Monday, 31 August 2009

Luther on the Mass

Now the nearer our masses are to the first mass of Christ, the better they undoubtedly are; and the further from Christ’s mass, the more dangerous. For that reason we may not boast of ourselves, over against the Russians or the Greeks, that we alone celebrate mass properly, any more than a priest who wears a red chasuble may boast over against him who wears one of white or black. For such external additions or differences may by their dissimilarity produce sects and dissension, but they can never make the mass better. Although I neither wish nor am able to displace or discard such additions, still, because such pompous forms are perilous, we must never permit ourselves to be led away by them from the simple institution of Christ and from the right use of the mass. And, indeed, the greatest and most useful art is to know what really and essentially belongs to the mass, and what is added and foreign to it. For where there is no clear distinction, the eyes and the heart are easily misled by such sham into a false impression and delusion. Then what men have contrived is considered the mass; and what the mass [really] is, is never experienced, to say nothing of deriving benefit from it.”
From A Treatise on the New Testament, That Is, the Holy Mass (Luther's Works AE 35:81).

Recently I've read quite a bit in blogdom on the re-introduction of the Latin Mass, most of it favourable too. A common theme seems to be that it is the young who are calling for and flocking to the Latin Mass as part of a search for reverence. Now, I'm all for reverence, but chanting in Latin, sumptuous vestments and sweet-smelling incense are no substitute for the the inward reverence of the soul that trembles before God as it awaits the word of pardon. Reference Luther's warning that the eyes and the heart are easily misled into delusion in such matters.

That the young are clamouring for the Latin Mass is the sort of statement that is difficult to judge without hard figures, but the following would seem to cast doubt on such claims. According to the Roman Catholic Georgetown University's "Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate" in Washington D.C., only one in four U.S. Catholics favours having the Latin Mass as a liturgical option, 12% oppose it, and 63% have "no opinion." Apathy was most prevalent among Catholics born after 1982, of whom 78% said they have no opinion on Benedict bringing back the Latin Mass.

At best then, the Latin Mass would appear to be an exercise in either nostalgia or esoterica, but either way one is not surprised to learn that it is clearly a minority interest. That's not to say that the Latin Mass is not an important liturgical relic (or that Latin itself is worthless - perish the thought!). But is the Mass in Latin a viable liturgical option for today? That is a question for RCs to decide, but I for one think not, and I have only touched on matters of language and style and not upon the more serious objections to the Latin Mass, the still doctrinal errors.

There is the passive piety which the Latin Mass seems to inculcate (and which I have also noticed in Russian and Greek Orthodox churches which I have visited over the years - not that I study the other worshippers closely, of course, but it is a phenomenon that is hard to miss), where the laity, because they cannot understand the liturgy, are either preoccupied with their own devotions or stare blankly into space as if waiting for an epiphany.

For an insight into the problematic piety which the Latin Mass inculcates, go to to read an interesting response to a Latin Mass by a not unsympathetic Lutheran.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Importing the Sacraments

In a recent post I expressed my reservations about the disappearance of textual sermons from the contemporary pulpit and their replacement with topical or thematic sermons, which by their nature are less controlled by the Biblical text in their content and structure. In the course of that post I also referred to what I call "pan-sacramental" preachers for whom every text seems to be a jumping off point to a sacramental discourse on either baptism or the Lord's Supper. I implicitly questioned whether this type of preaching, which is quite popular is some circles, is really submitting itself to the biblical text, even if the desire to uphold the sacraments as means of grace at a time when they are devalued is commendable. Is this not, I continue to wonder, bordering on the sort of allegorical method of interpretation that Luther rejected? (Not to mention the mystagogical preaching of the early church which is being revived in modern Orthodoxy and is also open to this sort of criticism.)

This "pan-sacramental" homiletical style must have had a beginning, at least in more modern times (as mentioned, go back in history and you can find antecedents). I think that beginning might well be traced to the question of "What do you preach when a text is all law and no Gospel?" The answer could be: import the sacraments, since they are pure Gospel. In such a case, I'm willing to suspend my above-mentioned concerns.

A good example of such a predicament is tomorrow's Gospel pericope in the Revised Common Lectionary: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Here it is from the NIV:

1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"

6He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
" 'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'

21For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "

And here is Francis Rossow's comment on the text, from his generally helpful book, 'Gospel Handles', which seeks to point out Gospel connections in all the RCL Gospel pericopes: "This is one of those rare texts in the Bible...containing no Gospel - no explicit Gospel at least. The text is a profound analysis of the source of human evil (internal rather than external). It also analyses the vanity of human efforst to remove that evil from the sight of God - whether it is the Pharisaic dependence on a traditional, ritualistic wshing of hands or the more contemporary reliance on clean living and a decent life-style. But profound as that analysis is, it is Law. Gospel will have to be imported for a sermon on this text. The most obvious importations are to point out that we are clean through Baptism (Titus 3:5), through the Word (John 15:3), or through Christ's vicarious atonement (2 Cor 5:21)." (Rossow, Gospel Handles, Concordia Publishing House, 2001).

So what makes "importing the sacraments" justifiable in this or a similar case? There is no textual mention of baptism, it's true, but the thematic link is clearly there with the mention of washing and what makes one clean or unclean. A homiletical discourse on holy baptism in this case is therefore an organic development, rather than a merely abstract one or something forced upon the text. I would therefore contend it is a legitimate homiletical development, and serves the purpose of bringing the Gospel to bear on hearer's lives through an otherwise Law-dominated pericope.
(And it is what I am doing tomorrow).

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Deification of Youth

On that most contemporary of subjects, 'The Deification of Youth', we will now hear from the well known Scottish common-sense philosopher, Craig Ferguson:

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Disappearing Textual Sermon

One impression I have gained recently from hearing and reading the sermons of other preachers is that many sermons today are not textual. By this I mean they show little evidence of any wrestling with the text on the part of the preacher, and they certainly do not really engage the hearer with the Biblical text before making the transition to what it means today.

I find this disturbing, and I think if I were a layman I would possibly find it even more disturbing. If there is one plea that seems to be on the lips of laypeople today it is "Explain for us what the Bible means." Biblical literacy is at an all-time low, and one way that can be addressed is by engaging with the text in the sermon, modelling for people how to interpret holy writ properly.

Not that I would hold myself up as a model of an expository preacher. Indeed, I am only too conscious of my own shortcomings in this area and also of the limitations placed upon preachers today, particularly in multi-point rural parishes where a 10-15minute "slot" in the liturgy is all one can allow for the sermon in order to get to the next service in time. But, no matter how inadequate my efforts in this area, I always try to open up the text in a sermon, and I never cease to be amazed by how much homiletic material an in-depth study of the text brings out.

Yet this approach seems to be out of favour today if what I hear and read is anything to go by. Far more common than the textual sermon are thematic, topical and what I call "pan-liturgical" or "pan-sacramental" sermons, where the text seems to serve merely as a jumping off point for the preacher to wax eloquent on a subject close to his heart.

Not that there is anything absolutely wrong, I hasten to add, with topical or thematic sermons. I have preached them myself in the past and will no doubt do so again. There is also nothing wrong with using the liturgy, especially our Lutheran liturgy with its rich Biblical content, to illustrate a point, or even going deeper than that and showing God's people how the liturgy enacts or effects in their lives today what is in the text (e.g. Absolution) through God's performative Word. Neither is there anything wrong with a doctrinal sermon on Baptism or the Lord's Supper - we need these too. But I have seen violence done to texts in order to make them "sacramental", and I have heard preaching which seems to have as its only purpose the display of the preacher's knowledge of arcane liturgical matters which are really of little interest to a layperson. And if topical and thematic sermons are devoid of organic connection to definite Biblical texts, they are apt to become like untethered balloons, which merely float about without purpose and never touch down on the real ground of peoples' lives.

There are, no doubt, reasons for the type of sermon that is so popular today. Setting aside theological issues for the moment, let's consider a purely practical issue. Pastors say they have precious little time available for extended study of either the Bible or theological texts that will add meat to the bones of their doctrinal understanding, and under such circumstances it is much easier to write a topical sermon first and find Biblical passages to fit it later, or to preach basically the same sermon on the Lord's Supper whatever the Gospel text. I'm all for the "Sir, we would see Jesus" approach to the Biblical text, and the sacrament is a direct route to Jesus (or rather, his direct route to us); but can every Gospel text be about the Lord's Supper?.

The proper response to this claim is "Can we steward our time differently?" If the primary responsibility of the Minister of the Word (in German Lutheran parlance the Predigtamt or Preaching Office), which is precisely to minister the Word to God's people, is taking second or third place to other matters, is it not time to look again at and re-prioritise the demands on our time? We pastors need to guard our time of study of God's Word from the encroachments of other, ostensibly more urgent matters, lest we find that we become empty vessels which make a lot of noise but never say anything of great import.

Perhaps the old pastoral guide, admittedly from a quieter era, of "the morning for study, the afternoon for visiting, and the evening for the family" needs reviving?

I write these words as much for myself as for others.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Lutheran Liturgical Movement & Justification

"...where is [the Lutheran liturgical] movement moving? Does it acknowledge the centrality of justification? Or is it locating the forgiveness of sins more and more in the 3rd Article of the Creed and less and less in the 2nd? Consider what one hears these days of incarnational and sacramental theology. What is being said? These words certainly are appealing. But surely they must be more than a kind of mantra to be repeated again and again to mark one as being on the right side in the church wars! How can one speak of the incarnation without thereby speaking as well of the atonement? And how can there be any discussion of sacramental theology that neglects to emphasize that foreign righteousness reckoned to the sinner? There appears to be growing, not yet beyond its embryonic stage, a new pietism, a liturgical pietism if you will, that is really no different than its earlier incarnations in Germany and Scandinavia and, of course, northern Minnesota. It does not focus on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and the reckoning to the unworthy sinner of his righteousness that avails before God. No, it finds itself quite comfortable focusing instead upon a vague presence of Christ, a sacramental, incarnational presence that is to be had by partaking in liturgical rituals."

From 'The Doctrine of Justification in the Theology of Robert Preus' by Rolf Preus.

I've been reading this essay as part of research on an issue related to justification, and I thought this quote nicely sums up a valid concern with the direction of the Lutheran liturgical movement in the US at any rate. I mean the apparently increasing preoccupation, evident in some quarters at least, with liturgy for its own sake, as though 'rites and ceremonies invented by men' were themselves a means of grace. Preus hits the on the head here when he suggests that they are moving justification to the locus of the 3rd article of the creed, rather than the 2nd. He also warns against emphasising the sacraments without a corresponding emphasis on the imputation of Christ's righteousness and emphasising the incarnation without poitning to the atonement.

Such warnings make will make sense to anyone raised in the milieu of Anglicanism. This development in ostensibly conservative Lutheran circles mirrors the direction the Anglo-Catholic movement in Anglicanism took long ago (John Henry Newman's erroneous views on justification probably started that ball rolling), and Preus' mention of the increase in vaguely 'sacramental' and 'incarnational' themes in self-consciously 'Evangelical Catholic' Lutheran theology is not surprising.

As far as 'pan-sacramentalism' goes, one danger is that if everything is sacramental then the uniqueness of the sacraments is endangered. I think Sasse on at least one occasion said that there ought to be no such category as 'sacramentology' in our dogmatics, rather there is a 'theology of baptism', and a 'theology of the Lord's Supper', founded in each case on what God's word teaches and related to the central article. We might do well to heed his admonition today.

Click on the title to go to the essay.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The 'Wrighteousness' of God

Ouch! Gerald Bray (a very good Anglican theologian) takes a swipe at Bishop Tom Wright (pictured; another Anglican theologian with a very idiosyncratic take on the doctrine of justification) in this editorial from The Churchman, the premier journal of evangelical Church of England folk. Someone once said that spats in academia are so heated because there is so little at stake, but that is not the case here; the Gospel, as understood by Lutherans and other heirs of the magisterial Reformation, is at stake. Lutherans will find this to be a fascinating thumbnail sketch of Bishop Wright's doctrine and a handy refutation of it, and there is mention of Luther here, too. With his seemingly ubiquitous New Testament commentary series becoming a standard for the intelligent lay-person, Bishop Wright threatens to become the 21st century version of William Barclay, so all should be aware of what he teaches on justification.

Click on the title to go to the editorial.

Incidentally, the book open on the stand before Wright in the pic is the third edition of A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, the English version of Bauer's Woterbuch (add umlaut), an indispensable tool for the exegete. An oft-overlooked fact in regard to this gift to the Anglophone theological world is that the principal editors of the English editions over the years have been scions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, William Arndt and Frederick Danker.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Grammar of the Gospel Part 3

This is the third and final post in this series on the grammar of the Gospel, prompted by Oswald Bayer's exposition of the cruciality of this topic in Luther's theology (Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology, A Contemporary Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008).

The quote from this work in bold type below brings us finally to the relevance of grammar and language studies for all, and not just for those who deal with the Word professionally, so to speak.

Though one must concede the necessity of distinguishing the Word and Book of eternal life from the books that are useful for temporal life, this means that the existence of every human being is constituted in a setting where one hears and reads: each person is addressed and receives communication in wirtten form, so that each one can answer - in response to reading and hearing - but also because each one must answer for oneself.

Luther's passionate appeal, particularly in the address to the German nobility that has been mentioned, that care be taken to teach language and speaking, has fundamental anthropological and ethical import; in that sense Luther was one with the humanists. Learning languages has fundamental, elementary meaning not only for spiritual matters, but also for temporal and worldly existence; languages are not only necessary "in order to understand Holy Scripture", but also "in order to exercise dominion within the world".

There is no place for the "coal miner's faith" in the Evangelical church (a Roman Catholic coal miner was once asked, "What do you believe?" "I believe what the church believes" was his answer. "And what does the church believe?", his interlocutor responded. "The church believes what I believe"!). Luther saw universal education as needful not only so that people might understand the scriptures and hence the Gospel, but also that they might fulfill their original calling to subdue the world. I hasten to add that in a fallen world the execution of that mandate is always going to be marred by sin, but that fact does not cancel out the mandate itself.
There seems to have been more reflection on these matters, which we might call First Article matters, in European Lutheranism than in New World Lutheranism, which is surprising because Lutherans in the New World were very much about the act of subduing creation, bringing order to wilderness, and shaping and working the earth that it might support human life. Perhaps, amid the hardships of such a life, clinging to the Second Article for dear life left little precious time for such reflection?

As the Western world, both old and new, moves increasingly into a visual age, what are the implications for the Word? Is the new "poor man's Bible" already with us in digital form? Can the Lutheran education systems resist this movement and insist on the importance of grammar, rhetoric and logic, even at the most basic of levels? The imperative to do so is there at the heart of our history and our theology, and not only for the sake of the church, but also for the sake of the world.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Grammar of the Gospel, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Grammar of the Gospel

"Among all the academic disciplines that have been developed by human beings, grammar is the most important and the most useful for the advancement of theology".
Martin Luther

Do you remember your elementary grammar? Subject, object, verb, predicate, etc.?
When I was in the upper grades of primary school in the early 1970s, much time was spent in class and in homework studying English grammar and parsing sentences. In my grandfather's day, English grammar was mastered before going on to Latin in high school (and he went to a public or state-funded school, not a private one, and thus in those days was probably not even destined to enter a profession where Latin would be useful, like medicine or the law - he became a bank clerk, and subsequently a bank manager - I still have the book he won as an academic prize in 1923). But if my experience with teachers these days is anything to go by, grammar is something that has not been taught for a generation. That may go a long way towards explaining declining literacy among young people, but for the present I want to focus on its implications for the life of the church.

It is perhaps not so well known today (outside of Germany, that is) that Luther and Melanchthon were not only devoted to reforming the church, but almost equally so to reforming the school. Indeed, Melanchthon is more often commemorated in his homeland today as the "Preceptor (or Teacher) of Germany" than as a reformer of the church. What is sometimes forgotten is that the Reformers' concern to educate youth was directly related to their program of religious reform. The translation of the Bible into the language of the people could only bear fruit if there were people educated enough to read and understand it. Reformers in other countries and language groups followed suit, to the benefit of the people of the time and many subsequent generations of Western peoples and the recipients of Wstern education in the mission fields. We know that, as a result of the Reformers' efforts and the efforts of those who followed their course, literacy has always been much higher in Protestant than Catholic countries (no triumphalism intended!).
However, this great achievement of the Reformation appears to be jeopardised in our time. I have concerns about this as a parent and a citizen, but for present purposes my concern is as a pastor, and it is about the effect this decrease in literacy will have - is already having - on Bible study and the impact of the Gospel in people's lives.
For example, is it the pastor's role, in a Bible study, to go over basic English grammar in order to enable people to properly interpret the text they are studying? I suppose, in an emergency situation, a pastor must step in where the education system, or the student, has failed, and become an "emergency teacher". I recall that at seminary, before beginning Biblical languages, we did a week's revision of English grammar, which was very wise and helpful (and not only for the victims of modern education, but also for those of us who had not had to think about grammar for twenty-five years!). Is it hopelessly idealistic though, to hope that at least our Lutheran education systems might work in tandem with and for the church,rather than mindlessly succumb to the latest unproven educational theories?

In conclusion, let me quote this sentence from Phillip Cary, which appears in passing (pun intended!) in his essay, Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant: "...when the Gospel is properly preached the pronoun that refers to me is the object rather than the subject of active verbs." In other words, the Gospel is What Christ has done for me, not What I have done for Christ. How many in the pews could apply that grammatical canon in the context of listening to a sermon? True, this axiom is more useful for preachers than for their hearers, but in a church where it is expected that hearers are able, on the basis of a knowledge and understanding of the Bible and the Gospel, to critically appraise the teaching they hear from the pulpit before applying it to their lives, a working knowledge of grammar is a basic tool we cannot afford to neglect.

(HT Lito for the Cary essay - click on the title to go to his post, which in light of this post is ironically titled In Christ, No Parsing Needed).

Pic:Luther translating the Bible in the Wartburg.

I'm not a 'Grammar Nazi', I hasten to add (despite what my wife might say ;0)), or just being pedantic (but I suppose that's a matter of opinion!), just a lay advocate for a second look at the benefits of a classical education, particularly in the Christian school setting.