Monday, 31 May 2010

An Economy of Miracles

Speaking of miracles (see last post), why does God accomplish his work in the world with an apparent economy of miracles? I came across the following explanation from a now largely forgotten 19th century theologian, Samuel Harris, who was once Dwight Professor of Theology at Yale University when that august school could still be regarded as a Christian institution (which also - at that time - espoused, against much pressure from the pragmatists, the virtues of a classical education based on knowledge of Latin and Greek):

Persons sometimes imagine that if God had revealed Himself continually and to all men by working miracles before them, it would have been impossible to doubt His existence. But miracles are presented to the senses, and therefore, like the familiar works of nature are a veil which hides God while revealing Him; the mind must pass through them; just as it passes through the sensible phenomena of nature, to the God unseen and spiritual, behind the veil. And if miracles were as common as summer showers and rainbows, they would attract no more attention than they.
It is sometimes thought that if God should habitually reveal Himself in theophanies such as the Bible records, doubt would be no longer possible. But even in the theophanies the prophets did not see God; they saw only signs and symbols through which their spiritual eyes saw what can be only spiritually discerned. Ezekiel saw a cloud coming out of the north with whirlwind and with infolding fire and flashing lightning; and from its amber brightness a crystal firmament evolved borne on four cherubim, with wheels of beryl so high that they were dreadful, and all moving with flashing light and, to the very wheels, instinct with the spirit of life. On the firmament was a sapphire throne, and on the throne the appearance of a man. But if that vision should rise on our view every morning from the north, wherein would that miniature firmament reveal God any more than the sun which rises every morning in the east, or the firmament with its thousands of stars which wheels majestically above us every night?

Samuel Harris, The Self-Revelation of God (New York, Scribner's, 1886).

This might be classed as speculative theology (and I think Harris was very much in that New England tradition of philosophical theology which goes back to Jonathan Edwards), but it seems to me eminently sensible speculation with a Biblical basis, especially since Harris goes on to identify the resurrection of Christ as the greatest miracle of all which ought to fully satisfy the human hunger for the miraculous. I like the way Harris puts the matter (without wishing to endorse everything he may have written), especially the mention of God hiding himself even while revealing himself through the medium of nature.

Finally, it seems to me that the fact that God does accomplish his work in the world, even the work of the proclamation of the Gospel and the salvation of souls, with an economy of miracles only serves to magnify his glory all the more, even though that thought runs contrary to our 'natural' (fallen?) way of thinking, which mistakenly regards the miraculous as the sine qua non of divine action. In contradistinction to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it therefore seems to me to be a strength of Evangelical religion, by which I mean the Lutheran faith in particular, that it allows God to do his ordinary and extraordinary work in the world with an economy of miracles - without, however, denying the possibility of the miraculous at all.


Friday, 28 May 2010

A Miracle of Deliverance

A "miracle of deliverance"...that's what Winston Churchill called it. And while the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk by a flotilla of largely civilian manned boats under fire from German artillery and fighter planes doesn't quite reach the genuinely miraculous heights of the Exodus across the Red Sea of the Israeites, we can easily understand why Churchill drew upon Biblical allusions to convey the significance of this momentous event. Surely, while it was not quite a miracle in the theological sense - they didn't escape by walking on the waters of the English Channel, or even through divided walls of water, and no divine intervention was immediately apparent - at the very least the extraordinary providence of God was at work for good, ensuring that the less evil side in this conflict would live to fight another day and finally be victorious.

D-Day may have changed the outcome of WWII and the course of modern history, but odds are there would not have been a D-Day without the Dunkirk evacuation.

Dunkirk: 70 years ago today.

Lest We Forget.

-- + --

It must be a peculiarly Anglo trait to turn a disastrous military defeat into a moral victory - cf Gallipoli.

Co-incidentally, I recently visited a lady who worships in one of my congregations whose late husband flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

Ambrosiaster on Justification By Faith Alone (with a few thoughts attached)

Consider this:
"God has decreed that a person who believes in Christ can be saved without works. By faith alone he receives the forgiveness of sins."

And this:
"They are justified freely because they have not done anything nor given anything in return, but by faith alone they have been made holy by the gift of God."
(italics mine in both cases)

Is it Martin Luther? Philipp Melanchthon? John Calvin even?

No, those are quotations from Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Corinthians 1:4b (in 'Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture', New Testament VII: 1-2 Corinthians, ed. by Gerald Bray (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 6) and on Romans 3:24( in 'Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans' ed. Gerald Bray, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 101).

'Ambrosiaster' is the name traditionally given to the unknown writer of an ancient and widely-read commentary on Paul's letters which for a long time was attributed to Ambrose of Milan. Scholars consider that the work was produced in the late 4th century and pre-dates Augustine's (mis)interpretation of Paul based on Jerome's Latin New Testament. It is thus an important testimony to how Paul was understood before Augustine, who famously knew no Greek, mistook 'justification' in Paul to mean 'make righteous', a misinterpretation which is the fountainhead of Rome's subsequent misunderstanding of justification, which makes works of love an inherent part of the 'process' by which a Christian is justified before God (for justified read 'made truly righteous' in herself).

While Ambrosiaster, whoever he was, might be regarded as wavering here and there in his commentary (he writes, after all, a millenium before the light of the Reformation came to be), there is no doubt from his commentary that he grasped the Gospel as presented didactically by Paul. Thus I submit him here as further testimony to the 'scarlet thread' of the evangel which can be traced through the vicissitudes of early and medieval Catholic history until it comes brilliantly to light in the evangelical catholicity of the Lutheran Reformation.

-- + --

After the Reformers (Luther and Melanchthon - see Lowell Green's insightful 'How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel'), using Erasmus's Greek New Testament instead of the Vulgate and the new lexicographical resources rediscovered by Renaissance scholarship, brought Augustine's fatal misinterpretation indisputably to light, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent tried to steer a middle-course between the 'semi-Pelagianism' it inherited from the medieval church (or even outright Pelagianism in some cases) and what it regarded as the erroneous 'sola fideism' promulgated by the Refomers (despite some significant voices in support of the Reformers' view present at the Council).
The result is an unhappy compromise which tarnishes the pure Gospel by speaking of human co-operation with grace in the lead-up to conversion and by allowing for a contribution towards justification after conversion by human works of love, albeit works initiated and supported by grace.
Thus were the Biblical insights of the Reformers prevented from serving as a leaven of renewal in the universal church, a situation which pertains to this day, the much vaunted 'Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification' of 1999 notwithstanding.

-- + --

Contrast Ambrosiaster with some of the canons of Trent on Justification:

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

-- + --

This is only a very brief sketch of this issue that still divides Western Christendom. I encourage readers unfamiliar with the issues to become familiar. Justification is, after all, 'the article of faith by which the church stands or falls', to paraphrase Luther.

A seachable on-line version of the Book of Concord can be found here:

Luther's Preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (a public reading of which in Aldersgate Street, London in the year 1738 was famously responsible for the conversion of John Wesley), can be found, fully formatted for printing out, here:

The entire response of Trent to the Reform on Justification can be found here:

The Vatican has helpfully placed the JDDJ on-line here:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has a response to JDDJ here:

Google books has made Scottish theologian James Buchanan's seminal 19th century work, 'Justification', available here:

Monday, 24 May 2010

A Primer on Law & Gospel

When I was at seminary, we never studied law and gospel and their relation to each other systematically. We hardly touched on the subject in dogmatics, were given but a few journal articles on it to read in homiletics, and in our study of the Formula of Concord the explication of the relevant thesis was assigned to a student presentation, duration 50 minutes.

Whether this situation was a blip in the education of my particular class which came about accidentally through a lack of co-ordination on the part of the faculty, or whether it represented a more serious oversight I don't know, but it certainly represented a shortcoming in the education of one class of future Lutheran pastors and would-be 'seelsorgers' (healers of souls) in an area Luther regarded as the highest theological art.

Be that as it may, the following would have been a good place to start a study of the subject, both historically and dogmatically: 33 theses on law and gospel from the pen of the Reformer's friend, some-time mentor and indispensable assistant in the work of the Reformation, Philipp Melanchthon (the pic is of Lucas Cranach's 'Gesetz und Gnade' (Law & Grace) - a fascinating picture which, unfortunately, I can't display in a larger format here.)

Let us bring this whole discussion of law, gospel, and faith together under several theses:

1. The law is the doctrine that commands what is and what is not to be done.

2. The gospel is the promise of the grace of God.

3. The law demands impossible things such as the love of God and our neighbour.

4. Those who try to keep the law by their natural powers or free will simulate only the external works; they do not give expression to those attitudes which the law demands.

5. Therefore, they do not satisfy the law, but they are hypocrites, "whitewashed tombs," as Christ calls them in Matt 23:27. Gal 3:10 says: "For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.

6. Therefore, it is not the function of the law to justify.

7. But the proper function of the law is to reveal sin and especially to confound the conscience. Rom 3:20: "Through the law comes knowledge of sin."

8. To a conscience acknowledging sin and confounded by the law, the gospel reveals Christ.

9. Thus John reveals Christ at the very time he preaches repentance: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

10. The faith by which we belive the gospel showing us Christ and by which Christ is received as the one who has placated the Father and through whom grace is given, this faith is our righteousness. John 1:12: "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become Children of God."

11. If it is actually faith alone that justifies, there is clearly no regard for our merits or our works , but only for the merits of Christ.

12. This faith calms and gladdens the heart. Rom 5:1: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace."

13. The result of faith is that for such a great blessing, the forgiveness of sins because of Christ, we love God in return. Therefore, love for God is a fruit of faith.

14. This same faith causes us to be ashamed of having offended such a kind and generous father.

15. Therefore, it cause us to abhor our flesh with its evil desires.

16. Human reason neither fears God nor believes him, but is utterly ignorant of him and despises him. We know this from Ps. 14:1: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" Luke 16:31 "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." Here Christ points out that the human heartdoes not believe the word of God. This madness of the human heart is what Solomon railed at in the whole book of Ecclesiastes as can be seen from ch. 8:11: "Because sentence agains an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil."

17. Because the human heart is utterly ignorant of God, it turns aside to its own counsels and desires, and sets itself up in the place of God.

18. When God confounds the human heart through the law with a sense of sin, it does not yet know God, that is, it does not know his goodness and therefore hates him as if he were a tormentor.

19. When God comforts and consoles the human heart through the gospel by showing it Christ, then finally it knows God, for it recognizes both his power and his goodness. This is what Jer 9:24 means: "But let him who glories glory in this, that...he knows me."

20. The heart of him who has believed the gospel and come to know the goodness of God is now fortified so that it trusts in God and fears him and consequently abhors the thoughts of the human heart.

21. Peter said very fittingly in Acts 15:9 that hearts are cleansed by faith.

22. Mercy is revealed through the promises.

23. Sometimes material things are promised, and at other times spiritual.

24. In the law, material things such as the Land of Canaan, the Kingdom, etc. are promised.

25. The gospel is the promise of grace or the forgiveness of sins through Christ.

26. All material promises are dependent on the promise of Christ.

27. For the first promise was a promise of grace or Christ. It is found in Gen 3:15: "He shall bruise your head." This means that the seed of Eve will crush the kingdom of the serpent plotting agains our heel, that is Christ will crush sin and death.

28. This was renewed in the promise made to Abraham: "By your decendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18).

29. Therefore, since Christ was to be born of the descendants of Abraham, the promises added to the law about the possession of the earth, etc. were obscure promises of the Christ who was to come. For those material things were promised to the people until the promised seed should be born, lest they perish and in order that in the meantime God might indicate his mercy by material things and might thereby exercise the faith of his people.

30. By Christ's birth the promises to mankind were consumated, and the forgiveness of sins, for which Christ had to be born, was openly made known.

31. The promises of the Old Testament are signs of the Christ to come and also of the promise of grace to be broadcast at some future time. The gospel, the very promise of grace, has already been made known.

32. Just as that man does not know God who knows only that he exists but does not know either his power or his mercy, so also that man does not believe who believes only that God exists but does not believe both in his power and his mercy.

33. He really believes, therefore, who, looking beyond the threats, believes the gospel also, who fixes his face on the mercy of God or on Christ, the pledge of divine mercy.
So much on faith; we shall add certain things on love a little later after we have dealt with the difference between the law and gospel.

From Melanchthon's Loci communes rerum theologicarum (Common Places of Theology), generally recognised as the first Reformation dogmatics text. It is a mark of Melanchthon's brilliance that he published the first edition of this work just two years after being awarded his bachelor's degree in theology.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

More from von Döllinger on Papal Primacy

'For thirteen centuries an incomprehensible silence on this article [i.e. the primacy of the Pope - Acro.] reigned throughout the entire church and her literature. None of the ancient confessions of faith, no catechism, none of the patristic writings composed for the instruction of the people, contain a syllable about the Pope, still less any hint that all certainty of faith and doctrine depends on him. For the first thousand years of church history not a question of doctrine was finally decided by the Pope. The Roman bishops took no part in the commotions which the numerous Gnostic sects, the Montanists and Chiliasts, produced in the early Church, nor can a single dogmatic decree issued by one of them be found in the first four centuries, nor a trace of the existence of any. Even the controversy about Christ kindled by Paul of Samosata, which occupied the whole Eastern Church for a long time, and necessitated the assembling of several councils, was terminated without the Pope taking any part in it. So again in the chain of controversies and discussions connected with the names of Theodotus, Artemon, Noetus, Sabellius, Beryllus and Lucian of Antioch, which troubled the whole Church and extended over nearly 150 years, there is no proof that the Roman bishops acted beyond the limits of their own local Church, or accomplished any dogmatic result.

…In the Arian disputes, which engaged and disturbed the Church beyond all others for above half a century, and were discussed in more than fifty Synods, the Roman see for a long time remained passive. Through the long episcopate of Pope Sylvester (314-335) there is no document or sign of doctrinal activity, any more than from all his predecessors from 269-314. Julius and Liberius (337-366) were the first to take part in the course of events, but they only increased the uncertainty. Julius pronounced Marcellus of Ancyra, an avowed Sabellian, orthodox at his Roman synod; and Liberius purchased his return from exile from the Emperor by condemning Athanasius and subscribing an Arian creed.'

‘Janus’ (Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), Catholic historian and priest, German academic in the University of Munich), in The Pope and the Council

A Roman Catholic may well respond to von Döllinger's critique with the defence that papal infallibility does not mean that a pope cannot ever err, but only that he cannot err when he speaks ex cathedra; therefore, if the errors von Döllinger cites are true, then ipso facto the Popes were not speaking ex cathedra when they rendered those decisions. This response does, however, smack of equivocation, does it not?
It seems to me that the only possible recourse a Catholic who wishes to defend papal primacy and infallibility in the cold light of history can have is either to assert a theory of doctrinal development whereby early historical facts which contradict the later dogma are reconciled to it on the grounds that the 'seed' of the dogma had not yet sprouted and taken root, or to simply baldly assert the absolute primacy of dogma over history itself (cf. Pope Pius IX: "Tradition? I am Tradition!"). In the years since Vatican I, both paths have been taken by Roman Catholic apologists, sometimes simultaneously!

Friday, 14 May 2010

von Döllinger on Papal Primacy

'In the first three centuries, St. Irenaeus is the only writer who connects the superiority of the Roman Church with doctrine; but he places this superiority, rightly understood, only in its antiquity, its double apostolical origin, and in the circumstance of the pure tradition being guarded and maintained there through the constant concourse of the faithful from all countries. Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, know nothing of special Papal prerogative, or of any higher or supreme right of deciding in matter of doctrine. In the writings of the Greek doctors, Eusebius, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, the two Gregories, and St. Epiphanius, there is not one word of any prerogatives of the Roman bishop. The most copious of the Greek Fathers, St. Chrysostom, is wholly silent on the subject, and so are the two Cyrils; equally silent are the Latins, Hilary, Pacian, Zeno, Lucifer, Sulpicius, and St. Ambrose.
St. Augustine has written more on the Church, its unity and authority, than all the other Fathers put together. Yet, from all his numerous works, filling ten folios, only one sentence, in one letter, can be quoted, where he says that the principality of the Apostolic Chair has always been in Rome—which could, of course, be said then with equal truth of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Any reader of his Pastoral Letter to the separated Donatists on the Unity of the Church, must find it inexplicable...that in these seventy–five chapters there is not a single word on the necessity of communion with Rome as the centre of unity. He urges all sorts of arguments to show that the Donatists are bound to return to the Church, but of the Papal Chair, as one of them, he says not a word.
We have a copious literature on the Christian sects and heresies of the first six centuries—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Philastrius, St. Augustine, and, later, Leontius and Timotheus—have left us accounts of them to the number of eighty, but not a single one is reproached with rejecting the Pope’s authority in matters of faith.
All this is intelligible enough, if we look at the patristic interpretation of the words of Christ to St. Peter. Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt. xvi.18, John xxi.17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess—Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas—has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter’s confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the twelve being together the foundation–stones of the Church (Apoc. xxi.14). The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as—what is obvious to any one at first sight—they did not regard a power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred in precisely the same words on all the Apostles, as anything peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing.'

Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, writing under the pseudonym Janus, in The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1869), pp. 70-74.

von Döllinger(1799-1890) was a Roman Catholic priest and historian who is known today primarily as the spiritual father of the German branch of the Old Catholic movement which arose in protest after the proclamation of papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1870 (although he declined to be consecrated as first bishop of the Bavarian branch of this church, and lived thereafter in somewhat ambiguous relationship with the movement, even after he had been excommuncated from the Roman Catholic Church for refusing to submit to the new dogma.) He is generally acknowledged to be one of the foremost church historians of the 19th century, and lectured in that subject at the University of Munich; he was also awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Marburg.

This extract is from a series of letters published pseudonymously by von Döllinger in advance of the Council with the intent of forestalling the pronouced move to defining infallibility as a dogma. Obviously that intention of von Döllinger was frustrated by subsequent events, but the impressive array of historical evidence he mounted in his public letters was never rebutted by Rome, instead it was suppressed on the floor of the Council as dissenting bishops were literally shouted down by the Pope's loyal men. Many of the dissenting bishops subsequently left Rome before the vote was taken, which is why Roman Catholic history books can disingenuously record the vote in favour of the dogma as having the support of 'an overwhelming majority' of the bishops present. In fact there were four hundred and fifty-one votes in favour, less than half of the one thousand and eighty-four bishops with voting rights in the church at large and less than two-thirds of the seven hundred bishops who were in attendance at the commencement of the Council. Eighty-eight bishops voted against the definition, while twenty-six abstained and fifty-five apparently informed the Pope that while they were opposed to the definition, out of loyalty to him they would not vote against it.

von Döllinger kept the world informed of these developments at the Council in his Letters of Quirinus, and in the end he was to be the only dissenter of note who manfully refused to go against his conscience by submitting to a dogma which he knew to have no scriptural or historical basis. Even the fiesty Croatian primate, Bishop Joseph Strossmayr, eventually succumbed, perhaps in order to extract concessions from the Pope for his flock regarding the use of Slavonic in the litrgy.

It should be noted that von Döllinger regarded himself to the end as a loyal Catholic, and furthermore he was an ardent critic of the Reformation, having written a three volume work on the subject. This, we think, only adds weight to what he writes here as being all the more an unprejudiced and accurate review of the lack of historical evidence for papal primacy in the ancient church; von Döllinger certainly had no axe to grind on behalf of the Reformation, he simply could not abide the thought of this anti-historical view of the Papacy being dogmatised. But, as von Döllinger discovered, respect for history has never stood in the way of the progressive self-aggrandisement of the Papacy.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Preaching is the Proclamation of the Word, Not Your Doubts, Preacher

'Preaching is not the proclamation of a theory, or the discussion of doubt. A man has a perfect right to proclaim a theory of a sort, or to discuss his doubts. But that is not preaching. 'Give me the benefit of your convictions, if you have any. Keep your doubts to yourself; I have enough of my own', said Goethe. We are never preaching when we are hazarding speculations. Of course we do so. We are bound to speculate sometimes. I sometimes say, 'I am speculating; stop taking notes.' Speculation is not preaching. Neither is the declaration of negations preaching. Preaching is the proclamation of the Word, the truth as the truth has been revealed.'

G. Campbell Morgan, once preacher at Westminster Chapel, London, from Preaching (1937), quoted in John Stott, Between Two Worlds , Eerdmans (1982), p.85, in a section on the modern church's loss of confidence in the Gospel.

It's a sad thing to have to say, but I have heard more than my share of negations from the pulpit. That is one reason why I left the Anglican Church. In the last sermon I heard as an Anglican, on Trinity Sunday 1993 if memory serves correct, the Holy Trinity was de-constructed in the manner of Ritschl, and at the conclusion of the sermon the congregation was invited to confess the Nicene Creed! I walked out of that church having lost confidence in a church body that seemed to regard the subversion of the fundamental articles of faith by its clergy as a benign eccentricity. No wonder the Anglican Church is dying in these parts...does it deserve to live?

Campbell Morgan is right, speculation may sometimes be unavoidable in the sermon, although it should be kept to a minimum, but there is no place for negations in the pulpit, and preachers who indulge in them should really just go and do something else.

[Pic: Pulpit Rock, Stavengar region, Norway]

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Another Lutheran Essential

Speaking of the essential Lutheran library, while I was in my local Christian bookstore today I noticed a handsome new edition of Roland Bainton's classic, Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther, courtesy of Hendrickson Publishers, who deserve the acclaim of English-speaking theology lovers everywhere for their affordable re-issues of indispensable classics, including Schaff's History of the Christian Church , The Creeds of Christendom and the Ante and Post-Nicene Fathers series.
This is probably still the best biography of Luther in English for the average reader, who will only rarely be interested in wading through Brecht's three-volume magnum opus - but that's not a bad thing since Bainton eschews speculation (unlike several other quite tendentious biographies of Luther which shall remain nameless here) and sticks to the facts (in the time-honoured, pragmatic American fashion..."just the facts, Ma'am"), which he presents in a lively and readable style.
Sure, there's not much theological analysis of Luther here, but as Bainton wasn't a Lutheran anyway we can probably be grateful for that - and that is available elsewhere in a format easily digestible for the lay-person, for example in Eugene Klug's Lift High The Cross , published by CPH (Australian readers I can direct you to a local stockist of this volume if required).

This edition is cloth-bound with a dust jacket and illustrated with reproductions of many period woodcuts, and thus represents quite good value at AUS$25.95. If you don't have a copy, now's the time to get one; for many years now Bainton's 1950 classic has only been available in a cheap paperback edition, so it's good to see it get the publishing treatment it still deserves.

Oh, yes, as you'll notice from the pic, there's a goodly amount of sangria on the dustjacket...natch.

(Click on the post title to be taken to the local Australian stockist of the Bainton book.)

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Essential Lutheran Library

The good people at Concordia Publishing House have done a sterling job to date in bringing out The Essential Lutheran Library, known in the old manse as the 'Sangria Selection' for obvious reasons (the binding of these books is in a colour known to publishers as 'sangria', a word which for some reason reminds me of a very rough Spanish wine which I have no intention of ever becoming acquainted with again.)
Call me paranoid if you will, but I often wonder which books I would save if the old manse was on fire (after saving wife and children, of course!); well, these are they... along with a couple of others if time permitted ;0). Here is spiritual sustenance for a lifetime.
And I'm quite excited about the latest, very fitting addition to the ELL, a reader's edition of Walther's classic 'The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel':

This is one of those books a pastor should read through every year, and the faith of our intelligent laity would benefit from such reading too.

Click on the post title to obtain a sampler file, courtesy CPH.

Now, it seems to me that the ELL would be just about complete with the addition of a small compendium of classic Lutheran dogmatics, annotated for use by laity and packed full of scripture references.

Pics courtesy Paul T. McCain (

Friday, 7 May 2010

Religion: The Obama Administration Doesn't Get It

President Obama may have once been viewed as a Messiah, not least because of his soaring rhetoric which drew comparisons with Martin Luther King Jnr., but his administration clearly doesn't get religion. Consequently, according to the chair of the Congress appointed but politically independent US Commission on Religious Freedom, they are taking their eyes off the issue of freedom of religion across the world, and by doing so fostering the conditions that cause extremism to 'thrive like bacteria in a petri dish'.

The Commission's latest report identifies the 13 "usual suspects" when it comes to constraints on religious freedom, a group of nations which includes China of course, but then there are also another 12 countries including Russia, Vietnam, Belarus, Indonesia and Venezuela which the commission regards as forming a "second tier group" of nations that should be of concern, with all of whom it seems to be business as usual for the US (and for Australia, come to think of it). In fact, the only country against which actions have recently been taken by the US for the curtailment of religious freedoms is Eritrea; hardly a world-changing initiative.

We in Australia are used to government policy and the public square being radically religion-free zones, but I venture to say this is a new experience for the US. Whatever Obama's personal beliefs may be, and it is not my intention to second-guess his personal profession of faith, his presidency seems to be playing out as the first post-modern, post-Christian, post-religious administration in US history...quite ironic, really.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Pell Promoted Prefect? Peregrination Presaged

"Promotion means motion", as my bank clerk father used to say every two years as we packed our bags for yet another country town, and so it seems for Cardinal Pell of Sydney, who, if our source is correct, will soon be off to Rome to become Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, which means he will oversee every episcopal appointment in the Roman Church for the next seven years, at which time he will be due to retire.

There have only been seven Australian cardinals in history (which is not as bad a record as it sounds when you consider that Australia has only been extant for c. 200 years; in fact a member of a RC religious order once told me that up until the 1950s his order was reluctant to even ordain native-born Australians because of their reputation for being uncouth and uncultured, so 7 cardinals is not bad in that light :0) ), and I dare say no Australian has ever held such an infuential position in the Roman hierarchy; only Cardinal Cassidy, who signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification for the Catholic side, would come close (here at the old manse we feel more warmth and affection for Cardinal Cassidy than for the Lutheran signatories to that flawed document).
Pell's Catholicism is robust, which has earned him about equal amounts of bouquets and brickbats from both within and without his church in Oz since his rise to prominence in the latter years of JPII's pontificate. We must say that the Australian ecclesiastical scene will certainly be duller without him, although we think the Cardinal must be looking forward to leaving Sydney, where his tenure as Archbishop hasn't received quite the same acclamation as it did in Melbourne.

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OK...I confess I only posted this to scoop Schuetz over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia. Here at the old manse we really have our finger on the pulse - which beats all the way from Rome!

Btw, the pic is of Cardinal Pell in Newman's personal chapel in the Birmingham Oratory, which allows me to point out an interesting but little known fact about the 'Blessed' John Henry - he did not like crucifixes and never displayed one in his rooms, where it was strictly cross without corpus only. Apparently this aversion hearkened back to his younger days when he was an Anglican evangelical, and it was something he never overcame!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Aquinas on the Primacy of Scripture II

"Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections---if he has any---against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered."

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, Q. Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Matter of Argument?

Aquinas makes several important points here, but there are two I wish to underline presently:

1) Note that Aquinas states that there is no 'science', i.e. knowledge, above scripture, and therefore scripture 'can dispute with' heretics, provided they acknowledge at least some of the truths taught in it; presumably he means here that they accept scripture's authority, among other matters. This is very close to the Reformation understanding of scripture as the iudex controversiarum, the judge in doctrinal controversies in the church.

2) Note that Aquinas makes the statement, in his final sentence on the need to answer challenges from unbelievers, that 'faith rests upon infallible truth'. For Aquinas, then, an article of faith can only be established on the basis of an infallible authority, and yet, as we have already noted in the previous post, for Aquinas -- following Augustine -- the only infallible authority is scripture; therefore, we conclude, Aquinas held that articles of faith can be established only on the basis of scripture.

Fair comment from Roman Catholics is invited, but, let me hasten to add, please don't use the comments box as an opportunity to insult me on my own blog - play the ball and not the man if you want your comments published here, OK?

We have further 'glosses' on Aquinas, which may indeed provide an answer to possible Roman Catholic objections, in the pipeline.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Aquinas on the Primacy of Scripture

I was reading through the prolegomena of Aquinas's Summa again this afternoon - if you want to learn to appreciate clarity of thought and expression, Aquinas is a good place to go, even in translation (not that I always agree with his conclusions ;0), but at least it is clear as to why when this is the case) - and I came once again across the following, which forms Aquinas's response to an imagined objection that sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument from authority. I have quoted a shorter extract of this paragraph before, but it is so important that I now post it in its entirety, italicising the crucial passage where Aquinas teaches the same doctrine on the primacy of scripture and its relation to other authorities that would later be explicated by such Lutheran divines as Martin Chemnitz:

"This doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: "Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: "As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring" (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): "Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning."

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, Q8. Whether Sacred Doctrine Is A Matter of Argument?

Aquinas is known mainly as the great synthesiser of Christian theology and Aristotelianism, an innovation which, however necessary at the time, is in some parts highly questionable. Perhaps his greater achievement was in synthesising and presenting in concise dogmatic form the history of Christian thought and doctrine down to the early middle ages. Here he expoounds with great clarity the consensus view of the ancient Fathers on the primacy of the authority of scripture, quoting Augustine as the greatest patristic witness.

An excellent introduction to Aquinas's thought, particularly in relation to his Aristotelianism, can be found in the late Fr Copleston's little paperback volume that was published by Penguin - the American division of Penguin still has it in print.