Wednesday, 26 January 2011

My Country

Today (26th January) is Australia Day, commemorating the landing of the 'First Fleet' of British settlers (most of them involuntary!) at Sydney Cove in 1788. I don't think I've ever marked the day on this blog before, and Dorothea Mackellar's poem seems particularly apt at this time. It's probably regarded as a bit cliched now, not least because school children of several generations had to memorise it by heart (btw, school children no longer have to memorise poems, great speeches, or events/dates, and thus are given no ballast for the journey through life - a great failure of contemporary education). But the poet (19 when she wrote it, homesick in a grey Britain) gets so many things right in it, beginning with the stark contrast between the mother country and her antipodean daughter, that I still think it's worth reading, at least occasionally. However, as it's not informed by an orthodox Christian religious sensibility, a note I really miss, I've added a prayer by way of conclusion (Mackellar was baptised and buried an Anglican, but I don't know to what extent Angicanism or Christianity influenced her actual beliefs; the poem seems to verge on animism in its ascription of divine attributes to the land, or are we just reading too much into it?).

My Country
The love of field and coppice
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons*,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

The stark white ring-barked forests,
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops,
And ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze ...

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand
though Earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

©Dorothea MacKellar

* This line reminds me of a conversation I had with a German-born pastor about my age, who had emigrated to Australia when he was about 20. I asked him if he missed the verdant countryside of of his homeland, to which he responded, "No, you can see so far here, it never ceases to amaze me. I don't miss Germany."

God, bless Australia,
guard our people
guide our leaders
and give us peace;
for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

From A Prayer Book for Australia (the current service book of the Anglican Church of Australia).


Before leaving the of the most interesting accounts of early Australia is Charles Darwin's chapter on his visit to these shores in The Voyage of the Beagle, which I have been reading lately. Darwin, an unusually astute and insightful travel writer, writes of the colony, then (1836) scarcely 50 years old, "On the whole, as a place of punishment, the object is scarcely gained; as a real system of reform it has failed, as perhaps would every other plan; but as a means of making men outwardly honest, - of converting vagabonds, most useless in one hemisphere, into active citizens of another, and thus giving birth to a new and splendid country - a grand centre of civilization - it has succeeded to a degree perhaps unparalleled in history."
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Vintage, London 2009.

Pic: 'The Costume of the Australasians', from the recently discovered 'Macquarrie Sketchbook', c.1816-1820.

Historical note - the first governor of New South Wales (the first colony, covering the eastern quarter of the continent), Arthur Phillip, had a German Lutheran father; whether there were any Lutherans among the convicts or soldiers aboard the First Fleet I do not know, although it is quite possible as migration between Germany and England was quite fluid in Hanoverian times. However, Lutherans did not arrive in significant numbers until 1836, the first group being missionaries sent by J.E. Gossner from Germany to evangelise through word and deed the indigenous peoples around Moreton Bay (present-day Brisbane). Later the same year the group of free settlers led by Pr. A. Kavel who are usually regarded as the founders of Lutheranism in Australia arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, sponsored by George Fife Angas, a well-to-do Scottish Presbyterian merchant (they were fleeing religious persecution in Prussia, which elicited Angas's symapthies; in fact the undertaking to support the Germans nearly bankrupted Angas). However, two German missionaries sponsored by the Dresden Mission Society had preceded the South Australian group and applied themselves to working with indigenous peoples on the banks of the Torrens River in Adelaide; a plaque marks the location of their mission today (these two pastors did pioneering work in the documentation of the local Aboriginal langauge, and were fierce advocates for the people with the local governor). A Lutheran church was later built (and a congregation continues to exist there) on the land deeded by the colonial NSW government to the Gossner missionaries in what was later to become a suburb of Brisbane, Queensland. The various sites in Adelaide and its environs associated with Kavel's group, including the historically significant sites of Klemzig, Hahndorf and Bethany, are well marked.

Sasse: There is no Christian faith which is not based on the Word of God

We continue our series on Sola Scriptura with more from Sasse's speech, Holy Church or Holy Writ? (1967). The reader will recall that this speech was Sasse's response, as a confessional Lutheran, to Dei verbum, the 'Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation' approved by the fathers of Vatican II and promulgated by Paul VI on 18 November, 1965. As such, this is not a systematic treatment of the Reformation doctrine, but an occasional expression of it in light of the given topic. Nevertheless, we think it serves as a good introduction to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, particularly as Sasse is so adept at discussing the doctrine in the light of the large historical forces which have been working against a clear conception of it since the Reformation. There is one more extract from Sasse's speech to come, after which we will summarise his points and move forward in this series.

"But there must be, we are told, an infallible teaching office to explain the Scriptures. If God wanted to reveal himself to men, he would not give them only a book which can be and is being interpreted in various ways. It is a logical conclusion that he must have provided a living teaching authority, whatever it may be, a council or a pope or a theological faculty or some church committee. What is the use of a revelation which every individual can understand at his pleasure? This was the argument of Erasmus also in his great contention with Luther. Why did this great leader of European culture and scholarship, this mastermind of his time, refuse to accept the Reformation? The encounter between the Reformer and the great Humanist was an event of the fist magnitude in the history of European culture. For it foreshadowed what was going to happen in the subsequent centuries until the present time.
In his De libero arbitrio diatribe Erasmus defended in the free will of man what was to him the dignity of man. This was threatened by Luther’s doctrine that man is a poor miserable sinner who can do nothing for his salvation. That man is weak, imperfect and inclined to all sorts of sin, Erasmus would admit. He was very realistic in his view of man after all his experience as the son of a priest. But it was the sola gratia, by grace only, which he rejected. And he defended God against Luther, God who is good and not a tyrant who condemns people who can do nothing but sin. God is light and not darkness, as his disciple Zwingli a few years later maintained against the Reformer of Wittenberg. And he attacked Luther’s treatment of scripture. The Sola Scriptura is closely linked with the Sola Gratia. To understand Scripture we need scholarship, the knowledge of the interpretation by the Fathers and the guidance of the Church. We should be careful with our own judgment. Luther, he feels, is too dogmatic. Scripture is full of mysteries. We should abstain from those ’firm assertions’ in which Luther indulges. Over against Luther’s dogmatism he confesses that he would rather side with the sceptics. In all these points Erasmus speaks on behalf of modern man who, though knowing of man’s weakness, has not given up his belief in man; who believes in grace, though not in grace alone; who wants the Bible, but not the Bible only; who wants to retain Christianity, but an undogmatic Christianity; who believes in God, in Christ, but whose faith is always intermingled with a certain amount of scepticism.
What is Luther’s answer? There is no Christian faith which is not based on the Word of God, and the Word of God we find in the Scriptures, and in Scripture only. The Fathers can err. Traditions are human. Whether they convey to me the truth. I cannot know unless I see that their content is confirmed by the Scriptures. To the objection that the Scriptures are sometimes dark, contradicting each other, and therefore in need of an authoritative interpretation, Luther replies with his doctrine of the claritas sacrae Scripturae, the clarity of the Scriptures. As a Biblical scholar, Luther knew, of course, of the problems of exegesis. The clarity of the Scriptures is not the clarity of a text-book on mathematics or of a historical work written according to the rules of modern historiography. Their clarity lies rather in their content. This content, the content of the entire Bible (Luke 24:44, cf. Acts 10:43: ‘To him all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive eternal remission of sins’) is Christ. 'Tolle Christum e scripturis, quid amplius invenies?’ (Take away Christ from the Scriptures, and what else will you find?)."

Hermann Sasse: Holy Church or Holy Writ? (IVP Graduates Fellowship, Sydney, 1967, pp 20-21 [bolding mine])

Middle pic: Erasmus of Rotterdam (statue in Rotterdam).
Lower pic: Martin Luther (statue in Wittenberg).


It's not strictly apropos our topic, but while on the subject of Erasmus and Luther, readers might be interested to follow up John Carroll's book, Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture, 2nd edition published as The Wreck of Western Culture, Humanism Revisited. The author is not Christian (I believe he is a lapsed Catholic), but he laments the loss of a religious authority in Western culture, and, like Sasse, he finds the debate between Luther and Erasmus to be one of the key moments in this loss. Carroll paints with a broad brush, and his argument sometimes suffers as a result, but he has some magnificent insights nonetheless, one of which being that when the West chose Erasmus over Luther, it effectively sealed its secular fate. This is a refreshing view at a time when one so often hears it said that Luther contributed to the decline of Christianity in the West, a thesis beloved by Catholics, particularly converts from the various Protestant churches. I find it difficult to believe that anyone actually informed by a sympathetic and wide reading of Luther would ever make such a comment.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Just because something is true doesn't mean you can say it

"Just because something is true doesn't mean you can say it."
"You can't express views that were common currency 30 or 40 years ago."

These two comments are taken from an interview with BBC radio presenter Jeremy Vine in which he speaks of how the Christian faith is effectively being 'framed' out of public discourse in contemporary Britain (click on the post title to view). Vine, it should be noted, is a practicing Anglican. He perceptively describes how what he calls "the parameters of right thinking" are being narrowed to exclude expressions of belief in God.

Readers might be reminded of how, in George Orwell's fictional vision of England in 1984, "Newspeak" was used to exercise thought-control and expunge the past. Is this, we wonder, a case of the powers that be over-compensating in order not to offend non-Christians? If so, it is surely wrong-headed, for doesn't pluralism mean that everyone gets a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion? Or is it something altogether more sinister? Has the Devil read Orwell?

Friday, 21 January 2011

A Funeral Oration Upon The Burial of Christian Britain

"In 1882 Her Majesty Queen Victoria opened a new court building. It is in the Strand just at the entrance to the City of London. It was built to house the superior courts of this land with the exception of the House of Lords. No one who enters can fail to be struck by the similarity of the Great Hall with the interior of those gothic cathedrals with which this kingdom is so richly endowed. But if, before entering, you gaze upon the façade of the building you will notice 4 statues.
There you will find King Alfred who made such a notable contribution to Saxon England by codifying the laws of his day. You will find Moses to whom was given the ten commandments and to whom, by tradition, is ascribed authorship of the first 5 books of the Bible in which you will find in great detail the laws governing the children of Israel. Also there on the façade is King Solomon whose wisdom has become a legend and who displayed outstanding qualities as a judge when sitting in the Family Division in the only reported case of which we have details. And the 4th statue is that of Jesus Christ who, I imagine, needs no introduction to those involved in this case.
Why are those statues there? Perhaps there were many reasons for them but I venture to suggest that one was to emphasise the Judaeo-Christian roots from which the common law of England was derived.
A great deal has however happened since King Alfred and his Saxon laws, and even more has changed since Moses, King Solomon and Jesus Christ walked upon this earth. Those Judaeo-Christian principles, standards and beliefs which were accepted as normal in times past are no longer so accepted."

Judge Andrew Rutherford, giving judgment in the Bristol County Court on 18th January 2011 against Peter and Hazel Bull, proprietors of a 'bed and breakfast' establishment, who refused to provide double accomodation to a homosexual couple on the grounds that they weren't married.

It may seem an insignificant event, not at all on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the French Revolution of 1789, but I wonder whether future historians will not record this moment in 2011 as the symbolic 'turning point' (the last of many, to be sure) that marked an irreversible change in direction for the UK, the date on the calendar after which it could most definitely be said that "Christian principles, standards and beliefs which were accepted as normal in times past are no longer so accepted".

Some readers will say that Britain was only ever nominally Christian, and might quote Luther to the effect that true Christians are rare birds. They might also say that the endeavour to create a Christian state inevitably confuses Law and Gospel. True, perhaps, but beside the point I wish to make for now, which is that England, and by extension the United Kingdom, was a deliberate attempt over successive generations to form a nation with a Christian ethos, an endeavour that we may admire, albeit with reservations. That project is now dead by virtue of the slow breakdown, over the last century and a half, of the consensus of belief which undergirded it. The church will survive, I have no doubt about that, but individual Christians will increasingly have to 'go underground' in order to avoid the wrath of a state which no longer respects their consciences.

For now, considering the many blessings that have flowed to countless Britons and to the wider world through this endeavour, it seems only fitting to mourn the passing of Christian Britain: Requiescat in pace.

Click on post title to view the judgment in full.

HT The Ugley Vicar

Monday, 17 January 2011

Sasse: We do not deny living tradition

Is the new constitution* acceptable to the churches of the Reformation today, or can it at least be regarded as a step in the direction towards a solution of the controversy? Our answer must be: It presents a good starting point for a serious dialogue between Rome and the evangelical churches, but not more. It helps to clarify the issues to formulate the real status controversiae. What is the point at issue? We do not deny the existence of a living tradition in the church. The doctrine is not simply passed on by passing on a book. As the prophetic and apostolic writings have grown out of the oral proclamation of the prophets and apostles, so they are passed on not only as written or printed books, but as the basis of the preaching and teaching of the Church. Such tradition must have existed already in the time of the Old Testament….

[For the sake of brevity, we have omitted here a portion of Sasse’s address where he talks about the likely conduits of ‘oral tradition’ among the people of God in the OT, culminating in the meditations of the pious common people.]

When we speak of tradition we should not only think of the apostolic tradition in the New Testament, but also of the tradition which kept the written Word of God alive in the centuries before Christ. There are, of course, traditions of various natures. There were in Jerusalem the traditions of the Sadducees who regarded only the Torah as God’s word and had very strong liturgical interests. There was the tradition of the Pharisees, and again among them various schools of thought. There was the tradition kept in the Rabbinic schools. There were the simple people in whom the hope of the fathers lived. Mary and Joseph, Zacharias and Elisabeth, Simeon and Hannah may be found among them. In these circles the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis were sung. They were the first to recognise the Messiah while the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy put him to death.

Tradition stood against tradition. The psalms, the prophets were interpreted differently by the different traditions, just as later the Petrine texts of the Gospels were differently interpreted by the traditions of the East and the West. It is the same with the oral teaching of the prophets. Jeremiah proclaimed the destruction of Jerusalem. He was denounced as a false prophet. Had not Isaiah prophesied just the opposite and been vindicated by the events? Jeremiah regarded the prophets of a happy end at his time as false prophets. The people at Jerusalem were confused. Where was the divinely appointed infallible teaching office to decide this issue with authority? Who was to decide in the earthly days of our Lord whether his claim was right or wrong? If a clear decision might have been expected anywhere, then it was in the Sanhedrin where the learned doctors of Scripture and the most eminent religious leaders of God’s people constituted the highest spiritual authority which existed in the world at that time. Their decision was wrong.

-- + --

* The new constituion being Dei verbum, the 'Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation' approved by Vatican II and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 18 Novemeber, 1965.

From Holy Church or Holy Writ? The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation IVF Graduates Fellowship, Syndey, 1967, pp.19-20; italics mine.

Biographical note - Dr Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) was one of the foremost confessional Lutheran theologians of the 20th century. He began his education at the University of Berlin prior to the outbreak of WWI, during which he served as a sergeant and was awarded the Iron Cross (2nd class) for bravery. He was ordained in 1920 and went on to become a member of the faculty of the renowned theology department at Erlangen University in 1933, after which he openly opposed the Nazi regime, bringing himself under SS surveillance.
When, after the war, the Americans, who controlled that sector of Germany, asked Sasse to de-Nazify the theology faculty, Sasse's long-term position became untenable because of the resentment that task created. Thus, in 1949, all other avenues being closed to him, Sasse migrated with his family to Australia in order to teach at Immanuel Lutheran Seminary in Adelaide (later Luther Seminary of the Lutheran Church fo Australia).
Germany's loss was Australia's gain - Sasse earned the respect of theologians from all denominations in Australia and heightened the public profile of the Lutheran Church. Furthermore, even from the relative isolation of Australia, Sasse continued to influence church affairs and theology in Europe and elsewhere through books, essays in English and German, and a voluminous correspondence. His correspondents even included Cardinal Augustin Bea, one of the most influential Roman prelates present at Vatican II. For more Sasse, see the blog 'What Sasse Said', link provided in right-hand column.

Pic: Sasse just before his death, c. 1975.

Sola Scriptura

Blogdom potentially gives everyone a platform, regardless of their competence in the subjects about which they pontificate post. So, dear readers, you have to take the trouble to sort the chaff from the wheat. Clearly there are a number of ways to do this - the main one being considering the bona fides of the blogger, if he/she shares them. There may be valid reasons for anonymity, but generally the more open the blogger is about his/her position and background, the better you will be able to begin to judge the likely value of what they post.

That's not to say there aren't good amateur theologians out there in blogdom, there are, and I would like to encourage everyone to take an active interest in theology, because, after all, we are all theologians after a manner! But, by and large, people who have not had the opportunity - and a wonderful opportunity it is - to study theology formally will be labouring under the burden of gaps in their knowledge, particularly in the complex areas of historical and doctrinal theology. There's no shame in that; even professional theologians have been guilty - more times than you would think - of perpetuating untruths when a simple return to the sources would have revealed the errors in their interpretations. For example, Alister McGrath is one of the most brilliant theologians writing today, gifted in writing at both the professional and popular levels, and I enjoy his books immensely, but for about 20 years he has perpetuated an untruth about the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord's Supper that, well, just infuriates Lutherans (I refer to his labelling it 'consubstantiation'). Likewise Bishop N.T. Wright has pegged Luther as an antimonian and repeated that judgment in a number of his writings, despite even being sent citations from Luther where he writes on the positives of the Law and sounds very much like...well, N.T. Wright!

This is by way of preamble to a series of new posts. I can't tell you the number of times I've had on-line discussions with Catholic or Orthodox folk who try to tell me that the Lutheran position on sola scriptura = "me and my Bible" (known to theologians as "private judgment"). Luther, and those who came after him (who, I might add, were only happy to bear his name because it stood for adherence to the Gospel) are responsible for the waves of subjectivism that have swept over Western Christendom since the Reformation and the consequent collapse of religious authority which has had such a baneful effect on Western society (the next part of the argument usually includes the exhortation to "come home to Rome" or maybe even "swim the Bosphorus" to Constantinople).

I can forgive them, after all it's what their priests and theologians, who really should know better, teach them. But I find it harder to deal with the closed-mindedness and well, 'arrogance' I think is the only word, that they display when I try to tell them that isn't the Lutheran position and that we have a place in our tradition for Tradition rightly conceived and ordered under the Word of God: "Private judgment"..."me and my Bible" comes the sneering response again. So, I abstain from such discussions time is too valuable to waste on dead end, on-line conversations with people who persist in attacking straw men that only exist in their own unteachable imaginations (or in the 'Fundamentalist Baptist' church down the road).

But, I am going to devote a series of posts this year to the Lutheran position on scripture. I'm starting with something very apropos by Dr Hermann Sasse, who studied New Testament, philology and historical theology in Berlin beginning in 1913, under men who formed what was at the time probably the most learned, if liberal, theological faculty in the world. The extracts from Sasse are from a lecture he delivered in Brisbane (my home town, as it happens) in 1967 called Holy Church or Holy Writ?, The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation. The occasion of th electure was an invitation from the Inter Varsity Fellowship (IVF) to discuss the issues raised by the then recent promulgation of Dei verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) by the Fathers of Vatican II (18 November 1965).

These posts - and I'll be offering citations from other theologians as well - will be posted under the category 'Sola Scriptura'. That way I have a body of authoritative writing I can refer to in the future when receiving missives from misinformed Catholics and Orthodox. I also have a couple of readers who are Catholic and who are considering the Lutheran position, and I very much hope this series will be of assistance to them also. The first post will appear later today or tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Thoughts on Community in a Time of Crisis

It's a truism that a crisis brings out the best and the worst in people, but we're certainly seeing proof of it in Toowoomba at present. Police have arrested looters in the CBD, and public radio has been broadcasting warnings to the effect that anyone caught looting will be arrested (I should have thought that would be obvious, but...).

Yesterday panic buying set in, emptying the supermarket shelves of essentials like milk, bread, flour, water, vegetables, meat, etc. I'm sure there was enought food to go around, but now some have it all while others, especially the poor, elderly and vulnerable, may not have enough to get them through until the highways are re-opened. I was at the chemist (for US readers the drugstore) getting some medication and a woman at the counter was describing how she was at the supermarket and saw a woman loading the last dozen or so loaves of bread into her trolley. She asked her if she could spare two loaves, at which the woman simply walked away. The woman at the chemist was philosophical about it - they'd get by without the bread, she said, but she was clearly upset by the experience.

One thing which immediately struck me was that this sort of thing - both looting and hoarding - are most likely to happen in a city, where anonymity weakens the ties of community. I'm not suggesting that country people are more virtuous (or should that be less sinfully inclined?) than urban dwellers, but I'm certain that when you know someone, and are known by them, and you are both part of the fabric of a close-knit community, you're surely less likely to steal from them, or deny them two loaves of bread when you have twelve. And I'm sure it's not just the fear of besmirching your reputation that would shape behaviour in a more socially constructive way, but the positive connections that living in a real community create. If you feel, and actually are, part of something bigger than yourself, then I'm sure you are less susceptible to anti-social thinking and behaviours in the first place, and more likely to want to preserve something in which you have an investment.

I'm sure this is all known to those who think about and develop policies towards promoting a civil society. What I'm actually more interested in is how this all ties in with original sin. What does this experience tell us about how we might better organise our community to promote "neighbourliness", given the reality of original sin which makes us all "curved in on self"? Can only Christians be good neighbours? Obviously not. What then promotes the sort of "civil righteousness" - as opposed to righteousness coram Deo (before God) - both believers and unbelievers still have a capacity for, even if fallen creatures? And how can Christians intitiate and contribute to this discussion, which we so desperately need to have for the sake of the common good?

Or is this altogether too optimistic? Should we just assume that people will always be as bad as they can be when no-one is looking, or when no-one knows who they are, or when they are under pressure to survive? I'm just old enough to remember living in a society where order was understood to be necessary for freedom to be properly enjoyed, and where respect for others and self-restraint characterised people rather than the disrespect and public indulgence of every whim, no matter how bizarre or offensive to others, that seems to increasingly prevail these days. That memory, and the observation that decency and relative goodness can be displayed even by unbelievers in trying times, encourages me to think that I'm not being overly optimistic.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Behind a frowning providence....

Meditating much upon this poem last day or so...

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Flood Update

Thanks everyone for your prayers.

We are fine and our property unscathed (just damp!).

Failing another "extreme weather event" like the storm which dumped 80mms (~ 6") of rain in 30 mins, I don't think Toowoomba will suffer much more. It can't be ruled out, but the BOM are saying it was a 1 in 100 year event. The rain is predicted to ease - for now - over the next 24 hours. However, Brisbane (pop 2 million), the capital of Queensland 130 kms to our east, is going to flood, probably exceeding 1974 levels. They are expecting up to 2m of water in flood prone areas along the Brisbane River.

Sadly, I believe 9 are dead and 66 unaccounted for in Toowoomba and environs, most particularly on the eastern side of the ridge (the city is on the western side) and in the valley below. There is a sense of shock and unbelief in the community generally, but I think the impact will be profound when it settles in. It's likely that grief will be delayed by the simple need to get on with things and the knowledge that people not far away have it much worse. The pics from Toowoomba that you probably saw on TV were spectacular, but the real damage is being done in the Lockyer Valley (aka "the salad bowl of Australia") below us, which is largely under water. I fear the loss of life there will be much worse than here.

I believe half of Queensland is now under water to some degree or another. To put that in perspective, that's a greater land mass than France and Germany (and probably Poland as well) combined, which makes this the worst flood disaster this state, and this nation, has experienced in recorded history. All of this can only lead a believer to reflect deeply on how much our lives, and our plans, are in God's hands. Hopefully, this will lead Christians here to commend themselves anew into God's care, cry out to him for help in their time of need, and plead also for our neighbours' safety and welfare. Perhaps it will also turn the minds of many people to the transcience of life in this world and lead them to seek the one true source of security.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

Ps 91: 1-2

Monday, 10 January 2011

Toowoomba Floods

(Caution: language alert on video)

Well, I've just spent two hours energetically "brooming" water away from around the old manse so it didn't get flooded (this involves using a wide broom to re-direct water away from the house either along natural drainage channels or onto the lawn). The water was only about 6 cms deep, but another few cms and it would have gained entry at our lowest point - the side door. Half way through all this we managed to get about six sandbags from the State Emergency Service to protect that entry, but would you believe they've now run out of bags and the City Council has no sand available!? Almost can't believe it - for three months the weather bureau has been predicting a summer of low pressure troughs, torrential rain and possible cyclones for Queensland and the local SES runs out of sandbags.

When you get 80mm of rain in one hour, even living on top of a mountain range 700m above sea level will not prevent flooding; in fact, it just makes the water run all the more furiously down hill and the resultant flood all the more unexpected and violent. The clips above were taken downtown. Incredible. You wouldn't believe it if you didn't see it. Hopefully, the damage is only to property and not to life and limb. Note the bravery of the policeman and (I think) fireman in the top video, attempting to rescue those trapped in their vehicles, in stark contrast to the idiocy of those (out of sight) cheering as the van crashes through the scene.

As of today, this is officially Toowoomba's wettest (and coolest) summer since 1974, the year the Queensland capital, Brisbane, about 130 kms to the east, flooded. Funnily enough, I spent that summer about 100 metres from where I am writing this in the study of the old manse, in my maternal grandparents' house, which I can see out my window in the next street. But we're fortunate here - provided the rain stops or eases, the water will makes its way out of town via the water courses; not so for those poor Queensland folk living in towns and cities built on flood plains - they'll have to wait weeks for the water to subside...assuming the rain stops, that is.
Lord, have mercy!


Update 10.24pm - Up to seven people feared dead in Toowoomba, two deaths already confirmed. More torrential rain predicted in the next 12 hours.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Aquinas on What We Are Bound to Believe

This, extracted from Aquinas's* Summa Theologica, is interesting...

"The precepts of the Law, which man is bound to fulfil, concern acts of virtue which are the means of attaining salvation. Now an act of virtue, as stated above (Q[60], A[5]) depends on the relation of the habit to its object. Again two things may be considered in the object of any virtue; namely, that which is the proper and direct object of that virtue, and that which is accidental and consequent to the object properly so called. Thus it belongs properly and directly to the object of fortitude, to face the dangers of death, and to charge at the foe with danger to oneself, for the sake of the common good: yet that, in a just war, a man be armed, or strike another with his sword, and so forth, is reduced to the object of fortitude, but indirectly.
Accordingly, just as a virtuous act is required for the fulfilment of a precept, so is it necessary that the virtuous act should terminate in its proper and direct object: but, on the other hand, the fulfilment of the precept does not require that a virtuous act should terminate in those things which have an accidental or secondary relation to the proper and direct object of that virtue, except in certain places and at certain times. We must, therefore, say that the direct object of faith is that whereby man is made one of the Blessed, as stated above (Q[1], A[8]): while the indirect and secondary object comprises all things delivered by God to us in Holy Writ, for instance that Abraham had two sons, that David was the son of Jesse, and so forth.
Therefore, as regards the primary points or articles of faith, man is bound to believe them, just as he is bound to have faith; but as to other points of faith, man is not bound to believe them explicitly, but only implicitly, or to be ready to believe them, in so far as he is prepared to believe whatever is contained in the Divine Scriptures. Then alone is he bound to believe such things explicitly, when it is clear to him that they are contained in the doctrine of faith"
(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 2 of Part 2 (sic), Q.1, A. 9).

The language of Aquinas and his scholastic methodology may be foreign to Lutherans -we're certainly uncomfortable with discussing faith under the rubric of Law, of what we are "bound" to believe, preferring to regard faith as a gift - but Aquinas's conclusion here is something we could assent to. I've included the long first paragraph only because it is necessary to understand Aquinas's conclusion in this matter, which is that we are "bound" to believe in the Holy Trinity and the mystery of Christ (he has previously been discussing these points) as they are the "proper and direct objects" of faith by which we are blessed with salvation; and then also we are to be prepared to believe "whatever is contained in the Divine Scriptures", even down to historical details.

Now, that is a very interesting statement in itself, a matter which post-Enlightenment Christians have been contending about for two hundred years now, but I want to leave it for the present and move on to the final sentence: we are bound to believe such things "explicitly" - and I think Aquinas here means by virtue of their being revealed by God - when it is clear to (us) that they are contained in the doctrine of faith [italics mine]. What is the doctrine of faith? Elsewhere Aquinas states "the truth of faith is contained in Holy Scripture" (ST, 2, 2 Q1, A9), and "Holy Scripture is the rule of faith" (Commentary on the Sentences [of Peter Lombard], 3.25).

What can we conclude from this? Well, under pain of ecclesiastical obedience, I don't want to turn this towards the question of the perpetual virginity of Mary (which Aquinas believed in), except to say that, if we consistently follow Aquinas's principles, belief in such can only follow upon a person being convinced that it is taught in Holy Scripture. Nor do I want to contend that Aquinas is some sort of proto-Lutheran, that would be anachronistic. But he does, to my mind, most certainly teach the primacy of scripture over the church and its sufficiency as a rule of faith, which effectively means that the church can only propose for belief what is contained "explicitly or implicitly", in Holy Scripture.

In support of this conclusion, I note that when, again in his Commentary on the Sentences (of Peter Lombard) - a standard medieval theological text - Aquinas answers a supposed objection that "if Holy Scripture is a sufficient rule of faith to which no addition or from which subtraction is permitted then the drawing up of creeds is superfluous", he replies to the effect that in the Creeds the Fathers only summarised what was explicit in scripture, as occasioned by the doctrinal controversies they were facing:
"The Fathers who have published other symbols after the Apostles have not added anything of their own, but added what they excerpted from the Holy Scriptures. Now, since in that symbol of the Apostles there are some difficult things, the Nicene Creed was published, which exposes more fully the faith about certain items. Since then some truths were contained in those symbols in implicit form, it was necessary to give an explanation upon the rise of heresies, and so was added the symbol S. Athanasius, who especially set himself against the heretics."
Note that Aquinas assumes the correctness of the basis of the objection, and only explains that creeds don't really add to the rule of faith, but only summarise it. If any further evidence for Aquinas's views on this were needed, then we have the following from the first part of the Summa (1.1.8), where Aquinas responds to the objection that articles of faith are merely arguments from authority, and therefore intrinsically weak [italics mine]...
"...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."

Note that Aquinas refutes the objector by establishing that articles of faith are based on divine revelation and authority, which has been delegated (my words) to the prophets and apostles who authored (in the wide sense) Holy Scripture. The church then makes use of human authorities, such as the Fathers, only as providing "probable" evidence for doctrine. The term "probable" here is used in a technical philosphical/epistemological sense pertaining to levels of certainty in our knowledge - the highest degree of certainty is said to be apodeictic - it can be conclusively demonstrated, in the case of doctrine this demonstration is provided from scripture; the lowest level of certainty is probability, which is only as strong as the evidence a "probable argument" musters. Aquinas, it would seem then, would be loathe to establish a doctrine on the basis of anything other than a clear word or logical inference from the divinely inspired and hence supremely authoritative Holy Scripture - contra the modern papacy, which has three times proclaimed as doctrine articles of faith which cannot be found in scripture (Immaculate Conception of BVM, 1854; Infallibility of Pope, 1870; Assumption of BVM, 1950).

Now, this assertion might bring forth an objection from a Roman Catholic to the effect that Aquinas defends the right of the Supreme Pontiff (i.e. the Pope) to call a Council and add to a symbol of the faith (i.e. what is to be believed by Christians). True enough, but note first that Aquinas states that the Pontiff has that right "in order to set aside errors that may arise"; therefore, I suggest, Aquinas conceives this of power as being defensive, related to refuting error, not proposing new dogmas on the basis of revelations found outside of scripture "if such there be". And, secondly, note the basis on which Aquinas grounds this power of the Supreme Pontiff - the Decretals. That is a resort to mere ecclesiastical positivism; simply because the Pope says he has the right to do something does not make it so. This is, in my opinion, the fatal error of Aquinas, by which, because of his incredible influence upon subsequent theology and ecclesiology, he opened the door to the corruption of the catholic faith by the enthusiasm** of the Papacy.

*Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), philosopher and theologian, a doctor (Lat. docere = to teach) of the Roman Catholic Church (known as 'the Angelic doctor' because of the sublimity of his writings and also as the 'Universal doctor', being the standard theologian for those studying for the Roman priesthood. According to Pope Benedict XV, "the Church has declared Thomas' doctrines to be her own". The 20th century witnessed a revival of "Thomism" in the RCC which continues to this day, with a branch known as "neo-Thomism" representing a synthesis of Thomas informed by modern philosophy.

** Cf Samuel Johnson's original definition of enthusiasm as "a vain belief of private revelation".

The text of the Summa, in the standard English translation of the English Dominicans, can be found on-line here:
The Commentary on the Sentences (of Peter Lombard) can be found here:

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Chytraeus on the Gospel

"How is a person justified before God? This occurs solely by faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ; that is, freely, not because of any works or merits of one's own but only because of the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, who became the sacrificial victim and propitiation on our behalf. By this sacrifice, man obtained forgiveness of sins and became righteous; that is, God-pleasing and acceptable. His righteousness was imputed to man for Christ's sake, and man becomes an heir of eternal life when he believes with certainty that God gives him these blessings for the sake of His Son."

David Chytraeus*, A Summary of the Christian Faith (1568),
Eng. trans. by Richard Dinda, Repristination Press, 1994. p. 105.

*Born David Kochhafe (1531–1600) at Ingelfingen, Württemberg; studied law, philology, philosophy, and theology at Tübingen, theology at Wittenberg (under P. Melanchthon, M. Luther, P. Eber); taught languages at Heidelberg 1546; returned to Tübingen 1547; lectured on rhetoric, astronomy, and Melanchthon's Loci communes at Wittenberg 1548; traveled abroad ca. 1550; prof. of religion 1551, theol. 1553 at Rostock. Present at Diets of Augsburg 1555 and 1566, Consultation of Worms 1557; with other theologians at the 1561 Naumburg Diet he warned against “the acceptance of the later editions” of the AC; wrote reactions of Rostock U. to Weimar Confutation 1567; helped prepare Kirchenordnung for Lower and Upper Austria 1569, Styria 1574; mem. of consistory of Rostock 1570; rewrote articles on free will (II) and Lord's Supper (VII) for Swabian-Saxon Concordia 1574; one of 17 who prepared Torgau Book 1576; produced the Bergen Book with Jakob Andreä, M. Chemnitz, N. Selnecker, A. Musculus, and C. Cornerus. Works include Chronicon Saxoniae; Historia Augustanae Confessionis; Commentaries.
(Adapted from Christian Cyclopedia,

Note - If the biographical details above are correct (some bios put DC's birth year as 1530), he had already studied under Luther (+1546) and was teaching languages at Heidelberg by the age of 16, and within a year was lecturing on rhetoric, astronomy and theology at Wittenberg (W'berg was a leading centre of astronomy in the 16th C.). Impressive, yes? It's a pity Chytraeus is so little known today; like the other Lutheran confessors, he was an impressively learned man even in an age of great learning.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Machen on the Grammar of the Gospel

Since I was recently accused of being crypto-Reformed I thought I might as well go the whole hog and recommend a book by a Reformed author. "Christianity and Liberalism" (published 1923) is the book and J. Gresham Machen* (1881-1937) is the author. I've been re-reading it while on holidays (as I get older I find it less important to read "the latest", and more beneficial to read and re-read what is best from the past). Machen was professor of New Testament at Princeton until 1929, when he was forced out of that position - and eventually his church - as a consequence of his opposition to theological modernism. His early death came as a result of contracting pneumonia in the midst of a North Dakota winter while honouring speaking engagements designed to bolster support for a new, creedally orthodox Presbyterian church body in the northern US. Among his last words were apparently, "I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it." That does indeed strike me as something a pious Calvinist might say, whereas a Lutheran would surely be more focussed on and grateful for Christ's passive obedience.

Be that as it may...this book is an incisive study of the differences between orthodox Christianity and liberal Christianity on several crucial doctrinal topics - God, humanity, the Bible, Christ, salvation and the church. This was actually one of the first Christian books I ever read, as I was trying to figure out why the Anglican Church of my place and time did not believe or teach the 39 Articles. I'll forever be grateful to Machen for inocculating me against liberalism. Of course, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since 1923, but it's surprising how little of what Machen has written could be discarded as irrelevant today, which is probably why this book has remained constantly in print for 80+ years while other books on the same subject from the period have passed into oblivion.

Well, having recommended the book, let me share from it something of Machen's understanding of the grammar of the Gospel, a concern for which my own New Testament Greek teacher, Dr Greg Lockwood, tried to drum into undergraduate seminarian heads:

"Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity -liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man's will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God."

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans reprint, n.d., p47

I guess even the Reformed get it right sometimes ;0)

You can get the book in paperback for c. AUS$16.95 at the usual places, and New Reformation Press (see link under Lutheran publishers in right-hand column) have for download a helpful outline by Dr Rod Rosenbladt (he must be crypto-Reformed too.) Reformed apparently have a free PDF download of the book, along with a free audio file of the entire book, but I haven't checked that out (click on the post title to view a video intro to the book from this organisation).

* Pronounced may'chen btw. For a long time I thought it was may'ken - such embarrasing mispronunciations are the bane of the autodidact's life...I still can't pronounce Sasse correctly.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Classic Kleinig

This is classic Kleinig...

I found this on the 'net (currently on holidays, doing a bit of surfing!). John Kleinig (MTh & PhD from Cambridge) was Lecturer* in Old Testament and also Liturgics when I was at seminary (since retired), a theological mentor as well as being a spiritual father to many students. He's just getting warmed up here, but the most important thing he says is, and I paraphrase: You won't understand Lutheran worship if you don't realise that God is present in it. Simple enough, but what you don't get to see in the clip, unfortunately, is how he unpacks that truth in a manner that helps you to see things you've never seen before. Anyway, this simple truth explains a lot, and not only about Lutheran worship per se, but also about the deterioration of Lutheran worship over the last 40 years or so - we've stopped believing that God is present (I'm speaking of general trends).

* In American terms a Professor.

HT The LCSorg's channel.

Monday, 3 January 2011

What Is The Gospel?

Speaking of "the great matters"...

The that doctrine which teaches what a man should believe in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins from God, since man has failed to keep the law of God and has transgressed it, his corrupted nature, thoughts, words, and deeds war against the law, and he is therefore subject to the wrath of God, to death, to temporal miseries, and to the punishment of hell-fire. The content of the Gospel is this, that the Son of God, Christ our Lord, himself assumed and bore the curse of the law and expiated and paid for all our sins, that through him alone we reenter the good graces of God, obtain forgiveness of sins through faith, are freed from death and all the punishments of sin, and are saved eternally.

The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, V:20

Nails it, eh?

Rabies theologorum

Rabies theologorum: lit. "the madness or rage of theologians".
We're not just talking about passion here, either, but a real form of (usually temporary) madness which descends into irrational personal attack and animosity (the ad hominem attack is regarded by some as the best form of defence, especially if their arguments are weak). I've seen examples of it at seminary and pastors' conferences, where I've certainly been on the receiving end of it, which may account for my sensitivity to it. Karl Barth, whose early theological method was called "combative theology" famously succumbed to it in his ongoing debate with Emil Brunner (they were eventually reconciled). Hermann Sasse and his Erlangen colleague Hermann Strathmann carried on a ferocious public display of it through the church newspapers of 1930s Bavaria that came to be known by others, somewhat humourously, as Die Hermannsschlacht (a reference to a famous German play by von Kleist, "Hermann's Battle").

Melanchthon once gave thanks that death would finally deliver him from it, and we fellow sensitives can well relate to that. Luther was infected by it, as indeed were most medieval theologians, and many of the theologians of the period of 17th century orthodoxy - this was one of the factors that led to Pietism. It's rife now on the internet, especially, but not always, from behind the mask of anonymity, and I've some pretty good examples of it in the correspondence files of my blogs (that's why I moderate the combox). I know I've succumbed to it, certainly in thought if not in word or deed, as I expect have most of us for whom theology is a passion. It's probably as good an argument for a radical doctrine of original sin as there is (see the post below on Lancelot Andrewes for more on that).

So often, it seems that it is displayed in discussion on issues which are secondary or tertiary in the theological encyclopedia (one could almost forgive instances of the rabies theologorum where articles of faith are at stake). Of course, everything in theology is important, but there is a hierarchy of truths. For Lutherans that hierarchy is structured by the Gospel. Which brings me to the following quote from Pieper's dogmatics, most of which Pieper has actually taken from Luther (my Greek NT teacher and mentor Dr Greg Lockwood held that the best thing about Pieper was the Luther quotes):
Now, since Scripture furnishes no information on these open questions and theological problems, it is foolish to spend much time and energy on them. We surely have enough to do if we study and teach what is clearly revealed in Holy Writ. If we do not make that our sole business, but take time to discuss useless questions, we are, as Luther points out, “hindering the Gospel”. The great matters which should be man’s sole concern are pushed into the background. And experience shows that the interest of the crowd os too easily won for human speculations.; it will have its curiosity satisfied. Luther adduces the example of the Jews, who bothered about the genealogies, and of the Papists, among whom there was endless wrangling about useless fables and empty trifles, and everyone wanted to be in the right. Let us heed Luther’s warning: There are two hindrances to the Gospel: the first is teaching false doctrine, driving the consciences into the Law and works. And the second is the trick of the devil: when he finds that he cannot subvert the faith by directly denying the Gospel, he sneaks in from the rear; raises useless questions and gets them to contend about dead saints and departed souls, where they abide, whether they sleep, and the like. One question follows another in endless succession. Wretched curiosity busies itself about unnecessary and useless things that are neither commanded nor serve any purpose. Thus Satan comes in the back way, people gape with wide-open mouth at these things and lose the chief things.

Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, V1, pp95-96.

Anyway, this is all a round about way of indicating here that I've pulled out of a discussion on whether the perpetual virginity of Mary is a dogma of the Lutheran Church over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia because I do not want to place myself in a situation where I might succumb to the rabies theologorum and thus "hinder the Gospel" and be inflicted with a bad conscience. I should be devoting my time to "the great matters".

The irony in all of this is that I have always been inclined to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. That may very well be because I have a very strong historical consciousness, even to the point of romanticism about the past. But what I do not believe is that the semper virgo is an article of faith for the Lutheran Church (amazing how quickly that question got side-tracked over at Sentire as the personal attacks started). It is, rather, an open question because it is not decided by scripture (the quia or quatenus question is a red herring here - what we're talking about is not confessional subscription but whether the perpetual virginity of Mary actually forms part of the doctrine which the confessions teach). I'll happily take my stand on that with the three men who were probably the greatest conservative confessional scholars of the 20th century: Sasse, Piepkorn, and Robert Preus (OK, I know invoking authorities is a fallacy, but check out their arguments).