Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Oprah's Synthesis of American Religion.

Now that the Oprah franchise is defunct (presumably so that she has more opportunities to make money- after all, she needs a gold bathtub to put in her golden house!) the MSM has been running a series of stories analyzing her impact on American culture.  This is fairly typical.  Most of the stories came from people at the NYT and other high brow publications.  Ever since Roland Barthes wrote a book on professional wrestling and soup cans back in the 60s, everyone intelligentsia thinks it's cool to be interested in pop culture.  But I digress.

In any case, beyond the love of MSM folks at sounding very, very deep analyzing pop culture, there are were a number of pretty interesting stories about Oprah impact on American religious culture.  I know that within my own family (who are mostly LCMS) there has been at least some religious impact.  I was at a relative's house a while back and actually saw a Eckhart Tolle book!  My goodness!

Anyways, what most people said about Oprah is that she sort of combines the culture of the black church and New Agism.  From the black church, she takes the idea of political/personal redemption from victimhood/redemptive victimhood.  Also her emotionalism and idea of autonomous self-reliance.  Put succinctly, stuff you find in American Revivalism.  From New Agism, she takes her universalism (remember, she was at Yankee Stadium!) and her mystical-amorphous concept of the divine.  

What I find interesting about all this is that it seems to me to be a sort of synthesis of the two streams of thought in American religious culture.  More or less, they broke apart during the 18th century and didn't really ever come back together again.  

What must be understood about American religious culture is that it is fundamentally Reformed.  For the early Reformed theologians, natural theology and the autonomy of human reason didn't have the bad wrap that it did in the Lutheran reformation.  To oversimplify a bit, the Reformed theologians keep and expanded on the older Thomistic metaphysics of the high Middle Ages (think Thomas Donelly's famous article "Thomistic Calvinism").  Lacking the supernatural authority of the Church as the older tradition had, Reformed theologians combined this natural theology with a highly individualistic concept of the certainty of revelation and redemption.  How do I know I'm elect?  You just know, said Calvin in the first edition of the Institutes (1536).  In the later editions, Calvin focused on the signs of election (good works, faith, participation in the sacraments).  Later the Puritans leaned very heavily on a personal conversion experience.  Often they would not let people receive communion or be official church-members if they couldn't give a public account of their conversion experience!

In the 18th century, this synthesis broke apart.  You see the results!  The Founding Father all believed in the Unitarian/Deistic God of Reformed natural theology- as did Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, Obama, etc.  The common people and the modern mega-church goers all believer in the interior, spiritual, emoting, redeeming God of the camp meeting.  Of course, the Unitarian/Deist types also gave rise to plenty of mysticism themselves in the form of the transcendentalist movement.  But this quasi-pantheism wasn't all that different than New England Unitarianism in it's concept of the ethical life or the amorphous God that gave rise to it.

This brings us back to Oprah.  What's interesting is that she is able to combine together the two models of the redemptive camp meeting God, and the mystical, aloof, transcendent God.  Perhaps because she embodies these two tendencies in American religious life, she appeals to everyone?  Or perhaps there not really all that different models of God!  Notice, neither side would want to confess with Luther in the Great Confession Concerning the Lord's Supper (1528): "There is no other God than the man Jesus."

It's an interesting suggestion and worth exploring!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rob Bell's Most Heretical Sentence in "Love Wins."

Most heretical line from "Love Wins":

"This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us" (pg. 182).

We "shape our God"?

What is odd is that he does both Schleiermacher (see the chapter entitled "Rocks everywhere") and now Feuerbach without any irony. Just like he did Erasmus in the first few chapters-right down to the lack of clarity in Scripture!

What's actually most annoying about the line is that it presupposes what we need is a better "concept" of God. A better "concept" of God can actually be nothing more than a new law for us to obey and correspond to. 

What we actually need is God himself, present in Word and sacrament justifying and sanctifying us!  This isn't a better concept of God, it's God himself doing God to us!

There is actually much unintentional hilarity when he describes what is pretty much Luther's concept of the hidden God and says "wow, if that God was real, then that would destroy us." Yes, you got it! It does!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hinlicky's "Divine Complexity."

I just finished writing my book review of Paul Hinlicky's Divine Complexity for the journal of religious history. Divine Complexity is Hinlicky's new book on the history of the development of Trinitarian theology. Hinlicky makes some interesting points, although I find much to disagree with. Generally speaking, Hinlicky's failure is that he attempts to think through theology on the basis of trendy cliches, rather than the biblical Word of proclamation. He also has a tendency of historically oversimplifying things in order to serve his theological point. Of course, as a systematic theologian I am not beyond reproach in this regard either!

What Hinlicky criticizes in the book is the tendency of the Church Fathers and the larger Christian theological tradition to think in terms of divine simplicity. Hinlicky is basically incorrect as to the proper definition of divine simplicity. As Richard Muller points out, all divine simplicity actually means is that God is uncompounded. God isn't "made up" of any antecedent qualities. Goodness, holiness, and all his other qualities don't some how come together to form God. So, actually divine simplicity is really just a function divine aseity. Hinlicky claims that divine simplicity means that there is no differentiation or distinction in God (this is a common misunderstanding). Hence, (according to him) it rules out the Trinity or makes the divine ousia a 4th thing alongside the three persons. He sees the genesis of this sort of thinking in the Platonic philosophical tradition that sought to critique the Homeric pantheon by erasing any differentiating qualities of the gods. By doing this, one arrives at an essentially transcendent, unknowable, and undifferentiated God.

In contrast to all this, Hinlicky wants to talk about divine "complexity," wherein God is properly defined as a complex of love, manifested and actualized in the three persons of salvation history. The reality of the three persons is constituted by their action in salvation history, wherein they "anticipate" the fulfillment of their reality as it will be actualized at the eschaton (similar to Jenson). Hinlicky finds this way of thinking about the divine being present in the Gospel tradition and the other authors of the NT.

To make a long story short, early Christian thinkers tried to mix these two paradigms together. As a result, they developed an unstable mix and drifted towards subordinationalism (Origen is the best example of this). Of course, subordinationalism as Origen taught makes no sense. If Jesus is God and possess the fullness of the divine substance, then how could he at the same time be less than the Father? How can God be less than God? This unstable mix broke apart at Nicaea and created two exclusive position: Arius wanted a pure divine simplicity. If that was the case, then God had to be frozen in eternity, and therefore couldn't interact with reality. If he did, his transcendence and simplicity would be threatened by entering into the world of differentiation and mutability. By contrast, the Cappadocians understood God's reality as something as dynamic and living. The unity of the divine ousia could be found in the coherence, and unity of the life of the three persons, rather than an abstract, undifferentiated ousia beyond being.

For the most part I think that this account has much to offer. I have many criticism of it historically, but I'll bracket those for the moment. Theologically, I find the argument a bit cliched. Much of modern theology with its Hegelian metaphysics attacks classical theological categories like "simplicity," "immutability," and so-forth, simply because they don't allow for a certain kind of divine imminence in history. This sort of thinking usually results in a God who evolves himself through the means of the historical process.

The problem with this is several fold. First, for all the complaining about Greek metaphysics as all these theologians do (Jenson, Braaten, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jungel, etc.), their main modus operendi is to simply replace Greek metaphysics with German Idealist ones. Their metaphysics have as little to do with the metaphysical presuppositions of the Bible as those of Pseudo-Dionysius. Secondly, as David Bentley Hart has noted, making salvation history about divine self-development actually makes God deeply selfish and therefore is contrary to picture of God in the Bible. If God is immutable, and contains every possibility within himself already, then creation and redemption are pure gratuity. They exist because God gracious wants them to exist . God doesn't need them as a means of self-development. If you say that God does need them for this purpose, not only does creation somehow offer possibilities which God doesn't have (an odd claim!), you also posit that God made the world for his personal self-development. Hence, the world exists not out of grace, but to help God achieve his egocentric goals.

A better critique of Arius and Plato, and the entire tradition of Platonic metaphysics can actually be had through the lens of law-gospel. This does not mean abandoning divine simplicity and immutability, but rather rejecting the Platonic interpretation of these divine attributes.

Plato wanted God or "the Good" to be frozen because he wanted the law to be stable. In a word, the Sophists made a mess of public morality, claiming anything was a true because good rhetoric made it so. Plato wanted to say "no, the Good is stable. It doesn't change based on rhetoric." Hence, God is law and he can't be anything else. For human beings, this is an attractive proposition. If God is only law, and he must obey the law. He can then be controlled by the law. Similarly, Arius did not want to compromise the law either. He taught that Jesus saved because he was a good model. He showed how creatures could achieve salvation by corresponding to the law. Hence, if God was not an utterly static being and could in fact change his relationship to creation, then the law would be disrupted and so would the possibility of human salvation through it.

Though Athanasius did not reject God's immutability, he did insist that God could change his relationship to his creatures. Hence, God was not only law, but also gospel. God come change his relationship with his fallen creatures by becoming incarnate and redeeming. In doing this, he overcame the dark powers of the old creation. This ability to engage in self-giving was rooted in God's own Trinitarian life. God was by nature, according to Athanasius and the Cappadocians, self-donating and communicating. Just as God communicated himself in the procession and begetting of the Trinity, so he communicated his glory to humanity through Jesus. Hence, God's immutability was more to be identified with the infinity and constancy of his life (fire not ice!). God possesses all and can give all in his act of self-communication. Hence, creation and redemption can be purely gratious. They give nothing to God- he is free within himself to act according to his grace.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Reclaim Hymnal: Now That's What I Mean By Conditional Absolution!!!

A friend of mine who is interested in the topic of public absolution and has studied the topic's history, sent me the two formulas of absolution that we find the "Reclaim" hymnal (this is connected with the WordAlone movement in the ELCA, but not technically produced by them). It is my understanding that they wanted the later to be the only option, but because of reasons of marketability, they had to include the former as well. I cite them here:

Version 1

"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on you, and has given his only Son to die for you, and for his sake forgives you all your sins. Scripture declares: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not, shall not see life. Therefore God continues to call the unbelieving to turn from their impenitence while it is day, and come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. For to all who receive him and who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God, and bestows on them the Holy Spirit. All who believe and are baptized will be saved."


Notice this is not really that different than the Wittenberg 1559 absolution that was cited below. Interestingly enough, it emphasizes faith more, but it's not too bad. Again, my preference is that there be no mention of faith, since faith will be created by the proclamation of forgiveness. It's not like if you don't mention faith people will say later "oh man! I forgot to have faith! I guess it didn't work!" But again, there's nothing wrong with mentioning faith. Just as long as it's not spoken of as something we do to get the forgiveness.


Version 2
"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on you and has given his only Son to die for you, and for his sake forgives you all your sins. To all who believe in Jesus Christ he gives the power to become children of God and bestows on you his Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I declare to the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as you continue in your impenitence, God has not forgiven your sins, and will surely visit your iniquities upon you if you do not turn from your sinful ways and come to repentance and faith in Christ before the day of grace is ended."


Now that's what I mean by conditional absolution!

My friend comments:


"Isn't that 2nd one just plain, distilled awesome? It sounds like the pastor is saying that "God forgives you, but I declare that you're probably screwed." I'm sure the proper purpose of an absolution is to scare people senseless, wondering exactly when the day of grace is ending so they have time to get themselves together."


My friend also notes that the ELCA theologian that I was interacting with is not correct about the conditional nature of absolution in the public setting in earlier Lutheran liturgies:

"So, basically, [name omitted] is wrong (or at least incomplete) when he says the order is always the same--public condition, private unconditional. In at least some cases, the more pietistic side had a confession w/ no absolution. But note also that the common "conditional" absolution simply mentions faith. It doesn't turn around and say "damned if you don't." That sort of condition is nowhere to be found. Instead, this just says in blanket fashion, "for his sake forgives us all our sins," then mentions belief."


In reviewing the relationship of the Reclaim hymnal to earlier Lutheran liturgies (of even a Pietistic variety) my friend concludes:


"Notably, there's NOTHING that looks like the hyper-conditional absolution the Reclaim hymnal wants to go with. Some [Pietists] didn't use one at all, but I don't find an example of, "Those who do not believe are damned" in an absolution for Sunday mornings among the Scandinavians (or anyone else who followed the Common Service). Doesn't mean nobody used it, but it wasn't in their major hymnals [those which he has examined]. The Reclaim crew had to kind of make one of those up."


Update 1: Yesterday, I mentioned that I couldn't find any formula of public absolution in Luther's Wittenberg Mass. Someone posted this formula of absolution given by Luther in the wake of the Nuremberg controversy. Notice it is unconditional:

"Dear friends, because we are all mortal, not being certain of the hour of [our] death, humble yourselves before God, [and] confess in your hearts that all we poor sinners have need of His grace and forgiveness at every moment. And in case God today or tomorrow should call any one of you from this vale of tears, I, as a pastor (preacher) by His mandate, pronounce all of you who are present and hear God’s Word, and who with true repentance for your sin believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, free from all [your] sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Go in peace, whether to live or to die."


Update 2: Someone just wrote me and informed me that there has in the later editions of the hymnal been added a unconditional formula of absolution.

Update 3: Gregory, a frequent reader, offered the source of the Reclaim hymnal's formula of absolution:

"Service book and hymnal p.252 The Order for Public confession for a specially appointed preparatory Service. 
"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, hath had mercy upon us, and for the sake of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of his dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, forgiveth us all our sins. As a Minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you who do truly repent and believe in him, the entire forgiveness of all your sins: In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The Rubrics then add: Here the Minister may also say: On theother hand, by the same authority, I declare unto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not forgiven their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquiteis upon them, if they turn not from their evil ways, and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended."


Hence, it would appear my friend is mistaken.  It does have prior existence to the hymnal.  The theological point I made still stands.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ELCA Theologian Responds to My Post on Unconditional Absolution.

I generally received positive responses to my post on unconditional absolution. I nevertheless received one negative response from one ELCA theologian who advocates conditional absolution. I wrote him and asked him if I could use his name and respond to his piece. He has not responded to me. For this reason, I have decided to post his response in an edited form so as to not reveal his identity.


I will respond to this statement in the form of a running commentary:


"Someone sent a copy of your blog on, I think was May 15th, concerning something you call "The Divine Service" absolution and Osiander."

It's interesting that he puts "Divine Service" in quotes. For my LCMS audience, it should be born in mind that ELCA people do not call church services the "Divine Service." I suspect he might be unaware that this is our practice.

(To summarize his statement here, without revealing any names, he then tells me that I have all the facts wrongs and that he's going to set things straight. He then comments on how his opponent (an ELCA pastor who reads my blog) believes in unconditional absolution. His opponents holds that conditional absolution is legalistic and pelagian. He then moves to his historical counter argument.)


"The only prominent figure in the Lutheran Reformation who argued that an absolution had to be unconditional was Andreas Osiander. The historian Ronald Rittgers, who has a fine study on these matters from which I learned much, calls this point of view “extreme absolutionism.” But even Osiander would have not agreement with your position. For Osiander confession had to be private. Public confession and absolution was for him illegitimate."


First, every study that I've read on Osiander says the opposite. Also, if Osiander was advocating absolute and unconditional absolution, then why did he want confession to only be private? In other words, if one unconditionally absolves people, then why can't you do that in public? Furthermore, Luther's letters to the Nuremberg town councils say the very opposite thing: Osiander didn't believe in unconditional absolution- that's why he thought it could only be private!


"He was at odds with the city fathers of Nuremberg over this. They banned private confession because they believed, and experienced to an extent, that the exercise of the keys by an independent clergy in private over individuals had the potential to be seditious."



That's a possible motivation, I have no way to judge that. All I have is Luther and Melancthon's letters.


"So confession and absolution in preparation for communion was made part of the public act of worship, the liturgy being approved by the city council. In the public order, the absolution was conditional because they knew that the imperatives of repentance and faith could not be assured at a public gathering. The dispute went on for quite a while. Luther and Melanchthon weighed in in a jointly written letter, taking the side of the city council. Nuremberg was somewhat of an exception. 50 Lutheran territories mandated by law private confession; the forms of absolution being unconditional."


Notice that he doesn't give examples of what constitutes "conditional absolution." We'll see below that his evidence is not very strong. Again, my point was merely about what Luther says and not what the city council said or did. What Luther clearly says is that there should be public and unconditional absolution. Luther's point was that the Word was effective, even if many did not believe the public proclamation of forgiveness!


Also, saying that private confession and absolution were maintained in other cities is besides the point. First, it dosen't automatically make it a good practice or in keeping with what Luther wanted and believed. Secondly , it is a red herring. Advocating private confession and absolution is not the same as saying that we should have conditional public absolution. I think having private confession and absolution is a wonderful practice!!! I think it's rather unfortunate that it's fallen out of use and I greatly appreciate those Lutheran pastors in the LCMS and elsewhere who have revived it. The issue is: should we try to somehow scare people into faith or more repentant "feelings" by making public absolution conditional. The answer is no! If we believe in the bondage of the will, then scaring people with conditional absolution won't lead to real faith or repentance.


Furthermore, the exercise of the keys is necessary and should be advocated strongly. If you read Matthew 18 and read Luther's take on these things, the primary goal of the exercise of the keys is to let people who are abusing their Christian freedom know that God is not mocked and that living in mortal sin is faith-destroying. In other words, the goal is to bring people to repentance who are already in a state of mortal sin, yet remain in the Christian community.


Secondly, the binding of sin is not an act that should begin in public, and therefore should not be part of the public liturgy of the Word. As Jesus states in Matthew 18, this should occur on a one-on-one basis. Later, when the Church disciplines those who reject the private admonition to repent, it can become public. Hence, the Divine Service should not be the arena where the binding of sins is to be initiated and therefore the public absolution should not be used to do this by placing conditions on it. That should happen within private confession and absolution first, before it becomes a matter of public church discipline("then tell it to the Church" and all that).



"This begins [public conditional absolution] with Luther in 1524 when he rejects the radical worship practices introduced by Karlstadt. As public orders began to appear, the uniform Lutheran practice was to make the absolution conditional. Here is an example of a conditional absolution for a public order from Wittenberg in 1559:


Therefore to all such as are here present with a penitent and believing spirit, who turn themselves to God and fear his anger at their sins, who believe that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, and who earnestly resolve to die unto sin, to all such I proclaim the forgiveness of their sins according to the word of the Lord: Whosesoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them. Therefore, according to the command of Christ, I pronounce to you this forgiveness, that your sins are pardoned for the sake of Jesus Christ. And of this voice of the Gospel you ought to accept, and enjoy true comfort in Christ, and walk faithfully and obediently before God, having a good conscience."



But this isn't something what Luther wrote, so why is being quoted to prove his position? Again, what I was writing about was Luther's position and not Church-practice 13 years after he died. In fact, as far as I can tell (I am not a liturgical scholar, so someone can correct me if I'm wrong!), Luther's original German mass simply assumes the continuation of private absolution, so it lacks a public absolution- conditional or otherwise!


Secondly, I don't know if I would really characterize this as conditional absolution. Yes, it presupposes faith is necessary to receive the general absolution, but that's a little bit different from what I mean when I reject conditional absolution. What I mean is when the minister tells his congregation "if you believe, then you will have forgiveness" or when he says "although I just gave absolution, if you weren't really penitent or had faith in what I said, then it didn't work" (this is more or less what Norwegian Pietist liturgies say!). This is the transformation of gospel into law. Law of course should be proclaimed- but gospel should not be transformed into law! All this liturgy says when it mentions faith and penitence is "receivers now receive!"


"Even where private confession was mandated, the public service with communion uniformly included an exhortation to communicants, warning them about repentance and faith. Here is Luther’s own version from 1525. Remember now, this is official liturgical language:


Dearest Friends in Christ: You know that our Lord Jesus Christ, out of unspeakable love, instituted at the last this his Supper as a memorial and proclamation of his death suffered for our sins. This commemoration requires a firm faith to make the heart and conscience of everyone who wants to use and partake of this Supper sure and certain that Christ has suffered death for all his sins. But whoever doubts and does not in some manner feel such faith should know that the Supper is of no avail to him, but will rather be to his hurt, and he should stay away from it. And since we cannot see such faith, and it is known only to God, we leave it to the conscience of him who comes and admit him who requests and desires it. But those who cling to open sins, such as greed, hatred, envy, profiteering, unchastity, and the like and are not minded to renounce them, shall herewith be barred and be warned faithfully not to come lest they incur judgment and damnation for their souls as St. Paul says [I Cor. 11:29]. If however someone has fallen because of weakness and proves by his acts that he earnestly desires to better himself, this grace and communion of the body and blood of Christ shall not be denied to him. In this fashion each must judge himself and look out for himself. For God is not mocked [Gal. 6:7], nor will he give that which is holy unto the dogs or cast pearls before swine [Matt. 7:6]."



Again, a red herring- Holy Communion is very, very different than public absolution. But this is not a surprising red herring. ELCA folks typically do not understand the distinction between general absolution and Holy Communion. That's why they practice what might properly be referred to not as "open Communion" but "indiscriminate Communion." In other words, when I've brought up the issue of closed Communion to ELCA folks they typically get really, really angry and say: "well, you just think that we have to be holy to receive Christ! But Christ's forgiveness is for sinners!!!" When I was in seminary, I had classmates who in this spirit, actually advocated communing the unbaptized- because hey, they need forgiveness as well!!



This misses the function of Holy Communion within the Christian life and why it is different than absolution or baptism.


In a word, there is a single mystery of faith (Christ and his benefits), but our relationship to that mystery differs depending on our faith and baptism. Jesus and the New Testament authors are clear that baptism and the proclamation of the Word of absolution both give faith and sustain faith. This is different than the Lord's Supper. To summarize Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: the Lord's Supper sustains faith that already exists, it does not create it. Hence, Christ commands baptism and proclamation extend to "every living creature." Sometimes the Word will harden, sometimes it will create faith- but one need not have faith prior to baptism or the the hearing of the gospel for it to be effective. Both have the possibility of creating faith, and not merely sustaining it.


Nevertheless, Jesus only instituted the Lord's Supper after the Disciples had already had faith. Similarly, Paul states that those who come to the table without a faith to be sustained don't receive forgiveness, but are condemned. In other words, unlike baptism and proclamation, faith will simply not be worked in those who receive Communion without it. Instead, condemnation will result. Hence, it's important to keep those away from Communion who don't have faith.


It's also true that a person (let's say a non-Lutheran Christian) can have faith in Christ and be saved, and through what Pieper called "falicitious inconsistency" have a wrong understanding of Communion. Hence, they should be kept away since they do not believe the promises and will therefore be condemned. It doesn't mean that they're not justified and absolved or that the pastor should have placed conditions on their absolution when he spoke them earlier in the Divine Service. To benefit from Communion, one must trust not only in Jesus' promise of the forgiveness of sin, but that he is substantially present ("discerning the body and blood").



Therefore, a eucharistic exhortation has nothing to do with the question of public absolution. If people don't believe (either that they are sinners or that Jesus is present), they should be kept away for their own good. This does not mean that they haven't previously received the public absolution or that giving unconditional absolution was in some way dangerous.



(Here he strongly attacks his opponent and admits that his own position might be characterized as Pietistic. But that's not a bad thing, he seems to say. He then talks about older American hymnals, which I am not competant to discuss and asks if anyone can really counter his argument. He seems to think not).
In summation, the question cannot be a purely historical one. The early Lutheran fathers were not infallible, neither did they claim to be. In any case, I think I've shown that his historical arguments have some significant holes in them and that conditional absolution (at least as he is advocating it) is not supported by his historical citations he offers.


Ultimaely, this is a theological question and not a historical one. The theological qusetion is this: Do people benefit when the subject of the verb in absolution is changed from Christ to themselves? The answer is no, because it gives the impression that we are absolved because of something we do. Secondly, is there a danger in publically telling people that they are forgiven? No, because if people believe it, then it is so! No one will accidentally believe it!


There of course is the possibility that many will simply use it to justify their continued wicked behavior or will reject the Word outright. This is where the power of the keys and the binding of sins comes in. Nevertheless, the creation of conditions for absolution will not reverse or prevent this. God works through his Word as he chooses. It is not up to us to somehow make his Word have a better effect by transforming it from gospel into law. Similarly, by witholding the unconditionality of the public word of absolution, we risk destroying the possibility that living faith will be created and/or sustained. This is different from warning people about the Lord's Supper, where as we know, unbelief will automatically result in condemnation.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Did Anyone Listen to the Scaer Resurrection Debate?

I listened to part of it. I really like Scaer as a theologian and a biblical exegete (and that was long before he asked me to speak at Ft. Wayne!). I just felt like there were a bunch of points he should of made that he didn't. But maybe he did make those points and I didn't hear them. Most of all, I wanted him to point out that there are clear proofs that the empty tomb narratives aren't made up (i.e. women at the tomb, etc.) and that the Gospels are written in a historical genre (actually most scholars I've read describe them as being written in the form of the philosophical biography common in the Hellenistic world known as the "Bios"). Therefore comparing them to cultic myth of a dying and rising god (like James Fraiser and Wilhelm Bosset) isn't really appropriate. Also, the guy they got to debate him is a bit of a joke. His other scholarly endeavor (beyond using outdated rationalist arguments against the NT witness) is a H.P. Lovecraft scholar. He apparently edits a journal called "Cthulhu's Crypt" or something like that.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Should Absolution be Unconditional?

This is a topic which I've actually meant to blog on for a while.  It touches on the big blow up last summer over objective justification.  It also touches on debates people are having in the LCMS and (believe it or not) some of the ELCA break-0ff micro-synods.

The question regards the whether or not absolution in the Divine Service should be given unconditionally.  The opponents of this practice argue that because absolution is not valid unless it is received with faith and repentance, conditional absolution should be the practice in the Divine Service.  In other words, a sentence or two should be added to the absolution that states that you really, really have to be repentant and have faith to receive the absolution just given.  This is, I guess, presumably to inform people that they really shouldn't believe that they just received absolution unless they really felt bad about their sins and really had faith.  Presumably telling them this will somehow produce these attitudes and feelings in them.  This is, a little bit odd, insofar as historic Lutheranism has always taught that we receive absolution by believing it.  So how could someone falsely believe the word of absolution?  Perhaps I'm just reading the intention here incorrectly, but that seems to be the implication.  

Allow me to make two points about this, one historical and the other theological.

1. First, this question of public and unconditional absolution actually goes back to the early Lutheran Reformation and so we do have Luther's opinion on the subject.  He writes:

"Even he who does not believe that he is free and his sins forgiven shall also learn, in due time, how assuredly his sins were forgiven, even though he did not believe it … He who does not accept what the keys give receives, of course, nothing. But that is not the key’s fault. Many do not believe the gospel, but this does not mean that the gospel is not true or effective. A king gives you a castle. If you do not accept it, then it is not the king’s fault, nor is he guilty of a lie. But you have deceived yourself and the fault is yours. The king certainly gave it." (AE 40:366-7).


The occasion of this opinion was a controversy that broke out in the Church of Nuremberg where Andreas Osiander of later "mystical indwelling is justification" fame was pastor.  Osiander insisted that unconditional public absolution shouldn't be given.  Instead, he favored private absolution almost exclusively.  Why?  Because Osiander claimed that he couldn't be certain if he was wrongly absolving people.  If people lacked the right mental attitude of repentance, then they wouldn't actually be receiving forgiveness and therefore when he absolved them, he would be saying something false.  Most early Lutheran liturgies actually agreed in some sense with Osiander on this point.  Likewise, later in Lutheran history, the Pietists actually took the same attitude and so many early (and some later) liturgies of North American Lutheranism only allow for a conditional public absolution.

As we know, Osiander later rejected the doctrine of purely forensic justification.  As new research has demonstrated, the reason for this was his doctrine of Christ.  Whereas he assumed with Luther that only God could oppose his own wrath with an infinite and eternal righteousness, he nonetheless rejected the communication of the divine attributes to the human nature.  What was the effect?  On the one hand, Christ had rendered satisfaction according to his human nature alone.  This forgave sins, but was insufficient to satisfy God's infinite righteousness.  Humans had to be mystically indwelt with infinite divine righteousness in order stand as righteous before God. By contrast, Luther (and later Flacius) taught that Christ fulfilled the law as a divine person through his human nature, making his righteousness and satisfaction of the law divinely effective through his human nature.  In other words, the "forensic" fulfillment of the law through Christ's obedience to the Father and death on the cross was also "effective" insofar as it was infused with divine power so that his "blood cleanses from all sin."

This has a direct implications for Church practice.  Just as God does not do his justifying work apart from Christ's human nature and therefore his human activity (active and passive righteousness), so too he doesn't do his work of justifying the sinner apart from the concrete preached, forensic word "I absolve you."  The indwelling of God and the creation of faith therefore happened through the forensic word.  Forensic justification was effective also. 

For Osiander by contrast, God was not active through the preach Word and therefore the spiritual union that really justified the sinner was available for the sinner due to their internal attitude prior to or perhaps alongside the forensic word.  Just as Christ two natures were divided, the forensic and effective nature of the gospel were as well.  This too was also true in the case for Pietism, which talked about whipping one's self up into a repentant frenzy so that one might receive the Spirit apart from the Word and in fact be ready to rightly receive the Word.

Hence, in keeping with his claim that God is deep within the Word and the sacrament, just like he is deep in the flesh of Christ (genus maiestaticum), Luther took a very different stance towards the practice than did Osiander.  When asked by Osiander's congregants what they thought, Luther and Melanchthon both insisted that unconditional and public absolution should be given.  Why?  Because the Word of God is effective, it does what it says!  God of course hardens some and works repentance and faith in some, but it is all his prerogative.  By placing conditions on absolution, one simply shifts the emphasis from the objectivity of God's work to the subjectivity of the sinner's mental attitude.  The question that the believer would begin to ask would be: "have I really had faith and repented?" and not "what has God done pro me?" 

2.  This leads into the general theological point.  If, as Luther tells us, humans are passive before God's activity in Word and sacrament, we must preach and absolve under the presupposition of bondage.  If we do not preach under the assumption of bondage, then we will begin to think about humans as free subjects and begin to worry about what free subjects will do with the Word.  Secondly, we will begin to view God's Word as mere information and think that humans can in some way undermine or enhance its effect by adding something to it.  Hence, the fear that people wouldn't "really repent" without a conditional absolution is groundless.  God's work is always effective.  The word of absolution is a word of both law and gospel.  It reveals sin, insofar as absolution presupposes sin.  It also gives a unilateral promise and creates faith.  If people do not believe either the word of law or gospel, then the word will simply harden them and it will be effective in that manner.  This is God's own prerogative to do.  The preacher cannot control the word or preempt hardening by placing a conditions on the word.  He can of course distort the word by reversing who is the subject of the verb.  Instead of "Christ absolves you" (Chris is the subject of the verb!), he states "if you repent and believe, then Christ absolves you" (the believer as the subject!).  Hence the word of the gospel is rendered as a word of pure law.

One last point.

A note of this in relationship to the debate on the issue of objective justification.  Luther states that all theology is just an intellectual clarification of what we're doing when we preach.  This does not mean that theological doctrines are not propositionally true.  Nevertheless, as propositionally true, they are inherently uninteresting as abstractions.  They are only interesting insofar as they are also regulatory of Church practice, i.e., the proclamation of the Word of God.  Hence, the position of those who reject objective justification is ironic and strange for several reasons.  

A. Those who reject objective justification talk constantly of the effectiveness of the Word of God.  But, their main worry about objective justification assumes the ineffectiveness of the Word.  In other words, they claim that because people in American Lutheranism believe in God's universally valid and unconditional forgiveness, then they behave badly and think that they don't have to be afraid of divine judgment, repent, and obey the law.  Apparently the goal of the preacher should be to scare people by placing conditions on absolution so they'll behave better?  Again, this all presupposes a need for a better mental attitude on the part of hearers of the Word to make the Word effective. In other words, they talk a good game regarding the effectiveness of the Word, but in practice they don't really believe in it.   

B.  They constantly accuse their opponents of being secret Pietists.  But ironically, their own doctrinal proposals (that there is only subjective justification) presupposes a Church practice of Pietism.  In other words, in terms of regulation of Church practice, the doctrine of objective justification stands as the basis of the minister's public, unconditional absolution of sinners.  Since God has already eternally said such a thing in the cross and empty tomb, then the minister's practice of giving public unconditional absolution makes sense.  His own giving of absolution isn't somehow an echo of God's absolution, but is the means and channel through which God renders such a judgment present and effective in time.  Without the former, the later makes no sense and is rendered meaningless.  

C. Their critique of the doctrine of objective justification is hollow also insofar as it fails to recognize what I pointed out regarding the dual effectiveness of the word of absolution.  A universal and absolute pronouncement of forgiveness is condemnation against those who reject it.  As Luther remarks in the John commentaries, there is only one sin in the whole world and that's rejecting the universal and unconditional word of divine absolution present in Christ.  This is true especially when that Word is pronounced in the Divine Service.  The word of absolution condemns as it absolves insofar as it reveals sin.  It also condemns those who reject it.  This is why in Revelation, that which the begins the eschatological judgment is the book with the seven seals.  A book with seven seals is a book of a last will and testament in the first century.  This is what Jesus, Paul, and Hebrews say the gospel is.  So, what's really happening is that the word of the testament is going out and redeeming the Church, while judging those who reject it.  It is a word that is at the same time law and promise.  It both redeems and condemns.  It kills and makes alive.  After all, God's grace never comes without judgment.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Franz Posset Book.

I finished reading the Franz Posset book the other week. Posset (if you don't know) is a German Catholic who came to the US and studied at Marquette for his Ph.D- meaning we have something in common! I think Posset is a fine scholar and I was pleased to see Concordia publish him. I'm going to write a larger review of for LOGIA (along with his book Pater Bernhadus, which I used for an article I just finished), but I'll give a preliminary report here.

First, I liked the book's general approach to the sources and to understanding Luther. The difficulty with much Luther research has been the long hangover from the Luther Renaissance. The chief weakness of the Luther Renaissance (methodologically speaking) is the location of the origin of the Lutheran Reformation in a series of isolated psychological experiences that Luther had. This is a holdover from the Romantic theory of "Genius" and Schleiermacher's concept of religious experience. Rather, Posset seeks the origin of the Reformation in Luther's monastic-humanistic culture. Luther's concept of scriptural study is highly monastic (oratio, meditatio, tentatio). Similarly, the origin of the indulgence controversy is probably to be found in conflicts between the Dominicans and the Augustinians in religious practice (earlier Staupitz had prompted Luther to write against the rosary promoted by the Dominicans). He also helpfully observes that in entering the monastery, it is unlikely that Luther's only goal was the mortification of the flesh. The pursue of humanistic learning was also important. The Augustinians were known for humanistic learning. Luther brought books with him into the monastery. If mortification had been his sole purpose, there where were other groups of monks/friars in the area that were more into the mortification of the flesh.

I do nevertheless have some problems with some of Posset's methodological decisions. Posset isn't willing to put stock in the Table Talk at all unless verified by a citations from a authentic work of Luther. I think this is a little over the top. Hence, he wouldn't put any stock in the story Luther tells of getting caught in the storm and making a vow to St. Anne. I again, agree that the Table Talk isn't 100% reliable and at times it's very dishonest. Nonetheless, I think that his criterion is too strict. For one thing, it's hard to see why a later Lutheran would make this up and insert this story into Luther's mouth. Also, it's difficult to see why Luther would all of a sudden magically enter the monastery to his family's surprise without having an experience like this. Posset notes that there was a plague in Erfurt (which probably explains why Luther left and went to see his parents), but it doesn't totally explain the transformation. I personally think if you combine the two factors, and then observe that Luther was like many people in the later Middle Ages worried about the end of the world, then it's a coherent historical explanation.

Of course, discounting this story and generally downplaying the spiritual distress that Luther felt in favor of a model where Luther is really the champion of reviving an earlier monastic spiritulity is really part of a covert theological agenda. Ultimately Posset wants to smooth down the break between Luther and Medieval Catholicism so as to make room for ecumenical appreciation and reunification. In fact, it's not all that covert because he outright says that's part of his goal! Luther comes off in his study as strangely well adjusted (compared with his own reckoning years later!). Luther is Friar with a little bit of a bad conscience (sort of) and who loves humanistic learning and spiritual authors. Again, trying to avoid one ditch (Luther Renaissance) he's fallen into the other. Luther's spiritual experience cannot be isolated as the basis of the Reformation, but neither can it be discounted.

As part of this agenda, he (in my opinion) also overemphasizes the influence of Bernard of Clauirvaux on Luther. He claims that Bernard was even more influential than Augustine on the Reformer. Having both read some of his articles on the subject and his book, I'm not all that convinced. Much of the similarity he sees between Bernard and Luther are things they share from the common stream of monastic spirituality and Augustinianism. Similarity is not influence, which is terribly hard to demonstrate. The best he can really do is show similarity and make reference to Melanchthon's biography and a few references in Luther's works.

Even more, he doesn't get justification by faith and why it's different than justification by grace. His entire ecumenical pitch is in fact based on a confusion of the two and his lack of understanding as to why Luther is so utterly different than Bernard. For this reason, he seems to me to fall into the category of those Catholic Luther scholars who have a high view of Luther, but don't really understand him and therefore have a naive idea that they are showing how the difference between us and the Church of Rome are trivial- when they're not! In this category I would place Pesch, Wicks, and Bell.

In spite of this, overall, the book was fully of many fine insights and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

2012 Ft. Wayne Symposium of the Lutheran Confessions.

I just got the news from Dr. David Scaer that I will be one of the presenters at the annual Ft. Wayne Symposium of the Lutheran Confessions (Jan. 18-19, 2012). Hopefully I'll see some of you there!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Osama Bin Laden's Death and the Imprecatory Psalms.

There's been a lot of bruh ha-ha on the interweb recently about Bin Ladin's death and whether or not Christians it should be pleased by it. So, I thought I would put in my two-cents on the matter.

Couple of thoughts.

First, wanting revenge is bad. Not only does Jesus says so, but I think it's fairly clear that the whole Bible is on his side (that's for those who think that Jesus came to give a new and nicer law!). David certainly doesn't take revenge against Saul, even though he has opportunity to do so. Even "eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth" has to do with the working of civil government. God properly speaking is the only one can engage in retribution ("vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay"). This is because violations of justice are violation of his person as the Lord of creation. He gives justice's execution over to human agents (as in Genesis 9, where civil government is established), but this isn't revenge, but rather justice.

Justice is different than revenge because it represents the maintenance of order and the balancing of accounts. When it's done best, it generally speaking has nothing to do with the vendetta of the person executing it. Revenge is bad because it assumes self-justification, which is in fact the original sin. That's why Jesus says it's out. Not because he was a pacifist (he himself used violence in the Temple- remember!), but because taking revenge assumes that you are righteous and therefore injury to your person is worthy of payback. In other words, taking revenge assumes that you're owed something (rather than the God's own order of justice), when you're not. Properly speaking, only God's justice is owed something and therefore thinking that we are makes us into God.

The distinction between justice and revenge is an extremely important one and one which is often overlooked in our society. Liberal Protestants (and some Catholics) often appeal to Jesus' call to forgive enemies. This generally precludes wars they don't like. Then they forget all about it when there are wars that they do like.

This brings us to my second point: there's nothing wrong therefore with people wanting justice to be done. So being happy that Bin Laden was finally hunted down so that he can't kill innocent people anymore isn't bad at all. Neither would it have been bad to pray for that. It would be wrong to wish revenge on him. I think some (by which I mean a lot!) people felt that way (I wasn't one of them) and that was wrong and sinful.

When we move from the civil order to the realm of the order of the Church, I think we find the same thing. If salvation happens, it has to happen with judgment. That's why we have imprecatory Psalms. David wishes salvation and prays for it. If salvation happens, God has to judge the evil reality or persons (Pharaoh, Satan, etc.) that are preventing that salvation from occurring. There are other examples of this in Scripture- for example the cry of the souls under the altar in Revelation that ask for divine justice for the martyrs. So, the when the Church prays for salvation, it must also pray for the judgment of its enemies. There's no getting around this. This happened with both Egypt and Babylon in the Old Testament, as it will happen at the end of time for Babylon the Great (that is, the universal human society of the unbelievers).

Furthermore, that God's salvation comes with judgment does not mean that we ourselves escape judgment. The Church is merely the place where judgment as already taken place and the new creation has emerged. This judgment occurred on the cross and we participate in that judgment when we die and rise with Christ in the waters of baptism. Through this we have already moved beyond judgment. But let us be clear: our salvation only came with judgment and we were bought with a price.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Link to Radio Interview.

Here's the interview. Bear in mind I thought I stumbled a few times. But hey, it was my first radio interview:

http://www.kfuo.org/TT_Main.htm

Monday, May 2, 2011

I'm going to be on KFUO today at 4:00 Central.

I'm going to be interviewed on KFUO radio at 4:00 central about the doctrine of election. Apparently one of my recent posts on Paulson and Rob Bell caught someone's eye over there and we're going to do an interview. If you're interested in the subject, it might be worth listening to. We'll see how well I do!