Saturday, 30 May 2009

Luther on Pentecost

Extracts from “A Sermon on Pentecost, Martin Luther, Wittenberg, 1523"
[Text: John 14:23-31]
The festival we call Pentecost originated thus: When God led the children of Israel out of Egypt, he had them to celebrate the Easter festival the same night, and commanded them to celebrate it annually, as a memorial of their exodus out of Egypt. Counting from that day, they journeyed in the desert for fifty days, to Mount Sinai, where the Law was given to them by God, through Moses. Hence they celebrated the festival we call Pentecost. For the little word “Pentecost” is derived from the Greek Pentecostes, signifying the fiftieth day... It is to this festival that Luke has reference. When the fifty days after Easter were past and the disciples had celebrated the event of God’s having given the people the Law on Mount Sinai, then the Holy Spirit came and gave them a different law. We celebrate the festival, not because of the old, but because of the new, event, because of the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Hitherto it has been preached concerning him that he alone produced and inspired what the councils decreed and what the pope commanded in ecclesiastical law, whereas the whole papistical law is only outward in effect, commands only outward observances and rules in material things.
Their claim is simply nonsensical, the reverse of their claim being true. For they turn the work of the Holy Spirit into a written, dead law, whereas it is essentially a spiritual and living law, and they make of him a Moses and a human weakling. The reason is, they do not know what the Holy Spirit is, why he is given, and what his office is. Therefore let us learn and understand well what he is, in order that we may define his office.
Here you learn that he comes down and fills the disciples, who before sat in sorrow and fear, and renders their tongues fiery and cloven; he so kindles them that they grow bold and preach freely to the multitude, and fear nothing. You see very clearly that the Holy Spirit’s office is not to write books nor to make laws, but freely to abrogate them; and that he is a God who writes only in the heart, who makes it burn, and creates new courage, so that man grows happy before God, filled with love toward him, and with a happy heart serves the people. When the office of the Holy Spirit is thus represented, it is rightly preached. Do not believe those who picture it otherwise. Now, you perceive that when he comes in this manner he abolishes the letter of the Law and desires to liberate the people from their sins and from the Law; the latter is no more needed, for he, himself, rules inwardly in the heart. They who oppose this doctrine, however, criticize him for compelling the people, like Moses, and above all for making new laws.
What means does he use and what skill does he employ thus to change the heart and make it new? He employs the proclamation and preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ; this Christ declares in John 15:26: “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall bear witness of me.”

Here we see clearly the Holy Spirit’s office, that he is bestowed only upon those who are sunk in affliction — and misery. For this is the import of the words when he declares: You must not think that I give you peace such as the world gives. The world considers that peace means the removal of trouble or affliction. For instance, when one is in poverty he esteems it a great affliction, and seeks to be rid of it, fancying that riches means peace.
Likewise, one who feels death near thinks: If I could live, and vanquish death, I would have peace. Such peace, however, Christ does not give. He allows the affliction to remain and to oppress; yet he employs different tactics to bestow peace: he changes the heart, removing it from the affliction, not the affliction from the heart. This is the way it is done: When you are sunk in affliction he so turns your mind from it and gives you such consolation that you imagine you are dwelling in a garden of roses. Thus, in the midst of dying is life; and in the midst of trouble, peace and joy. This is why it is, as St. Paul declares to the Philippians 4:7, a peace which passeth all understanding.

Thus you perceive how this Gospel lesson constantly refers to the office of the Holy Spirit, in order that we may rightly understand that he is given to us to comfort us and to bring us to love Christ. See, then, that you do not permit yourself to be deceived and to receive other teaching concerning the Holy Spirit than you have here heard.
...many papists dream that the Holy Spirit will reveal many more things to the world, besides the Gospel of Christ; but the Lord says here: “He will bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.”

(translation in the public domain)

Friday, 29 May 2009

Guidebook beats gadgets

"Guidebook beats smartphones"

With new technologies developing at the speed of light, it's sometimes easy to forget where we started from.

Just because something is 'new and improved', doesn't make everything that came before it obsolete. In fact, occasionally these 'ancient' methods actually prove more practical!

Conde Nast Traveller magazine sent three reporters to Moscow - one armed with an iPhone, one with a BlackBerry Bold and one with an old-fashioned guidebook - to see whether the gadgets or the book were more helpful in completing a series of typical tourist challenges (finding a hotel, a restaurant, a bar, various attractions and a pharmacy).

The writer armed with the guidebook completed most of the tasks more quickly and easily than the writers with gadgets.

(Report from Yahoo 7 Travel, 29.05.09; Image: Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain. Karl Baedeker invented the traveller's guidebook in 1835.)

Comment: I must say I wasn't surprised to read this report, which came up this morning as I signed in to check my e-mail. Some months ago I trekked (well, drove actually) some 600 kms to a pastors' conference, traversing country totally unfamiliar to me armed with only a Gregory's road atlas and the angels to guide me, and yet still I arrived safely at the somewhat obscure destination just before dusk as planned. The conversation at breakfast the next morning centred around how hard the place was to find. "Didn't you have a map?", I inquired. "Map? Oh no, we used our cars' GPS!" was the collective reply at my table. One or two confessed they even had to ring the resort (which makes it sound much more up-market than it actually was, although it was comfortable enough) for directions after dark.

Call me an ancient relic with Luddite sympathies if you will - indeed I graduated from high school before personal computers and calculators arrived in the classroom - but, laptop and blog-site notwithstanding, give me a guidebook over a gadget, a map over a GPS, a book over a Kindle, and a real person at the other end of the line over a computerised telephony system any day.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Irenaeus on the authority of the New Testament

"...the Lord of all gave the power of the Gospel to his apostles, through whom we have come to know the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God...This Gospel they first preached. Afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures, to be "the pillar and ground of our faith".

Irenaeus (c 130-202), Against Heresies, 3:67.

Comment: In view here is not so much the subject of inspiration but of apostolicity. Irenaeus here anticipates the orthodox Lutheran teaching that the scriptures of the New Testament are authoritative because of their origin with the apostles, either by authorship or approval. Therefore, they do not need the subsequent approval of the church to be authoritative, for the Gospel and the NT scriptures have their origins in God's chosen and authoritative "apostles" - messengers or "sendlings" (Loehe's term?)- and are self-authenticating by virtue of this fact (autopistia; "My sheep hear my Voice"!). The holy scriptures are therefore logically prior to the church, and not the other way around, as Rome would have it (and we might also say the Gospel is logically and temporally prior to the scriptures, going back even to the proto-evangelium announced to Eve [Gen 3:15]).
The subsequent canonising of the scriptures by the church some 300 or so years after their composition simply confirms this authority in a formal manner and excludes the various apocryphal writings from the canon. But the ground of the authority of the New Testament in the church is not Tradition or Canonisation (i.e. derived from the church) but Apostolicity (i.e. derived from God, mediately through the apostles).
Formally, Rome does not deny the Apostolicity of the NT scriptures, of course, but practically, more and more over the course of its history, it has tended to ground their authority in the church's reception of them, and to ground the believer's hope of certainty of religious truth in the church, rather than scripture. This is a great contradiction that the advocates of Rome have not squarely faced, and it may even be tantamount to usurping God's prerogative to define the content of the Faith, especially with the definition of the Marian dogmas, which, as Rome admits, find no basis in the Apostolic testimony.

(Interestingly, in the same treatise, Irenaeus affirms his belief in the inerrancy of scripture (2:28,2; 2:35 & 3:5,1).)

My imaginary Roman interlocutor may raise the issue of Augustine's comment to the Manicheans to the effect that he was moved by the church to receive the scriptures, and I shall indeed deal with that question in due course, d.v..

Monday, 25 May 2009

Hermeneutics as a Cloak for Unbelief

Some time ago I drafted but did not publish a post on an Anglican bishop who clearly does not believe in God and yet remains a bishop of the church, a "successor to the Apostles"; in the end it seemed to me uncharitable to publicise the woes of a communion that has so obviously lost its way when I know many faithful Christians who remain in it, albeit with pain and often under protest. But since yet another such creature - an unbelieving Anglican bishop - is presently visiting this fair land and publicising his own "agnosticism" regarding the central tenets of the Christian faith, my scruples seem not to apply in this case. So let us, dear readers, consider but one example of how hermeneutics (being the science of interpretation, named after the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods who also serves as the patron of poets and literature, amongst other things) may serve as a cloak that hides unbelief.

Richard Holloway is the erstwhile Bishop of Edinburgh in the Episcopal Church of Scotland, the Scottish branch of Anglicanism. He is currently in Australia as a guest speaker at the Sydney Writers Festival, as reported on the 20th of May in the Sydney Morning Herald (click on title to view article). In that article, Holloway confesses agnosticism but explains how he "still has his pilot's license" (sic!) and preaches, baptises and presides at holy communion. The interviewing journalist - and Australian journalists are not known for their knowledge of or sympathy to Christianity - suspects something may be awry at this point, and wonders whether this "raises the thorny question of how an agnostic, unconvinced about the divinity of Jesus, can consecrate the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. Surely, it becomes a mere gesture?". (Now, there are doctrinal assertions intended to provide assurance to the innocent laity who are victims of such anomalous situations, but since such are not our main subject of inquiry here, let us pass on to the bishop's answer). The unbelieving -sorry, agnostic - bishop helpfully explains that "It very much depends on the interpretation you put on it", and he then proceeds to deconstruct - sorry, interpret - the Lord's Supper, solemnly instituted by our Lord on the night when he was betrayed as a memorial meal and a means of communion with his body given and blood shed for us, into some sort of mystery rite by which "members of the family" identify with each other.

This sort of statement, my friends, while it presents a veneer of piety, is nothing more than an example of hermeneutics functioning as a cloak for unbelief. The bishop, remember, does not believe in - sorry, is agnostic about - the divinity of Christ, and therefore does not believe that by communing with the body of Christ under the form of bread in the sacrament of the altar communicants mysteriously but truly become one in that body, as the apostle taught. The bishop's explanation is mere cant by which he is able to fool or placate whoever it is to whom he must answer and so retain his position and privileges in the church after he has ceased to believe its creed. It reminds me of the Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide who, whilst I sojourned in that city, would appear on the TV news each year on Easter Sunday and blabber on about how "we need a resurrection of community spirit in this city" without once mentioning the resurrection of Christ - no doubt because he didn't believe in the divinity of Christ either.

These wolves in shepherd's clothing, denying the 'vertical', ontological realities of the Christian faith, are left with nothing but wistful nostalgia for the 'horizontal' community values and spirit which the realities they deny once gave birth to, along with the insane illusion that they can somehow conjure them up by appealing to the "better side of human nature". "Mainstream" Anglicanism, if there is such a thing anymore, while it continues to tolerate the likes of Holloway, Spong and Robinson in its midst, risks becoming a middle-class, neo-Gnostic sect which has hollowed out the core of Christian belief and substituted a secularised socialistic creed in its stead.

Oh, and did I mention that in the Olympian pantheon Hermes is also the patron of miscreants, thieves and liars?

May the good Anglicans of Sydney, along with all other orthodox, Bible-believing Christians in that city, take heed of the apostle's warning:
"...many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works" (2 John 1:7-11, ESV)

(Newer readers of Evangelical Lutheran who may be puzzled by the passion displayed in this post may be helped by knowing that I was baptised in the Church of England, which fact, I suppose, makes it my mother church, though I have long since ceased living under her roof.)

Friday, 22 May 2009

Cyril of Jerusalem on Scripture

"Concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless you receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures."

Cyril of Jerusalem, c. 318-386, Catechetical Lectures IV:17.

Comment: This quote shows that in the 4th C. Cyril taught what the Lutherans later taught, that is, that holy scripture is the 'norma normans', the "norm that norms", or more simply, the absolute norm of the rule of faith. Contra Rome, then, no doctrine can be proclaimed in the church as de fide - of the faith and necessary to be believed for salvation - without scriptural proof. I would therefore contend that the Marian dogmas, purgatory, and papal infallibility all fall at the bar of scripture (they may indeed reveal some "artifice of speech", but do they even have a modicum of "mere plausibility", dear readers? No,they are but fine examples of "ingenious reasoning").

Of course, my imaginary Roman interlocutor might protest that this is only one quote; for which reason I shall, in due course, post more on this subject from the Fathers. Now, lest I be accused of circular argumentation - using human authorities to prove the authority of scripture over any human authority - may I point out that, in the time-honoured Lutheran manner, I am quoting the Fathers not as authorities in themselves, but only as witnesses to what was taught in the early church as sound doctrine.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Of Charles Darwin & Finches' Beaks

When I was 14 I had a science teacher, a hairy (it was the 1970s!), aggressive and wiry little Lancastrian who, one of the older students told us, had once or twice played in the back line for the England XV. This teacher, Mr Butcher, was in the habit of shouting RUBBISH! whenever a student openly disagreed with him, and on not a few occasions he wrote RUBBISH! in the margin in red pen on my written assignments - in fact, I can still, thirty years later, hear him shouting RUBBISH! in his Northern accent as if it were only yesterday; funny the things that stay with you.

Mr Butcher was a dogmatic Darwinian, but his dogmatism was of the type that swallowed his master's thesis holus-bolus and was not interested in digesting anything else. So it was that we were exposed to the classic 19th C. theory as the final word on the subject in spite of the fact that Darwin's original thought had already undergone several revisions. This was already several years after Gould and Eldredge had published their thesis on punctuated equilibrium, which at least had the advantage over Darwin of being based on observation of the fossil record and what it appeared to reveal: periods of stasis punctuated by intense biological activity (just don't mention saltations) - but, being more a humanities than a sciences person, I was not to become aware of this development until some twenty years later (likewise, Mr Butcher taught us the solid state theory of the universe's existence that he had evidently learned at university, but that is another story). The upshot was that Mr Butcher made any explanation for life other than classic Darwinism seem impossible to our impressionable 14 year old minds, and confirmed many students in agnosticism, if not atheism, probably for the rest of their lives. Since then, however, each passing decade has actually stripped Darwinism of another layer of plausibility, such that it is now Darwinism itself that seems impossible to a growing number of people with open minds.

The following quote is from Prof. Stuart Burgess and appears in an interview transcribed on the blog of Guy Davies, the 'Exiled Preacher', where I quite often find interesting things. This quote from Prof. Burgess seems to me to be a masterpiece of concise rebuttal of the basic premise of Darwinism that natural selection explains speciation.

Click on the title to go to the full interview - and thanks to Guy Davies for publishing it.

Oh, and if only our teachers had taught us how to think instead of what to think the world would be a better place today!

"Do you agree with the ideas of Charles Darwin?
Darwin was correct to say that creatures like finches adapt to the environment by changing beak shape. However, he was wrong to then assume that creatures could undergo enormous changes (change into other types of creature) that are thousands of times greater than minor adaptations. Modern studies show that whilst birds adapt to the environment, they always remain birds. Adaptation can be illustrated by the shuffling of a pack of cards and randomly choosing a subset of cards from the pack. A pack of cards represents the gene pool between parents. Whilst shuffling the genes and choosing a new subset of cards can produce some adaptations, the amount of adaptation is limited by the cards available in the pack. No amount of shuffling can produce dramatic changes. This is why changes through adaptation are very limited."

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The catholicity of the Lutheran Reformation

Well may you ask, dear reader (and as far as I know that is singular, as I only have one reader!), why, on a blog titled 'Evangelical Lutheran', there are so often posts relating to or quoting non-Lutheran sources, e.g. Bunyan and Schmemann? One of the aims of this blog will be, in a modest way,to collate and publish quotes testifying to the catholicity of the Lutheran Reformation.

By 'catholicity' I mean that the doctrinal emphases of the Lutheran Reformation were and are not innovations, previously unknown either in scripture or history, but that their antiquity and truthfulness can be attested to with quotations from the history of Christian thought. That is not to say that the Lutheran Reformation and the subsequent period of Lutheran orthodoxy were not the occasion for the development of deeper understandings and more powerful applications of ancient and scriptural doctrines, but only that such developments were entirely consistent with and organically related to the original doctrines of the Gospel.

As I mentioned above, this aim will be attempted in a modest way, and is as much for the purpose of recording such quotations for myself as for the benefit of others. I suppose the original thought to do this occurred to me some years ago when a colleague at seminary, who has subsequently "swum the Tiber" and defected to Rome, challenged me to prove the catholicity of Lutheranism.

It might be objected by some that to quote Bunyan, for example, when we know he was influenced by Luther, is anachronistic, but I rather think that the appeal of Lutheran doctrine to those outside our confession of faith in any age is testimony to the essential scripturalness and genuine catholicity of those doctrines.

And so I introduce a new label: Lutheran Catholicity!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Bunyan on Law & Gospel

"He that is dark as touching the scope, intent and nature of the law, is also dark as touching the scope, nature and glory of the gospel.... I say, therefore, if thou wouldst know the authority and power of the gospel, labour first to know the power and authority of the law. For I am verily persuaded that the want of this one thing, namely, the knowledge of the law, is the one cause why so many are ignorant of the other.... Again, that man that doth not know the nature of the law, that man doth not know the nature of sin; and that man that knoweth not the nature of sin, will not regard to know the nature of a Saviour."

John Bunyan (1628-1688), The Doctrine of Law and Grace Unfolded (1659).

Comment: Bunyan's story is a fascinating one. He was raised in extremely poor conditions, receiving only two years of schooling from his tinker father. Upon marriage he came into possession of his wife's dowry, which consisted of two books of Puritan spiritual writings by which he was converted. Bunyan himself wrote c. 60 books or pamphlets, at least two of which, The Holy War & Pilgrim's Progress are still in print in numerous editions, and he was regarded by Rudyard Kipling as the founder of the English novel. Bunyan was apparently strongly influenced by Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, which may account for his presentation of law and gospel. Like Luther he also had a love of music, constructing a violin out of tin and a flute out of scrap wood during his imprisonment for failing to attend Anglican church services. Bunyan founded 30 congregations of 'Bedford Baptists' in England during the period of liberalisation of laws pertaining to the practice of religion enacted under Charles II.

By anyone's measure, Bunyan was a 'religious genius' whose highly experiential faith found expression in popular works of high imagination that nonetheless became classics of English prose that also helped shape the piety of generations of ordinary people. All of this from such humble beginnings!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Schmemann on Religion

"Christ was killed and is being killed by religion. Religion is the organ in us which, strange as it may seem, is at the same time intensifying and hiding from us our deepest passions and our deepest sin."

Comment: Following on from the Meyendorff quote, it seems appropriate and beneficial to delve into the rather unorthodox Orthodox thought of Fr Alexander Schmemann, Meyendorff's fellow Russian theologian from the so-called "Parisian school" of Russian Orthodoxy that emanated from the circle of emigre theologians associated with the St Sergius Theological Institute of the Russian Eparchy in Western Europe. Schmemann was also Meyendorff's colleague "across the pond" from France in New York at St Vladimir's Seminary. This quote is taken from his "Journals, 1973-1983".

I mean no disrespect to Schmemann by calling his theology "unorthodox Orthodox", as he is certainly most orthodox from a catholic, ecumenical point of view (i.e. subscription to the catholic and ecumenical Creeds, setting the filioque aside for the moment). But from within Orthodoxy I gather many look upon him as "untraditional", which is perhaps the most damning epithet one can use in that most traditional of confessions.

Take these remarks on "religion", for example. There is probably no Christian church body on earth which strikes the Evangelical Lutheran as so taken up with the ephemera of "religion" as is Eastern Orthodoxy, which seems to absolutise even the minutiae of liturgical practice, such as to give the impression that the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was handed down from the holy apostles rather than being the incrementally developed product of pre and post-Constantinian Christianity that it clearly is. To staunch adherents of traditional Orthodoxy, Schmemann, with his antithesising of Faith and "religion", is most likely to appear to be an outre rebel rather than the loyal critic that he saw himself to be.

The Evangelical Lutheran, on the other hand, is likely to discover a fellow spirit, maybe even a crypto-Lutheran, with this wholesome emphasis on Faith that one finds distributed through Schmemann's more informal writings. It is possible, as both Schmemann and Luther discovered, that religion can act as a veil which prevents the light of Christ from penetrating and illuminating our hearts and minds.

More 'crypto-Lutheran' Schmemann:
It is totally impossible to solve anything with the world’s fixation on “rights.” . . . Christianity consists in being right and conceding, and in doing so letting victory triumph: Christ on the Cross and “truly, this is the Son of God".

Alexander Schmemann, Journals, 1973-1983, p. 55.

Comment: Theology of the Cross.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Ruskin on the Strangeness of Truth

Very ready we are to say of a book, “How good this is—that’s exactly what I think!” But the right feeling is, “How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day.” But whether thus submissively or not, at least be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. Judge it afterwards, if you think yourself qualified to do so; but ascertain it first. And be sure also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once;—nay, that at his whole meaning you will not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it.

- John Ruskin (1819-1900), from 'Sesame and Lilies', Lecture 1:19.
(Painting: 'John Ruskin in his Study at Brantwood, 1881', by R.G. Collingwood)