Tag Archives: theology

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Numbers 10:11-36 and Luke 16:19-31

Numbers 10:11-36
Luke 16:19-31
Theological order in non-fiction writing
The problem of Dan
Seeing is not believing

Unknown Unknowns

Don Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and CEO of a few corporations, was a fountain of aphorisms. He collected some of them in a book called Rumsfeld’s Rules. Without commenting on the ego it takes to essentially cast yourself as Solomon, the rules can capture snippets of wisdom – sometimes true and others just conventional. One of the aphorisms Sec. Rumsfeld used to use is best captured in a two by two.

Known Knowns = Data/Facts
Unknown Knowns = Deep assumptions that happen to be true
Known Unknowns = The questions that you are consciously aware of
Unknown Unknowns = Oh Sh*t, or things that you might have in the first category falsely

Part of the homespun wisdom constantly refining that last category: by good questions moving unknown unknowns into known unknowns, by identifying assumptions and making unknown unknowns into unknown knowns, and by confirming what you believe are facts.

This pops into my mind typically when I am forced to pay attention to that last refinement, the checking of facts. This happens for me in two big situations: first when reading accounts of arguments between long vanished “sides” and second when reading stridently LCMS writers. Jesus interacting with Pharisees and Sadducees is an example of the first, or reading Bultmann. You know that these conflicts or personages were deeply important – the Red vs. Blue of the day – but you struggle sometimes to see what the conflict was about. With Jesus it is usually easier because the gospel writers usually tell you like “the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection (Luke 20:27)”. But with Bultmann, who is perfectly capable of preaching the gospel and has deep exegetical insight, all of sudden he throws out a line like “The mythical eschatology is untenable for the simple reason that the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected.” And hence launches his entire program of “demythologization” which seeks to save the Christ of faith from the Christ of myth and the Christ of history. Without rehashing the entire early 20th century, one is tempted to say, “um, well, not that big a deal, some of our unknown knowns turned out to be a little too unknown and we need to refine them or make them more conscious, not throw out the entire New Testament”. But throwing out the New Testament is what many did and we live with that action today. Given Bultmann’s intelligence and general level-ness elsewhere, there must have been something more earth shaking. Likewise I get queasy when I read some of the the pious exactitude of fellow LCMS’ers. Not that I think they are wrong, but their approach to theology, like Bultmann’s certainty that the New Testament had to be completely sifted, puts me in mind of unknown unknowns. I start asking questions like which doctrine or teaching that I currently would assent to is most likely to be wrong?

Let me just say I’m not talking about anything that gets close to a creed or anything that would be included in “mere orthodoxy”. I’m talking more about differences between major trunks of the church. Today, serious Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics can all look at each other and acknowledge separated brethren. That listing is more or less on a sacramental scale. Somewhere between the m and the e of Reformed you cross over to Christ being real in the sacrament from it just being a nice memorial meal. You could list them Baptist, Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran and Calvinist (splitting the Reformed) and that would roughly be the spectrum of teaching in regards to election and free will with the split coming somewhere between the h and the e of Lutheran. And you could continue this exercise say with ecclesiology: Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, Catholic. This takes some explaining. Lutherans have no official doctrine of church politics. Some of us are congregational while others have archbishops. Moving along that spectrum the more sure each tradition is of its ecclesiology. Notice that none of those things actually touch the apostle’s creed yet they separate us.

So, if you were asking me where am I most likely wrong – I’d answer somewhere in my ecclesiology. For 500 years post the reformation we have elevated all kinds of doctrines over church unity. The older I get, or the more thought I put into it, the less reason I come to for separation beyond the historic creeds. Does that mean these things are unimportant? No. What it means is that I’m more inclined to put the best construction on people’s beliefs. My fellow strident LCMS’ers would say that difference in these things would betray a difference in the gospel. I’d say that we see through a glass darkly. I’d also add that there are ways to be less wrong, ways that we can refine our unknown unknowns. Cutting off the sacramental presence of Christ is a greater wrong. You are breathing with one lung. But you are still breathing. And we can still confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We could still confess that the Holy Spirit spoke by the Prophets and Christ rose according to the Scriptures. We could still confess the basis of our unity – Jesus Christ is Lord. Call me a less wrong theologian, part of a pilgrim band all on the road to being much less wrong when Christ returns and in a twinkle of an eye there are no more unknowns. (That’s assuming my justification by grace in the blood of Christ received by faith is a known known – which it is. I have a sure hope.)

Public Theology

Theology in the middle ages use to be called the queen of the sciences. When it was called that, what they meant was that theology, what you said about God, was both the bedrock and the capstone of knowledge. Christ is the alpha and the omega; the one through whom all things were made and the one to whom we are being conformed. The reason I include that prolog is that while most people today don’t think very much of theology, if they think anything of it, the fact hasn’t changed. Our theologies are constantly slipping out, even if we say we don’t have one.

1) This is Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the DC city school system, pumping her book and talking school reform. Ms. Rhee confronts the golden rule. That speaks well of her that she could both a) change a position potentially to her disadvantage and b) put herself if positions like the one described. The typical benefit of high office is insulation. It is really easy to treat other people as yourself when the only people your know are like yourself already. They don’t ask troubling questions.

“But we didn’t get in. I was devastated. So now I don’t know what to do. I went to DCPS. My parents went to DCPS. I believe in public schools, but I simply can’t send my child to the local school. Can you help me?”

It was a painful experience for me, each and every time. My instinct was always to tell the mother that I’d let her kid into Mann or Key and make the school make room for one more child. But honestly, it just wasn’t doable. Or fair. There were so many parents who visited me with these requests and so many more who were on waiting lists for those schools who had followed all of the rules.

Oh, I could have found a spot for them at another D.C. public school, perhaps marginally better than their home school. But that wasn’t what they wanted. They were looking for the exact same thing that I wanted for my two girls: the best school possible”

2) This is David Brooks talking about Big Data. Do you have any free will, or are you simply a complex machine responding to stimuli? The underlying theology of Big Data is a complex machine. With enough data, we can figure out what stimuli to apply to make you by a new car. Of course a Lutheran Theology might say complex machine as well (at least pre-baptism) and the only thing they are doing is creating ever finer harmatology – the science of sin. Think Screwtape with a super-computer profile of his “subject”. Mr. Brooks doesn’t like being boxed in.

If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions — that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future…I confess I enter this in a skeptical frame of mind, believing that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable.”

3) A short interview with Mark Driscoll. Now, Mr. Driscoll is usually publicly painted as both a neanderthal and a troglodyte. He too is hawking a book, but the interview actually shows you some of the reasons people actually listen to him. Here is a clear concise paragraph on identity, practical parenting, discipleship and modern idols.

Our oldest daughter is 15. When it comes to identity, the pressure is immense on everyone in general, but especially for young women—from how much you weigh, to the friends you have, your grade point average, the music you like, the hobbies you enjoy, the sports you play, the clothes you wear, and the technology you own. All are identifying markers of who you are. On social media we create an identity only to have it scrutinized. Much of parental work, then, is knowing who we are in Christ and then helping our children understand who they are in Christ. In that sense, parenting is discipling.

Who we believe we are, and whose we believe we are, are foundational statements for how we respond to the world. The bondage of the will, the freedom of the christian, the responsibility to the other and the family (identity) you’ve been adopted into, think the bible and Luther might have something to say about those? Nah, theology is just boring stuff with no relation to real life, right?

Jars of Clay

If you have a mathematical or science background this post is fascinating: Your Body Wasn’t Built to Last.

Of course theology got there a long time ago:
Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (Gen 6:3 ESV)

The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty (Psa 90:10 ESV)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2Co 4:7 ESV)

Reformation Ripples

This is a great short article in the NYT on the Euro Crisis, Germany and the Lutheran roots of German reaction. It even quotes Freedom of a Christian!

…But rather than scour tarnished Weimar, we should read much deeper into Germany’s incomparably rich history, and in particular the indelible mark left by Martin Luther and the “mighty fortress” he built with his strain of Protestantism. Even today Germany, though religiously diverse and politically secular, defines itself and its mission through the writings and actions of the 16th century reformer, who left a succinct definition of Lutheran society in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian,” which he summarized in two sentences: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”

Consider Luther’s view on charity and the poor. He made the care of the poor an organized, civic obligation by proposing that a common chest be put in every German town; rather than skimp along with the traditional practice of almsgiving to the needy and deserving native poor, Luther proposed that they receive grants, or loans, from the chest. Each recipient would pledge to repay the borrowed amount after a timely recovery and return to self-sufficiency, thereby taking responsibility for both his neighbors and himself. This was love of one’s neighbor through shared civic responsibility, what the Lutherans still call “faith begetting charity.” …

Highlights one of my hobby-horses. We all have a theology even if we can’t actually explain it or put it into words. I’d rather we were able to explain them instead of drive them underground. I’d also like people to have good theologies rather than poor ones. This is actually the work of a real education. Angela Merkel – “a born-and-baptized daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor” – knows hers and its a good one.

The confusion of Law & Gospel

Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter…

Preparing for a “Basic Lutheran Teachings” class and the foundation to Lutheran understanding is called Law and Gospel. CFW Walther, LCMS founding light, would write that “if you wish to be an orthodox teacher, you must present all the articles of the faith in accordance with Scripture, yet you must also rightly distinguish Law and Gospel”. What he meant by that was that applying scripture to life is more art than science. What we are experts at doing is applying the law when the gospel is called for, or reaching for the gospel when the law is appropriate. Or, even more likely, we apply a squishy gooey mess of law-gospel or gospel-law. We confuse the law and the gospel. We fail to distinguish.

Because it is easier to pick the nit out of my brother’s eye, the easiest one for me to distinguish is when folks confuse the two by trying to use legal means to effect the gospel. The logical flow would be this. Jesus said to take care of the poor. Doing so requires time and money. So we should raise taxes and have the government hire people to take care of the poor. Taking care of the poor is definitely a gospel element. The confusion comes when we decide to use legal means, the government, to achieve a gospel end. The gospel, the kingdom of heaven, does not come through our efforts. We cannot hasten it. It grows like a seed or like the leaven. You can read the history of the United States from Prohibition to the ACA as attempts to realize the gospel through legal means. And what you get is a big gooey mess.

But let me turn to the log in my own eye. We in the church are enamored of the the law. We think we know exactly how people should live. We say we proclaim the gospel. But too often all we do is use the gospel to further our legalist agenda. We dangle the gospel and forgiveness out to get people to straighten-up and fly right. (We might even be right is some circumstances. The law is good and wise if we have God’s law and not our own desires disguised as God’s law.) We act as if the gospel is a hot house flower that without the legal protections of the green house we built around it, it wouldn’t survive, instead of being the weed like mustard seed or the seeds that are thrown everywhere and immediately they grow. The second we say Jesus and…we have used the gospel to advance the law. What the church is about is Jesus. It proclaims the cross and the resurrection. Your old life? Crucified every day. Drowned every day in the waters of baptism. Can’t stop sinning? I’ve got good news. Jesus died to accounting. God is no longer counting. That staggering pile of debt that keeps on growing? Written off. You are free. The King forgave it and knows it no more. He died to that pile. But what about being heartily sorry for our sins? What about people who will abuse it? What about cheap grace? What about all my favorite hobby-horses? We all know the law. It is written on our hearts. Just don’t confuse the gift of the gospel with that legal agenda.

Bad Theology Kills

This is a deeply reflective article by a Washington Post Photo-journalist who recently photographed and watched the death of a snake handling preacher.

There is a medieval university phrase that “theology is the queen of the sciences”. What that meant was that all the other subjects studied were fed into theology as well as theology influencing how those subjects were studied. What we think about God changes what we can see. Likewise what we know (or think we know) about the world influences what we think of God. If I come at God knowing that he doesn’t exist, I won’t find him. (Luke 16:19-31 Dives and Lazarus) If I think God is all about signs, I will see them everywhere or go to great length to see them. (John 2:23-24) When Jesus says he is the door (John 10:7) or I am the way (John 14:6), or that all these testify about me (Luke 24:44-45) what he is saying is that the starting point of good life giving theology is Jesus. The Christian is conformed to Christ.

Bad theology distracts us from Christ. It places the emphasis elsewhere. In this particular case it comes from an incredibly stupid error. Mark 16:17-18 is part of a larger section Mark 16:9-20. The gospel according Mark, as we know because of modern critical biblical studies, ends at verse 8. All good study bibles readily accessible explain this. All good pastors should be able to explain this. Mark 16:17-18 should not be part of the scriptures. It was at best somebody’s attempt to add an ending to the Gospel according to Mark. The snake-handling preacher was attempting to live out these verses that shouldn’t be there. But here is the thing. The emphasis is moved from Christ to: a) the preacher, b) the signs and c) what faith can do for me. Because of Bad Theology, the unwillingness ignorance or inability to take into theology the evidence from other paths of study, this 44 year old man was handling rattlesnakes and drinking poison. Because of Bad Theology those that were following him are left with questions and guilt – instead of the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.

“Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”

Likewise because of bad theology – a relativism that this man’s authentic faith should be recorded but not confronted, an ignorance of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-34) or the woman at the well (John 4) – the photojournalist takes pictures of a death instead of helping.

We all have a theology. We all have ideas that govern and shape how we view the world and interpret events. Bad theology kills. One other of Jesus’ I am sayings is “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) Centering on Jesus, conforming your theology to Christ is coming into the light. Coming into the light is starting to see the world as God intended. No longer blinded by bad theology. And having a good theology, centered on Christ, gives life. There is nothing more practical than good theology. Our culture no longer teaches good theology as a birthright. In fact much the opposite. Bad theology comes in the air. Which means that Christians need to take more seriously than maybe our grandfathers Jesus’ warnings to watch. (Luke 21:34-36)

[Picture is Fra Angelica – Virgin and Child with SS Dominic and Aquinas – not bad theologians, who along with Mary point to the Child in the middle – a visual picture of good theology]

Slight Momentary Diversions

Our organist, Dennis Hein, passed away this week from cancer. He was 64. The service is Saturday at 11 AM.

I’ve always had trouble turning off my brain. It is a cliche now, but a computer keeps cycling those giga-hertz even when 99% of them are spent running a screen saver and idling. When there are those things that come along that say “I’m going to take 100% of your cycles” and you can’t think of anything else, from hard experience that is where I tend to crash. Making sure there are slight momentary diversions is what re-introduces you to life. The daily routine prevents the crash.

This David Brooks article was fascinating. He might not like this, but Brooks is a top flight public theologian. I have a tough time thinking of anyone else who applies theology as deeply and as simply. From the article on the problem of Jeremy Lin:

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

Not to dispute that Rabbi Soloveitchik is a great teacher (he is), but those ideas are a little older than that. (I’m wondering if David Brooks is playing to his audience in the NYT?) St. Paul stated those thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:47 and elsewhere. The Gospel according to Luke is at great pains to portray Jesus as the second Adam. And Luther’s Heidelberg disputation talks about the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. The morality of the athlete is that of glory. The morality that saves is that of the cross. The life of the disciple is running the race under the cross.

Rock-a-bye baby: Some Preliminary Thoughts – Post #2

I want to pick back up the subject from yesterday. And I want to do it in a very specific way. We can trace a bunch of the problems within the denomination or you could say within the 1st world western church back to the 1960’s. Historically they go back farther, but that is when they erupted. I’ve got a book sitting on my shelf that is one “go-to” historical reference for a prior time of eruption – the reformation. That book is Ozment’s – The Age of Reform. The subtitle is 1250 – 1550. Think about that for a second. When we talk about the reformation we usually think 1517 (Luther’s 95 Theses) and forward through maybe 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia where the Reformed (i.e. Calvin) received official sanction. In Ozment’s construction Luther was the eruption at the end that brought a bunch of streams together. The Council of Trent put a capstone on that age. Everything after that was learning to live with the separate theological peaces negotiated. From a Lutheran perspective our theological peace is expressed in the Book of Concord. The two biggies there are the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord. The formula closed up Pandora doctrinal box for Lutherans just like Trent did it for Catholics. The Reformed would have a more difficult time. There are a bunch of reformed confessions that closed the box for many different groups, but that stream liked opening the box much more. They were “reformed and always reforming”.

Just for a second I want to scan the contents of that last eruption: Original Sin, Free Will, Righteousness of Faith, Good Works, Law & Gospel, Third Use of the Law, Holy Supper, Person of Christ, Descent of Christ into Hell, Church Practices, Election, Other factions and Sects. There are some weighty topics there, but today I can believe in original sin in the form of total depravity and my Catholic neighbor can believe in original sin but expressed more as an inheritance from Adam of an inclination to sin and neither of us will decide that “I need to get a sword and chop off his heretical head”. Not that these things aren’t important, they are, what we think on these things effects how we live even if we don’t know it, but they are settled things. Of those things the reformation peace on the Lord’s Supper is probably the widest. As a Lutheran I might believe, teach and confess that transubstantiation is a little too specific, but the body and blood are truly present , and I think that is the best way to talk about it, but can I really say that Roman Catholics are out of Christ or Zwinglians are heading to hell? The writers of the Concord would probably have said yes. But 430 years later that is a very tough statement. Especially given that all three groups are still around. Unlike the resolution of the early Trinitarian doctrines in the creeds, and especially the Athanasian Creed which states that “whoever wishes to be saved must hold the catholic faith…and the catholic faith is this…” we just don’t put that forward with confessions. Some do, but I think you could get a good consensus around something like: Creeds – definitive doctrine, Confessions – internally consistent ways of living the one Catholic faith.

Now we come to the modern troubles. If I were trying to sit down and write a modern confession that would close Pandora’s doctrinal box I think here are the headings I would start with: science, medical technology, man and woman in Christ. Under science I think you would address things like evolution and modern philosophy. Under medical technology you would address end of life issues and the death penalty but also early life issues such as IVF, birth control and abortion. Then under man and woman in Christ you would discuss such things as divorce, sexual mores, the ministry, and what might be termed gender roles.
What I want to do is flesh some of the controversies and stumble toward some possible confessional statements. Now some of these are what we might think of as “no brainers”. Some, like sexual mores, have very strong and core biblical statements. Others like who is in the ministry are much more muddy than the sides in the controversy would think. And still others are pure extrapolation from biblical principles such as IVF.

Again, this is me thinking out loud. I’m trying to separate true theological thinking from simple justification of “that is the way we always lived, so the modern world must be wrong”. The next time I’m going to start with the easy things – sexual mores. Then I’m going to extend that to IVF & Birth control.

A German Pope at the Erfurt Agustinian Monastery

Benedict XVI, a German, is on a trip to Germany. One of his stops is in Erfurt at the monastery that trained and sheltered Luther. Here is the link to the full text of his comments. The full comments are short, but this is a clip. Benedict has clearly been formed in some way by Luther’s thoughts. He doesn’t mention Law and Gospel, but he talks about the revealed God/(hidden god) and talks about the deep question of how does God interact with me. You don’t get more Lutheran. Especially coming from the Anti-Christ whore of babylon Roman Pontiff. Interesting through-out….

As the Bishop of Rome, it is deeply moving for me to be meeting representatives of Council of the EKD here in the ancient Augustinian convent in Erfurt. This is where Luther studied theology. This is where he was ordained a priest in 1507. Against his father’s wishes, he did not continue the study of Law, but instead he studied theology and set off on the path towards priesthood in the Order of Saint Augustine. On this path, he was not simply concerned with this or that. What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. “How do I receive the grace of God?”: this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For him theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. Insofar as people today believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.