Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Preacher's Decalogue

The following suggested 'preacher's decalogue' comes from a seasoned pastor-theologian. Click on the post title to read the author's explication of his 'commandments'; the author, Sinclair Ferguson, is of British Reformed background, so some of the references and background he cites may not be familiar to Lutherans (but there is some Luther in there too). Nevertheless, I think it's a helpful list:

1. Know Your Bible Better


2. Be a Man of Prayer


3. Don’t Lose Sight of Christ


4. Be Deeply Trinitarian


5. Use Your Imagination (i.e. Think Outside Yourself)


6. Speak Much of Sin and Grace


7. Use “the Plain Style”(i.e. direct language)


8. Find Your Own Voice


9. Learn How to Transition (i.e. from the Gospel indicative to the sanctification imperative)


10. Love Your People


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Would a Lutheran decalogue for preachers be any different? We'd probably rearrange the order; we'd certainly bump #6 up the list and call it 'Preach Law & Gospel'. We might prefer to call #3 'Preach Christ Crucified' or 'Keep Christ at the Centre' ('don't lose sight of Christ' is a bit weak). And Lutherans would have a different take from most of the Reformed on just how #9 is properly done. But otherwise? And yes, I'm aware that any list called a 'decalogue' can be taken as 'Law'...so, what Gospel do preachers need to cling to?

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The article comes from Themelios, which used to be a journal of theology and ministry for British evangelicals but which has now, I see, been taken over by the trans-Atlantic 'Gospel Coalition', led by Don Carson. There are even a couple of Australians involved (one, Mark D. Thompson, is a good Luther scholar). The GC have made Themelios freely available for download, which is nice of them, as it looks to have some decent material. Since this journal comes from outside the orbit of confessional Lutheranism, the usual caution applies: caveat lector.

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Oh yes, the pic, in case you're wondering, is of Pulpit Rock, off the coast of Dorset, England.



Monday, 29 August 2011

Those Dangerous Christians

Apparently, the powers that be in Malaysia have determined that the influence of those dangerous Christians must be curtailed at every opportunity:
'KUALA LUMPUR — A raid by state Islamic enforcers on a church function in predominantly Muslim Malaysia has stirred religious tensions and revived fears of growing Islamisation in the multi-ethnic country.

Officials swooped on a dinner at a Methodist church hall outside the capital Kuala Lumpur on August 3, saying they had information that a group of Muslims were being converted, which is prohibited in much of the country.

The relatively tame incident has unnerved some in one of Southeast Asia's most prosperous nations, where religion and race are intertwined and the various ethnic groups have generally co-existed peacefully.

The Damansara Utama Methodist Church denied the event was held to convert Muslims, but Islamic officials and pro-government media pounced on the case to allege a widespread Christian proselytising campaign.'

Click on the post title to read the full report.

What I find most disturbing about this is the suggestion that the Malaysian government is persecuting policing Christians more strictly in a cynical attempt to curry favour with conservative Muslims, who are otherwise likely to vote for the Islamic opposition party in an upcoming election.

Lutheran readers may be interested to know that there are four Lutheran synods in Malaysia. When at seminary I had the opportunity to meet Bishop Julius Paul, the former primate of the ELCM (a primarily Tamil church resulting from Indian migration to Malaysia in the 19th century) who was in several of my classes. The current bishop of the ELCM, Solomon Rajah, is also, if I remember correctly, a graduate of Luther Seminary/Australian Lutheran College, which has played an important role in promoting confessional Lutheranism in the SE Asian region, where many of the synods have unionist or pietist roots.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

'Culture War' Skirmishes Begin on the Outskirts of Constantinople

The German-Australian Lutheran theologian Dr Hermann Sasse (1895-1976), who through correspondence and keen observation was able to keep his finger on the pulse of 20th century Christianity like few others, often noted in his writings that in the modern world all churches face the same problems. None of them can regard themselves as living in splendid isolation from each other or from the forces of radical change in modern society.

If that was so when Sasse was active in the mid-20th century, it is even more evident in the early 21st century. It is no longer possible for churches to imagine themselves as islands somehow safe from the often violent impact of the waves of cultural change which, since the Enlightenment, have surged through Western societies (and now Eastern societies and increasingly the Third World) washing away the last vestiges of Christendom.

Case in point: the movement to bless homosexuality has swept at least one church body, namely 'The Episcopalian Church' (the American representative of Anglicanism), before it and is swamping others as I write. Many individual Christians in these church bodies have understandably fled to other, more traditional communions. For various historical and theological reasons in the case of Episcopalians/Anglicans they have gone mostly to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy. But if Sasse's observation holds true, and clearly I think it does, those bodies will only provide a safe haven for so long. 'Strategic retreats' are thus not a long term option for creedally and morally orthodox Christians; sooner or later 'pitched' battles will have to be fought on this issue in every church body which has not already succumbed, even in Rome and Constantinople (the highly symbolic primatial sees of Catholicism and Orthodoxy respectively). True, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, but they will do their best, the battle will be fierce and there will be no refuges.

There are reports that skirmishes in this particular 'culture war' have already begun on the outskirts of Constantinople, so to speak, namely in Orthodoxy in the US, whence comes a dispatch from the 'front line' by Fr Johannes Jacobse, who I take to be an Episcopalian convert to Orthodoxy (click on the post title to read). Fr Jacobse writes after his on-line skirmish with a group within Orthodoxy ('The Listening Group') calling for review of that church's traditional position on homosexual acts, 'The Listening group has to stop dragging the culture wars into the Church. The prohibition against homosexual behavior is a closed question. The moral tradition does not need to be retooled and there is no need for 'dialogue'.'

Sounds like a rallying cry for a pitched battle to me. Cue 'A Mighty Fortress'.

--+--

Note: A debate on homosexuality has been ongoing in the Orthodox Church of Finland since the early 1990s. See http://www.kosmas.fi/PDF-files-veljeston%20paasivu/Finn_Ort_Probl_2009_Autumn.pdf



Monday, 15 August 2011

Why Aren't We All Rioting and Looting?

'When I was a student, I took a course in the sociology of deviance. After weeks reviewing theories about the causes of law-breaking, the lecturer announced that we were asking the wrong question. "The real question," he said, "is not why some break the law. It is why we don't all break the law." Following last week's riots in Britain, politicians and commentators have similarly been asking the wrong question. What caused thousands of (mainly) young males to torch buildings where they live, loot local shops and attack fellow citizens is a no-brainer. Kicking against authority is exciting. Being in the thick of the action when the television cameras are rolling makes you feel important. And the chance to grab some designer clothing and a widescreen plasma TV is too good to pass up. Yet many people did not riot, and they are the interesting ones. Why didn't everyone cash in on the anarchy? The answer lies in external and internal constraints.'

So writes Peter Saunders, an honorary senior fellow in the social foundations program at the Centre for Independent Studies, a conservative 'think tank' in Australia, in an op-ed piece in 'The Australian' newspaper concerning the causes of the riots in England last week. There are, no doubt, plenty of things wrong with English society which have contributed to the recent descent into anarchy in some parts of her great cities - poverty, materialism, the anonymity and disconnectedness of urban life, fatherless sons and ethnic tensions with the police have all been cited by the pundits. Among those contributing factors we should not neglect what the recent parliamentary expenses scandal revealed about the venality of many of the British governing class; a society which is rotten at the top should perhaps not be surprised to find it cannot command the allegiance of those at the bottom.

But I think Saunders has identified the heart of the matter - which is not economic or racial or sociological but moral, and therefore ultimately religious, namely the loss of external and internal constraints, the outer and inner laws if you like, which restrain people from committing sinful and criminal acts, even when they think they'll probably get away with it (and if you think you're above the need for such constraints, when was the last time you exceeded the speed limit when no police were likely to be about?). Beginning in the 1960s, there has been a 'cultural revolution' in English society which, like most revolutions, has only made conditions for 'ordinary people' worse, in this case by attacking and destroying the previously accepted fundamental assumption that, in as much as we are fallen and sinful creatures, we need to be bound by external and internal constraints for the sake of the preservation and flourishing of our common life. If not for these constraints, the old Adam in all of us would be out there rioting and looting with the worst of them.

Friday, 12 August 2011

It's All About You

I don't like to be gratuitously critical of other Christians at the old manse, but something just crossed my desk yesterday that almost caused me apoplexy and just cries out for comment. In the last post I tangentially mentioned the growth of 'Pentecostals' in Australia. I have to confess I've never found Pentecostalism remotely attractive or interesting; in fact I find it downright strange. So, never having had much to do with it, never having even visited a Pentecostal worship service, I was always mystified by its growth in popularity through the 1980s and 90s as groups that were once fringe dwellers on the Australian scene built up empires and courted - and won - political influence. All this happened, mind you, just as the 'mainline' churches began to lose numbers and influence (I'm convinced the growth of Pentecostalism has been largely at the expense of the 'mainstream' churches - that raises a lot of questions for both sides).

Now, just when I think I can explain the rise of Pentecostalism (that's for another post), it has morphed into an entirely new creature. Sociologists of religion apparently call it 'neo-Pentecostalism', but I call it the 'religion of narcissism', because it's all about you! Of course, such a religion is tailor made to flourish in a self-obsessed culture like ours. For example, just check out the spiel that headed a flyer that landed in my mailbox yesterday, sent out by a 'neo-Pentecostal' church in Brisbane advertising a worship conference 'experience' they have planned, 'The Ultimate Worshiper':
'The Ultimate Worshiper has been birthed to raise up, equip, encourage and resource an army of worshipers to become the ultimate of who God has called them to be.'
If I had the technology I'd scan it for you, but underneath the headline is a picture of the husband and wife pastors of the church and several guest speakers, who, with their designer stubble and blow-dried hair, look for all the world like post-modern, trying too hard to be hip versions of Barbie and Ken...the upwardly mobile types who drive BMWs too fast down the narrow leafy streets of the once sedate inner-city suburbs of my home town, which has become the boom town of contemporary Australia and thus full of the perfect fodder for this new religious movement to feed on (Btw, does anyone know: is it somehow mandatory for these churches to have husband and wife pastor teams? And whatever happened to the unworldly pastors/priests who had regulation haircuts, wore off the rack dark suits and horn-rimmed glasses? Their appearance at least conveyed gravitas - what does a blow-dried coiffure say?).

Now, if the tortured syntax and jargonese ('birthed'?) aren't enough to irk you (memo to whoever's responsible for this: in Australia we spell it 'worshippers'), doesn't the thought of spending a weekend with people who aspire to be the 'ultimate of who God has called them to be' just make your head spin and your stomach queasy? Yet a lot of people seem to 'buy' this stuff, for the flyer informs me the church has grown to 5000 members in ten years. In the Australian context, that's quite amazing. But I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that a majority of these folk are former Catholics, Anglicans, Reformed, Orthodox and Lutherans. It just goes to show that it's really not very hard to 'grow' a church, even in the late-modern, post-Christian, religious wasteland of Australia - the secret is just to tell people what they want to hear.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Losing Our Religion


Tonight is 'census night' in Australia, when all households are meant to complete a form which provides basic population data to the government. Q19 on the census form is 'What is the person's religion?'. I noticed that 'Lutheran' is still listed as an independent category in response to this question, although it is ninth in a list of ten which concludes with the catch-all category 'Other'*. Given that the number of nominal Lutherans over the last generation or so has shown only minimal growth, I wonder how much longer before 'Lutheran' is overtaken by some faster growing religious group and disappears into the 'Other' category? If 'present trends' continue, and barring an influx of Norwegian boat people to swell our numbers, I wouldn't be surprised if this happens by the time the next census comes around in five years. Who knows, maybe the Jedi will replace us on the list?

The next largest Christian denomination would surely be the 'Assemblies of God', with c. 225 000 adherents and growing, although curiously they are not listed separately in the Australian Bureau of Statistics data, but are presumably included in the category 'Pentecostal'. Come to think of it, there must be considerably more than 250 000 Pentecostals in Australia (which would put them ahead of Lutherans numerically); I can only speculate that many of them either don't answer the question or use their independent church name instead of the category 'Pentecostal'.

Be that as may, I've been wondering what impact losing the 'Lutheran' option from the census form might have on our church, given that so much that has driven the Lutheran Church of Australia in recent times seems (to this Anglo observer anyway) to stem from the desire of Australian Lutherans of German descent to be recognised by the Anglo-Australian majority as 'mainstream'?

Maybe 'losing our religion' from the census form could be a good thing for the LCA? It might symbolically free us from the need to seek recognition and approval from the majority and allow us to be unapologetically 'Lutheran' again?

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* The possible responses listed are:
'Catholic
Anglican (Church of England)
Uniting Church
Presbyterian
Buddhism
Greek Orthodox
Islam
Baptist
Lutheran
Other - please specify'

There are c. 250 000 Lutherans in Australia out of a total of 22.5 million, so we are a little over 1% of the population nationally, although in some areas the proportion would be much higher - the original Lutheran migrants, being shrewd German peasant farmers, tended to settle closely in good agricultural areas, of which there are few in Australia, which means there are some pockets of the country (e.g. the 'Barossa Valley' in South Australia, the 'Darling Downs' in Queensland, the 'western district' of Victoria, the 'Riverina' of New South Wales) where Lutherans probably outnumber the Anglicans, Uniting and Presbyterians, the three largest historically Protestant church bodies in Australia (of these, only the Presbyterians hold unequivocally to their Reformation heritage). The Roman Catholics are the largest single church body, due to Irish migration in the 19th century and post-WWII southern European migration (and, I suppose, their high birth rates). The Greek Orthodox became more numerous than Lutherans here some time in the 1980s, again due to post-war migration, and most of the other autocephalous Orthodox churches are present here in lesser numbers too, along with various 'non-canonical' groups. The Buddhists and Muslims overtook Lutherans sometime in the 2000s as a result of South-East Asian and Middle Eastern immigration.

The Lutherans first settled in Australia in 1838, one group establishing a small colony at Moreton Bay (now Brisbane) under the auspices of 'Father' Gossner in Germany, with the aim of evangelising the local indigenous people, while a second group fled to South Australia from Prussia, where their Lutheranism was increasingly under pressure from a state sponsored church union with the Reformed.

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Q43 asks 'What are the main goods or services provided by your employer's business?'
I've answered 'Salvation.'
That will give them something to think about!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Theology and Science


'...nam error circa creaturas redundat in falsam de Deo sententiam'
(...wrong thinking about creation will lead to wrong thinking about God)
Thomas Aquinas

'As the science of divine and eternal things, theology must be patient until the science that contradicts it has made a deeper and broader study of its field and, as happens in most cases, corrects itself. In that matter theology upholds its dignity and honour more effectively than by constantly yielding and adapting itself to the opinions of the day.'
So wrote the erudite late 19th century Dutch theologian Hermann Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2 'God and Creation' (p. 507). Bavinck was prescient (yes Virginia, even the Reformed get some things right); over a hundred years after he made that statement, developments in science have only served to confirm its truth. In a post-Einstein, post-Popper, post-Polanyi, post-Kuhn world, it really is untenable to hold to a naive late 19th C/early 20th C positivism when it comes to the claims of science (and it is somewhat ironic that evangelical Christians are among those who do).

In a dialogue on the biblical account of creation with a colleague pastor recently, I ventured to suggest that since Holy Scripture claims to be true in what it says about events transpiring in space and time, we should accord it 'epistemological primacy' over other purported authorities (i.e. human authorities) when these events are in view. In simple terms, that means that when these events are in view we should assess the claims of science from a Biblical standpoint rather than assessing the claims of the Bible from a scientific standpoint. But isn't this 'Biblicism' or, even worse, 'Fundamentalism'? Well, I may come back to that in the near future; all I'll say in response for the present is that name calling is a poor substitute for a reasoned argument.

Now, on to my main point: I don't think that theologians who accord science epistemological primacy in matters of creation, to the extent that in order to accomodate the claims of science they reduce the creation narrative to a poem (this is a very weak argument since the Genesis one narrative bears neither of the two characteristic marks of Hebrew poetry i.e. syllabic rhythm and paralellism), a saga (a highly stylized piece of literature with perhaps some historical kernel of truth that is in any case no longer accessible to us, but which yet communicates theological truth) or a polemical myth (in the sense of a completely fictional story that yet confesses the truth that Yahweh is creator in the face of the errors of the Babylonian cosmology), actually realize how much of the Christian revelation they open up to question once science is admitted to be an arbiter of the truth (i.e. the 'factual-historical' nature) of what the Bible unequivocally presents as happening in space and time. The fact that otherwise competent theologians and Old Testament scholars have advanced theories such as those bracketed above concerning the origins and purpose of Genesis 1 is testimony to both the parlous state of theology in modern times and the awe in which science is held by quite sophisticated people who really ought to know better.

Once the historicity (factual-historical nature) of the first chapter of Genesis is questioned on the assumption that science has disproved it, inevitably it seems that the process continues into the second and third chapters, and the historicity of the figure of Adam is brought into question, since 'the scientific consensus' presently holds that there was no such single progenitor of the human race. With that, the whole redemptive tapestry of the Biblical narrative, and indeed the Christian revelation, begins to unravel into innumerable disconnected threads. I'm yet to see a church body which goes down this path in its official theology manage to weave the tapestry together again. More often, they seem to go about weaving a different sort of religious tapestry all together (c.f J. Gresham Machen's seminal study, Christianity and Liberalism).

If you're interested in questions of science and theology, the blog of Dr John Byl (bylogos.blogspot.com), a Canadian professor emeritus of mathematics (PhD in Astronomy) is worth a look. I don't vouch for Dr Byl's Reformed theology, but his reflections on the intersection of theology and science are quite stimulating. He is also the author of two books on the subject which are available from the usual outlets.

Just on a personal note, my own journey as been from atheistic evolution in my teens to theistic evolution to old earth/specially created Adam to a probably young earth/recently created Adam position. Which is to say I seem to be on an opposite trajectory to most of my colleagues and contemporaries - not that I'm a contrarian just for the sake of it, mind you...I simply like to think I'm a more consistent thinker than they ;0)