Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Two Cheers for the Roman Catholic Church

Yes, that's right, I want to offer two cheers for the Roman Catholic Church! You see, I'm not anti-Catholic per se, I'm just against what's wrong with the Catholic Church. That happens to be a lot, but when they get something right I'm more than willing to praise them. Particularly, in this case, Pope Paul VI, who, with much moral courage, promulgated the encyclical Humanae Vitae in the northern summer of 1968, just when the "sexual revolution" was getting underway in the West.

Recently, in an on-line discussion concerning the issue of the instability of marriage in contemporary times, prompted by some statistics on virginity and divorce (i.e. people who are virgins at marriage have a much lower divorce rate as compared with their less chaste peers) obtained by colleague LCA pastor Michael Lockwood, I stated that we need to factor in the changing social context over the last two generations in order to understand the issue more completely.

The advent of the birth control pill and the wider availability of abortion - factors which came into play in the 1960s & '70s - made both pre-marital and extra-marital sex (and presumably adultery is still a contributing factor in a lot of divorces, even if "no fault" is recorded) much less "risky" behaviours than they had hitherto been. This no doubt helped facilitate the so-called "sexual revolution", which has been disastrous in its consequences for Western societies.

This raises an interesting question for Protestants, whose churches generally approve of artificial birth control: To what extent is artificial birth control responsible for the increased instability of marriage as an institution? Not to mention the decline in the birth rate over this period, which in turn has contributed to the declining population and social instability of the West in general (and contributed to the decline of Protestant churches in particular). Is artificial birth control, particularly in the form of "the pill", simply a "neutral" technology which can be used for immoral purposes, or is it inherently immoral, as the Catholics argue?

The more I have considered this question over the last ten years or so, the more I have come to think that the Catholics may have had a valid point all along. Of course, it may be a moot point, since from what I gather very few Catholics adhere to their church's position on the matter. Nevertheless, it may be something Lutherans might wish to reconsider given what we know now about the long-term social effects of "the pill".

Slightly tangential, but if I'm not mistaken, Pr Matt Harrison, President of the Missouri Synod, recently urged families in that church to have more children. Indeed, increased fertility is these days an oft overlooked means of church growth! :0)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Aquinas on Law and Gospel

"Of the Law of the Gospel, Called the New Law, Considered in Itself

Article 1:
Whether the New Law is a written law?

Objection 1. It would seem that the New Law is a written law. For the New Law is just the same as the Gospel. But the Gospel is set forth in writing, according to Jn. 20:31: "But these are written that you may believe." Therefore the New Law is a written law.

Objection 2. Further, the law that is instilled in the heart is the natural law, according to Rm. 2:14,15: "(The Gentiles) do by nature those things that are of the law . . . who have [Vulg.: 'show'] the work of the law written in their hearts." If therefore the law of the Gospel were instilled in our hearts, it would not be distinct from the law of nature.

Objection 3. Further, the law of the Gospel is proper to those who are in the state of the New Testament. But the law that is instilled in the heart is common to those who are in the New Testament and to those who are in the Old Testament: for it is written (Wis. 7:27) that Divine Wisdom "through nations conveyeth herself into holy souls, she maketh the friends of God and prophets." Therefore the New Law is not instilled in our hearts.

On the contrary, The New Law is the law of the New Testament. But the law of the New Testament is instilled in our hearts. For the Apostle, quoting the authority of Jeremias 31:31,33: "Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord; and I will perfect unto the house of Israel, and unto the house of Judah, a new testament," says, explaining what this statement is (Heb. 8:8,10): "For this is the testament which I will make to the house of Israel . . . by giving [Vulg.: 'I will give'] My laws into their mind, and in their heart will I write them." Therefore the New Law is instilled in our hearts.

I answer that, "Each thing appears to be that which preponderates in it," as the Philosopher states (Ethic. ix, 8). Now that which is preponderant in the law of the New Testament, and whereon all its efficacy is based, is the grace of the Holy Ghost, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ. This is manifestly stated by the Apostle who says (Rm. 3:27): "Where is . . . thy boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith": for he calls the grace itself of faith "a law." And still more clearly it is written (Rm. 8:2): "The law of the spirit of life, in Christ Jesus, hath delivered me from the law of sin and of death." Hence Augustine says (De Spir. et Lit. xxiv) that "as the law of deeds was written on tables of stone, so is the law of faith inscribed on the hearts of the faithful": and elsewhere, in the same book (xxi): "What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of His Holy Spirit?"

Nevertheless the New Law contains certain things that dispose us to receive the grace of the Holy Ghost, and pertaining to the use of that grace: such things are of secondary importance, so to speak, in the New Law; and the faithful need to be instructed concerning them, both by word and writing, both as to what they should believe and as to what they should do. Consequently we must say that the New Law is in the first place a law that is inscribed on our hearts, but that secondarily it is a written law.

Reply to Objection 1. The Gospel writings contain only such things as pertain to the grace of the Holy Ghost, either by disposing us thereto, or by directing us to the use thereof. Thus with regard to the intellect, the Gospel contains certain matters pertaining to the manifestation of Christ's Godhead or humanity, which dispose us by means of faith through which we receive the grace of the Holy Ghost: and with regard to the affections, it contains matters touching the contempt of the world, whereby man is rendered fit to receive the grace of the Holy Ghost: for "the world," i.e. worldly men, "cannot receive" the Holy Ghost (Jn. 14:17). As to the use of spiritual grace, this consists in works of virtue to which the writings of the New Testament exhort men in divers ways.

Reply to Objection 2. There are two ways in which a thing may be instilled into man. First, through being part of his nature, and thus the natural law is instilled into man. Secondly, a thing is instilled into man by being, as it were, added on to his nature by a gift of grace. In this way the New Law is instilled into man, not only by indicating to him what he should do, but also by helping him to accomplish it.

Reply to Objection 3. No man ever had the grace of the Holy Ghost except through faith in Christ either explicit or implicit: and by faith in Christ man belongs to the New Testament. Consequently whoever had the law of grace instilled into them belonged to the New Testament.

Article 2:
Whether the New Law justifies?

Objection 1. It would seem that the New Law does not justify. For no man is justified unless he obeys God's law, according to Heb. 5:9: "He," i.e. Christ, "became to all that obey Him the cause of eternal salvation." But the Gospel does not always cause men to believe in it: for it is written (Rm. 10:16): "All do not obey the Gospel." Therefore the New Law does not justify.

Objection 2. Further, the Apostle proves in his epistle to the Romans that the Old Law did not justify, because transgression increased at its advent: for it is stated (Rm. 4:15): "The Law worketh wrath: for where there is no law, neither is there transgression." But much more did the New Law increase transgression: since he who sins after the giving of the New Law deserves greater punishment, according to Heb. 10:28,29: "A man making void the Law of Moses dieth without any mercy under two or three witnesses. How much more, do you think, he deserveth worse punishments, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God," etc.? Therefore the New Law, like the Old Law, does not justify.

Objection 3. Further, justification is an effect proper to God, according to Rm. 8:33: "God that justifieth." But the Old Law was from God just as the New Law. Therefore the New Law does not justify any more than the Old Law.
On the contrary, The Apostle says (Rm. 1:16): "I am not ashamed of the Gospel: for it is in the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth." But there is no salvation but to those who are justified. Therefore the Law of the Gospel justifies.

I answer that, As stated above (1), there is a twofold element in the Law of the Gospel. There is the chief element, viz. the grace of the Holy Ghost bestowed inwardly. And as to this, the New Law justifies. Hence Augustine says (De Spir. et Lit. xvii): "There," i.e. in the Old Testament, "the Law was set forth in an outward fashion, that the ungodly might be afraid"; "here," i.e. in the New Testament, "it is given in an inward manner, that they may be justified." The other element of the Evangelical Law is secondary: namely, the teachings of faith, and those commandments which direct human affections and human actions. And as to this, the New Law does not justify. Hence the Apostle says (2 Cor. 3:6) "The letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth": and Augustine explains this (De Spir. et Lit. xiv, xvii) by saying that the letter denotes any writing external to man, even that of the moral precepts such as are contained in the Gospel. Wherefore the letter, even of the Gospel would kill, unless there were the inward presence of the healing grace of faith.

Reply to Objection 1. This argument holds true of the New Law, not as to its principal, but as to its secondary element: i.e. as to the dogmas and precepts outwardly put before man either in words or in writing.

Reply to Objection 2. Although the grace of the New Testament helps man to avoid sin, yet it does not so confirm man in good that he cannot sin: for this belongs to the state of glory. Hence if a man sin after receiving the grace of the New Testament, he deserves greater punishment, as being ungrateful for greater benefits, and as not using the help given to him. And this is why the New Law is not said to "work wrath": because as far as it is concerned it gives man sufficient help to avoid sin.

Reply to Objection 3. The same God gave both the New and the Old Law, but in different ways. For He gave the Old Law written on tables of stone: whereas He gave the New Law written "in the fleshly tables of the heart," as the Apostle expresses it (2 Cor. 3:3). Wherefore, as Augustine says (De Spir. et Lit. xviii), "the Apostle calls this letter which is written outside man, a ministration of death and a ministration of condemnation: whereas he calls the other letter, i.e. the Law of the New Testament, the ministration of the spirit and the ministration of justice: because through the gift of the Spirit we work justice, and are delivered from the condemnation due to transgression." Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Summa Theologica, found here courtesy the English Dominicans

While on holidays recently I happened across an old post from 2010 on David Schutz's blog (link in blogroll) wherein he declared that the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel was not part of the catholic tradition but was an innovation. In a way, David is correct: there was not enough understanding or practice of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel in the early and medieval church. That deficit led directly to the Reformation. But that there were no precedents for the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel in the catholic tradition prior to the Reformation is not true. The Lutheran doctrine is a deepening of a discussion on Law and Gospel which can be traced through the catholic tradition back to its roots in the New Testament writings, where it was occasioned by the conflict in the apostolic church with the Judaizers. This conflict brought about the inspired reflections on the relation between the Old and New covenants and the relation of Law and the Gospel under the New covenant, a theme which, when it is not being discussed openly, is never far beneath the surface of the New Testament (witness Jesus' encounters with sinners in the Gospels, which teach the distinction between Law and Gospel in a most practical manner).

On to Aquinas: while Aquinas's terminology above is not Lutheran (we would not normally refer to the Gospel as "the new Law" for fear of misunderstanding, although such terminology can be used and understood in a correct manner, hence the apostle Paul's "law of faith" language) his content here, I maintain, is consistent with later Luther expositions of the relation between Law and Gospel. For that reason, this passage serves as a good example of the necessity of carefully examining what a theologian actually says, even if his terminology is appears unfamiliar or even erroneous, rather than being content to do theology by slogans.

Having said that, what does Aquinas actually say here? There are three chief things I am interested in and draw your attention to. the first thing is that the "law" of the Gospel is the principle of grace, which is given by the Holy Spirit who justifies the ungodly through faith. In Lutheran theology we would naturally agree, and we would therefore say that the Gospel - the good news that we are saved by grace through faith alone in Christ alone - must predominate on the preaching and teaching of the church.

The second thing is that God's Law, as given in the Old Testament on tablets of stone, did not have the power to justify but only to terrify. Lutherans would again agree. In Lutheran terms this is called the theological use of the law, i.e. the Law accuses the sinner and leads to a knowledge of his sins, and it is still operative in the lives of believers in as much as we remain sinners after justification (the "old Adam").

The third thing is that such aspects of the "new law" or Gospel as doctrines and commandments or precepts do not justify - since justification comes by faith and not the law. So, we are not justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, rather, we are justified by believing in Christ. By the same token, neither are we justified by believing in the infallibility of the Pope, the immaculate conception and assumption of the virgin Mary, or any of the other doctrines which Rome has declared to be de fide (of the faith) and therefore necessary for salvation. That's not to say that doctrine is not important! Doctrine (specifically the doctrine of the Gospel; see the doctrinal articles of the Augsburg Confession) is essential, but as a means to an end, not the end itself.

To note all of this is not to say that Aquinas was a proto-Lutheran. Not only would that be anachronistic, but Aquinas's soteriological notions, conceived under the influence of Aristotle, whereby grace is a substance infused into man's soul which, with the consent of the subject's free will, moves the soul towards God as its highest good through the cultivation of the virtues (hence Aquinas's statement that "we work justice") are not just questionable but unBiblical. The Lutheran can at least take consolation from the fact that Aquinas taught that the justification of the ungodly was greater miracle than sanctification - this is why Lutheran insist on the primacy of the article of justification in the hierarchy of doctrines.

In Aquinas's defense, it could be said that he was attempting to show that the then newly re-discovered thought of Aristotle (whom Aquinas simply refers to as "the Philosopher"), which presented quite a challenge to the church, was not antithetic to the Christian faith. Unfortunately Aquinas went beyond merely apologetic concerns and allowed the thought categories of Aristotle to shape his theology in a way which finally distorted Christian doctrine (a similar path was trodden by those theologians of the 20th century who used Existentialism for apologetic and explanatory purposes).

Thus the tragedy of modern Roman Catholicism, which has made Aquinas its official theologian for all time (which is why Lutherans should study him; the informed reader can see his influence everywhere in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church for e.g.). By doing so, the Roman church has canonised not only the truths which Aquinas sets forth, but also his errors.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Luther Invented Justification by Faith Alone, Right?

Luther invented justification by faith alone, right? Sitting in his dark room at the Wartburg, an isolated and wanted man, for reasons found not in the Biblical text but deep within his own tortured psyche, he wantonly inserted "allein" (alone) into his German translation of Romans 3:28 without justification (sic!) and thus a heresy was born.

Wrong, as we shall see. That's certainly the picture that is painted by many Eastern Orthodox and some Roman Catholic apologists. But it's telling that professional RC theologians at least tend to be much more circumspect about making such claims these days. This is a direct result of the quantity and quality of Luther and Patristics studies that Roman Catholics engaged in during the 20th C., which revealed to them a somewhat different picture to the caricature contained in my opening paragraph.

But some myths are a long time dying, particularly when first order doctrines of salvation are concerned - as has often been said, truth is the the first victim of polemics. Some of Luther's critics inclined to the ad hominem method of debate have explained the genesis of Luther's heresy as residing in his alleged shortcomings as a monk, variously supposed to be a struggle with lust, drunkenness, or depression. For whatever reason, it is conjectured, Luther couldn't cut it as a monk - contrary to the reports of his superior, Staupitz, btw - and the psychological pressure of this realization caused him to interpolate "alone" into Romans, thus providing the "escape valve" of psychological assurance of salvation apart from a life of Christian piety and obedience lived in the fellowship of the church.

Here's an example, sans ad hominem, from a book by a Serbian Orthodox theologian:
“As a matter of fact, Luther argued, and other Protestants also affirmed, that a man is justified before God only through faith in Christ and the redemption that Christ brought to suffering humanity. This is called a material principle of the Reformation. Good works are not necessary for salvation... It is interesting to study the process how Luther translated the Holy Scriptures into the German language. In Romans 3:28, the verse reads: ‘We believe, namely, that a man is justified by faith independent of the works of the Law.’ Luther added to the translation an extra word: ‘alone.’ That word corrupted the Holy Scriptures to say what Luther declared as a material principle of the Reformation: ‘Man is saved by faith alone.’ Regardless of the fact that such teaching is illogical and contrary to the Bible, it has infiltrated the entirety of Protestantism in all its forms.” Lazar Milin, A Systematic Apologetic of Religions, Cults, and Sects, 52

The Eastern Orthodox critique usually continues to opine that Luther was but the inevitable result of the overly juridical (i.e. law based) Western soteriology which ultimately derives from Augustine - as if the Bible itself knows nothing of forensic/juridical language for salvation! But being at the end of the line doesn't absolve Luther from responsibility - as we see from the quote above, Luther is regarded as the father of the Protestant heresy (Luther himself would surely "protest" against being labelled the father of anything but the church which bears his name, and even then...but that's another issue) and the arch corrupter of Holy Scripture with his illogical and unBiblical teaching of justification by faith alone.

Quite a charge! The problem is that it doesn't stand up to the historical evidence. Books have been written on this subject, so a mere blog post can't possibly hope to cover the evidence adequately, but a helpful quote from an eminent Roman Catholic authority on Pauls' Letter to the Romans goes some way towards suggesting the folly of labelling Luther's discovery of justification by faith alone in Romans an ahistorical and untraditional novum:

"At 3:28 Luther introduced the adv. “only” into his translation of Romans (1522), “alleyn durch den Glauben” (WAusg 7.38); cf. Aus der Bibel 1546, “alleine durch den Glauben” (WAusg, DB 7.39); also 7.3-27 (Pref. to the Epistle). See further his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, of 8 Sept. 1530 (WAusg 30.2 [1909], 627-49; “On Translating: An Open Letter” [LuthW 35.175-202]). Although “alleyn/alleine” finds no corresponding adverb in the Greek text, two of the points that Luther made in his defense of the added adverb were that it was demanded by the context and that sola was used in the theological tradition before him.

Robert Bellarmine listed eight earlier authors who used sola (Disputatio de controversiis: De justificatione 1.25 [Naples: G. Giuliano, 1856], 4.501-3):

Origen, Commentarius in Ep. ad Romanos, cap. 3 (PG 14.952).

Hilary, Commentarius in Matthaeum 8:6 (PL 9.961).

Basil, Hom. de humilitate 20.3 (PG 31.529C).

Ambrosiaster, In Ep. ad Romanos 3.24 (CSEL 81.1.119): “sola fide justificati sunt dono Dei,” through faith alone they have been justified by a gift of God; 4.5 (CSEL 81.1.130).

John Chrysostom, Hom. in Ep. ad Titum 3.3 (PG 62.679 [not in Greek text]).

Cyril of Alexandria, In Joannis Evangelium 10.15.7 (PG 74.368 [but alludes to Jas 2:19]).

Bernard, In Canticum serm. 22.8 (PL 183.881): “solam justificatur per fidem,” is justified by faith alone.

Theophylact, Expositio in ep. ad Galatas 3.12-13 (PG 124.988).

To these eight Lyonnet added two others (Quaestiones, 114-18):

Theodoret, Affectionum curatio 7 (PG 93.100; ed. J. Raeder [Teubner], 189.20-24).

Thomas Aquinas, Expositio in Ep. I ad Timotheum cap. 1, lect. 3 (Parma ed., 13.588): “Non est ergo in eis [moralibus et caeremonialibus legis] spes iustificationis, sed in sola fide, Rom. 3:28: Arbitramur justificari hominem per fidem, sine operibus legis” (Therefore the hope of justification is not found in them [the moral and ceremonial requirements of the law], but in faith alone, Rom 3:28: We consider a human being to be justified by faith, without the works of the law). Cf. In ep. ad Romanos 4.1 (Parma ed., 13.42a): “reputabitur fides eius, scilicet sola sine operibus exterioribus, ad iustitiam”; In ep. ad Galatas 2.4 (Parma ed., 13.397b): “solum ex fide Christi” [Opera 20.437, b41]).

See further:

Theodore of Mopsuestia, In ep. ad Galatas (ed. H. B. Swete), 1.31.15.

Marius Victorinus (ep. Pauli ad Galatas (ed. A. Locher), ad 2.15-16: “Ipsa enim fides sola iustificationem dat-et sanctificationem” (For faith itself alone gives justification and sanctification); In ep. Pauli Ephesios (ed. A. Locher), ad 2.15: “Sed sola fides in Christum nobis salus est” (But only faith in Christ is salvation for us).

Augustine, De fide et operibus, 22.40 (CSEL 41.84-85): “licet recte dici possit ad solam fidem pertinere dei mandata, si non mortua, sed viva illa intellegatur fides, quae per dilectionem operatur” (Although it can be said that God’s commandments pertain to faith alone, if it is not dead [faith], but rather understood as that live faith, which works through love”). Migne Latin Text: Venire quippe debet etiam illud in mentem, quod scriptum est, In hoc cognoscimus eum, si mandata ejus servemus. Qui dicit, Quia cognovi eum, et mandata ejus non servat, mendax est, et in hoc veritas non est (I Joan. II, 3, 4). Et ne quisquam existimet mandata ejus ad solam fidem pertinere: quanquam dicere hoc nullus est ausus, praesertim quia mandata dixit, quae ne multitudine cogitationem spargerent [Note: [Col. 0223] Sic Mss. Editi vero, cogitationes parerent.], In illis duobus tota Lex pendet et Prophetae (Matth. XXII, 40): licet recte dici possit ad solam fidem pertinere Dei mandata, si non mortua, sed viva illa intelligatur fides, quae per dilectionem operatur; tamen postea Joannes ipse aperuit quid diceret, cum ait: Hoc est mandatum ejus, ut credamus nomini Filii ejus Jesu Christi, et diligamns invicem (I Joan. III, 23) See De fide et operibus, Cap. XXII, §40, PL 40:223."

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, A New Translation with introduction and Commentary, 1993, 360-361.

Readers may find some more patristic quotes germane to this subject here
I will be adding to these as time permits over the coming year.

Pic: Luther's room in the Wartburg Castle where he translated the New Testament.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Listen to the Epitome of the Formula of Concord!

Yes, be like the happy family pictured and enrich your otherwise dull evenings by listening to an exposition of sound Christian doctrine (seriously, this is good stuff!). Let me explain further: while on holidays I had some leisure time to further explore this "interweb" thing. Amongst a lot of rubbish, one uncommonly useful site I came across is LibriVox, which, as the name suggests, publishes "spoken books" in something called "mp3 format". The great thing about these files is that they are free! This astonishing feat can be accomplished because they are recordings of volunteer readings of texts in the public domain and thus free of copyright.

So far I have only listened to Augustine's 'Confessions'; for an amateur production the quality was quite good, which hopefully augurs well for the other titles in the catalogue. One of these happens to be the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, one of the Lutheran confessions of faith, which I think will be my next download (yes, theological geeks like me get excited by this). You can download the Epitome here and while you're there you might like to bookmark the site and check out the catalogue yourself, which covers everything from mystery novels to poetry, theology and philosophy.

Clearly LibriVox is a work in progress - their ambitious goal is to record all books currently in the public domain - may God bless the efforts of those involved that they may bring pleasure and wisdom to many!

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Baptism of Jesus

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were
opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting
on him. And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I
am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)

"the most important thing about this festival is Christ’s baptism. I wish the day were called “The Baptism of Christ”.* At the Jordan, in his thirtieth year, Christ reveals himself fully for the first time. John is shocked by [his desire to be baptized] and says, “Shall I baptize you? I am not worthy.” But Jesus responds, “Be content; this is the way it should be.” The Son, who is without sin, allows himself to be baptized for our example and our comfort. He does something here that is not required of him, whereas we do nothing that is not required of us. More, we do what is evil. How will we ever get to the point of doing something not required? Christ is holier even than baptism, yet still allows himself to be baptized. Thereby he institutes baptism. So those accursed people who despise or ridicule baptism are banished to the depths of hell. May God blight them and blind them, since they don’t have the ears and eyes to see what is going on here. Although they do not choose baptism, God’s Son does! Are we so arrogant that we should despise baptism? Even if it offered us nothing at all, we should honor baptism simply for Christ’s name’s sake, and be baptized to honor him. But [something is offered]: God in heaven poured himself out when Christ was baptized." Martin Luther, Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus (January 6, 1534)

* At this time in the Christian West the baptism of Jesus was celebrated on Epiphany, as it still is in the Christian East to this day.

The original text of this sermon (partly in German, partly in Latin) is in WA37:249-253. The English translation is by Frederick J. Gaiser and is available in full here. A contemporary German version is available in Martin Luther, Ausgewählte Werke, vol. 3, Ausgewählte Predigten (Stuttgart: Calwer Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1935) 63-70.

Pic: 'The Baptism of Jesus', stained glass panel by William Morris, in the parish hurch, Troutbeck, Cumbria, England (courtesy stainedglassphotography.com).

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Is Christmas Vulgar? Yes!

Christ Jesus...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11 (ESV Anglicised text)

It's still Eastern Orthodox Christmas somewhere in the world as I post this, so 'Merry Christmas' to my Orthodox friends following the Julian calendar.

I hope that's not too vulgar a greeting, 'Merry Christmas'...I know the more traditional greeting in the Orthodox world for this feast is 'Christ is Born! Glorify Him!', but it seems to me that there is something inherently vulgar about Christmas that we should not play down and which all the solemnly pious warnings one hears from church leaders at this time of year about the dangers of the 'commercialisation' and 'secularisation' of the season miss (my only gripe with commercial Christmas is that it begins too soon).

For, at its heart, the Incarnation itself is vulgar, isn't it? Just think about it: God becoming man...in a manger of all things...in a stable of all settings...not in storied Rome but in obscure Bethelehem of all places and among such common, vulgar people too! Who would ever have thought it possible that God would enter our world on such terms?

Ah, the 'happy exchange' begins: God becomes man, the eternally begotten Son takes on human flesh in order to take upon Himself our sin and raise man from the dust of eternal death.

Yes, 'Christ is born: glorify Him!' or, 'Merry Christmas!' So, turn on the flashing lights on the tree and pass me another cup of the brandy-laced egg nog and a bowl of kutya, for the fast is over and we have something to celebrate (indeed, it is worth celebrating twice)!


Something my Eastern Orthodox readers (all two of them?!) may not know: among the theological reforms initiated by Luther was the restoration to the West of the Christology of the Greek Fathers as a necessary and healthy counter-balance to the more typically Western Christology of Pope Leo. Following Luther, the Lutheran orthodox theologian, confessor and patristics scholar Martin Chemnitz produced the exhaustive Lutheran treatment of Christology in his 'The Two Natures of Christ' (1561), which is available in English translation from Concordia Publishing House (see link). After Holy Scripture and the Councils of the early church, Chemnitz's most cited authorities are Cyril of Alexandria and John of Damascus.


As of 13.01.12 no comments! Lucian, you usually have so much to say(?)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

What is the Gospel?

Over at his blog Sentire Cum Ecclesia, our erstwhile Lutheran brother David Schutz has written:

‘I have asked before (and will keep asking) the question “What is the Gospel?” because I firmly believe that unless we grasp what the Gospel – the Good News – actually is, we will not be able to proclaim it. ‘

My first reaction was sadness that David, a former Lutheran pastor who became Roman Catholic ten years ago (after which event he still claimed to be in some sense 'a Lutheran') would have to ask this question of his fellow Roman Catholics and himself. But those of us who have closely studied the doctrine and life of the Roman Catholic Church would certainly not be surprised at the confusion David has found (and evidently experienced within himself) in his adopted ecclesial community as to this most basic and urgent of questions: what is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes it (Rom 1:16) and David is profoundly correct in stating that unless the Gospel is clearly defined it cannot be proclaimed. I would add that without such proclamation sinners are not being saved, no matter how many of them fill the pews at each Mass (indeed, I can't tell you how many ex-Roman Catholics, my dear wife included, who I have heard say 'I never heard the Gospel in the x number of years I spent in the Roman church').

So, in the interest of furthering the cause of the Gospel among our Roman friends, I have humbly offered a definition in the comments section of David's post; this definition is basically a paraphrase of what is written in the Lutheran confession of faith known as the Formula of Concord [@ SD V, 20]. I hope this might go some way towards answering David's question in his own mind and that of his co-religionists:

The Gospel [the Good News] is the proclamation that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, has taken upon Himself and borne the curse of the Law and has expiated and paid for all our sins by his suffering and death on the Cross. Through faith in him we enter into favour with God, our sins are forgiven and we are delivered from death and all the just punishments our sins deserved, and are eternally saved.

Bible references, I added, could be supplied if needed, or, I suggested, one might simply want to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans for the definitive, inspired theological exposition of the Gospel.

More could be said on the subject of the Gospel, of course, but in my estimation that is exactly how Rome has fallen into error - with what it has illegitimately added to the divinely revealed Gospel - a damnable tendency I like to call 'the Roman and': faith and works, Jesus and Mary and the saints, God's will and man's, and so on (just read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) to be disabused of the notion that Vatican II changed any Roman doctrine concerning soteriology). So, I will leave it at that for the present - after all we are seeking clarity, looking to sweep the Roman church clean, so to speak, of the accumulated doctrinal dust of centuries which has obscured the pristine beauty of the foundational Gospel God gave it at the brilliant dawn of the Christian era. It was, after all, to the Roman Christians that Paul wrote his seminal letter, which still shines incandescently with the grace of God almost two millenia later.


It will be interesting to see what comments this elicits from those who 'think with the [papal] church' on David's blog. If interested, you can follow the discussion here. Caveat lector: false doctrine abounds, so venture abroad (i.e. follow the link) armed with the sword of the Spirit:

'But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.'
Romans 3:21-25 (NIV)

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Walking Is Man's Best Medicine

Most of my life I've been a great one for walking. As a kid my friends and I would think nothing of walking the 10 kilometres home from a day watching the cricket at "the Gabba" (for overseas readers, Brisbane's main cricket stadium and the venue for international matches); of course, we'd discuss the day's play as we made our way back through the suburbs, so it hardly seemed like any effort at all. Later, as a young adult I'd regularly walk 5 kilometres home from work everyday (Brisbane is a very hilly city, btw); I found it helped me to clear my head after a day sitting at a desk in an artificial environment. Even later, in seminary, a friend and I would often walk to and from the Adelaide CBD in less than an hour.
But entering pastoral ministry changed all that. As the patterns of daily life became more erratic the walks decreased in frequency and eventually ceased altogether. Not surprisingly, health problems have ensued in the years since. So, I've resolved to work on things this year and get back into the habit of regular walking. I hope and pray the health benefits will follow - I'll let you know how I go, but let me just say that I was surprised after a recent half hour walk to find my blood pressure significantly lower than its usual (high) reading. As the saying goes, 'walking is man's best medicine'. If you're thinking along the same lines, this is worth checking out if you need motivation:

Oh, thanks for your comments about my review - I'll get to moderating them when I get back from my walk ;0)