Friday, 31 December 2010

The Supercelestial Thoughts & Subterranean Conduct of Lancelot Andrewes

He was regarded by many of his time (and since) as the most pious Englishman ever to have lived. He was chair of the committee which produced the Authorised Version of the Bible. Reading his sermons is said to have converted T.S. Eliot (who lifted one of the lines he read therein for the opening line of his poem Journey of the Magi without acknowledgement). His name is hallowed in the Church of England, which honours his memory in its Calendar with a Lesser Festival. He has been called the greatest ever writer the English language has ever known (by the self-declared sceptic, novelist Kurt Vonnegut). He prayed for five hours every morning, handkerchief in hand to dry his copious tears. He assisted at the coronation of a king, yet was known to give counsel to the poor of London. He was regarded as so holy by his contemporaries that they thought it entirely fitting to bury him beside the high altar of Southwark Cathedral. He is often considered to be the founding - and most brilliant - theologian of Anglo-Catholicism, and followers of that movement still use his prayers in their devotional life. He has even been portrayed as a saint in contemporary art in the Eastern iconographic style.

Yet the story of his life exhibits a dark side that provides more confirmation (as if we needed it) of the truth of Montaigne's shrewd observation that "supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct are often found to go hand in hand". Some contemporaries who came up against him thought his countenance strangely distant, a mask that hid his true nature, which was cold, calculating, ambitious and vindictive. The historical record indicates he was certainly guilty of nepotism (and hypocrisy, as this was a sin he condemned in others from the pulpit), and of the most serious neglect of pastoral duty by abandoning his parish during the plague (he had a man who publicly criticised him for this imprisoned for 18 months until he retracted). He could humble himself before God in private prayer as "a worm and no man" while at the same time coveting high office in the church and courting those whose influence could make it happen. His glittering ecclesiastical career seems to owe as much to his role as an Anglican Inquisitor who interrogated supposed heretics, a role which he carried out with remarkable insouciance, as it does to his undoubted gifts as a preacher.

He is Lancelot Andrewes (+1626), and he is yet another example from history of the disturbing combination of worldliness and piety which often marks the personalities of those who achieve high position within the church. You can read about the contradictions of his life over at church historian Dr Chris Armstrong's Grateful to the Dead blog (click on the post title to go).

Andrewes's life reminds me of another aphorism, this time from Luther: we remain all our lives simul iustus et peccator, at the same time righteous and yet still sinners. The regenerated Christian is freed from the bondage to sin which marks the lives of unbelievers, but he or she never entirely escapes the power of sin in this life. Andrewes seems to have been blind to his own most grievous sins, surely an affliction that all of us share to some degee, and yet he - and we - can be comforted with the knowledge that all our sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

What Does Google Ngram Viewer Reveal About Christianity in Modern TImes?

Google Books Ngram Viewer is a fascinating tool that tracks the usage of words and terms in published books over the last couple of centuries, basically the modern period, in fact, if we date it from the French Revolution. Ngam Viewer can also be used to do comparative word/term studies and trace the long term usage of words, e.g. 'kindergarten' vs 'child care'. I decided to experiment with classical theological terms - original sin, justification by faith, redemption, baptism, etc., in the expectation that the results might reveal something about the general Christian religiosity and theological literacy of the English book reading public over the years of modernity. The results confirmed my expectations, but provided some interesting detail.

They indicate that the 19th century was the era of the greatest incidence of classical theological terms appearing in books published in English. In fact, the year 1850, right in the middle of the century, marks the high point, after which there is a precipitous decline into the 20th century. The nadir for classical theological terms is reached about 1920, just after World War One, after which the trends for the appearance of theological terms in published literature of all kinds basically flatline. Interestingly, from the 1950s onwards there is a modest recovery (the graph pictured shows the results for 'baptism', with a little bump around 1960, which might show the peak of interest in the subject by the parents of baby-boomers). Indeed, terms such as 'theology', 'dogmatics', etc, rise quite noticeably in the 1980s, which coincides with the revival of published systematic theology, mostly from conservative quarters, in that decade and afterwards. But the recovery in no way attains to the relative heights of the mid-19th century.

Now for the Lutheran question: "What does this mean?"

These may not be scientific conclusions, but I suggest it confirms what we all probably suspected - the 19th century was the high point of religiosity among Anglophone Christians in the modern period, reflected in the peak incidences of theological terms in all sorts of published English literature. The period after World War I seems to mark the beginning of the reign of secularism in Anglophone societies, the US being an interesting partial exception to this trend (the data from books published in British English and American English can be separated, providing interesting perspectives on what was happening on each side of the Atlantic). The apparent significance of the WWI in the story of the decline of Christian religiosity in the Anglosphere is perhaps also shown by a comparative study of terms which reveals that around 1918 the incidence of the term "theory of evolution", steadily on the rise since 1860 (Darwin's The Origen of Species was published in 1859), first outranks the occurence of the term "Christianity" in English-language texts. Did the victory of Britain and her allies in WWI usher in the belief in the natural supremacy of "the British race" over all others, supplanting traditional religious belief and replacing it with a Darwinian pseudo-religion? Or did the carnage of the war render religious belief implausible in the minds of the book buying public, and turn their minds to naturalistic worldviews? These would be interesting questions to explore, but would take us well beyond the limitations of the Ngram Viewer.

It's not all bad news, however. The period following WWII sees a slight but noticeable revival of the usage of classical theological terms, which I would atttribute mainly to the rise of Evangelicalism as a force in English-speaking societies generally in this period, a factor which has definitely had an impact upon publishing. Indeed, so profitable has Evangelical publishing become that a publisher as astute as Rupert Murdoch bought into it by purchasing Zondervan in 1988. Whatever we may think of aspects of Evangelical theology (Is there an Evangelical theology?), we can at least be grateful that Evangelicalism at its best (think of influential best-sellers like John Stott's Basic Christianity and J.I. Packer's Knowing God) has largely used classical theological terms and kept the "language of Zion" alive for a new generation of readers.

Ngram Viewer is quite extraordinary in its potential, especially as Google Books expands their listings.

Click on the post title to check out Google Books Ngram Viewer for yourself.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Was Christmas a Pagan Festival?

Was Christmas originally a pagan festival? Conventional wisdom has long (since c.1200AD, in fact) suggested that the observance of Christmas was imposed by the imperial church on a pagan festival which marked the northern winter solstice. The conjecture seems, on superficial examination, to have the ring of truth about it. It is certainly known, for instance, that when the post-Constantinian church evangelised a new territory, they often replaced local pagan festivities with saint's days and the like. It seems to have been assumed, somewhere along the line, that this is also what happened with Christmas, which replaced the Roman mid-winter Saturnalia festival. This theory took on new life with the advent of comparative religious studies in the 19th century, tinged as they were with early post-Christian scepticism.

But the truth, it seems, as is so often the case, is rather more complicated. Yes, the traditional date for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ does coincide with the Roman Saturnalia, and after Constantine and the influx of poorly catechised pagan converts into the church, the celebration of Christmas does seem to have taken on elements of pagan festivities. But the true reason for the date of 25th December being marked as the birthday of Christ may actually lie deep within the folds of the seamless garment of salvation history.

Anyone familiar with the calendar of the Christian church knows that Christmas falls exactly nine months after the festival of the Annunciation, which is celebrated on 25th March. No great mystery there, to be sure. But what if the date of the celebration of the miraculous conception of our Lord in the Virgin Mary's womb was not just picked 'out of the blue' by the early church, but was based on an ancient belief that Jesus was incarnated on the same day of the Jewish calendar on which he died?

This belief, which appears early in the history of the church (Augustine knew of it), may be related to the Rabbinic belief that the world was created - along with Adam - in Spring, which in the Israelite calendar is pre-eminently associated with the month of Nisan. This is also, of course, the month during which the Israelites were redeemed out of Egypt, and in which also the Patriarchs, most significantly Isaac, were born. Is it not fitting and right, then, that the second Adam (the first-born of a new humanity), who is also the perfect, unspotted Lamb of God whose sacrifice (prefigured by Isaac) would atone for the sins of the world, enter this world in the flesh in Nisan (specifically 14 Nisan, which in the Roman solar calendar equates with 25th March)?

Theologically, it makes perfect sense, bookending the advent and death of our Lord in a way which is both profoundly moving and satisfying to the Christian mind and also evocative of the perfect yet mysterious ways in which God achieves his purposes, even if it is hard to prove conclusively without further documentation being uncovered. Of course, given that the actual conception and birth days of our Lord are not recorded in the scriptures, we are probably not meant to lose too much sleep over it. But the next time someone at the workplace Christmas party, or a lapsed-Christian family member at the Christmas dinner table, remarks to you that "of course, Christmas was just imposed by the church on a pagan festival", you just might have a wonderful opportunity to engage them in a discussion about the mysteries and miracles of the history of salvation.

Click on the post title to read an informative article on the subject by Australian scholar Andrew McGowan which has appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review.

The beautiful mosaics are courtesy

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Greetings!

Christmas Greetings,
from the Old Manse.

"…he who lies in the virgin’s lap is our Saviour…accept this and give thanks to God, who so loved you that he gave you a Saviour who is yours. And for a sign he sent the angel from heaven to proclaim him, in order that nothing else should be preached except that this child is the Saviour and far better than heaven and earth. Him, therefore, we should acknowledge and accept; confess him as our Saviour in every need, call upon him, and never doubt that he will save us from all misfortune. Amen."
Martin Luther, Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day
Luke 2:1-14, December 25, 1530

The pic is of the impressive interior of the dome of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. This church was jointly established by German (Lutheran) and English (Anglican) Evangelicals in the 19th century to proclaim the Gospel to the indigenous people of Palestine - an intriguing venture which had ramifications far beyond the Holy Land. It now belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, and we hope and pray, for the sake of the Palestinian people of Bethlehem, that the Gospel is still preached there. I can't decipher the Arabic script, but I think it may say 'Glory to God in the Highest...' If anyone can confirm, please do so via the combox. I think you'll agree the juxtaposition of the Arabic script with a Western vaulted ceiling is quite stunning.

[Pic courtesy James Emery]

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Primacy of the Gospel over the Church; or, Why Inverting the World's Lies Does Not Necessarily Lead to Biblical Truth

"The renaissance of the idea of the Church in modern theology seems unfortunately to bring semi-Roman ideas in its train, so that the Church comes to be looked on as something superior to the natural life, something that has come down to earth, which is now a sort of overlay on the natural sphere. All such ideas of an overnature lead us away from the Early Christian idea of the church as the new humanity. In a world where evil destroys God's creation, humanity as it was destined to be by the Creator comes to clear focus in one place, in the congregation whose head is Christ, the conqueror of the enemy of man. The practice of setting the Church over against man has little foundation in the New Testament, and just as little in the Reformation. That, nevertheless, this way of looking at things is so common today - that the question of the church's authority is more important than the question of the content of the message - must be due to the fact that an anti-liberal reaction is going on. The idea that man is opposed by the Church, and flourishes when freed from its clutches is rejected - but is then simply inverted. But there is hardly any matter in which we can arrive at the truth by inverting a lie."
Gustaf Wingren,The Living Word, SCM Press, London 1964, p34 (Swedish original: Predikan, 1949).

I read Wingren's book* a number of years ago, and I was actually looking for another passage I had underlined to quote in a post when I came across this one. Here, I'm convinced, Wingren puts his finger on what is behind much of the current fascination with the question of the Church that often leads to conversions to Rome - i.e. it is essentially an anti-liberal reactionary movement**.

I've been thinking about the question of the Church in response to some comments by my 'erstwhile Lutheran come Roman Catholic' interlocutor, David Schuetz. While I concede David's point, made recently in a comment here, that Lutheran thinking on the Church needs further explication, my basic approach to the question remains as follows: Whenever the nature and character of the Church, and the question of its authority, become the primary items on the theological agenda, rather than the Gospel the Church is called by God to proclaim, then I think we have passed over from Reformation patterns of theologising to what Wingren terms "semi-Roman" patterns of thought. The inevitable destination of this way of thinking, it seems to me, is to come to regard the Church as the ultimate "sacrament", and I suspect this is one thing Wingren was getting at by speaking of how in contemporary theology the Church is being "overlayed" on the natural sphere. Of course, there is an implied criticism here of Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism.

Interestingly, the same thought that Wingren expresses here can also be found in Wilhelm Loehe (see his Three Books on the Church). Loehe, like certain other 19th century German Lutheran figures, was much concerned with the Church, but he remained Lutheran in his thinking by always according the Gospel primacy over the Church. For Loehe, like Wingren, in accord with the pattern established by the Lutheran confessions, it is the Gospel that precedes the Church and not the other way around - in the Augsburg Confession the Church has to wait until Art VII, after the Gospel has been outlined in the preceding articles.

It should be clearly stated, however, that the primacy of the Gospel over the Church is a theological notion, not necessarily a historical one (i.e. in some historical instances the Church has preceded the Gospel - we think of some missions, for example), and the notion should not be taken to such an extreme as to suggest that the Gospel can be separated from the life of the Church. The Church is inseparably related to the Gospel and draws its life from it, because the proclamation of the Gospel creates and sustains the Church (Is 55:11).

* Wingren needs to read with caution; he has many valuable insights, but tends, imo, towards Gospel reductionism.

** The problem is not in being anti-liberal, but in allowing the question of the Church to be framed by the reaction to liberalism - Wingren's "inversion of a lie". Imo, Rome fell into this trap with the Syllabus of Errors, and although its thought on the question has become considerably more sophisticated since then, it hasn't yet managed to extricate itself from this position. A current example is the present Pope's obsession with preserving the Roman Catholic foundations of the European Union.

For an interesting study in how an anti-liberal reactionary outlook can lead directly and almost inevitably to Rome, consider the case of John Henry Newman, as told by himself in his self-absorbed spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Newman's journey has been cited by many converts to Rome as a map for their own journeys. How telling, one can only say.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Reprise: The Luther Quote That Wasn't

We are now into what is known as the "silly season" down under, i.e. Christmas/Summer holidays. One feature of this season is that regular TV shows finish their runs and are replaced by repeats. I thought I'd take a leaf out of the TV programmers' book to repeat, or rather reprise (sounds better), some of my older posts which newer readers may not have seen before. We start off with "The Luther Quote That Wasn't" from 2009. Enjoy! (Normal service will continue - no summer break for the glossator, who will remain hard at work in the study of his manse even during his January holidays.)

Recently Dr. John Kleinig, a lecturer at my alma mater, Luther Seminary, Adelaide, South Australia sent out a request for help in tracking down a well-known quote attributed to Luther. Here is the quote as it is referred to in an essay by Robert D. Preus, 'Word, Doctrine and Confession' (reprinted in Doctrine is Life, Essays on Scripture, Concordia 2006, p285-286):
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.

I had heard the quote before, often given off the cuff by students in the refectory during a heated argument over morning tea and occasionally it was even cited by lecturers in the lecture room, and I suspect it is known at least in paraphrased form by most consciously confessional Lutherans; it is particularly relevant to our times and is therefore probably one of the three or four best-known quotations from Luther bandied about in confessional circles today. That and the fact that I love research meant that I couldn't resist following this request up.

The quote sounds like it might come from Luther's Table-Talk, but I'm sure better scholars than I have searched the Tischreden in vain for the citation. For example, I can't believe that a careful a scholar like Robert Preus did not spend quite a bit of time searching for the quote in the huge leather-bound volumes of the Weimarer Ausgabe von Luthers Werke before giving up and reluctantly referencing the citation thus in footnote #85 of the above cited essay that otherwise bristles with a familiarity with the original sources: 'These sentences are quoted from Francis A. Schaeffer, "Truth Versus the New Humanism and the New Theology," in Erich Kiehl and Waldo Werning, eds., Evangelical Directions for the Lutheran Church , 1970:21'.

So, where did Francis Shaeffer get the quote from? That I cannot say with certainty, since he did not reference it (another telling point!). But, I believe I have tracked down the likely source, and it is not Luther.

Elizabeth Charles was a 19th century English novelist and hymn translator, who was once commissioned to write a historical novel set in Reformation times; the novel appeared in 1862 with the title Chronicles of the Schoenberg-Cotta Family and became a best-seller, being translated into several European and other languages, even Hindi! (the fact of the novel's popularity immediately reminds us of the deep religiosity of the second-half of the 19th century, which is perhaps comparable only in magnitude to the credulity of the second-half of the 20th century).

Charles' novel records the impact of the Reformation through the eyes of several members of the fictional Schoenberg-Cotta family. In chapter XIX, titled 'Fritz's Story' (p. 276 in the 1864 Thomas Nelson edition), you will find the following entry in the fictional diary of one Fritz, a sometime Augustinian monk converted to the Reformation cause by Luther (ellipses indicate editing on my part for the sake of brevity):

Ebernberg, April 2nd, 1526

A chasm has opened between me and my monastic life. I have been in the prison, and in the prison have I received at last, in full, my emancipation. The ties I dreaded impatiently to break have been broken for me, and I am a monk no longer...

But the time came when Dr. Luther's name was on every lip. The bull of excommunication went forth against him from the Vatican. His name was branded as that of the vilest of heretics by every adherent of the Pope. In many churches, especially those of the Dominicans, the people were summoned by the great bells to a solemn service of anathema, where the whole of the priests, gathered at the altar in the darkened building, pronounced the terrible words of doom, and then, flinging down their blazing torches extinguished them on the stone pavement, as hope, they said, was extinguished by the anathema for the soul of the accursed.

...mine was not the only heart which glowed with burning indignation to hear that worthy name linked with those of apostates and heretics, and held up to universal execration. But, perhaps, in no heart there did it enkindle such a fire as in mine. Because I knew the source from which those curses came, how lightly, how carelessly those firebrands were flung; not fiercely, by the fanaticism of blinded consciences, but daintily and deliberately, by cruel, reckless hands, as a matter of diplomacy and policy, by those who cared themselves neither for God's curse nor his blessing. And I knew also the heart which they were meant to wound; how loyal, how tender, how true; how slowly, and with what pain Dr. Luther had learned to believe the idols of his youth a lie; with what a wrench, when the choice at last had to be made between the word of God and the voice of the Church, he had clung to the Bible, and let the hopes, and trust, and friendships of earlier days be torn from him; what anguish that separation still cost him; how willingly, as a humble little child, at the sacrifice of anything but truth and human souls, he would have flung himself again on the bosom of that Church to which, in his fervent youth, he had offered up all that makes life dear...

After the publication of the excommunication, they publicly burned the writings of Dr. Luther in the great square. Mainz was the first city in Germany where this indignity was offered him.

Mournfully I returned to my convent. In the cloisters of our Order the opinions concerning Luther are much divided. The writings of St. Augustine have kept the truth alive in many hearts amongst us; and besides this, there is the natural bias to one of our own order, and the party opposition to the Dominicans, Tetzel and Eck, Dr. Luther's enemies. Probably there are few Augustinian convents in which there are not two opposite parties in reference to Dr. Luther.

In speaking of the great truths, of God freely justifying the sinner because Christ died, (the Judge acquitting because the Judge himself had suffered for the guilty), I had endeavoured to trace them, as I have said, beyond all human words to their divine authority. But now to confess Luther seemed to me to have become identical with confessing Christ . It is the truth which is assailed in any age which tests our fidelity. It is to confess we are called, not merely to profess. If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point."

So, the mystery of the source of the famous Luther quote is solved. It is not Luther at all, but Elizabeth Charles, or so it would seem, unless someone, somewhere can turn up an original citation from Luther's works.

Finally, there is a delightful little twist in this tale too: Elizabeth Charles was the daughter of John Rundle, sometime Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons for the electorate of Tavistock in Devon. He was also a founder of the South Australia Company, which fostered much of the settlement and trade of the South Australian colony. The main street of Adelaide, the city from whence the original call for help came from Dr Kleinig at Luther Seminary, is named after him, "Rundle Mall".

Top: Title Page, Luther's Tischreden or Table Talk
Middle: A popular level volume on English church history by Elizabeth Charles which advertises itself as by the author of the best-selling Chronicles of the Schoenberg-Cotta Family
Bottom: Rundle Mall Fountain and the Adelaide Arcade at night

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A Voyage to Nowhere?

I've never been a great fan of films adapted from books. That sentiment has only been increased by the current trend towards filming works of fantasy fiction like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, not to mention the unmentionable Harry Potter series!

Some works of fiction, notably the novels of Dostoevsky, can be quite successfully turned into films, probably because they are written more like stage or screen plays than novels anyway. But novels that tell their story against a wide, panoramic vision seem to me, paradoxically, to resist successful film adaptation (an exception might be Bondarchuk's War and Peace, which is extraordinary, but nowhere near as extraordinary as the novel...but then Bondarchuk took seven years to make that film, had the Red Army as extras, and its running length is 8 hours!).

Stories which portray a panoramic vision of an imaginary world through the genre of fantasy seem to me to doubly resist film adaptation (which doesn't stop producers from adapting them - but they seem to do so not because they should, but simply because they can, especially since the advent of computerised special effects). Case in point The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Perhaps it could be said that it works as cinematic spectacle, but if the criteria for a successful film adaptation of a work of fiction includes, as surely it must, translating the moral vision of the author onto the screen, then I believe the filmed Narnia Chronicles and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in particular have failed dismally. What we have in this latest installment is not so much Lewis's voyage to the dawning East, but a voyage to nowhere - a film adaptation of Lewis's vision for the post-Christian imagination.

Film critic Steven Greydanus explains why this is the case much better than I could with his excellent article in the National Catholic Register.
Check it out by clicking on the post title. Let us at least hope that seeing the film might lead not a few inquiring young people to read the book, where they can be introduced to Lewis's creatively Christian vision of the world in all its unadulterated mystery.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Abscondita est ecclesia...

Abscondita est ecclesia, latent sancti
(The church is hidden, the holy ones are kept from sight)
Martin Luther, De servo arbitrio, 1525, WA 18652 holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
The Augsburg Confession, 1530

Erstwhile Lutheran brother come Ignatian Roman Catholic David Schütz (pictured) has responded to my recent post "Heretics, Sectarians and 'The Lutheran Difference'" over at his blog Sentire Cum Ecclesia (click on post title to view). I've advised David that present duties preclude an extended, point by point response from me at the moment (it is, after all, Advent, and fast heading towards Christmas), and I have noted that he has explicated quite a bit from what was ostensibly a plug for a book.

However, were an extended discussion possible, I think it is likely that the nub of the matter would soon be found to be the Lutheran understanding of the church as hidden but revealed through Word and Sacrament, as opposed to the Roman understanding of it as a visible, hierarchical, and therefore unequivocably recognisable institution. So let's not beat about the bush. David, I have no doubt, rejects the "hidden yet revealed" Lutheran ecclesiology. But I suspect he does so because he reads it along the lines of a Reformed view of a division between the "visible" and "invisible" churches (that terminology has indeed been used by Lutherans, but never with the implications that either the Reformed or David ascribe to it).

In fact, and I know this is a big call - I don't know that David has ever really grasped the Lutheran ecclesiology, and I think this explains much about his conversion to Rome (before I continue let me say that David has, to use a cricketing analogy, bowled quite a few bouncers down the pitch at me since I started blogging, which I have mostly let go through to the keeper; so I feel entitled to bowl the occasional one back at him!). One can find evidence in support of my assertion in a document David wrote almost 10 years ago, which he has placed in the public domain...
...In ecumenical theology, two ecclesiologies are possible: 1) The true Church of Christ on earth is a visible reality which is manifested and recognised by certain “marks” and is to be identified with a particular denomination to the extent that it preserves these “marks” in their fullness/purity; or 2) the true Church of Christ is an invisible reality that consists of the spiritual communion of true believers who are known only to God, and who may be found in any denomination, or indeed, even beyond the bounds of organised Christianity. I do not believe the second option to be valid: the church is the body of Christ, and Christ is incarnate (he is not “the invisible man”). It is my understanding that historically the Lutheran Church (and even more specifically, the LCA) has held the former definition, and has regarded itself to be the true church because it alone has perfectly preserved the true Word and Sacraments. For this reason, we have been wary of entering into communion other churches, because of a perceived lack of purity in the preservation of these marks. If so, is the Lutheran Church not claiming to be the one holy catholic church, and, if so, how is this claim to be justified?
From David Schuetz, For the Summit at St Paul's, Box Hill, 9th March 2001; italics mine.

I distinctly remember when I first read this document. I was at seminary in North Adelaide and the documents relating to this summit had been obtained by a member of the student body and distributed to those who might be interested. It must have been the Easter break of 2001, and I remember sitting in my attic study at 217a Archer Street and nearly falling off my chair and tumbling down the stairs when I read David's words as quoted above. "How could he get it so wrong!?" I exclaimed..."Has he never read the LCA's Theses of Agreement V, Theses on the Church, with its copious scripture and confessional references and its crystal clear Affirmativa and Negativa?" (These theses - try saying or typing that 10 times - were adopted at a joint meeting of the intersynodical committees of the two Australian Lutheran synods of the time in February 1950, and are available here:

The Theses, which state the public doctrine of the LCA, clearly reject both of David's "ecumenical... ecclesiologies", by which I think he means the two main types of ecclesiologies which have undoubtedly had historical and theological primacy. If I could boil the theses down for my purposes here (and I do suggest you read them for yourself), we find that they teach that the una sancta is not to be identified with a particular visible denomination (contra David's 1st ecclesiology), but neither is it a Platonic or imaginary state (contra David's 2nd ecclesiology; note how "spiritual" for David seems to imply unreal). Rather, it is a spiritual, but nonetheless real (how could it not be real for a Lutheran!), fellowship which is more or less hidden in the world but which has been called into being and is preserved by God through the Gospel purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered - these works of God then constitute the marks of the church: where the Lord is, there, most certainly, is his church (Is 55:11). The church is, most importantly, an article of faith,a truth which no Roman theologian worth his salt would deny, I'm sure.

It is this last aspect of the Lutheran doctrine, that the church is an article of faith, which I believe David has had most trouble. If one believes that the una sancta is unqualifiedly visible and incarnate, as David appears to believe already at this stage as a Lutheran pastor, then it is no surprise that one will be attracted to Rome, the visible church par excellence! Note his comment above that "the church is the body of Christ, and Christ is incarnate (he is not “the invisible man”)". Indeed, Christ was not invisible during the time of his earthly incarnation, but his Godhood was only "visible" to the eyes of those who looked upon him with faith! Just the same, the church, which is his body on earth, is only visible to the eyes of faith. That does not make her any the less real, though. She will most certainly one day be revealed to the whole world as the one, holy, and glorified church, along with her Lord. Until that time, however, she exists only under the Cross, which seems to be foolishness to men (1 Cor 1:18-2:16). Rome's attempts to pre-empt the "already but not yet" eschatological unity, holiness and glory of the church appear to this writer to be catering to the natural man, who craves "signs and wonders" and without them is resigned to scepticism. The righteous, however, live by faith.

Indeed, Dominus Iesus (August 6, 2000) notwithstanding, it could be said that Rome's contemporary difficulties in establishing exactly where the limits of her own communion are to be drawn perhaps indicate a slow drifting away from her classical ecclesiology ("There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved" Fourth Lateran Council, 1215), which has proven impossible to maintain either before the scrutiny of history or the realities of contemporary Christendom. If the Eastern Orthodox can be regarded by Rome as existing in a "profound communion" with her (Paul VI, Papal Discourse, December 14, 1975), and even baptised and believing "Protestants" can be acknowedged as fratres seiuncti who exist in "a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" (Unitatis redintegratio, November 21, 1964), then is not Rome de facto working with a version - its own version, to be sure - of the Lutheran ecclesiology? Could Rome even implicitly be acknowledging the truth of the Lutheran teaching that Christians (and hence the church) are found wherever the Word and Sacraments exist?

I will leave that to you, the reader, to ponder. I have done no more than sketch an outline of how I would respond to David, for that is all I have time to do at present. Perhaps we can best conclude by saying that the church is paradoxically a mystery which eludes the grasp of man, even while it is at the same time an indisputable reality to those who belong to it. Such are the ways of God on this side of the great Day of the Lord.

[Pic courtesy Tim Kuehn;]

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Five Minutes with Luther

Five minutes with Luther...what wouldn't we give for that opportunity?

Well, the experience can be yours every day for a year at no cost!

I'm referring to the devotional book, Five Minutes with Luther, compiled by John Theodore Mueller (+1967; sometime professor of dogmatics at Concordia Seminary, St Louis) and available for free download as a PDF file (click on the post title to access).

Of course, there are at least three books available with a similar title and format, but this would seem to be the original (first published in 1926), and in my estimation possibly the best.

The devotions follow the familiar pattern of scripture verse, meditation, and hymn verse, and, most helpfully, scriptural and topical indices are included at the end, which is something one doesn't often find these days.

As mentioned, the PDF download is free, but a hardback edition of the book is also available, for those for whom money is no object, for US$20.68 plus the usual.

We have Pr Robin Fish (LCMS, Missouri) to thank for making this volume available to all and sundry.

HT Pr Paul Rydecki (WELS, Las Cruces, New Mexico) at Intrepid Lutherans (

Friday, 10 December 2010

Julian Assange: Hero or Villain?

I don't often comment on political matters here at the old manse, but I can no longer avoid commenting on the cause célèbre of the moment, a fellow Australian, indeed a fellow Queenslander, one Julian Assange. For many he is a hero, blowing the whistle on morally corrupt governments and forcing them, through embarassment, to reform their way of doing business. But I think Mr Assange is rather more ambitious than that - his goal is to subvert Western civilisation itself, at least as it is presently constituted with the US as the dominant power.

So far, only the US State Dept (*see below) and the Australian ABC journalist Jonathan Holmes (click on the post title to read his incisive commentary) seem to have cottoned on to this, although Mr. Assange has written as much (btw, I think Holmes's close, drawing an analogy between Assange's likely martyrdom and that of our Lord Jesus Christ is strained). The rest of the media, along with the chattering political classes, seem to think this is solely an issue of the freedom of speech, but I suggest you really need to consider the manifesto from Assange's own pen - or should that be keyboard? - that Jonathan Holmes has unearthed from the cyber-vaults of a Melbourne university before you make your mind up as to whether he is to be regarded as a hero or a villain. The success of Mr. Assange's endeavours - if they were achieved with the aid of his many wirelessly connected sympathisers - could have profound repercussions in your life.
I happen to think Western civilisation as presently constituted, with all its warts, is worth preserving - and for many reasons too, but not least because I have children.

-- + --

Having got that off my chest...whoever thought that the protagonist in some real life Ian Flemingesque drama of world proportions (if you've read Assange's manifesto and seen pics of Wikileaks's Swedish bunker you'll understand the comparison with the likes of Goldfinger) would be from Townsville, Queensland, Australia of all places!? Certainly not my cousins, who grew up there, and couldn't wait to get out of the place. They are astonished.

* "He is not a journalist. He is not a whistleblower. He is a political actor. He has a political agenda," State Department spokesman P J Crowley told reporters. "He is trying to undermine the international system that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments and to work in multilateral settings and on a bilateral basis to help solve regional and international issues," Crowley said in response to a question. "What he is doing is damaging to our efforts and the efforts of other governments. They are putting at risk our national interest and the interests of other governments around the world. He is not an objective observer of anything."

Chemnitz on Augustine on Scripture

Martin Chemnitz was a student of both Luther and the church fathers, and much of his scholarship was dedicated to showing that the Lutheran Reformation was not an innovation, as Luther's adversaries in the Roman church contended, but rather a renovation of the ancient catholic faith. To that end citations from his copious reading of the fathers are strewn throughout his writings. The greatest church father in Lutheran eyes was Augustine (after all, Luther had been an Augustinian friar), although they did not follow him slavishly, and were not afraid to criticise him occasionally, albeit respectfully.

Here are several citations Chemnitz drew from Augustine on the authority and sufficiency of holy scripture (for more citations from Augustine and other fathers, gathered from Chemnitz and my own reading of them, see Lutheran Catholicity (link provided in top right-hand column).

Firstly, by way of preamble, we cite Chemnitz on how the testimonies of the ancient church are to be received...
"...we love and venerate the testimonies of the ancient and purer church, by whose agreement we are both aided and confirmed; but our faith must rest on the word of God, not on human authority. Therefore we do bnot set the testimonies of the fathers over the scripture, but subordinate them to it."
Examination of the Council of Trent, I:150.

"The City of God believes the sacred Scriptures, both old and new, which we call canonical. From these the faith is conceived by which the righteous man lives, through which we walk without doubting as long as we sohourn away from the Lord."
Augustine, The City of God, Bk 19, ch 18, as cited in Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, I:150 [italics mine].

"Let us not hear: This I say, this you say; but, thus says the Lord. Surely it is the books of the Lord on whose authority we both agree and which we both believe. There let us seek the church, there let us discuss our case."

"Let those things be removed from our midst which we quote against one another not from divine canonical books but from elsewhere. Someone may perhaps ask: Why do you want to remove these things from our midst? Because I do not want the holy church proved by human documents but by divine oracles."

"Whatever they may adduce, and wherever they may quote from, let us rather, if we are His sheep, hear the voice of our Shepherd. Therefore let us search for the church in the sacred canonical scriptures."
Augustine, The Unity of the Church, cited by Martin Chemnitz in Examination of the Council of Trent, I:157

All quotations from Chemnitz are taken from the English edition of the Examination... translated by Fred Kramer and published by Concordia Publishing House in 1971 (still in print; see link under 'Lutheran Publishers' in right hand column).

Martin Chemnitz is known among Lutherans as "The Second Martin", whose work of systematising Lutheran doctrine and later refuting the Roman Catholic attack on Reformation doctrine at The Council of Trent -not to mention his major role in promoting unity in Lutheranism through the Formula of Concord - was instrumental in the survival of the Lutheran Church.

Si Martinus non fuisset,
Martinus vix stetisset

If the second Martin had not come along,
the first Martin would not have survived.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Retreat From Marriage

The retreat from marriage that has been noted statistically among America's working class since the 1970s is now reaching into the middle class, according to a recently issued report.
Marriage is in trouble in Middle America. High rates of divorce, nonmarital childbearing and single parenthood were once problems primarily concentrated in poor communities. Now, the American retreat from marriage is moving into the heart of the social order: the middle class.

This retreat from marriage imperils the social and emotional welfare of children. It also threatens the American Dream, insofar as adults who do not get and stay married are less likely to strive, to succeed and to save for the future.

This stark assessment emerges from a new report, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America, sponsored by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the New York-based Institute for American Values.

I'm not aware of any similar studies in Australia, although I'm sure the statistics could be tracked down without too much trouble, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the same trends are evident here and in the UK as well. I believe this trend is a clear sign of a retreat not only from marriage, but also from the Christian foundations of these societies.

One curious feature of the present state of marriage, then, is the push to gay marriage. I believe it is simply explained. Firstly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, according to the statistics marriage is relatively stable and highly valued among the liberal, educated and financially secure, and studies of homosexuals show that they are over represented in that cohort of society. Secondly, gay marriage is a highly symbolic act of rebellion against God's order of creation, and that is true whether its proponents realise it or not. Furthermore, the arguments for gay marriage appear highly plausible in already de-Christianising societies where Enlightenment notions of individual rights trump communal welfare. People without religious commitments generally just don't "get" the argument that marriage is the sacred union of a man and a woman. Note the report's linkage of the decline of marriage to the decline of religious commitments and the moral and communal values that go with them.

Click on the post title for a link to an article in Christianity Today about the report.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Heretics, Sectarians and 'The Lutheran Difference'

A few weeks ago I was talking to an ex-Lutheran come Pentecostal who attended Divine Service at one of the congregations I serve. He handed me his business card which indicated he had a "ministry" leading short stay mission trips in Africa.

"Of course", he opined, early in the conversation, "the Africans aren't interested in what label you bear, 'Lutheran' or 'Anglican' or whatever, what they want is basic Christianity."

"I see", I responded, trying to maintain my best poker face, and after a pause I continued, "and what doctrine do you teach them?"

Bingo! What he taught them, as I expected, was Pentecostal doctrine - water baptism on profession of faith, baptism in the Holy Spirit with tongues as a separate experience from water baptism, an emphasis on the more spectacular spiritual gifts such as healing and prophecy, a Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord's Supper, a semi-Pelagian doctrine of original sin and a pre-millennial doctrine of the rapture and second coming of our Lord.

This eclectic concoction constituted the “basic Christianity” by which this man thought he was called - directly by God, of course - to enlighten the African people. And it’s quite probable he was actually 'evangelising' and 'catechising' people who were already “Lutheran, Anglican or whatever”, since most of the parts of Africa that are easily accessible to Western tourists have been Christian for 100 years or more. For some reason I doubt he was taking his mission tourists to the Sudan where there are real conversions to be made among the Islamic militias!

As I have stated in these glosses before, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “basic Christianity”, in the sense of some pre-theological, non-doctrinal, supposedly pure version of Christianity that we could discover if we could just somehow jump over 2000 years of church history. People who advocate “basic Christianity” are either naïve, confused, ignorant, duplicitous and/or probably about to start a new sect. We might wish it were so, but what we actually have in this world, whether we like it or not, are several exclusive versions of Christianity that happily share a good deal of orthodox doctrine inherited from the early church, but who also each hold exclusive articles of faith which are deemed important enough for the faith and life of their adherents to warrant ecclesiastical separation from those who teach otherwise. This separation is deemed necessary to preserve the doctrinal purity of the body. Unless a church body has completely relativised all doctrine, it holds to some form of this position, because it understands that doctrine and life are intimately related. Even liberal churches enforce doctrinal standards!

This has always made perfect sense to me, even when I was a “seeker” and then a neophyte. It seemed to me then that a church body which did not care enough about what it believed to delineate itself in some way from other, differing church bodies probably didn't believe in much to begin with and wasn't worth exploring (in actual fact there are "post-Christian" churches like this, but that is a subject for another post). Since those days I have learned much about the Gospel and grown to love it even more, and that has made me zealous to guard its truth. The Gospel is, after all, "the power of God for salvation".

And so, in spite of all I hold in common with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, namely the creeds of the early church and the heritage of the Fathers, I could not in good conscience join in worship which included prayers to Mary and the saints. Apart from the lack of scriptural warrant for such prayers, I suspect that at heart this practice reflects a different understanding of the Gospel. Similarly, as much as I share a passion for justification by grace through faith alone with the Reformed, I couldn’t commune at a Lord’s Supper with a congregation which does not confess that the bread and wine are the true body of Christ given into death for us and the real blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of our sins. To do so would be, to my mind and conscience, a denial of the Gospel (the sacrament is the Gospel...for me).

It is not that I am questioning the salvation of Catholics or Orthodox orPresbyterians. They certainly have enough of the Gospel to be saved, it’s just that they don’t have enough of the Gospel for me to recognise them as church in an unqualified sense. Their doctrine needs to be informed and reformed by the Gospel before I could acknowledge them as such. I write in the first person, but it should be said that such is the position held by all confessional Lutherans. In holding this view we are following the Augsburg Confession, which states that "[t]he Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly ."

Now, this is undoubtedly a deplorable state of affairs, both in the eyes of the world and before God. But the blame for it lies not with the teachers of Biblical orthodoxy and Gospel truth, nor even with those heterodox believers who have innocently and sincerely adhered to what their mother church has taught them, even though it is error-laden when compared with scripture (more needs to be said on this). The blame lies rather with the teachers of outright false doctrine who have led others - sometimes millions - astray (the heretics), and with those who have separated from their mother church without due reason (the sectarians). It is the promotion of false doctrine that is deplorable, because, at the least, it renders the proclamation of the Gospel in a particular church impure; and, at its worst, it undermines and overthrows the Gospel completely. Sectarianism, on the other hand, which is almost as deplorable as false teaching and heresy, is a sin against love and tears the outward body of Christ apart for no valid reason.

Now, all of this is by way of preamble to my main point today, which is to recommend to Lutherans, and to those “seekers” who I know read these glosses, a new book published by Concordia Publishing House in the US and titled The Lutheran Difference, An Explanation and Comparison of Christian Beliefs [see info here: lutheran difference]. It retails for US$29.99 and extends to over 600 pages, in which various articles of faith and heads of doctrine are examined with a view to setting forth clearly where and why Lutherans differ from other confessions or denominations in our teaching.
Of course, pastors are expected to - and should - know these things, but increasingly lay people too need to know what their church teaches and what other denominations teach. Not just so that we can hold our own with people like the Pentecostal I met at the after service cup of tea, but, much more importantly, so that we can be assured of the scriptural basis of our faith (Acts 17:11), strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13:9), and not tossed about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). Such is God's will for you, and here is a resource that will help you to obtain such assurance, strength and certitude.

(Click on the post title to view a sample of the book, courtesy CPH)