentious in others (asserting that new discoveries by American and Finnish Luther scholars enable us to see that the Reformation was a mistake). Further, the author carelessly perpetuates the error that Luther was a monk, when in actual fact he was a friar, something quite different in medieval church life. If Luther were a monk, it is doubtful that he would have played the part in the Reformation that he did; thus the fact that he was a friar (friars had more einteraction with the lay community) can be seen as quite providential.

McDermott also makes the rather extraordinary claim, in his chapter on Newman, that Lutherans have “forgotten to preach the law before the Gospel” (p.166). Such a claim needs further explication. On the same page the author states that, by following Newman, Protestants might consider the “possibility that the Spirit has been guiding the church in its understanding of what Scripture and Jesus Christ mean”! Only someone uninformed as to the high regard for the Fathers exemplified in the classical tradition of dogmatics in both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions could make such a statement in an unqualified manner. It would be better to say that Newman’s re-discovery of the importance of the Fathers to both the Anglican and Catholic traditions might inspire Protestants to search out the place of Patristics in their own historical theologies (after all, it was a Lutheran who “invented” Patristics as a discrete area of study) . The author also repeats the oft-stated claim that Lutherans reduce the Gospel to justification by faith. “Yes, but…” one wants to shout! One might expect such a statement from a Catholic, but from a Lutheran professor? Justify yourself, Dr McDermott! In fact, it could be said that in his treatment of Luther Dr McDermott perpetuates a methodological error he accuses Protestants of, namely ignoring church history. Luther is best understood in the context of Lutheran confessional theology, which has answers to most of the questions I think Dr McDermott is asking of his tradition.

In conclusion, I found the book to be an interesting treatment of its subjects, but because of the author’s less than satisfactory handling of Luther, and because of the argument he seems to be having with his own tradition, I do not give the book an unqualified tick of approval. Read with discretion (as always). The theology undergraduates and pastors who will, I suspect, be the main readers of this book would really be better served, if they are Lutheran, by something like Bengt Hagglund’s old (1966) but still indispensable History of Theology. At best, The Great Theologians could serve as supplementary to a work like Hagglund's, which has a more solid dogmatic foundation.

Click on the post title to view the book's Amazon page.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Crown of Righteousness: Justification and Reward


I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Paul's Second Letter to Timothy, 4:6-8, part of the second reading for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (24th October, 2010) in the LCA's version of the RCL.

"We confess that eternal life is a reward, because it is something due on account of the promise, not on account of our merits. For the justification has been promised, which we have above shown to be properly a gift of God; and to this gift has been added the promise of eternal life, according to Rom. 8:30: Whom He justified, them He also glorified. Here belongs what Paul says, 2 Tim. 4:8: There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me. For the crown is due the justified because of the promise. And this promise saints should know, not that they may labor for their own profit, for they ought to labor for the glory of God; but in order that they may not despair in afflictions, they should know God's will, that He desires to aid, to deliver, to protect them. Just as the inheritance and all possessions of a father are given to the son, as a rich compensation and reward for his obedience, and yet the son receives the inheritance, not on account of his merit, but because the father, for the reason that he is his father, wants him to have it. Therefore it is a sufficient reason why eternal life is called a reward, because thereby the tribulations which we suffer, and the works of love which we do, are compensated, although we have not deserved it."
Defence of the Augsburg Confession, V, 241-243

I wonder how many pastors will be preaching on Paul's text this Sunday? I certainly am. I've found there is a great need to clearly expound the relationship between justification and reward to our Lutheran folk, as this is a question on which they are not clear, and often much confused. As the Confessions urge: "the preaching of rewards and punishments is necessary. God's wrath is set forth in the preaching of punishments...Grace is set forth in the preaching of rewards."

Perhaps in the past there has been too much "we are unworthy servants...poor miserable sinners" (true enough in its proper context), and not enough "we are sons and heirs of the kingdom" (note how the Confessions pick up this theme)? Too much law, not enough Gospel? Older folk tell me this was the case. The preacher needs to diagnose his hearers rightly, lest he apply the wrong medicine! (Or, rather, it might be better to say that he needs to have a word for both the self-righteous and the repentant sinners.)

The Confessions provide helpful guidance on properly distinguishing Law and Gospel on this matter, and can steer the preacher on the proper course between the Scylla of denying scripture's teaching on rewards out of (understandable) concern to keep the sola gratia (grace alone) pure, and the Charybdis of the Roman Catholic importation of human merit into justification. The sermon might have to clearly reject the Roman concept of Gnadenlohn ("gracious merit"), as the Germans call it, whereby human works merit an increase in grace and/or justification (sic!). This scholastic innovation has even crept into popular theology ("God helps those who help themselves").


An interesting challenge is whether/how to fit the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14) in as an illustration? This parable, which so clearly teaches justification based on God's mercy and faith alone, could be a good place to start the sermon: "In our Gospel this morning we hear of a man who was justified freely by God's grace and mercy...yet in our second reading Paul writes to Timothy about rewarded for keeping the faith, which reminds us that elsewhere in scripture, rewards for works we do are mentioned (cite examples)...What's going on here? Is salvation and eternal life a gift or a reward? How do we reconcile these teachings of scripture?" Such an intro might seem unduly theological, but we should not underestimate the theological nature of the questions many laity have, including on faith and works.

The key to exegeting the Pauline text is the place he assigns to faith.

The Confessional teaching that works should be done to the glory of God could be brought in at the conclusion of the sermon, and might bring the sermon to a close on an eschatological theme - the crown of righteousness...the glories of heaven... praising God (for himself, and also for works done in his name).

Note - This is really just me 'thinking out loud' as I meditate on the text in preparation for my sermon this Sunday. I find it helpful to write these thoughts down and kkep them, so why not blog them? It is not intended to serve as a replacement for any other preacher's own reflections, but if it helps...SDG. Think of it as 'one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread' (hopefully not too stale!).

Friday, 22 October 2010

Ancient Israelites Drank Beer

The ancient Israelites drank beer as well as wine, according to an American professor of Hebrew, Michael Homan:
Ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazirites and their moms, proudly drank beer—and lots of it. Men, women and even children of all social classes drank it. Its consumption in ancient Israel was encouraged, sanctioned and intimately linked with their religion. Even Yahweh, according to the Hebrew Bible, consumed at least half a hin of beer (approximately 2 liters, or a six-pack) per day through the cultic ritual of libation, and he drank even more on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10). People who were sad were advised to drink beer to temporarily erase their troubles (Proverbs 31:6). Yet the Biblical authors also called for moderation. Several passages condemn those who consumed too much beer (Isaiah 5:11, 28:7; Proverbs 20:1, 31:4). The absence of beer defines a melancholy situation, according to Isaiah 24:9. Beer was a staple in the Israelite diet, just as it was throughout the ancient Near East.

We suspect this discovery would not be news to Martin Luther, who was himself both a professor of Old Testament and an avid beer drinker. Nor would C. S. Lewis be surprised, and it confirms the common sense of John Wesley, who recommended ale drinking to his working-class converts as a wholesome alternative to the demon Gin.

The claim, along with a description of the brew, which was sans hops of course, as they were a later European addition to the brewing wort, is to be found in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Click on the post title to read the whole article.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

C of E to Reject Women Bishops?

THE TIMES -- October 20, 2010 12:00AM
WOMEN bishops in the Church of England are under threat after the results of elections to its governing body showed a swing against their consecration.
Early analysis of last week's elections to the General Synod showed that gains by evangelicals and traditionalist Anglo-Catholics had jeopardised the prospect of women bishops being consecrated.

The synod is elected every five years. The new synod, which consists of three houses of laity, clergy and bishops, will be inaugurated by the Queen, supreme governor of the Church of England, at Westminster Abbey next month.

The synod has been debating women's ordination for three decades and narrowly backed women priests in 1992. The first women were ordained at Bristol cathedral on Easter 1994.

The legislation to consecrate women bishops is in its final stages and is at present being debated by the 44 dioceses. It is due to return to the synod in 2012, when it will need a two-thirds majority from the three houses.


This would be a significant development in the Church of England, and it will give hope to Anglican conservatives and traditionalists that all is not lost, but it should be remembered that if it eventuates in 2012, the C of E's rejection of the consecration of women as bishops will owe more to a political alliance between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics than any consensus formed under Biblical teaching. The only thing the Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics will agree on is that women cannot be bishops. As to what a bishop actually is, that is a question they are divided upon. Such is the 'broad church' that is Anglicanism.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong in having a divergence of practises in regard to episcope (ecclesial oversight); the Lutheran Church can and does exist quite happily with or without bishops, since we do not regard episcopacy as a divinely mandated form of church government. But that is precisely the question on which Anglican Evangelicals and Catholics disagree - in Anglicanism, is episcopacy of the esse (being), or only the bene esse (well being) of the church?

Click on the post title to read the full report.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Something About Mary

Yesterday saw the canonisation in Rome of Australia's "first saint", Mary MacKillop. The TV and print news was saturated with coverage of the event. The local newspaper in the city I live in supplied a poster of Mary in its weekend edition. Even the Australian Broadcasting Commission (the Australian equivalent of the BBC), usually no friend to Christianity, broadcast the canonisation mass live - and a very dreary liturgy it was, too, but that's beside my point at present (But while on the subject, just why is it that Catholics can't sing? Does their religion give them no joy?).

What has been for me the most remarkable aspect of the occasion is the relative silence of the Protestant church bodies in this country. Does their silence reveal their doctrinal confusion(most have long ago succumbed to theological liberalism,and no longer know what they beieve)? Or, with all the emphasis on ecumenical rapprochement in recent decades, does the obligatory ecumenical niceness prevent them from speaking up? Are they afraid of being seen to be re-igniting the sectarian divisions of an old and fast disappearing Australia where confessional commitments mattered? Or could they simply not get the media interested in what they have to say, even if they wanted to?

Whatever the reasons may be, I've been particularly perplexed by the silence of our own Lutheran Church of Australia. Perhaps, I wonder aloud, the silence of the LCA is the result of acute embarrasment that this could happen 11 years after a claimed "substantial agreement" was reached on the doctrine of justification? Not only was the LWF-Vatican sponsored Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification well received by the LCA, but we also forged our own agreement with local Catholics, an agreement which some in the LCA touted as being actually better than the international one. I was at seminary at the time; we were told that this was the beginning of the re-integration of "the Lutheran movement" with Rome and that one day the JDDJ would be appended to the Book of Concord (sic!). Everyone seemed eager to go along for the ride, with a few dissenting exceptions (Quite a different few apparently took what the LCA said about JDDJ quite seriously and rode all the way to Rome. After all, wasn't that what the Reformation was about - justification? If substantial agreement on it had been reached, why remain separated?).

But the wheels have now fallen off that particular bandwagon, haven't they? At least, so it seems to me. The whole notion of Mary MacKillop being canonised because she exhibited "heroic virtue", which even the theologically illiterate secular press here have picked up on, reveals that the Thomistic-Aristotelian synthetic notion of justification as consisting of the infused grace of God which must then be "perfected" by the human subject through the habitual and extraordinary practice of the various virtues, thus meriting final justification and immediate entry into heaven, is still very much in play in Roman Catholicism. As Dr Sasse remarked apropos the Roman cult devoted to another, more widely-known Mary, behind these apparently harmless expressions of devotion to supposedly holy human beings is the teaching of synergism - that we co-operate with God in our salvation, a teaching which the Lutheran confessions unequivocably reject.

The canonisation of Mary MacKillop has brought out all this out in sharp relief, and revealed that Rome still takes its stand with the Council of Trent, JDDJ notwithstanding (how could it not? Trent was, in Rome's eyes, an authoritative ecumenical council). For example, one can find the Thomistic-Trentine teaching in outline in the relevant passages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no place for the "justification of the ungodly" in this system, and no immediate place in heaven after death for the ordinary believer who remains simul iustus et peccator to the end of their days on this earth. He or she can only look forward to time in purgatory, where the necessary purification required for them to enter heaven is undergone.

Just where, I ask, is the "good news for sinners" in this teaching?

As I have said before on this subject on this blog, I have no problem with lauding Mary MacKillop's achievements, which were done in admirable service to the poor, but if we are still confessionally Lutheran we can not buy into the whole theology which supports her canonisation as "Australia's first saint" (as if there weren't millions of such saints before and since her time). In fact, I think that we need to have a good look at the teaching behind the canonisation and ask whether it is not a perversion of the Biblical Gospel, and therefore ultimately "another Gospel"? We may yet be grateful that the canonisation of Mary has brought all of this out into sharp relief - it may compel us to ask ourselves the question: "What does it mean to be Lutheran today?"

Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is the Sydney Anglicans who have struck the most evangelical, "Lutheran" note in the lead-up to Mary's canonisation. They used the interest sparked by the event to run a series of talks in a Sydney pub called "Laugh with the Sinners". A free beer was offered to all participants! The talks were given by an ex-Catholic, who said by way of introduction that “The Catholic church, by putting Mary MacKillop forward as a saint, adds to the guilt felt by many of the 1.2 million Roman Catholics in Sydney. It also obscures the clarity of the Gospel that Jesus is our only mediator. They also obscure peoples' understanding of the biblical concept of sainthood by using this biblical word to mean something entirely different [from what it actually means].”

Perhaps Sydney Anglicans can say such things publicly because they have the freedom of not being hampered by a "substantial agreement" with Rome on justification?

Friday, 15 October 2010

Can Civilization Survive Without God?

I offer the following in lieu of my regular Monday post this week, which obviously did not happen, due to pressures of pastoral ministry - somewhat ironic given my recent post on stress among clergy!

Here's an excerpt from a report in The Christian Post on the most recent debate between the brothers Hitchens, this time on 'Can Civilization Survive Without God?' Click on the post title to read the whole article. Perhaps a transcript is already available somewhere on the 'net or maybe even some clips on You Tube? (Update: Video clip available below). I've recently read Peter Hitchens's book, The Rage Against God, and may post a short review soon.

I also take this opportunity to welcome to a couple of new followers to the blog and other new readers who have contacted me by e-mail privately; normal service should resume soon, d.v.


Hitchens Brothers Take Opposite Sides in Civilization, God Debate
By Michelle A. Vu|Christian Post Reporter
Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and his lesser known atheist-turned-Christian brother Peter Hitchens debated Tuesday over whether a civilization can survive without God.

Christopher, the elder of the two Hitchens, argued that civilization can survive without God and noted that millions of people in modern societies today are living in a post-religious society. He began his talk by discussing the word “Christendom,” or the Christian world, which has since disappeared.

“It’s hard to argue that they (people who live in post-religious society) lead conspicuously less civilized lives than their predecessor,” said Hitchens, author of the book God is Not Great, at a luncheon hosted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.

But younger brother Peter, who is a practicing, conservative Anglican, pointed to a decaying society in the post-Christian world. In particular, he noted that the neighborhood in England he grew up in is now overrun by gangs. The younger Hitchens contended that the deterioration of British society is partly due to the decline of Christianity in the country.

“The extraordinary combination … of liberty and order, seem to me to only occur where people take into their hearts the very, very, powerful messages of self-restraint without mutual advantage, which is central to the Christian religion,” said Peter, who is a respected British journalist and author of the book The Rage Against God.


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Christianity A Faded Cultural Memory For Gen-Y


A study published by the Church of England which will resonate with ministers in many English-speaking contexts concludes that people born after 1982 - known as "Generation Y" - have only a “faded cultural memory” of Christianity. For many Gen-Yers, religious observance extends no further than "praying in their bedrooms during moments of crisis".

“For the majority, religion and spirituality was irrelevant for day-to-day living,” one of the compilers of the report said. “On the rare occasions when a religious perspective was required, for example coping with family illnesses or bereavements, they often ‘made do’ with a very faded, inherited cultural memory of Christianity in the absence of anything else.”

Click on the post title to read a report on the study from the UK Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile, from the same newspaper, on the same day..."Druidry has been recognised as an official religion in Britain for the first time, thousands of years after its adherents first worshipped in the country."

Of course, some manage to make both faiths work for them...
(It should be noted that the present Archbishop of Canterbury - pictured - was inducted into a poetic order of Druids in 2002, not a religious order of same. I'm afraid I couldn't resist exploiting the link, though. How many people would know the difference? In a world of audio-visual "bytes" which do not allow for nuance or qualification, this is not the message you want to be sending.)

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Euthanasia: Not Just About Religion

By way of introduction for overseas readers, some background to this post: Australia has a new, minority government which contains at its centre an alliance between the Greens (a party of the radical left) and the Labor Party (a social democratic party with its roots in the labour movement). At the head of the Greens' agenda is a drive to make euthanasia legal.

Click on the post title to read an opinion piece in Australia's national broadsheet newspaper, The Australian , about euthanasia, which contains the crucial line, "it's not just about religion." Of course, euthanasia is at its heart a religious issue - it's ultimately about who is Lord of life, God or man. But religious arguments don't play in secular democracies, where laws on ethical matters have to be framed within the universally accepted parameters of reason.

This piece highlights two reasonable arguments against legalising euthanasia, 1) the weight it places upon the shoulders of doctors who, despite public views to the contrary, are not gods but fallible human beings who are often ill-equipped to deal with the dying; and 2) the difficulty of providing adequate safeguards to protect those who may have a terminal disease but who do not wish to be euthanased.

But I think there is an even more profound argument which the author overlooks - the astounding change in the role of doctors that euthanasia laws would introduce, turning them from the guardians of life into the chaperones of death.

It's a long way from the Hippocratic Oath, which lies at the ethical foundations of western medicine and contains this vow:
I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked,nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion. But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

Ancient Greece may have been a pagan society by Christian standards, but in some important ways the Greeks were philosophically and ethically more advanced than our nihilistic, philosophically rootless, post-Christian culture, and the doctors among them realised that euthanasia and abortion could not be reasonably justified. We hope that the Australian Medical Association, the peak organisation representing doctors in this country, has not forgotten, nor renounced, the pro-life ideals represented in the Hippocratic Oath. This is indeed not "just" about religion, or about the "right to die", or about safeguarding the rights of the mentally incapacitated, it's also about the almost sacred role of doctors in western societies.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Clergy Stress

Logging thousands of kilometres a year in the car, the e-mails, phone calls, on call 24/7, 365 days a year (even on your holidays), working 60-70 hours a week, dwindling membership, pressure to "grow" the church, feeling guilty about taking time off...maybe not taking time off at all. This insight into the lives of American clergy, courtesy of a very good TV report from a public television program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, all sounds familiar to clergy "down under", I'm sure (perhaps what is not so familiar to us is the number of female clergy in the church, but to comment on that would take us off topic).
Watch it here:
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/october-1-2010/clergy-stress/7145/
Curiously, one thing that isn't mentioned in the report is intra-denominational conflict (very curious, given that The Episcopal Church in the US (Anglicans) is imploding as I write), which is known from surveys to be a major factor in clergy burnout (forget inter-denominational conflict; I've observed that most pastors are likely to have closer friends among the clergy of other denominations than their own, which surely says something!). I also believe, after watching the report, that US denominations are much better at looking after their clergy than is the case here in Australia; we're a long, long way from the kind of clergy retreats that are shown in the clip - synodical leaders, take note!

I have seen fellow pastors fall by the wayside - it is a tragedy for them, their families and the church. I'm reluctant to offer unbidden counsel on this topic, since what works for one pastor may not work for another, and I don't wish to portray myself as some kind of expert in this area, but here are some common sense things I do to avoid burnout: I take a day off per week...religiously (Mondays); I have a hobby (or two, if you include blogging!); I dedicate (and jealously guard) time in my diary for what I am most passionate about in the ministry, i.e. the study of the Word and preaching - I find this then becomes a source of spiritual and mental energy that sustains me through the week; and I try to follow the old pastoral rule: mornings in the study, afternoons visiting, evenings with my family or meetings...of course, there are exceptions, so it's more a guide than a rule - we Lutherans aren't big on rules ;0).

Oh, and I try to keep meetings to a minimum - generally one evening per week in both my previous and present parishes; I wonder if there are so many meetings in the church because everyone (especially clergy?) is anxious to be seen "doing something". If a minister is spending more time in meetings than he does with his Greek New Testament, it's a sure warning sign that his priorities in ministry are skewed. Trust me, parish life will continue perfectly fine with a minimum of meetings, and your sermons will improve - praise the Lord!

But perhaps the best advice that can be given to ministers in danger of burn-out is learn to prioritise. Devote the most time to what is at the core of pastoral ministry, keep the duties listed in your call document front and centre, and think twice or even three times about other commitments. It's all about Word and Sacrament ministry to the particular people of God whom we are called to serve, caring for their souls and, not least, our own. (Cartoon courtesy The Church Times, churchtimes.co.uk)

Friday, 1 October 2010

How To Pray With The Spirit

"No man can assure me that the words of his ex tempore prayer are the words of the holy Spirit: it is not reason nor modesty to expect such immediate assistances to so little purpose, he having supplied us with abilities more then enough to expresse our desires aliundè, otherwise then by immediate dictate; But if we will take David's Psalter, or the other Hymnes of holy Scripture, or any of the Prayers which are respersed over the Bible, we are sure enough that they are the words of Gods spirit, mediately or immediately, by way of infusion or extasie, by vision, or at least by ordinary assistance. And now then, what greater confidence can any man have for the excellency of his prayers, and the probability of their being accepted, then when he prayes his Psalter, or the Lords Prayer, or any other office which he finds consigned in Scripture? When Gods spirit stirres us up to an actuall devotion, and then we use the matter he hath described and taught, and the very words which Christ & Christs spirit, and the Apostles, and other persons, full of the Holy Ghost did use; If in the world there be any praying with the Spirit (I meane, in vocall prayer) this is it."
Jeremy Taylor, An Apology for authorized and set forms of Liturgy against the Pretence of the Spirit (1649). (I thought for a moment about modernising Taylor's language, but how can one touch the prose of this "Shakespeare amongst the Divines"?)

I quoted this paragraph from the great Anglican divine over at an evangelical Anglican forum (Sydney Anglicans here in Australia) where they are kind enough to let this ex-Anglican participate. The subject of discussion is the need to re-consider the place of liturgy in their tradition in response to the subjectivism of the non-liturgical worship they are used to. But these thoughtful folk will have to overcome deep-set prejudices if they are to lead their people way back to the riches of liturgical worship. Just why do people who sing the same song chorus over and over baulk at the thought of praying written prayers, even when those prayers are taken from Spirit-inspired scripture? It is surely one of the great mysteries of modern church life!

I was reminded of something that was said following the baptism of our first son, which took place during a typical Lutheran communion service with a sung liturgy. My wife's uncle, a lay preacher (yes, I know it's an oxymoron, but I use the term purely in the descriptive sense) with the Assemblies of God, remarked afterwards that "in our service we hear mostly the word of a man, but in your service you hear mostly the Word of God." I couldn't have put it better myself!