Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lutheran Theology and the Metaphysical Question.

The entire discussion of sanctification brought up a number of issues.  Chief among them is my use of speech-act theory, as well as my use of categories of thought taken from relational and ecstatic metaphysics to explicate my views of sanctification.  When I pointed out the advantage of these ways of speaking to give an account of and to conceptually preserve biblical and confessional commitments (as well as their precedent in Luther's own ways of speaking and conceptualizing theology), it was charged that I rejected the substance ontology of the early Lutheran dogmaticians, and that I was therefore out of accordance with the historic tradition.  As much as I tried to explain in a few short sentences to point out that my position was being distorted, such a response was generally speaking ignored.  Below, I would like to clarify my position on the metaphysical question in light of my biblical and confessional commitments to God's truth.  Regarding Lutheran theology and the need to speak in terms of philosophical ontology, I would make the following observations:

1. One cannot canonize any one ontological scheme.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First of all, the great weakness of Catholic and Reformed theology is that they have more or less canonized a particular metaphysical scheme and allowed it to determine their theology.  This can be seen in the Catholic commitment to things like Transubstantiation and the doctrine of created grace.  In the case of the Reformed, they enter into their discussion of the two natures in Christ and the sacraments with philosophical presuppositions about what divinity and humanity are (non capax, etc.), and what God would do and what he would not do .  And so, ultimately they ignore or obfuscate what Scripture says about these things.  Secondly, Lutheranism (or perhaps more accurately, people who define themselves as Lutheran!) has functioned with a number of different philosophical traditions: Nominalism, Scotism, Aristotelianism, Leibnizianism, Kantianism, Hegalianism, and Existentialism.  Many of these philosophical schemes have had unfortunately distorting effects on the teaching of biblical truth.  My opponents tend to think the Aristotelian one was pretty good.  In some respects, this was true.  Nevertheless, this too also created any number of problems.  One example might be the false teaching of "receptionism," that is largely a function of the Melanchthonian appropriation of Aristotle's casual scheme.  All causes must be in place (including reception) to actualize a reality.  This distorts the gospel-promise of the Supper by effectively claiming that my action of reception is a contributing cause of the body and blood of Christ being present, rather than the sole cause lying in the promissory and consecratory word.  The third reason that we cannot canonize any one metaphysical scheme is that as Oswald Bayer has pointed out, this would be the theology of glory.  To know a universal scheme within which we can relate the ontic reality of God to all beings in an absolutely consistent way would in fact to suggest that we could know God's being in itself, and how all of God's works (which, often seems contrary) are coordinated with one another.  This is a problem because we know that the theology of glory always leads to conceit and self-justification.  Such a knowledge of God is not proper to this life, but the next life.  In this life, an attempt at such a knowledge leads to creatures believing in God as a transparent ideal, rather than a savior.  From this, theology and ethics becomes structured around trying to be conformed to that ideal.  Such knowledge will only be possible and helpful to us in the next life when God purifies us and conforms us to his ideal reality.

2.  If metaphysical and ontological terminology and schemes have historically distorted aspects of biblical teaching, then why bother with them at all?  One has heard this argument from Lutherans  often enough, and indeed to some extent in the history of Protestant theology.  The young Luther was contemptuous of philosophical terminology borrowed from Aristotle.  Of course, he never completely rejected philosophical learning (he has very nice things to say about Plato in the Heidelberg Disputation, as he trashes Aristotle).  Moreover, many of the presuppositions he used to attack philosophical reason were in fact borrowed from Nominalist philosophy (this is particularly the case in his arguments against Zwingli).  Finally, he ultimately did acquiesced to Melanchthon's revival of a purified Aristotelianism in the curriculum of Wittenberg by the 1530s.  Moreover, we find of course a similar rejection of philosophical metaphysics in the considerably less orthodox theology of 19th century Liberal Protestantism.  Schleiermacher and Ritschl in particular rejected philosophical tradition as a basis or in some case, even a tool, for theological discourse.  Adolf Harnack built an entire theory of the fall of the Church around it in his History of Dogma by positing that Christian theology had gradually been corrupted by Greek philosophy (his famous "Hellenization Thesis").  Unfortunately for the coherent of their argument, they attacked philosophical reason on the basis of Kantian presuppositions, thereby revealing that they were unable to escape philosophical schemes themselves! 

3. Ultimately,  the problem with trying to escape philosophy and metaphysical presuppositions is twofold.  First, since philosophy primarily deals with the question of what is real and what is good, it is built into the unconscious presuppositions of every culture.  Since the theologian or ordinary believer are not immune to their culture, all theologians and believers will have unconscious commitments to a particular philosophy.  For example, most American Christian that I have met have an unconscious commitment to aspects of the philosophy of John Locke, even though they've never heard of him.  Lockean empiricism, as well as his ideas about government tend to be hardwired into our culture.  So, instead of denying that philosophical influences are there, it would be more fruitful to be honest and self-conscious about our presuppositions and then try to subordinate them to the Word of God as much as possible.  We should do this even though as sinners it is unlikely that we will ever be entirely successful at this this side of eternity.  Secondly, Christian theology is about God's truth manifested in creation and redemption in Christ.  And since Christ is the truth, that should make Christian doctrine relatable to all other forms of truth.  When I say "relatable" I should caution that I do not mean "synthesizable."  That would more be the task of theology within Thomism, which, as we have seen earlier, wants to see past the differences in God's actions and the resulting truth claims, and see the unity of God's actions within himself.  That again is the theology of glory, and, in practice (at least the case of Aquinas) the canonization of Aristotle (a pagan philosopher).  Rather, theology should be relatable to other truth claims because all truth is God's truth and part of God's creation.  That relating may take the form of correlation (wow, look this finding of history, philosophy, or science matches with the Bible!), rejection (this truth claim obviously contradicts Scripture, and so it must be rejected!), or even paradox (wow, what the Bible says is true, and what this human science tells me seems true, but I can't reconcile them.  Better wait for God to explain it to me in eternity).  Either way, if one wants to think about their faith in a meaningful and coherent way (something necessary, since faith claims the whole person, intellect!), then one will have to engage the metaphysical task and relate and translate Christian truth claims into the language of the truth claims within one's own culture.  At minimum, one will have to show from Scripture why the unconscious epistemology and metaphysics of one's own culture are wrong, and that will also call for philosophical explication as well.

4. This being said, I therefore am not against the use of metaphysical schemes in explicating theology.  Neither am I against the use of substance ontology as a means of talking about theology (as was charged).  I rather object to the usual of substance language and conceptualities in certain contexts where it distorts what I consider to be biblical truth.  My two objections to the manner of conceptualizing sanctification in the manner of my opponents were that first, the language of substance had a distorting effect on key biblical-Lutheran commitments to the claims of law and gospel on the total person of faith and corollary of the simul of Christian existence.  In these things, I would argue that my opponents were not using the language of substance/predicates as a means of explicating biblical truth (which, would of course be totally acceptable), but were rather dictating what the Bible could and could not say based on their conceptual/philosophical presuppositions.  Even when I quoted Scripture (and Luther!) to them, they did not seem to want to believe it because it contradicted the presuppositions rooted either consciously or unconsciously in substance ontology.

5. That being said, I again, do not want to deny the legitimacy of the use of substance concepts and language in certain settings.  If I did, I would in effect be claiming that much theology done prior to the 19th century was completely illegitimate- not least the conceptual framework of the great ecumenical councils and the later confessional documents of the Lutheran Church.  What I will say is that their usefulness is limited to reality from a very specific perspective.  What substance metaphysics say about reality is that there are real entities within it, and that they possess an identity internal to themselves that persists over time.  This is true irrespective of whether or not certain predicates of their reality are altered (my hair will turn grey some day!).  Moreover, God is a certain something and humans are a certain something, and our language portrays that reality to us in a realistic fashion.  So, the goal of substance language and concepts is linguistic realism and the recognition of the continuity of identity.  Therefore, what we get from substance language is fundamentally a law of identity and also a law of propositional truth. 

6.  From this, I would like to suggest is that substance language is good for and what it portrays to us is reality from the perspective of the law.  On the one hand, the law tells me about what God is and what creatures are in a realistic fashion, and says to me "you must believe that the language the Bible uses to portray these entities corresponds to their reality."  That is the law of belief and a law of linguistic correspondence.  It is not a gospel truth because it never says "such and such is true for you and for your salvation."  Even if the truths about redemption are established as facts, they function as law if they are not given as a promise given"for me."  This perspective of the law also carries over into the question of identity.  Insofar as I am an entity and I possess an essence that persists over time, I am identical with myself.  And if I am identical with myself, then I am a responsible being and therefore responsible for all I have done.  I am responsible and no one else is.  This is the implication and the ironclad law of identity that one finds in substance ontology.  As a centered being, I am absolutely responsible for myself and I can never escape my past.  And if this is true, my reality is entirely defined by the law and its judgment.  It logically excludes redemption, in that redemption, as we will see below, assumes a transcendence of the law of identity.  Moreover, if I am left with this particular account of my being, I will remained centered.  I will not find my identity in the reality of the other, because I must conserve my reality.  I am stuck with the law and my disobedience to the law.  Moreover, insofar as I move out from the center of my being and give myself to the other, I will lose myself.  Left alone with this account, I can exist as nothing more than as one "curved in on themselves" (in curvatus in se) under the sway of the opinio legis.
7. Nevertheless, the horizon of the the law of identity is transcended in Christian understanding by that of the grace of God.  This is the case in both creation and redemption.  In the case of creation, all creatures have an identity that subsists in God's gracious address to all his creatures.  In speaking, God brings his creatures into existence by an act of grace.  Such a effective address means that creatures from this perspective do not have their identity so much in a centered substance that persists over time, but in God's address that narrates them into existence.  And for this reason, the fundamental ontic structure of the creatures consists in something ecstatic, rather than something centered, in the same way that the reality of the law is contextualized and subordinated to the gospel.  Such an ecstatic existence is model on that which God is within himself.  The Father possesses all, and is therefore free to eternally begets the Son.  And the Son possesses all, and therefore, he is free to return himself full to the Father in the form of the procession of the Holy Spirit.  In this, each person of the Trinity possesses an ecstatic identity.  As Athanasius points out in one of his later anti-Arian writings, the Father is the Father because he has a Son.  His identity as Father is not based on himself, but on his ecstatic relationship to another.  Similarly, insofar as I am seen from the horizon wherein God narrates me into existence with his gracious address, my identity is not based on a centered essence that persists over time, but rather on that address external to me.  Lastly, in that God has created human beings in his own image to be beings whom he responsibly addresses, he has mediated the world to them and made it knowable through language.  And reality is not so much knowable as mere "representation" through language.  Rather, reality becomes present to humans in, under, and through language.  This could only be the case if the world was created by an ecstatic and self-communicating God, who transcends the law of identity and is capable of making one reality present in and through another.  If beings are seen from the perspective of a centered identity, it is completely impossible to account for human knowledge and linguistic realism, since epistemic and linguistic realism implies the self-communication of one being in and through another, which the substance account problematizes.  See a similar argument to this here:

8. This ecstatic account of the reality of our identity as it subsists in the grace of God in creation, also sheds light on redemption as well.  In Christ, I am righteous, and indeed, this makes little sense if I am understood as a centered-substance that persists over time.  Seen from the perspective of the law of identity, I am not Christ and Christ is not me.  So how could Christ be my righteousness, since he is not me?  Similarly, if Christ is not me, then how can he take on my sin? (Historically, Catholic accounts of atonement going back to Anselm have denied that Christ is imputed with our sin!)  Nevertheless, if we understand that our being is something ecstatically constituted, I can see that Christ is the new Adam and the same eternal Word of God that ecstatically gives me my existence through creation.  And insofar as he speaks me forth anew in the address of the gospel, I have a new identity and reality before God external to myself in him.  In this, I am restored to the image of God lost in the Fall.  Instead of living a centered existence under the exclusive definition of the law, I now live ecstatically "in Christ through faith and in love through my neighbor" (Luther).  Luther makes a similar observation in his commentary on Genesis, when he says that Jacob's Ladder represents the manner in which Christ descends to us in the means of grace, and we ecstatically ascend to him through faith.  This existence defined by ecstatic receiving and self-giving, mirrors the life of the Trinity. Similarly, this new existence also mirrors and is indeed based upon God's self-communication in Christ, wherein the fullness of his divinity is communicated to his humanity (genus majestaticum) and what belongs to humanity is taken into divinity.  Finally, without an ecstatic view of reality, God's gifts in Word and sacraments make very little sense.  If God's Word is something ontologically centered, it would lose itself in ecstatic self-communication in and through human words.  Within substance conceptualities, moving out from one's center means moving out from one's own reality and therefore a loss of reality and identity.  Instead, Luther's Reformation was predicated on the assertion that God's Word of forgiveness was sacramentally present in and through the word of absolution.  The same thing may be said about the sacraments as well.  This the reason why the Catholic and Reformed traditions have so much difficulty with the "in, under, and with" of Lutheran sacramental theology.  They remain beholden to the Augustinian platonizing "res and signum" construct.  Even though Catholics do wish to preserve a sort of sacramental realism, they ultimately still make a sharp distinction between the intelligible and the physical aspects of the sacraments, whereas the Reformed simply separate them completely.

9. Just as the law without the gospel turns people into either legalists or libertines, so goes all epistemological and ontological projects based on the law of identity apart from the relational and ecstatic foundation provided by the creedal-evangelical metaphysical framework.  On the legalist side of the spectrum, we have the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who because they uncritically used a centered concept of substance (borrowed from Middle Platonism and Stoicism), could not comprehend how the divine being could remain itself while fully communicating itself in the divine life, or in redemption.  And the result was a drift toward subordinationism or modalism.  And the same tendency can be seen in the ancient Christological heresies that separate the humanity and divinity of Christ (Nestorianism) or make the divinity of Christ only possible insofar as it absorbs the humanity (Eutychianism).  In either case, the assumption is that ecstatic self-communication is impossible if the law of identity will be maintained.  Likewise, Roman Catholics, being beholden to Aristotle, could not comprehend how believers could live through another ecstatically, and therefore they invented the whole theology of created grace.  In both cases, when God and his creatures are subordinated to substance categories, redemption and indeed the very identity of God are distorted under the logic of the law.  God is turned from a self-communicating and self-giving God, into a centered being who in his fundamental identity is the law.  He is a distant monarch, who finds it impossible to see human beings as anything other what they are according to the law of their identity.  Hence, the best account of grace possible within the conceptual framework is that God has set about improving that identity by adding onto it (created grace), otherwise it will not meet his standards.

10. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum would be the antinomian option, which has been in vogue in post-modernism and before that in late modernism.  And in this scheme, there is an attempt to make my identity non-existent, thereby obfuscating the demands of the law of identity.  And I am nothing more than the grey of DiffĂ©rance, or a social construct.  Indeed, as Satre points out, the autonomous person must deny God, because if God existed there would be no real freedom because God would determine my essence.  And if this is true, positing any self at all would be a law of self and I would be responsible to that law.  Hence, because there is no escaping the law of identity through the gospel, then I must deny the law altogether- even when it is actually nonsensical to do so.  The implication of this is also that there is no knowledge as well, because truth would impose the law of truth which I must correspond to.  This law becomes a burden when my language and cognition must live up to that law.  And so in the linguistic turn, there is posited a great disjunction between word and world, language and reality.  Because I can no longer see behind language to reality, how can I be responsible for my words corresponding to reality?

11. Against this ontic and epistemic antinomianism, the ecstatic and self-giving God gives us ontic and epistemological realism through the "art of marriage" (Hamann) and stands in judgment over the "art of separation" (something Hamann attributes to Kant's distinction between the noumenal, and phenomenal).   Because God is the gracious giver of every good, he has made me and all creatures to subsist ecstatically through his gracious Word for freedom.  God's on primal gift makes freedom possible by granting life and the ability to understand and engage with reality, it does not take it away.  And through this gracious gift there is a unity of heaven and earth, and word and world.  This is true because at the heart of reality is the self-communicating and self-giving God, who corresponds to himself in and through his own word within the life of the Trinity.  And according to the horizon of reality provided by the self-communicating and self-giving God, we can encounter reality through our words, and we can find the unity and coherence of our identity through his gracious narration of our being in creation and redemption.  Just as the gospel places the law in its proper place, so too the ecstatic horizon of reality allows us to use substance language and the law of identity in a proper way.  That is, not in such a way so as to define what God can do and what he cannot do under the possibilities of the law (opinio legis), but to deal with God and his creatures in an epistemically realistic fashion for the sake of our love of the neighbor and service to creation.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Notes and Clarifications on the so-called "Antinomian Crisis" in the LCMS

Over the last year or so, there has been an unending debate about sanctification and good works in LCMS blog and FB lands.  In fact, recently I have read certain individuals claiming that there is an "antinomian crisis" in the LCMS.  Also, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what sanctification is, and how per se one maintains the simul of Christian existence while also talking about sanctification.  Up to this point, I have stayed out of these discussion.  This was both to maintain my own sanity, and my desire not to be sidetracked when I had other theological projects.  Here, I hope to make a positive contribution to the debate and sum up where I stand on these important issues. 

1. Is there an antinomian crisis in the LCMS?  My answer would be basically no and yes.  When people who claim there is one, they generally mean that there isn't enough law-based preaching and this leads to people into being loosey-goosey about their moral efforts.  Beyond the rather bizarre and un-Lutheran assumptions that go into this diagnosis, there's also the fact that I see absolutely no empirical evidence of it.  I don't really think you could actually empirically measure any decline in morality among LCMS members in recent years.  If people were actually honest about what they did in private, my guess (and just a guess mind you!) would be that there would be little difference between people's behavior at any time in the history of the synod until now.  Moreover, I think that in terms of the quality of preaching, these proponent of the "antinomian crisis" have nothing to fear.  Though I have been blessed with three very good parishes where the gospel is preached in its purity over the last half-decade, whenever I go to another LCMS congregation, I am pretty consistently treated to a moralizing and legalistic tirade- something those worried about antinomianism are concerned that there isn't enough of.  This legalistic tirade may be a subtle one- nice law, to make nice people- or it may take less subtle forms- mean law to get people (particularly those having the wrong sorts of sex, which often appears to be the only sin people commit) to stop doing what they're doing.  Nonetheless, in essence it's all the same.  At the end of the sermon, often the gospel will be tacked on, since basically the preacher didn't really want to preach the gospel in the first place, but rather give an exhortation to "really get things done."  But he does remember back in seminary that Walther said something about preaching law and gospel, so he's got to tack it on at the end.  It's obligatory.  Sigh!

2. Basically, this sort of preaching or the worry that we're not being sufficiently legalistic reveals a fundamental misperception about what true antinominianism is, and what the relationship between antinomianism and legalism actually is.  First, since the legalistic tirade at one's average LCMS parish is usually focused on some sort of hot-button cultural issue (sex! sex! sex!), it does little good to the congregation.  They're on board with the preacher- after all, none of them are gay!  So it doesn't affect them.  But they hold the right opinions about homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, and so, they feel good about having those correct opinions.  They're not like those terrible young people.  And so, through their own legalism they become antinomians.  They escape the office of the law and its condemning effects.  Ironically then, by hitting people hard with the law, often times preachers are only reinforcing people's antinomian tendencies.  Therefore, if there is an antinomian crisis in the LCMS, it's that.  Not that we don't have enough tiraids about about sexual sins, or some such thing- but that when we preach in this manner we give congregations too many tools to self-justify.  On one last side note, least I be misunderstood, I am by no means saying that the Church should not witness to all of God's truth, part of which is indeed proper sexual relationships.  Neither am I saying that that at this particular moment in history when God's truth about proper sexual relationships is being ignored, that the Church does not have a special obligation to witness to the truth of God's law in these respects.  Rather, what I am saying is that our preaching too often focuses exclusively on these topics and not on the actual sins that people in the congregation are committing.  The unfortunate consequence of this is that it reinforces their smugness and does not drive them to Christ.

3. Part of the reason that people think that legalistic tirades are a "way to get things done" is that there are many fundamental misunderstandings of what sanctification is, and what the purpose of the third use of the law is.  The popular account in the LCMS of these things seems to be as follows: The gospel is the imputation of righteousness and the promise of eternal life (so far so good!).  It is a sort of bare forensic word and people receive it by faith (still good!).  Because it is just a word that says "not guilty," it does nothing.  People left with this word will just sit around.  Hence, for people to be "sanctified" the preacher must "preach sanctification" which means "preaching good works."  Preaching good works makes up for the fact that as a bare forensic judgment, the gospel does nothing.  Over time, because the preacher preaches good works to you, you get better and better at doing good works, and therefore become more and more sanctified.

4. This account seems to be believed in many and various ways by people worried about the "antinomian crisis" in the LCMS.  If this misrepresents their thinking, I apologize, but it's the definite impression that I get from what they say.  To respond to this, I need to make a couple points of clarification.  First of all, one of Luther's major targets in beginning the Reformation was the idea one finds in Aristotle that "doing is being."  For Aristotle, one is a good person because they do good things.  And more one does good things, the easier it becomes and the better a person you are.  In adapting Aristotle, Catholic theology (broadly speaking) thought that people get righteous by doing good works.  God in his grace gives a kind of potential for goodness and you build-up that goodness by repeatedly doing good works.  Luther's idea was rather different.  Jesus said that a "good tree bears good fruits."  Through the gospel, God sanctifies the inner person and makes them a good tree that bears good fruit.  Faith fulfills the law and therefore the gospel, and not the law, is the agent of sanctification.  Melanchthon reflects this definition of how sanctification takes place in the Apology when he describes justification either meaning God's forensic judgment of salvation, or the renewing of the inner person through the Holy Spirit (what the Formula would later define as "sanctification").  All of this, of course, follows from Paul's use of the language of the new covenant, which he takes from Jeremiah.  Prodding Israel to obey the Sinaitic covenant was something of a bust for the OT prophets.  YHWH promises Jeremiah (in chapter 31) that he will give them a new covenant, wherein he will communicate to the people the forgiveness of sin and then sanctification, whereby he will write the law on their hearts.  As Paul notes, this does not come by the preaching of the letter which "kills", but through the Spirit at work in the gospel (2 Cor. 3).  Jesus also spoke in John 17 about being sanctified by himself and communicating sanctification through the preaching of the gospel.  Through the gospel, the Holy Spirit creates faith and sanctifies the inner person.  This inner person under the influence of the Spirit gives the impulse to do good works, which are only done out of faith.  Hence, beating on people to do good works may actually change their empirical behavior.  But because doing is not being, it doesn't do a lick to get them sanctified.  Sanctification is a change of the heart that colors the works that people do.  It is not the works themselves.

5. This reveals of the confusion over the issue of "sanctification."  One of my friends, working with the notion of sanctification as inner renewal through the gospel has been repeatedly accused of being against sanctification.  Why?  Because there is a tendency in popular LCMS teaching (though you will not find this in major theologians, such as David Scaer who says the very opposite!), of identifying sanctification as something we do (i.e., the uptick of good works) and not what God does through the Spirit and the Word.  This is why the phrase "preaching sanctification" a way of saying "preaching good works" is so problematic.  There is of course nothing wrong with preaching good works (I will address this issue below).  Nevertheless, the phrase "preaching sanctification" seems to assume that good fruit make a good tree, rather than a good tree makes good fruit.  Part of the problem as well is that we are all very much aware that people without the Spirit can improve their external behavior (go to an AA meeting and see!).  And likewise, people prior to coming to have faith may have a goodly amount of civil righteousness.  In fact, their civil righteousness may be so good that it may be difficult to detect any difference between their pre-conversion behavior and their post-conversion behavior.  For example, does anyone seriously think that Cornelius in the book of Acts did anything much differently in his day-to-day life after receiving the Holy Spirit?  In other cases, one of course can see real differences.  Pimps and prostitutes who receive the gospel will no long pimp others or prostitute themselves.  Regarding that which is below us, we are always free and so we are free to do good works in a merely human way.  The problem is the heart and Jesus tells us that this is what needs to be changed by faith, because that which is within us makes us unclean.  People can be like "white-washed tombs"- that is, good in their external behavior and rotten on the inside.

6. So then, can one speak of progressive sanctification?  The term in and of itself is not objectionable, indeed, many Lutheran theologians (including Luther himself!) do speak in this manner.  The difficulty with the term is that it has taken on a sort of different meaning in other forms in Protestantism than it has in Lutheranism.  Again, at the risk of caricature, I would say that the general impression I get in reading Reformed and Evangelical authors when the subject of "progressive sanctification" comes up is this basic account: One is converted by the Holy Spirit and then, overtime, sin gradually is removed from you as Luther puts it "like paint striped from a wall."  And every day and every way you become less and less of a sinner until, after death, you are perfect.  Moreover, this is how ones know that their faith is really real, because it produces fruits.  Now what is correct about this account is, as we have seen earlier, is that becoming a Christian does mean rejecting evil that one has previous engaged in.  Also, having faith does indeed mean producing fruits as well. 

7. What is objectionable about this account though is that it misapprehends that Christ is the true reality of sanctification.  In this account, the person is a sort of subject who has greater and greater predicates built up in him over time- like drug building up in your system as you take more of it.  What this account lacks the consciousness of is that Christ is sanctified in himself and shares his sanctifying reality with us.  Therefore, our unity with him in baptism is the the reality of sanctification.  One does not progress beyond baptism as a sort of jumping off point (incidentally, this is why the description of baptism as the "Christian rite of initiation" is so incredibly annoying.  It assumes baptism is stage 1., rather than the whole of the Christian life!).  Because all our good works are rooted in faith and the work of the Holy Spirit enacted in baptism, we never move beyond it.  In baptism, our new self "in Christ" is actualized.  For this reason, any progress that we may indeed speak about is rather a sort of regress to that original reality.  It is regress to what we already are in Christ.  We are two selves, the self that persists under sin and death in the old age, and a new self, outside of us in Christ, which already stands within the kingdom of God. 

8. This way of thinking about sanctification is rather difficult for people to understand because human beings in their fallen state usually conceptualize themselves as a centered subjects that persists over time.  That subject may gain new predicates, but it remains centered in itself.  Hence, the subject "sinner" adds the predicate "righteousness" onto it.  When sanctification is thought of as "progressing" then it means more and more predicates are added onto the subject.  Of course, from a Lutheran perspective this is problematic in at least two ways.  First, it compromises the "simul" of Christian existence.  It leaves us with a person who is "partially righteous" and "partially a sinner."  And although Luther actually does speak this way sometimes, it tends to be from the perspective of one's actions in the kingdom of the world, where I do many good things based on my faith, and where I do many bad things because I am still corrupted flesh.  Before God, things are different.  I am a totality, that is, I am seen either from perspective of the totalizing judgment of the law or the totalizing righteousness that is to be found in Christ.  From this perspective, any partial righteousness is non-compliance with the law, and therefore is sin.  Any sin is also totally covered by the righteousness of Christ received by faith.  Secondly, the other major problem with thinking in terms of a subject that builds up its predicates is that assumes that as the Christian life progresses, the less one needs Jesus. Jesus is for sinners, and if you have less sin in you, presumably you need Jesus less.  But if sanctification is rooted in faith, and progress means a strengthening of faith, then quite the opposite will be the case.  The flesh will rage more against the Spirit- Christ does after all give rise to Anti-Christ!  We sin every day, and our regrets about our sin in our later life are greater than those in our younger life.  So we need Jesus more, and not less.  (Anyone who doubts any of this, sit down and talk with a pastor who has worked in the nursing home!).  As sanctification grows, sin grows too!

9. How do we talk about progress then?  Is our account of the Christian life that people get faith and then that makes them free to lie in their own vomit?  That account doesn't much work with what Scripture or the Confessions say, and so we need to have a different paradigm for understanding the human self.  Luther often speaks about how through faith we live outside of ourselves.  Part of the problem of sin is the fact that, to use Augustine famous phrase, we are "curved in on ourselves."  Human beings were created by God's creative Word and therefore were intended to live through faith in a state of receptivity to that gracious Word.  They therefore were meant to live on the basis of something outside of themselves, not what was within themselves.  In the Fall, humans removed themselves from a trusting and receptive relationship with God, thereby becoming centered on themselves.  Paul tells us in the NT that a new creative Word has been manifested through Jesus.  Our new life isn't inside of us, Paul says, but is outside of us "hidden in God in Christ" (Colossians 3:3).  Paul says that he "no longer lives" but "Christ lives in " him, that is to say, he "lives by faith in the Son of God" (Galatians).  Hence, faith and sanctification are not about the self getting other qualities added onto it, but rather it is about breaking the self's centered existence and taking on the new existence of faith, which one might call "ecstatic."  We live ecstatically live "in Christ by faith, and in our neighbour by love" (Freedom of a Christian).  This means then, that we are two selves.  We remain something in ourselves, i.e., sinners.  And we are another self "in Christ," outside of ourselves.  Consciousness of what we are in ourselves (sinners) drives us every day more and more to recognize and rely upon what we are outside of ourselves (righteous in Christ).  Therefore, if we speak of "progress" that is progress that we should be primarily talking about.

10. But how does this work?  A good illustration (used by N.T. Wright, of all people), is a room with a view.  A room with a view is an interesting thing, because it isn't defined by it's content.  Rather, it's defined by something outside the room, namely, the view.  The view itself makes the room, even though it is in no way a property of the room, or even something in the room.  Let's go beyond Wright and give the analogy some more depth.  We might say that a sinful person in a state of unbelief is rather like a hotel room that could have a view, but it perhaps has no windows.  Christ has of course died and forgiven the sins of the whole world, much as there is a fantastic view behind the wall of the hotel room.  But alas, bricks block the windows and therefore make this impossible.  In baptism though, the walls are knocked down and the view can be seen.  The room becomes something entirely new, but not because of anything inside of it, but because of the view of that which is outside of it.  Indeed, the room over time may age, it's furniture may become more ugly. In fact, the hotel may use the room as a place to store ugly or old furniture.  In the same manner, we sin every day and as the Spirit sanctifies the flesh, our flesh revolts all the more.  Nevertheless, as time goes on, this ugliness of the room is only all the more reason for the guest to not pay any attention to how the room is furnished and to instead look out the windows to glories of the view.  The more they do this, the more their life in the room will be defined by the view and not by the contents of the room.

11. Now for a couple of other thorny questions: Why do you keep on talking about Christ sanctifying us?  Don't we cooperate in our sanctification?  And then, also, what about the third use of the law?  Don't we get sanctified by getting the third use of the law preached to us?  These concerns I think are based on a couple of misunderstandings of what Lutherans have historically meant by "cooperate in sanctification" and "the third use of the law."  First, this issue of cooperation in sanctification.  Certainly this is a way of speaking that is adopted by both our Confessions (notably, the FC) and by many of our greatest theologians (Pieper).  Luther talks also in Bondage of the Will of us "cooperating" with God after we are regenerated.  What many people misunderstand at this point is how the term "cooperate" is being used.  Most Americans, when they hear the words "cooperation" think in terms of what philosophers call "libertarian free will."  In this view, the human will can in an undetermined way will whatever it so chooses.  The difficulty with all this is that it assumes that the human will is something neutral.  But if our will exists, as Luther points out in Bondage of the Will, it must have qualities and something with qualities is not neutral, but determined.  A good will has good qualities and therefore does good things, just as a bad will does bad things because it has bad qualities.  This is all based on a boilerplate Augustinian account of what Luther calls the "necessity of immutability."  God or external forces do not somehow manhandle the human will into doing what it does (the "necessity of compulsion").  Nevertheless, the will can only do what it desires and humans are not the authors of their own desires.  This clarifies what Luther (and indeed the FC and Pieper!) meant when they speak of human "cooperating with God."  It does not mean, as I think many in the "antinomian crisis" group thinks that it does, that humans with their libertarian free will decide to be responsive to God or not once they have the Spirit.  Rather, what it means, is that because the Spirit writes the law on the person's heart through faith, that they do what they want to do, namely, they desire to obey the law.  In this, God's action does not somehow replace human agency, but rather supervenes on it by shaping and directing it.  Human beings act, but because God has given them the impulse to act through the power of the Spirit.  Luther describes this as being like a horse ridden by its rider (an image he took from Medieval theology).  The horse really does go faster or slower.  The horse himself really does change directions.  But only because he is directed by the rider.  The rider shapes the horse and its behavior.  Nevertheless, it is the horse that runs, and not the rider.  And so, in this sense, they cooperate together.

12. This places the third use of the law in a new perspective.  The third use of the law is not a means of making people want to do good works.  Only the gospel can do that.  Rather, according to our Confessions, it is a negatively and positively tool for believers.  First, as the FC states, the third use is primarily aimed at our old nature.  And our old nature has all sort of impulses that that remain contrary to those of our renewed inner person.  The third use gives the person of faith knowledge of what impulses are evil and need to be beaten back.  It also gives the renewed mind a knowledge of what specific actions God wants, so as to be a curb on the sinful nature's tendency to invent self-chosen and "childish" (Augustana) works.  Lastly, it positively serves as a "channel" (Luther, Large Catechism) for impulses of the renewed person of faith.  As is evident and as the FC makes explicit and clear, the third use therefore is not aimed at sanctifying the person or giving them impulse to do the law.  Rather, it is, as the FC puts it, primarily aimed at the old nature which frustrates the new nature.  It is a recognition of the simul of Christian existence.  Insofar as we remain under sin, law, and in midst of creation, we need the law in order to live out our Christian existence.  Of course, it should be observed that the law serves multiple functions all at once. The preacher is not the agent of the uses of the law, but rather the Holy Spirit is.  The Holy Spirit uses the law in multiple ways when it is preached.  So, it is irrelevant that the preacher only intends to instruct believers in the vein of the third use of the law; he will also always condemn his hearers with the second as he does so (Melanchthon is quite clear about this in the Apology).  I recently read a Luther pastor claim that because Luther and Paul obviously intend that their preaching of the law be used as instruction in certain cases, the law in those cases did not really condemn and so, in our preaching, we should think that the law does not always condemn as well.  And the point that I would make (along with many modern literary theorists) is that we cannot even control how Robinson Crusoe is experienced and that is merely a human book.  So, we how much more is it the case that we cannot control how our sermons and proclamation of the Scriptures (which are both instrumentals of the Holy Spirit) are heard?  For this reason, the minister must always make certain that any moral instruction that he undertakes be make in the larger context of gospel proclamation.  Any law a pastor proclaims will in one way or another condemn.  That being said, the law also always contains ethical information.  Hence, as I often point out to Fordeites, just as one cannot prevent the law from always accusing, one also cannot prevent it from instructing as well!  Contrary to what many people seem to think, there's no reason it cannot do both at once!  So, if proper preaching is taking place, insofar as the believer is condemned by the proclamation of the law, they will be driven to Christ and sanctified by the Spirit present in the gospel.  And, insofar as they receive new impulses from the work of the Spirit in the gospel, they will use that same law that condemned them as a channel and a tool to suppress the old nature and live out their faith through specifically proscribed actions.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

New Article Published in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

Finally!  I've been waiting for this article to come out for two years! If you can get a copy of the journal, please check out my latest article on Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Modern Americans Don't Think They Need Theologians (When They Actually Do!)

My friend over at Cornerstone Seminary, Mike Wittmer, shared this article over Facebook:

The author talks about how we need professors in our public debates, but they don't seem to play much of a role.  Of course, historically, I would note, this was not always the case.  At the time of the Reformation and in the age of confessionalization, theologians and Humanists were public intellectual par excellence.  Similarly, until relatively recent times, public intellectual (secular as they may be) have played a significant role in public policy debates.  So, what happened?

Here's the problem as I see it. In pre-democratic and pre-consumerist societies, there is always a problem of the distribution of resources.  Who gets power and wealth? There's not enough to go around, and besides, most societies have historically believed that not everyone really deserves the same amount.  Within these circumstances, "thinkers", whether they be theologians, political theorists, philosophers, etc., served a valuable purpose of telling society what the rational basis is of our social organization was and what we can identify as "good." From this, societies could make decisions about social and political organization.  They could also make decisions about ultimate values, the truth about the world and what constitutes salvation, all of which of course has a direct relationship to the values exhibited in the social and political order (yes, the two things do have something to do with one another!).  In performing these tasks, societies and intellectuals in general necessarily had to refer to transcendental categories of value.  Something is good because "God wills it" or at very least, "it's the rational order of the universe" or some such thing. 

And now, in a consumerist, democratic society the problem has been solved in the minds of many people.  We don't need anyone to sit around and think about what the "good" is, we just need to know how to market things and know what's popular. How do power and goods get distributed? By popular opinion in voting, or in what consumers buy in the market place. Everything is just then a response to public opinion, or a matter of marketing to shape public opinion.  We don't need intellectuals to negotiate between desires and distribution anymore.  We don't need to know God's will anymore.  We just need to know what people want.

As we can see, this has had many disastrous effects on public policy.  For example, we are at the moment drowning in federal debt because the public desires 1. Lots of goodies from the federal government.  2. Low taxes.  And whatever you think is better and more fair way to run the federal government (minimal taxes and minimal goodies vs. high taxes and lots of goodies), what the public wants and what politicians have given them are contradictory and actually quite bad for them in the long term.

You can see this in theology and ministry as well. In a wide variety of Christian denominations, theological education is becoming increasingly less important.  Why is this the case?  I think it's important to see how the modern American Church has fallen into the theory of the good proposed by the democratic/consumerist society.

Case-in-point: What was Rob Bell's argument in Love Wins again? Remember, it wasn't that he could for certain prove that Hell is not eternal (he denies he can in the book!).  According to Bell, for a theology to be true, it needs to be something that will get butts in seats. And that's all you need to worry about. So just say whatever takes get them there.  If that means telling them that there's no Hell (or that it isn't permanent at minimum), then by God let's do it! And it never seems to occur to him that God is very real and that he may be deeply annoyed with him for saying things that are untrue. The mega church industry was always about marketing and technique, as almost an end in itself.   And therefore many within the Evangelical community are now rejecting the notion that one even need to bother with a theological education, because all one really needs to know is how to market your church.  So much for theologians!  Bring in the marketing consultants!

Bell's theology is the nadir of mega-churchism and the Arminian theology that underlined it.  It seeks to make true what appeals to the desires of the free will.  But if the will is enslaved by sin (as Scripture and the Reformers taught), then what it wants is not good for it.   From this perspective, what one finds appealing theologically will not be of God.  Instead, we must study the Scriptures and find what God desires, not what the average American desires.  And for that you need Bible scholars and theologians, and a healthy sense of the theological realism, all of which much of contemporary American Protestantism lacks (whether we speak of liberals or conservatives!).  The effects of a program like Bell's are even more disastrous for the institutional Church as debt is for federal government.  Here we are talking about eternal salvation, not just the question of budgetary solvency.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pornography and Idolatry.

When my wife and I are too mentally tired for the epic political machinations of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or House of Cards, we watch the various TLC or Discovery channel "streaming" series on Netflix.  My wife refers to these series as "Trashy TV," largely because they exploit their audience's interest in people's freakish behavior.  One show we recently watched was called "My Strange Addiction."  Lost among the episodes where people have been eating Comet or drywall 10 times a day for the last 30 years (these were an actual cases!), was one truly bizarre episode involving a young man named "Davecat."  You can read Davecat's story here:

Davecat (a name, he unsurprisingly received while engaging in online gaming), is currently engaged in a "relationship" with a life-sized doll.  When the show (that I earlier mentioned) was being filmed, he was merely living with a life-sized doll.  Since then he has taken it to the next level.  He is now an activist for the right of people to marry life-sized dolls.  He has also purchased other life-sized dolls, and is presumably building a life-sized doll-harem.

Admittedly, even by the standards of our deeply sexually confused culture this is extremely weird.  That being said, I think what Davecat is doing is simply a more extreme version of the principle at work in pornography, the use of which is not out of the ordinary in our culture.  At its heart, I believe that this reveals something deeper about the human soul in our fallen state.  Ultimately, pornography and idolatry come from the same dark place.

First of all, as I point out to my world religions students, just as ancient people lived in a world full of idols, just as we live in a world full of pornography.  And both reveal something about human nature on a fundamental level.  Pornography is a form of sexual idolatry.  Just as idols are lifeless, distorted, images of God, so too pornographic images are lifeless and distorted images of human sexuality.  Davecat simply takes things to the next level and has purchased a lifeless woman for himself.  It is not unlike a lifeless statue of a god in ancient Greece or modern India.

Moreover, just as we know that there is a real, God-given human sexuality out there because the Internet is full of pornography (why create it, if it isn't a substitute for something real?), one of the reasons that we know that the true God exists is because the world has historically been full of idols.  When Atheists say that there is no God, when the world is full of distorted images for God, it is as illogical as a person finding the Internet full of pornography and then claiming that the human need for sexual intimacy is a pure illusion (or a merely sublimation for something else!) and that there is actually no real sex out there.

Secondly, the reason that Davecat and the rather large number of people in our society who look at pornography prefer the image to a real presence is fairly obvious.  As my teacher Steven Paulson has pointed out in the first section of this book:, dead images can be manipulated, whereas real presences cannot.  Hardwired into our fallen nature is a need to be our own gods.  This is a function of fallen nature's need for self-justification.  If God has condemned me through the law (which is ever present to me in his masks of the created order), then I must seek to control and manipulate him so as to stave off his threatening judgment.  For that reason, a lifeless and manipulable image, rather than his real presence is preferable.  If I make him an manipulable image, I can control him and place myself in a superior position.  Within this scenario, I am now god. 

The same thing goes for pornography.  An image or a lifeless doll is preferable to real people, with emotions, and needs.  Whereas images or dolls can be manipulated to fulfill the needs of the user, people cannot be- or perhaps, only with great trouble.  Davecat never has to have a fight with, comfort, or worry about the emotional needs of his dolls.  He never has to justify himself or his behavior to them.  He is not accountable to them in any way.  He can make them do whatever he wants because they are dead and lifeless things.  So too with all false gods.

One last point on this issue, regarding how this relates to Reformed and Lutheran differences regarding idolatry.  What I've written here shows that the actual issue of idolatry is only very superficially understood by the Reformed.  Working from the Humanistic revival of Platonism during the Renaissance, Zwingli (and Calvin after him) assumed idolatry was the temporal image distracted from the uncreated atemporality of God.  Within this view point (as David Bentley Hart puts it) God is an object that can presumably be lost among many objects.  Therefore, Zwingli destroyed all the statues of Jesus and the Saints and whitewashed the churches.

Conversely, Luther teaches in the large Catechism that images when viewed on their own are largely irrelevant.  The real issue is what the heart does with them.  Whatever the heart trust in that is not the living God, is an idol.  Therefore, images may remain in the churches as long as people are taught not to worship them or trust in them.  Indeed, Luther pointed out that even in the Tabernacle and Temple there were many images, and so it is impossible to understand the First Commandment the way that Karlstadt and later Zwingli wanted to understood it, namely, as a total prohibition of religious art work.  Following his typically Aristotelian concept of cognition, Luther observes that the very act of thinking about God or any of the doctrines of the Christian faith is to create intellectual image.

In this view then, the real issue is not temporality distracting from atemporality, but a manipulable image as an alternative to God's real presence.  Our intellectual images of God, just as the images within the Temple are not bad as long as they did not serve as alternatives to God's real presence, but rather pointed to it.  In other words, just as the images in the Temple point to the fact that God was present to share his holiness with Israel, so too our intellectual images of God (in the form of doctrine) and our church artwork, when used appropriately, point to the real presence of God in the Word and the sacraments.  We know that God's real presence is in these physical objects because God has promised to be present there.  In being present, God does not present himself as a manipulable object, rather, he is present as either condemning law, or redeeming gospel.  Those who act irreverently in relationship to this real presence suffer the same fate as those who offered "strange fire" in the OT.  In the end, God will not be manipulated.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Church History Series: Lecture 4

Here is the fourth and final installment of my Church history lecture series.  In this lecture, I deal with the Council of Nicaea and the theology of St. Augustine.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Church History Series: Lecture 3

Here I discuss the early catholic response to Gnosticism and Roman misconceptions of Christianity.  Then we move on to the development of theology in the 3rd century.  We end on the eve of Nicaea