Thursday, 27 December 2012

On Reading the Fathers

Here's an interesting site devoted to reading the Fathers of the Church with others on the net - sort of like those virtual reading groups who focus on the Classics. The readings are from the 19th century English translation edited by the German Swiss-American scholar Phillip Schaff (modern edition pictured), to whom we are indebted for his labours, although it consists of very stilted English by today's standards. It nevertheless has the advantage of being readily available on the net here.  The site's editors reckon that with their timetable the whole set can be read in seven years!

The aim of this project is commendable; there is far too much reading about the great theologians of history and too little reading of them, which accounts for the ease with which modern commentators find a ready acceptance of their distortions of ancient, medieval and Reformation theologians (cf Barth's reading of Calvin, Newman's reading of the Fathers or any number of modern readings of Luther). A first-hand acquaintance with the Fathers reveals they are not as formidable as one might think, although they can be heavy going in parts.

However, I would add a few caveats to anyone considering participating:

First, be sure you have read the entire Bible at least once before embarking upon this project. Not only is this recommended on theological grounds (scripture is primary), but you won't be able to understand the Fathers without doing so.

Secondly, frankly, not all of the Patristic writings contained in Schaff are worth devoting the time to read; there are great works like those of Augustine, Athanasius and Basil which have contributed massively to theological understanding along with many lesser writings which really only have historical or scholarly interest.

Thirdly, the Fathers themselves, even the greatest ones, could and did err on doctrinal matters. Holy Scripture is the only infallible doctrinal authority in the Church by which even the writings of the Fathers should be judged, as they themselves requested.

Fourthly, do not fall for the "chronological fallacy", as I have seen otherwise intelligent people do who suppose that because the Fathers were closer in time to our Lord and the Apostles they held to a purer form of Christianity than we do today. The truth of the matter is that even the Apostles contended with error within the Church and that pattern continued into the first centuries of Christian historyand continued down to the present age.  

Incidentally, when they're not expounding Scripture, the writings of the Fathers are generally apologetic in nature; that is, they wrote to defend the faith against error and heresy. The Fathers were not innovative theologians like many who make their living writing and teaching theology in academe today; they were first and foremost churchmen, although by their apologetic endeavours they deepened our understanding of the Christian faith. In the early church articles of faith - for example the two natures of Christ - were often understood simply on the basis of what Holy Scripture taught or recorded for our salvation unless and until a heresy arose which contardicted scripture and necessitated a response. These responses, often becoming officially defined dogmas of the church, elucidated Christian doctrine but it is important to note that they did not develop that doctrine in the sense of adding something new to it, as John Henry Newman argued in the 19thC. in defence of Roman Catholic innovations. Newman's theory is untenable but has nevertheless been quite popular, especially among Roman Catholics who are otherwise hard-pressed to show how their church today is a continuation of the ancient catholic church of the Fathers. Pace Newman, the Fathers themselves would have been mortified to think they were adding something new to or developing the teaching of Holy Scripture.

The early Lutherans held the Fathers in high regard but they did not read them with rose-coloured glasses. Here's Philip Melanchthon on authority in the Church with passing comments on the Fathers (and if you would like to read some categorised quotations from the Fathers that might be of interest to Lutherans and other Reformation Christians, visit my blog Lutheran Catholicity):

 "Therefore I shall tell in orderly fashion what the church is, that it should be heard, that approved testimonies should be used, and that nevertheless the doctrine should be judged from the Word of God in order that the highest authority should remain the authority of the Word, according to the saying: 'If anyone teaches another Gospel let him be anathema' [Gal. 1:8].
"First, when I say church, I do not understand popes, bishops, and others who approve of their opinions. . . . I call the church the assembly of those who truly believe, who have the Gospel and the sacraments, and are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, as the church is described in Ephesians 5 and John 10[:27]: 'My sheep hear my voice.' "It is necessary that this true church always remain, because the kingdom of Christ is everlasting and it is written [Mt. 28:20]: 'I shall remain with you until the end of the world.'
Nevertheless, we must know that this true church is not always flourishing equally, but often is
only small, and is to be divinely restored later when true teachers are sent, as in Noah's time the church was oppressed and an assembly of only a few persons. . . .
"These words admonish us most earnestly that we should not think of the church as a secular state, nor measure it by the succession of bishops, nor by the degree or position of popes, but declare that the church is with those who retain the true doctrine of the Gospel. It is necessary that there be in that assembly some who truly believe. For to this assembly belong the promises. Isaiah takes away this venerable title from his princes and high priests, and says a small seed is left in the people who were called the people of God. . . .

"I have cited these testimonies for this reason, so that first it might be considered what the church is, and so that the mind may be led away from the carnal opinions which imagine that the church is the papal state tied to the orderly succession of bishops, as kingdoms are upheld by an orderly succession of rulers. But with the church it is a different matter, for it is an assembly not bound to an orderly succession, but to the Word of God. The church is reborn where God restores the doctrine, and gives his Holy Spirit. Paul testifies in Eph. 4[:11] that the church is ruled and preserved in this manner, not by orderly succession: 'He gave gifts to men, apostles, prophets. . . .' He teaches that the true church is where Christ is at work and where he bestows true teachers. . . .Let us not permit ourselves to be scared away from the Word of God by the false protection of the name church.
"Second, after it has been said what the true church is, one must add that the true church is small and consists only of saints. It retains the true doctrine of the Gospel, the articles of faith, or, as Paul calls it, the source of the truth. Yet this same true church sometimes preserves the doctrine purely and clearly, but at other times less so. . . ."There remains some true church, which holds fast the articles of faith, but at times less pure, obscured by some incorrect opinions and holding some erroneous views. . . ."For Paul says: 'No man can lay another foundation except that which has been laid. But one builds on it gold, another wood, stubble . . .' [1 Cor. 3:11] He understands the foundation as the article of faith, that is, the sum and substance of the Christian doctrine, the doctrine about the benefit of Christ. But to this, he says, some add useful teaching, explanation, and true spiritual acts of worship; this he calls gold. Others add stubble, that is, opinions which are not fitting and contain something erroneous, even as in the beginning immediately ceremonies were laid down which brought errors in their train.

"Thus I consider Ambrose a true member of the church. Nevertheless, he says about the fortyday fast: 'The other fasts are voluntary; this one is necessary.' This opinion is stubble added to the doctrine of faith.
"Basil added monasticism, although it is stubble, and praises this kind of life with excessive and  false praise, although he was rebuked by his bishop. Scripture frequently reminds us that it is not a light error to institute new acts of worship. . . .

"Furthermore, writers often felt more correctly than they spoke, because most were quite negligent and improper in speaking, and they borrowed many statements and formulas from the common people which contain something erroneous. Thus Augustine takes the term satisfactions from the common people, although he openly rebukes the errors about satisfactions. He tortures himself in explaining the statement 'Every sin is voluntary' when he discusses original sin, although the saying is a civil saying that speaks about outward transgressions. . . .
"I have added these things in order to show that the ancients at times borrowed unsuitable ways of speaking from the people, as is accustomed to happen in all ages.

"If the one man Paphnutius had not objected, the opinion of those who wanted a decree made that priests should abstain from their wives would have been approved. Custom defeated Cyrian [sic] and many others, so that they approved prohibition of marriage.
"Likewise, the entire Nicene Synod, overcome by the consensus of the crowd or of the time,
approved the canons of penitence which afterward brought forth intolerable errors. Great examples frequently deceive even the godly, as the example of Antony darkened the understanding of many. Until now I have been speaking of the godly. Although they are holy, very many are weak. . . .
"From all this the conclusion follows: Although the true church, which is small, retains the
articles of faith, that true church can hold errors which obscure the articles of faith. Moreover, many fall in such a way that they completely approve of wicked errors against the articles of faith, although some do perhaps return to their senses."
Philip Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans, trans. by Fred Kramer (Concordia, 1992), pp239ff.

Btw, the best introduction to Patristic theology for the educated lay reader or undergraduate level theological student can be found in Part 1 of Swedish scholar Bengt Hagglund's History of Theology, which also covers the Medieval, Reformation and Post-Reformation periods equally adeptly.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Luther on Christmas

With five services in 48 hours and about 320 kilometres (c. 200 miles) of travel, Christmas is a busy time for me. Imagine having to preach on the afternoon of Christmas day as well! What to say that has not already (one hopes!) been said? How about the following, a sermon Luther preached on the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1530? The text is Luke 2:1-14:
"You have heard today the story from the Gospel of St. Luke of how it came to pass that our Lord Christ was born and then also the message of the angel, who announced who the boy was who was born. Now we shall go on and take up the message of the angel. So for today you have heard only that the child was born and that he is the Lord and Savior. Thus we spoke of the story, how it unfolded, and who the persons in it were. This article is so high that even today it is believed by only a few. Nevertheless, God has preserved it even through those who have not believed it. For at all times in the monasteries and universities there have been disputations and lectures which dealt with the fact that Christ the Lord, born of Mary, is true man and God. But it went no further than saying and hearing it. But this belief is held by the devil too and the Turks and all the godless among Christians, and is the kind of belief which everybody believes that it is true but would not die for it, as Eck and many others show today. If they had as much from Christ and the teaching of the gospel as from the devil, they would also think as much of Christ. The Turk too admits that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, that Mary was an immaculate virgin, and that Christ was more than a man; but the Word of God, as it is given in the gospel, he denies, and yet I fear that the Turk believes more of this article than does the pope. Therefore it is a high article to believe that this infant, born of Mary, is true God; for nobody’s reason can ever accept the fact that he who created heaven and earth and is adored by angels was born of a virgin. That is the article. Nobody believes it except he who also knows this faith, namely, that this child is the Lord and Savior. But for whom was he born and whose Lord and Savior is he? The angels declare that he was born Lord and Savior. The Turks, the pope, and the scholars say the same thing, but only to the extent that it brings in money and honor. But that anyone could say, “to you is born,” as the angel says, this is the faith which we must preach about. But we cannot preach about it as we would like to do. Indeed, who could ever grasp [the full meaning of] these words of the evangelist: “a Savior, who is the Lord,” and, “to you”! I know well enough how to talk about it and what to believe about it, just as others do. So there are many who have this belief and do it, just as others do. So there are many who have this belief and do not doubt this first belief that Christ is the Lord, the Savior, and the virgin’s Son. This I too have never doubted. But if these words are planted no higher than my thoughts, then they have no firm roots. We are certain that this was proclaimed by the angel, but the firm faith does not follow. For the reason does not understand both sides of this faith, first that Christ is a man, but also the Savior and Lord or King. This needs to be revealed from heaven. One who really has the first faith also has the other. Who, then, are those to whom this joyful news is to be proclaimed? Those who are faint-hearted and feel the burden of their sins, like the shepherds, to whom the angels proclaim the message, letting the great lords in Jerusalem, who do not accept it, go on sleeping. Beyond the first faith there must be the second faith, that Christ is not only the virgin’s Son, but also the Lord of angels and the Savior of men. The words anyone can understand, antisacramentarians, fanatics, sectarians, and Turks; but they do not proceed from the heart they come only from hearing and go no farther than hearing. This is not faith, however, but only a memory of what has been heard, that one knows that he has heard it. Nobody ventures upon it, so as to stake goods, life, and honor upon it. And yet we must preach it for the sake of those who are in the multitude to whom the angel preached. This is our theology, which we preach in order that we may understand what the angel wants. Mary bore the child, took it to her breast and nursed it, and the Father in heaven has his Son, lying in the manger and the mother’s lap. Why did God do all this? Why does Mary guard the child as a mother should? And reason answers: in order that we may make an idol of her, that honor may be paid to the mother. Mary becomes all this without her knowledge and consent, and all the songs and glory and honor are addressed to the mother. And yet the text does not sound forth the honor of the mother, for the angel says, “I bring to you good news of great joy; for to you is born this day the Savior” [Luke 2:10-11]. I am to accept the child and his birth and forget the mother, as far as this is possible, although her part cannot be forgotten, for where there is a birth there must also be a mother. Nevertheless, we dare not put our faith in the mother but only in the fact that the child was born. And the angel desired that we should see nothing but the child which is born, just as the angels themselves, as though they were blind, saw nothing but the child born of the virgin, and desired that all created things should be as nothing compared with this child, that we should see nothing, be it harps, gold, goods, honor, power, and the like which we would prefer before their message. For if I received even the costliest and the best in the world, it still does not have the name of Savior. And if the Turk were ten times stronger than he is, he could not for one moment save me from my infirmity, to say nothing of the peril of death, and even less from the smallest sin or from death itself. In my sin, my death, I must take leave of all created things. No, sun, moon, stars, all creatures, physicians, emperors, kings, wise men and potentates cannot help me. When I die I shall see nothing but black darkness, and yet that light, “To you is born this day the Savior” [Luke 2:11], remains in my eyes and fills all heaven and earth. The Savior will help me when all have forsaken me. And when the heavens and the stars and all creatures stare at me with horrible mien, I see nothing in heaven and earth but this child. So great should that light which declares that he is my Savior become in my eyes that I can say: Mary, you did not bear this child for yourself alone. The child is not yours; you did not bring him forth for yourself, but for me, even though you are his mother, even though you held him in your arms and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and picked him up and laid him down. But I have a greater honor than your honor as his mother. For your honor pertains to your motherhood of the body of the child, but my honor is this, that you have my treasure, so that I know none, neither men nor angels, who can help me except this child whom you, O Mary, hold in your arms. If a man could put out of his mind all that he is and has except this child, and if for him everything—money, goods, power, or honor—fades into darkness and he despises everything on earth compared with this child, so that heaven with its stars and earth with all its power and all its treasures becomes nothing to him, that man would have the true gain and fruit of this message of the angel. And for us the time must come when suddenly all will be darkness and we shall know nothing but this message of the angel: “I bring to you good news of great joy; for to you is born this day the Savior” [Luke 2:10-11]. This, then, is the faith we preach, of which the Turks and the pope and all the sectarians know nothing. The fanatics do, it is true, snatch to themselves the words of the angels, but how earnest they are is plain to see. For they receive the Word only as a piece of paper, as the cup and corporal receive the body and blood of Christ. The paper does no more than contain something and pass it on to others, but yet it remains paper. Thus you copy something from one paper on another paper; from my tongue the Word sounds in your ear, but it does not go to the heart. So they receive this greatest of treasures to their great harm and still think they are Christians, just as though the paper were to say: I certainly have in me the written words, “to you is born this day the Savior”; therefore I shall be saved. But then the fire comes and burns up the paper. Therefore this is the chief article, which separates us from all the heathen, that you, O man, may not only learn that Christ, born of the virgin, is the Lord and Savior, but also accept the fact that he is your Lord and Savior, that you may be able to boast in your hear: I hear the Word that sounds from heaven and says: This child who is born of the virgin is not only his mother’s son. I have more than the mother’s estate; he is more mine than Mary’s, for he was born for me, for the angel said, “To you” is born the Savior. Then ought you to say, Amen, I thank thee, dear Lord. But then reason says: Who knows? I believe that Christ, born of the virgin, is the Lord and Savior and he may perhaps help Peter and Paul, but for me, a sinner, he was not born. But even if you believed that much, it would still not be enough, unless there were added to it the faith that he was born for you. For he was not born merely in order that I should honor the mother, that she should be praised because he was born of the virgin mother. This honor belongs to none except her and it is not to be despised, for the angel said, “Blessed are you among women!” [Luke 1:28]. But it must not be too highly esteemed lest one deny what is written here: “To you is born this day the Savior.” He was not merely concerned to be born of a virgin; it was infinitely more than that. It was this, as she herself sings in the Magnificat: “He has helped his servant Israel” [Luke 1:54]; not that he was born of me and my virginity but born for you and for your benefit, not only for my honor. Take yourself in hand, examine yourself and see whether you are a Christian! If you can sing: The Son, who is proclaimed to be a Lord and Savior, is my Savior; and if you can confirm the message of the angel and say yes to it and believe it in your heart, then your heart will be filled with such assurance and joy and confidence, and you will not worry much about even the costliest and best that this world has to offer. For when I can speak to the virgin from the bottom of my heart and say: O Mary, noble, tender virgin, you have borne a child; this I want more than robes and guldens, yea, more than my body and life; then you are closer to the treasure than everything else in heaven and earth, as Ps. 73 [:25] says, “There is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.” You see how a person rejoices when he receives a robe or ten guldens. But how many are there who shout and jump for joy when they hear the message of the angel: “To you is born this day the Savior?” Indeed, the majority look upon it as a sermon that must be preached, and when they have heard it, consider it a trifling thing, and go away just as they were before. This shows that we have neither the first nor the second faith. We do not believe that the virgin mother bore a son and that he is the Lord and Savior unless, added to this, I believe the second thing, namely, that he is my Savior and Lord. When I can say: This I accept as my own, because the angel meant it for me, then, if I believe it in my heart, I shall not fail to love the mother Mary, and even more then child, and especially the Father. For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know the feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart. For, if what the angel says is true, that he is our Lord and Savior, what can sin do against us? “If God is for us, who is against us?” [Rom. 8:31]. Greater words than these I cannot speak, nor all the angels and even the Holy Spirit, as is sufficiently testified by the beautiful and devout songs that have been made about it. I do not trust myself to express it. I most gladly hear you sing and speak of it, but as long as no joy is there, so long is faith still weak or even nonexistent, and you still do not believe the angel. You can see what our papists and Junkers, who have chosen innumerable saviors, have felt about this faith. Indeed, the papists still want to retain the mass, the invocation of saints, and their invented works by which we are to be saved. This is as much as to say, I do not believe in the Savior and Lord whom Mary bore; and yet they sing the words of the angel, hold their triple masses [at Christmas] and play their organs. They speak the words with their tongues but their heart has another savior. And the same is true in the monasteries: if you want to be saved, remember to keep the rule and regulations of Francis and you will have a gracious God! And at the Diet of Augsburg they decided to stick to this. In the name of all of the devils, let them stick there! It has been said sufficiently that this Savior lies in the manger. But if there is any other thing that saves me, then I rightly call it my savior. If the sun, moon, and stars save, I can call them saviors. If St. Bartholomew or St Anthony or a pilgrimage to St. James or good works save, then they surely are my savior. If St. Francis, then he is my savior. But then what is left of the honor of the child who was born this day, whom the angel calls Lord and Savior, and who wants to keep his name, which is Savior and Christ the Lord. If I set up any savior except this child, no matter who or what it is or is called, then he is not the Savior. But the text says that he is the Savior. And if this is true—and it is the truth—then let everything else go. One who hears the message of the angel and believes it will be filled with fear, like the shepherds. True, it is too high for me to believe that I should come into this treasure without any merit on my part. And yet, so it must be. In the papacy this message was not preached in the pulpit, and I am afraid that it will disappear again. It was the other message that the devil initiated and has allowed to remain in the papacy. All their hymns are to this effect. Among the Turks the devil has completely wiped it out. Therefore, remember it, sing it, and learn it, while there is still time! I fear that the time will come when we shall not be allowed to hear, believe, and sing this message in public, and the time has already come when it is no longer understood; though Satan does not allow it to be spoken with the mouth, as the papists do. But when it comes to declaring that he is born for you and to singing: In dulci jubilo
Now sing with hearts aglow!
Our delight and pleasure
Lies in praesepio
Like sunshine is our treasure
Matris in gremio
Alpha est et O! —this he is unwilling to allow. What we have said, then, has been about that second faith, which is not only to believe in Mary’s Son, but rather that he who lies in the virgin’s lap is our Savior, that you accept this and give thanks to God, who so loved you that he gave you a Savior 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 Savior and far better than heaven and earth. Him, therefore, we should acknowledge and accept; confess him as our Savior in every need, call upon him, and never doubt that he will save us from all misfortune. Amen."

Amen indeed! Luther's theme of the Saviour being born to you (Luke 2:11) is central to my own Christmas Day sermon, although I've refrained from the anti-papist polemic ;0). To provide some context for Luther's polemic: 1530 was the year of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession and the Roman response, the Confutation, in which the Papacy rejected the Lutheran proposals for reformation. This set Luther on the way to the realisation that the papacy could not be reformed, which explains his testiness.

Incidentally, Luther's mention of "the Turk" is as topical now as it was then - this week in Australia there's been public consternation over a fatwa (religious ruling) issued by a sheik at Australia's largest mosque to the effect that it is sinful (worse, even, than murder) for a Muslim to participate in the celebration of Christmas and even to wish a Christian a "Merry Christmas", because to do so is tantamount to confessing that God has a Son. Thus Christ remains a stumbling block and foolishness for many.

A blessed Christmas to all who cross the threshold of the virtual old manse!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

America, You Need To Talk

In a recent on-line discussion down here about the causes of the shocking mass shooting in Newtown, CT, USA, I suggested that gun ownership stats in Western countries indicated that a prevailing culture of violence (which includes real, virtual and imagined violence) was more contributary to the incidence of gun related crime and shooting massacres than gun ownership per se (and I don't hold a torch for gun ownership, btw; just trying to make some sense of the debate). This, I ventured, might explain why these incidents happen more in the USA than anywhere else - there has always been a violent undertone to American culture that Americans tend to rationalise away but that non-Americans find perplexing. Then today I read a reflection on the topic by Alex Massie, a Scottish journalist who spent many years in America as a foreign correspondent, which appeared in the UK Spectator, which follows a similar line of thought. Here's an extract:
"These horrors happen in other countries too – Germany, Finland, even Britain – but they unquestionably happen more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. And they do so even when you control for the number of households which contain a gun (which is not quite the same measurement as guns per capita). So why? What is it about America that makes it different? Any attempt to answer that question is necessarily speculative. Moreover, like most great American problems (and virtues) any mono-causal explanation should be considered suspect. But if it is the culture, stupid, what is it that makes American culture so different, so extreme, so exceptional? I think, like many American stories, the cocktail of history and myth plays a part in helping to explain this. Because, in ways that are not true of really any other western country, the United States was built by guns right from the beginning. The American experience really was different."

Read the whole thing here.
I remember an Australian seminary lecturer who spent a decade or more teaching in the US telling me how frustrating it was to talk to Americans (even fellow confessionally Lutheran Americans!) about their gun culture and how quickly these discussions became heated. Other Australian colleague pastors who have American friends or contacts have reported the same thing recently. The "cultural exceptionalism" of America on guns that Massie talks about explains why that is, I think. Criticism of the US gun culture is perceived by very many Americans as an attack on what it means to be American. American friends and readers, please understand that by suggesting that you need to have a discussion about your gun culture we are not being anti-American; our concern stems from affinity, not antipathy.    
Please pray for the grieving families and friends of the Newtown victims. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Against Cozy Theology

On Sunday I preached on the need for repentance, in accordance with my chosen sermon text (Luke 3:3): "He (John the Baptist) went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Being Advent, I accented the theme of repentance, using the first two questions in the general confession of the liturgy* to elucidate what repentance consists of, and, to bring the Gospel through, I emphasised that repentance is always undertaken with a view to the forgiveness of sins. I mentioned that the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ's name is the basic content of the church's proclamation (cf Luke 24:46-47).

Afterwards, a parishioner, with constructive intentions, commented that I didn't mention the love of God. In response I agreed that, of course, the love of God was foundational for the Gospel (John 3:16!) but explained that I had to take that knowledge as understood on this occasion because one cannot fit everything into one sermon and in this case Advent and the text determined the theme and tone of the sermon. God's love, of course, will come in spades during Christmas!

The discussion ended with us agreeing that mission - communicating the Gospel - in a "post-Christian" culture is fraught with complications and dangers. One of those dangers, it seems to me, is distorting the Gospel by so majoring on God's love that we minor on or soft-pedal (another musical metaphor, referring to the practice of using a pedal to mute the volume of a piano) the call for repentance and fail to warn of the spiritually deadly consequences of omitting it. Note, please, that I am not protesting about majoring on the Gospel per se - cf Walther : "the Gospel should predominate in the sermon" - but on majoring on the Gospel to the exclusion of the call to repentance, which threatens to distort the Gospel into nothing more than a sort of "I'm OK, you're OK" message.

Anyway, after thinking about this (it's actually a topic I think about quite often in connection with preaching) yesterday, this morning I happened to open a book and read the following:     

"We like to hear about the love of God. But who wants to hear about His wrath or even His righteousness? We love to hear about God's grace, but we are impatient when the preacher tells us about our sin. The hope of heaven is palatable preaching, but don't threaten me with the possibility of hell. But is this cozy theology really a theology to live by?... Luther's theology of the cross presents a life lived in tension between the Law and the Gospel, between what Luther calls the foreign work of God and the proper work of God. Sinners who are to be brought to repentance and faith must hear the Law of God that tells them they are lost sinners, that they are by nature "sinful and unclean", that they have sinned against God "in thought, word and deed" and that "all their righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" (Isaiah 64:6). This is what Luther calls the foreign work of God, which He must perform before He can accomplish His proper work, which is to save man through faith in Jesus Christ. This latter must be accomplished by the Gospel of God's grace in Christ."
Herman A. Preus, A Theology to Live By: The Practical Luther for the Practising Christian (CPH,1977, p57 italics mine)

The "cozy theology" that Preus questions is the theology of a bloodless Christianity which has no place for texts like Isaiah 53:5, no fear of God's wrath, no doctrine of Hell and finally no Cross where the love and the wrath of God intersect and are resolved for the purpose of our salvation. I am definitely against "cozy theology"! Paradoxically, the saving Gospel of God is only proclaimed rightly when we include the "strange" or "foreign" work of God's damning of sinners and calling them to repent in our preaching and teaching.

* I ask each of you in the presence of God who searches the heart:

Do you confess that you have sinned, and do you repent of your sins?

I do.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ has redeemed you from all your sins,

and do you desire forgiveness in his name?

I do.


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Gospel and the Scriptures

There is much confusion among Lutherans these days about the relation of what are traditionally known as the material and formal principles (i.e. the Gospel and Scripture) of the Lutheran Reformation.  The following is about the clearest summary of the proper relationship of the Gospel and Scripture that I have come across (although it does assume a basic knowledge of Lutheran theology and its vocabulary, but then if you've come to this blog on purpose you probably have that):  "There is much discussion today in Lutheran circles about the relationship between Scripture and the Gospel. Certainly there is a relationship! The Gospel we preach and teach and confess is set forth in the Scriptures and normed by them. At the same time, the Scriptures, inspired by God, were written for the sake of the Gospel. However, the idea seems to be current among some Lutheran theologians (perhaps because they have lost confidence in the inerrancy and absolute authority of Scripture) that Scripture is not the norm for Christian doctrine and therefore also for the doctrine of the Gospel. Rather the Gospel which, according to our Lutheran Confessions, is "the delightful proclamation of God's grace and favor acquired through the merits of Christ" (FC Ep, V, 7) is such a norm. This is a dangerous idea, not only because it is wrong and utterly confusing, but because it sounds so pious. The Gospel is the norm, the saying goes. There is an attractive, though deceptive, evangelical ring to that statement. For instance, one Lutheran scholar today tells us that according to the Lutheran Confessions the Scriptures are authoritative not because of their divine origin but because of their power to judge and pardon. And another theologian says that the authority of Scripture is the power conferred upon it by God to save and to judge. The implication in both cases is that the authority of Scripture is nothing but the power of the Gospel it proclaims. Now such a position utterly confuses the function of the Gospel with one of the functions of Scripture. It confuses the power of the Gospel with the authority of Scripture. And thus it undermines both. Scripture is the authority for the Gospel according to our Lutheran Confessions. When Melanchthon debates with the Roman Catholics on the nature and content and function of the Gospel of justification by faith in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession (IV), his authority is always Scripture. And Scripture is authoritative, according to our Confessions, not because it contains and proclaims the Gospel-the Gospel is proclaimed in many writings-but because it is God's Word (Ap, IV, 108; XV, 14; LC, 1, 121; FC SD, Rule and Norm, 10). Although our Confessions use the term "Word of God" in a number of senses, there is no doubt that they again and again identify the Scriptures with the Word of God. And that is why the Scriptures are authoritative for the teaching and preaching of the Gospel. But if Scripture is not authoritative because the Gospel is contained therein, it most certainly is authoritative for the sake of the Gospel. In other words, the Scriptures were written for the sake of the Gospel (John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:15). And so were our Lutheran Confessions. The authority of Scripture is not an end in itself. Our great Lutheran Confessions do not just assert their confidence in the divine authority of Scripture and then leave it at that. Their concern is always that the church under the Scriptures might propagate the Gospel Word "that alone brings salvation" (Preface to the Book of Concord, p. 13). And so it is the function of Scripture to be the divine authority for evangelical teachers and teachings in the church. And it is the function of the Gospel to be the power for such teachers and teachings. It is significant that the New Testament never calls the Gospel an authority or a norm-nor do our Lutheran Confessions. Rather it calls the Gospel power, spiritual power, power to save us forever (Rom. 1:16; 15:16; 1 Cor. 2:1-5; Eph. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:10). And so do our Confessions. According to our Confessions it is the Gospel that creates faith in someone's heart, brings him the Holy Spirit, and comforts him with the treasure of salvation (SA, III, iv; AC, V, 2; Ap, IV, 73; LC, 11, 38). It is the Gospel that offers and confers consolation and continual forgiveness (SA, III, iii, 8). It is the Gospel by which the church lives and flourishes (Ap, VII, 20; Tr, 25; LC, 11, 43, 56). It is the Gospel that incites true piety which is pleasing to God (Ap, IV, 122 ff.). And it is for the sake of the Gospel that God's fallen creation still exists (LC, 11, 61 ff.). The infallible authority of Scripture does not diminish the wonderful and saving power of the Gospel, but supports it. And the power of the Gospel does not vitiate the divine authority of Scripture. Let us leave the Gospel its power-not only when we may read it in Scripture, but wherever it is preached and taught in the church. And let us leave Scripture its authority. Then we will not only be talking sense, but we will be talking like confessional Lutherans. " Getting into The Theology of Concord by Robert D. Preus
(St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), pgs. 7-29.
The book is available here.
Robert Preus is one of those theologians I read & re-read and continue to learn from. I heartily recommend his writings (available from CPH) to visitors to the old manse.
Pic courtesy Wiki.