Thursday, 30 May 2013

Towards a Post-Christian England?

In a timely interview Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, a Church of England bishop of Pakistani background, explains why some young people in Britain are increasingly drawn to Islam and are ignorant or even contemptuous of Christianity and the Christian heritage of England. To understand the full import of what Bishop Nazir-Ali is saying below, one must understand that many British schools are actually Church of England schools run with state funding in which the teaching of religion is a school subject. In these schools and the state schools, the bishop suggests, Christianity is no longer presented as a viable option for today's youth, mainly due to the political incorrectness of such a view in a multi-faith society. The 2011 UK census recorded a continuing precipitous decline Christianity in the UK, particularly in adherence to the established Church of England, which could see Anglicanism become a minority faith in the land of its origin within a generation. Bishop Nazir-Ali's diagnosis of what ails the Church of England is that essentially it has "lost its salt" and has no voice with which to speak to secular England. There is a warning here for all church bodies in Western societies: churches which soften their teachings in order to blend in with secular society in the misguided attempt remain "relevant" actually accelerate their irrelevance.    

"British schools are helping to boost Islamism with politically correct lessons that tell black pupils that slavery was entirely the fault of English and Americans, and omit the long and vicious history of Arab slave trading, according to an influential Church of England bishop.In an exclusive interview for our Telegram podcast, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali – a Pakistani-born scholar who resigned as Bishop of Rochester in 2009 in order to train Christians facing persecution – says "the Churches have generally capitulated to secular culture and therefore cannot bring a distinctive voice to public debate".They have neglected human relations, especially the family, in favour of "welfarism" that teaches that the state should provide all the goods that citizens need. All this adds up to the slow death of people's sense of themselves as spiritual beings – and this affects "even people who go to church".Bishop Nazir-Ali, a theological conservative who opposes the ordination of actively gay clergy, is now president of Oxtrad, which "prepares Christians for ministry in situations where the Church is under pressure and in danger of persecution". He claims that, in addition to ignoring the current persecution of Christians in the Islamic world, secular Britain brushes aside historical evidence of Muslim aggression."If you ignore what really happened to give a lopsided view of history in the interests of political correctness, you can't blame [young] people if they move to something else that has a less critical view of itself," he says. Christianity appears so apologetic that students naturally gravitate towards self-confident Islam. Meanwhile, "the Churches' engagement with the secular world becomes capitulation to it".As an example of political correctness in schools, the bishop discusses the way black pupils are taught about slavery.He says: "If you teach black people from African or the Caribbean that slavery was perpetrated on them [only] by England and the whites in the United States, they are then given a narrative that Islam is the great liberator from slavery – without mentioning that the Arab slave traders were on the east coast of Africa and West Africa before the British and the Americans."You are never told about how in the attempt to end the slave trade, the evangelicals from the Churches were opposed by Arab slave traders. I have walked along the path that Livingstone took, and as churches were built along that path the Arab slave traders were burning them down."Religious education in British schools offers "a smorgasbord approach in which you set out all the exotic things that people can taste but you don't give them a vantage point from which to assess what they are experiencing," says Bishop Nazir-Ali.""It would have been quite possible to take the Christian faith as a point of departure for studying other faiths in a constructive and open way, but this is not being done, so you can't blame young people for growing up without any kind of orientation."

Text from Damien Thompson's blog. The interview can be listened to here.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Luther on the Holy Trinity

“He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears” 
John 16:13. 

"Here Christ makes the Holy Spirit a Preacher. He does so to prevent one from gaping toward heaven in search of Him, as the fluttering spirits and enthusiasts do, and from divorcing Him from the oral Word or the ministry. One should know and learn that He will be in and with the Word, that it will guide us into all truth, in order that we may believe it, use it as a weapon, be preserved by it against all the lies and deception of the devil, and prevail in all trials and temptations. For there is, after all, no other way and no other means of perceiving the Holy Spirit’s consolation and power, as I have often demonstrated from Holy Writ and have often experienced myself. For I, too, am a half-baked theologian. This I say lest I exalt myself over the great minds who have long ago ascended into the clouds beyond all Scripture and have nestled under the wings of the Holy Spirit. But experience has taught me all too often that whenever the devil catches me outside Scripture and sees that my thoughts are rambling and that I, too, am fluttering toward heaven, he brings me to the point of not knowing where God is or where I am. The Holy Spirit wants this truth which He is to impress into our hearts to be so firmly fixed that reason and all one’s own thoughts and feelings are relegated to the background. He wants us to adhere solely to the Word and to regard it as the only truth. And through this Word alone He governs the Christian Church to the end.

...Earlier we heard (John 14:26; 15:26) that the Holy Spirit is sent not only by the Father but that He is also sent by, and proceeds from, the Son. Therefore this Listener must be called the Listener of both the Father and the Son, not of the Father alone or of the Son alone. Christ has stated plainly: “The Comforter, whom I shall send to you from the Father.” The expression “to send” has the very same connotation that the expression “to proceed from” has. For he who proceeds from someone is sent. Conversely, he who is sent proceeds from him who sends him. Consequently, the Holy Spirit has His divine essence not only from the Father but also from the Son, as the following words will illustrate further.

Thus these words confirm and teach exactly what we confess in our Creed, namely, that in one divine essence there are three distinct Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is illustrated by means of a metaphor, or a picture of natural things, in order that we in our weakness may be able to know what is meant and to talk about it. But we cannot search it out or understand it. We must believe, and cling to, these words which we hear from Christ Himself, just as Christendom and especially the holy fathers and bishops did. They had disputations about this article, and they fought for and preserved it against the heretics and lying spirits who made bold to meditate on and to affect wisdom concerning these sublime, inscrutable matters beyond and apart from Scripture."

From 'Luther’s Works'  (American Edition), Vol. 24: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).

Pic: The picture is a version of the well known icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrew Rublev (+ c. 1430). I do not subscribe to the theology of icons as set forth by the Orthodox, but this icon seems to me to be worthy of consideration for use as a pedagogical tool that illustrates the teaching of Holy Scripture. Note the pre-eminence of the Father in the setting of the figures and also the mutual acknowledgement of each Person of the other through the inclination of the head.   

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Come, Holy Spirit Heavenly Dove

Come, Holy Spirit Heavenly Dove,
Come to Thy people from above,
Fill them with graces and restore
Thy people as they were before.

For Comforter is Thy sweet name,
A gift which from the highest came,
A precious ointment from above,
A living fount, a fire of love.

Komm, Gott Schoepfer, Heiliger Geist
Translated into German from a 9th C. Latin hymn by Martin Luther in 1529 and set to a plainchant melody; rendered into English by Richard Massie, 1854. 

I say that we must be wise and take care that we do not boast of the Holy Spirit too confidently and joyously, that we may not become too secure and imagine that we are perfect in all respects. For a pious Christian still is flesh and blood like other people, but he fights against sin and evil lust and feels what he would rather not feel--Rom 7, 15 ff. The unbelievers are indifferent and make no such fight.
 It makes no difference that we feel evil lusts if we only battle against them. Therefore, the Christian must not judge according to his feelings, believing because of them that he is lost, but he must labor all his life with the remaining sin of which he is conscious and must permit the Holy Spirit to work, groaning without ceasing, to be rid of sin. Such groaning never ceases in believers, but is more profound that can be uttered, as St. Paul declares to the Romans (8, 26). But there is a precious listener, the Holy Spirit himself, who deeply feels our longing and also comforts our consciences.
The two must always be mingled, in our feelings--the Holy Spirit and our sin and imperfection. Our case must be like that of a sick man who is in the hands of the physician; presently he will be better. Therefore let no one think: Such a one possesses the Holy Spirit, consequently he must be altogether strong, without infirmities, and do only precious works. No, not yet. The Gospel is not a proclamation for everybody. It is a proclamation exceedingly gracious, but a coarse, hard heart may hear it without receiving any good; rather are such made more audacious and careless, imagining they need not war against the flesh, because they do not feel their sin and misery. The Holy Spirit is given to none except to those who are in sorrow and fear; in them it produces good fruit. This gift is so precious and worthy that God does not cast it before dogs. Though the unrepentant discover it themselves, hearing it preached, they devour it and know not what they devour. The hearts which receive it with profit are such as feel their evil lust but are unable to escape from it. There must be struggling if the Holy Spirit is to abide in the heart, and let no one dare think it will be otherwise.

A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil, 1523
(Taken from volume III:273--287 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI))

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Misreading Luther with Bishop Tom Wright

Like Jesus, Bishop Tom Wright (aka N. T. Wright) is everywhere. The shelves of my local Evangelical and Catholic bookshops both groan under the weight of his oevre, to which he seems to add a new paperback volume every couple of months. He appears to have taken up the mantle of William Barclay as everyone's favourite Bible commentator. Bishop Wright is a  scholar as well as a populariser, so I'm sure there is much we can learn from him, not least how to write theology engagingly for the intelligent lay person.  I think the "democratising" of theology is a good thing... provided we're talking good theology, of course! And this is why I question whether Bishop Tom's widespread popularity is an entirely helpful development. For example  - leaving aside Wright's espousal of the "New Perspective on Paul" for the moment, as it requires more than a blog post to do it justice - every time I read something Bishop Wright has written or said about Luther I come away scratching my head and thinking 'Has he even read Luther?!' For example, here's Bishop Wright on the milieu he grew up in:
"I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, “Whew…the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ.” All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin." [From an interview published in Reformation and Revival Journal, volume 11, numbers 1 and 2 (Winter and Spring 2003), available on-line] [Italics mine] 
Thanks for that insight, Bishop Tom. Now here's Luther himself on the law:
"In chapter 7, St. Paul says, "The law is spiritual." What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. But no one can give such a heart except the Spirit of God, who makes the person be like the law, so that he actually conceives a heartfelt longing for the law and henceforward does everything, not through fear or coercion, but from a free heart. Such a law is spiritual since it can only be loved and fulfilled by such a heart and such a spirit. If the Spirit is not in the heart, then there remain sin, aversion and enmity against the law, which in itself is good, just and holy." [Italics mine]
Imagine that, Luther actually agrees with Bishop Wright that the law is "good, just and holy", right down to using the same descriptors!

Clearly, Wright has misread Luther as antinomian, and pegged him as the source of what perplexed him growing up in evangelical Anglicanism, which eventually sent him running to Calvin as his guiding light (although more than a few Calvinists are upset at the direction Bishop Wright's theology has taken since, but that is a subject for another post). If only Bishop Wright had actually read a text as basic as Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, from which the above quote is taken - not to mention the Small Catechism - he would have known that what he was hearing from evangelical Anglican pulpits as a young man was not Lutheranism at all, but a variety of antinomianism, which Luther rejects in numerous places, most forthrightly in Against the Antinomians (1539; LW 47:107ff), in which Luther declares it "most surprising ...that anyone can claim that I reject the law or the Ten Commandments, since there is available, in more than one edition, my exposition of the Ten Commandments, which furthermore are daily preached and practiced in our churches."  

A lecturer at my alma mater, Luther Seminary in Adelaide, once wisely said, "If you want to understand someone's theology, become familiar with their biography." Alas, it seems that Tom Wright's youthful misadventures with "Lutheranism" were formative for his theology, which might not matter one iota but for the fact that Wright is probably the single most influential "evangelical" theologian and Biblical commentator writing today, whose works are peppered with this sort of egregious misrepresentation of Luther. Bishop Wright should really know better. 

Yes, like Jesus, Bishop Tom Wright is everywhere...unlike Jesus, he is not infallible. Caveat lector!    

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Why Did Christ Ascend Into Heaven?

"Now we must consider the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the first place, it is easily said and understood that the Lord ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. But they are dead words to the understanding if they are not grasped with the heart. We must, therefore, conceive of his ascension and Lordship as something active, energetic and continuous, and must not imagine that he sits above while we hold the reins of government down here. Nay, he ascended up thither for the reason that there he can best do his work and exercise dominion. Had he remained upon earth in visible form, before the people, he could not have wrought so effectually, for all the people could not have been with him and heard him. Therefore, he inaugurated an expedient which made it possible for him to be in touch with all and reign in all, to preach to all and be heard by all, and to be with all. Therefore, beware lest you imagine within yourself that he has gone, and now is, far away from us. The very opposite is true: While he was on earth, he was far away from us; now he is very near. "

From a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther on the last chapter of St. Mark, 1523.
German text: Erlangen Edition, 12:169.

When Steeples Are Falling

Built on the Rock the church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling;
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

Nikolai Grundtvig, trans. from the Danish by Carl Doeving.

"We are not the ones who can preserve the Church, nor were our forefathers able to do so. Nor will our successors have this power. No, it was, is, and will be He who says, ‘I am with you always to the close of the age.’ As it says in Hebrews 13:8, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever,’ and in Revelation 1:8, ‘He who is and who was and who is to come.” This is His name and no one else’s.
A thousand years ago you and I were nothing, and yet the Church was preserved at that time without us. He who is called ‘who was’and ‘yesterday’ had to accomplish this.
Even during our lifetime we are not the Church’s guardians. It is not preserved by us, for we are unable to drive off the devil. If it were up to us, the Church would perish before our very eyes, and we together with it (as we experience daily). For it is another Man who preserves both the Church and us. He does this so plainly that we could touch and feel it if we did not want to believe it. We must leave this to Him who is called ‘who is’ and ‘today’.
Likewise we will contribute nothing toward the preservation of the Church after our own death. He who is called ‘who is to come’and ‘forever’ will accomplish it.”
Martin Luther, 'Against the Antinomians', 1539 (LW 47:118)

HT to Pr Vernon Kleinig for this quote.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Rehabilitating Søren

"The fundamental error of modern times lies in the fact that the yawning abyss of the qualitative difference between God and man has been removed."
Søren  Kierkegaard, Journals, 1847.

This past Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard's birth. I am by no means an expert on Kierkegaard, although I have read him on and off for 20+ years, both for instruction and pleasure, but I do believe that the time has come for confessional Lutherans to rehabilitate him and bring him back into the fold now that the mid-20th century existentialist fad, which proved so destructive to the Faith, has well and truly gone cold. It would be a great shame to throw Kierkegaard out with the bath water, for there are many things he can teach us.

Fundamentally, Kierkegaard was a sort of Luther redivivus in his protest against the Hegelian synthesis, which was the Scholasticism of his day. Contra Hegel, Kierkegaard protested that everything is not subject to synthesis - it is truer to reality as we know it this side of eternity to allow some things to remain in unreconciled tension. At a time when neo-Thomistic theology and ethics are getting a sympathetic reading even among confessional Lutherans, that is a protest of which we need to be mindful. The impetus to synthesis (!) is no doubt innate to the human mind, reflecting a sort of longing for the unitive knowledge of the pre-Fall world, but it is precisely the noetic effects of original sin that need to be taken account in evaluating all such endeavours.

If Kierkegaard at times seems to go to extremes in countering both Hegel and the cultural Christianity of his time, it should be remembered that he was a lone voice protesting this system, a context which sometimes necessitated a bold polemic - another continuity with Luther.  On this point I would say that some of Kierkegaard's 20th century followers, like Barth, either misread him or took his thought a step further than he would have approved of. The 'yawning abyss' Kierkegaard speaks of in the above quote was for him well and truly overcome in the paradox of the person and work of Christ. Kierkegaard was, after all, Lutheran, not Reformed, and so he could resist the impetus to rationalise paradox and/or build a theological system (or write a multi-volume church dogmatics) on the result.

Also echoing Luther in many places is Kierkegaard's definition of religiosity as personal commitment (100 years before Bonhoeffer) or subjectivity (I do not believe Kierkegaard was advocating post-modern subjectivity, btw, but demonstrating that would require a longer post than I have time for at present). This aspect of Kierkegaard's religious thought can serve as a productive counterweight to the entirely proper objective emphasis of Lutheran doctrine. And, just as the life of Luther exemplifies Lutheran doctrine and shows us that it has deep experiential roots, so to does the life of Kierkegaard serve to illustrate his teachings. "Doctrine is Life" is not for nothing a saying among Lutherans.

Another reason why pastors should not neglect to read Kierkegaard is that he is just as much a religious psychologist as a philosopher (or anti-philosopher?). For example, his concept of angst continues to speak to us in our late modern context and his notion of the three stages of life's way - aesthetic, ethical and religious -  can be useful diagnostic tools in applied pastoral theology.

Just a few notes on the margins of the web to commemorate Kierkegaard's 200th anniversary.

Pic: A shelf of Kierkegaard in the library of St Olaf's College, Minnesota, which houses the largest Kierkegaard collection outside of Denmark.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Evangelical Lutheran Bishops?

We are soon to have bishops in the Lutheran Church of Australia. It is a simple change in nomenclature for our general and district presidents rather than a change in theology or constitutional power and authority, but it has provoked a lot of discussion among pastors and those in the pews, for Lutherans have not had a happy experience with bishops, whether of the regular or emergency kind (when the regular bishops did not support the Reformation, Luther advocated that the civil ruler fill the functions of the office as an emergency measure. In many areas of Germany, the emergency became permanent as the civil magistrates proved reluctant to relinquish control of the church, which effectively became the religious organ of the state, leading eventually to such disputes as the "Prussian Union" measures of 1817, in which a king forced a union between Lutherans and the Reformed, which led to the 1838 confessional Lutheran emigration to Australia and the US).
I am of the view that the way this topic was presented to the church for consideration at the recent general pastors' conference and synod caused us to miss an opportunity to discuss an urgent matter -the need to reform our present constitutional arrangements for oversight in the church. To begin with, I think we made a great mistake when we took our presidents out of their congregations and put them in an office (I mean literally in an office, behind a desk rather than before the altar!). A bishop - especially an Evangelical Lutheran bishop -  must first of all be a pastor in a local congregation, as indeed he always was in the early church.
The second mistake I think we have made in this area is that we have seen the church grow and spread geographically since the constitution of the LCA was drawn up in 1965/6. Our districts are larger than those of the constituting church bodies who formed the LCA in terms of congregations and schools and the numbers of pastors who serve in them and their administrative needs are more complex, yet we have not adjusted our system of oversight accordingly, continuing to rely on the state based system of the constituting church bodies (was this a passing nod, perhaps, to the state based church system of Lutheran Germany?).  Thus, whereas an Anglican bishop in Australia might have 40 congregations under his charge, an Australian Lutheran bishop will have well upwards of 100 congregations and they might be spread over a geographic area larger than most western European countries. Because of this, most LCA congregations will only see their bishop when a new pastor is installed, and even then that is not guaranteed. Compare this to the Anglican and Roman Catholic systems where the bishop visits each parish at least once a year. Plainly, our present system is not conducive to effective oversight of the church and frankly that fact is being reflected in the life of congregations.
A third area that, in my view, needs reform is the zone conference (our equivalent of a deanery). These work well enough as a support system for pastors, but as a tool for effective oversight and representation in the official discussions of the wider church the zones are under utilised. Too much is done and decided only "at the district level" or "at the national level", which in effect means in a capital city hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away from most congregations. 
Perhaps, though, a church can only effectively discuss one important topic at a time. In any case, I've set down below a sort of thesis in order to clarify my own thoughts and encourage discussion on how we begin to conceive the office of bishop evangelically in the Lutheran Church. It is preceded by a quote from the Augsburg Confession, the primary confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which I used as my starting point:    
"...according to the Gospel or, as they say, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops as bishops, that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no jurisdiction except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked men, whose wickedness is known, and this without human force, simply by the Word. Herein the congregations of necessity and by divine right must obey them, according to Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. But when they teach or ordain anything against the Gospel, then the congregations have a commandment of God prohibiting obedience, Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets; Gal. 1:8: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel, let him be accursed; 2 Cor. 13:8: We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. Also: The power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction. So, also, the Canonical Laws command (II. Q. VII. Cap., Sacerdotes, and Cap. Oves). And Augustine (Contra Petiliani Epistolam): Neither must we submit to Catholic bishops if they chance to err, or hold anything contrary to the Canonical Scriptures of God. "
AC XXVIII, Ecclesiastical Power
Oversight of doctrine is a function of the office of the ministry, which exists for the sake of the Gospel (CA V). In Lutheran eyes, the difference between a bishop and a pastor has to do with the scope of his exercise of oversight, whether it be over a parish or over several parishes in a city or geographical district. There is no inherent difference in their office, though. The office of bishop (episcopos, superintendent) arose by human development out of the office of the ministry, and exists for the sake of the Gospel. It is not the other way around, as in Catholic and Orthodox doctrine, in which the priesthood, both historically and "ontologically", arises out of the office of the bishop. The Lutheran cannot but regard that position as historically and theologically untenable. The historic and "ontological" source of the office of the ministry is the holy apostolate. The special apostolate came to an end with the death of the last apostle, but the functions of the apostolate necessary for the ongoing life of the church - preaching the Gospel, forgiving sins and judging doctrine, continue in the office of the ministry. The only "apostolic succession" is succession in the apostles' teaching, set down for us in the New Testament. The "apostolic succession" of the Catholics and Orthodox (and even more so the Anglicans) is at best an adiaphoron and at worst a fiction in the service of a false doctrine of authority in the church which has historically worked against the Gospel. When bishops work for the Gospel, though, they have a place in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but by human and not divine right.