Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Reformation Day, 1917

"I still remember that cloudy, misty Autumn morning in northern Germany. The Divine Service in the open air would be for many of those present their last celebration of holy communion. Straight after the celebration, we were plunged into one of the bloodiest battles of Flanders...Surely that Jubilee deserved something better. But with it there arose a new appreciation of the central article of faith of the Lutheran Reformation. It is as though the tremendous gravity of war, the encounter with death and the experience of God's judgment that it brought, were needed for modern man to grasp again the message of the Reformation: the justification of the ungodly by faith alone."
From The Message of the Reformation in Changing Times, a talk given by Hermann Sasse in Erlangen, Germany on 10th November, 1942.

Sasse is writing in 1942, reminiscing about Reformation Day, 1917, the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. 
There were three great battles in Flanders during WW1; Sasse is referring to what is known to English speakers as The Battle of Passchendaele, which concluded in early November, 1917 with half a million casualties on both sides. During this battle, Sasse, a sergeant in the German infantry, earned the Iron Cross (2nd Class), the second highest battle honour in Germany at the time. Since soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) were heavily involved at Passchendaele, it is possible that Sasse saw action against his future countrymen. Today - 11th November - is observed as Remembrance Day among the the British Commonwealth of nations, marking the end of World War I and remembering with thanksgiving those who served - among whom I number two great uncles. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Original Sin is Foolishness To Men

"Original sin is foolishness to men, but it is admitted to be such. You must not then reproach me for the want of reason in this doctrine, since I admit it to be without reason. But this foolishness is wiser than all the wisdom of men, sapientius est hominibus. For without this, what can we say that man is? His whole state depends on this imperceptible point. And how should it be perceived by his reason, since it is a thing against reason, and since reason, far from finding it out by her own ways, is averse to it when it is presented to her?"

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #445

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Did Luther Intentionally Post the '95 Theses' on All Hallows Eve?

Did Luther intentionally post the '95 Theses' to the church door in Wittenberg on the eve of All Hallows (a.k.a. All Saints), or was it a happy coincidence? I suspect it was intentional as that was a spiritually charged date in the church calendar, a fact Luther would have been all too aware of (not to mention that the Schlosskirche was dedicated to All Hallows, which, combined with its extensive collection of relics, would have had the town humming with visitors that day). All Hallow's Eve marked beginning of Allhallowtide, a three day festival period in the medieval church which, by the late middle ages, had come to be swathed in superstition. These superstitions arose from the practice of devoting this time to praying for, offering alms for, doing works of penance for and purchasing indulgences for the souls of the dead in Purgatory.

This focus on the dead led to the telling of ghost stories becoming a popular custom at this time. Ghosts were believed to be a visitation of the dead to this world to remind relatives of the need for prayers and other religious works to be offered for them - including, most importantly, the sacrificial work of the mass - so that their souls might obtain sufficient merit to pass from Purgatory to Heaven. While we may be temtped to consign these superstitions to the past, they in fact persist to this day in some Roman Catholic circles: a parishioner advised me in all seriousness that a Catholic relative received a phone call from her dead husband admonishing her for not having masses for the repose of his soul said! 

It was not for nothing, then, that Luther labelled "poltergeists" as the fifth in his list of abuses of the church of Rome which had thankfully been rooted out among the Evangelical churches (Exhortation to All Clergy Assembled at Augsburg, 1530, LW 34:54). Luther's rediscovery of the Gospel freed the church not only from the false doctrine of salvation by works (or faith + works) but also from these related sub-Christian superstitions and practices by which a fearful people were held in bondage to a false notion of the way of salvation. 

One does not suggest that the Roman hierarchy today approves of such superstitions, but it should be noted that the whole apparatus of Purgatory, including the efficacy of masses, alms, prayers and penitential works offered for the "poor souls" there, remains very much a part of Roman doctrine and practice (cf. 'Catechism of the Catholic Church', para. 1032). How all this co-exists after the much touted "breakthrough" of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which supposedly achieved "substantial agreement" on the doctrine at the heart of the Gospel, is something I've never received a clear answer to from either Lutheran or Catholic theologians who support it. The usual response is the admonishment to be patient for "Rome takes time to change". Rome change? Is she not rather semper eadem? Rome will never change what it erroneously regards as a part of the deposit of faith entrusted to her. In light of this, celebrations of Reformation Day are not out of date, but as relevant as ever - for the sake of the Gospel.  

Monday, 26 October 2015

Confession Means To Agree With God's Verdict: Guilty!

"Justification is both a problem and solution. Oswald Bayer has described human existence as forensically structured. That is to say, that life demands justification. Listen to the way people respond when confronted with a failure. It is the language of self-defense, rationalization, or blaming. No human being wants to be wrong. Or listen to the eulogies delivered at the memorial rites for unbelievers. They are, more often than not, attempts to vocalize why the deceased person’s life was worthwhile. They seek to justify his or her existence. If one is not justified by faith in Christ, one will seek justification elsewhere in attitude or action.
To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty."
John T. Pless, A Brief Introduction to Confession and Absolution
Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Revelation or 'Enlightened Common Sense'?

'The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it—as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.'
 C.S. Lewis, Priestesses  in the Church?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Contemporary Worship Is In Decline

"Contemporary worship is in decline. Some months ago T. David Gordon wrote a post entitled “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons” that continues to be widely read and shared. While I don’t agree with Gordon on every point, what he says gives us hope for the future of the worshiping church. Alongside his reasons, here are the three main reasons I see for the decline (if not demise) of the contemporary worship movement.
Baby boomers are losing their influence. Or, as Gordon more bluntly put it, “my own generation is beginning to die.” Your parents, not your kids, are the biggest proponents of contemporary worship. I’ve seen this in my own ministry. The most committed (and often the most obstinate) defenders of contemporary worship is rapidly becoming the older generation. While their influence remains in many places, it is waning. Within a few short years, contemporary worship will have lost its original impetus and driving force."

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Apologetic Power of Original Sin

In Christian theology the term 'mysteries of faith' is applied to truths which humankind could only attain knowledge of through revelation. For example, the chief mystery of the faith is the revelation that God is a triune being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other mysteries are creatio ex nihilo, the incarnation and the atonement. It is the mysteries of the faith which give Christianity its religious power, so to speak (see my definition of 'religion' below), making it so much more than the intellectual and/or moral idealism that inept churchmen have often reduced it to.  It is the apprehension of the mysteries through faith which can render a simple believer a better practical theologian than the professional equipped with a doctorate and which sustains martyrs in their time of trial.

While these mysteries can certainly be explicated by human reason, that is only after the fact of their revelation in holy scripture. Actually, one can concede that the human mind and heart could perceive aspects of the mysteries of faith apart from their revelation in scripture, as, for example, Aristotle postulated a first cause, an unmoved mover who must be responsible for creation. But such heights of apparently unaided perception of divine truth can only be attained because of the revelation of God in nature, including the human nous and psyche, and they remain limited.

One of the mysteries of faith is original sin. I think it was Chesterton who wrote that original sin is the mystery of the faith for which there is the most empirical evidence. The world and human nature are clearly not the way they should be. As creatures animated with souls we seek an explanation for that apprehension. Either God does not exist - the seemingly inexorable conclusion to which atheists like Stephen Fry have come in the face of human suffering at the hands of human and natural evil; or God exists but humankind has turned from him in some act which has brought about calamitous results in the created order.

It is the second belief, which is essentially the doctrine of original sin, that atheists like Stephen Fry - who is on my mind not because he is the best exemplar of the new atheism but simply because I saw an interview with him on the television at the weekend (from which comes the clip) - seem unaware of. His conclusion that the existence of God is inconsistent with the existence of evil does not account for original sin. That lacunae in his thinking may well be accounted for by the low stocks of the doctrine of original sin in much of contemporary Christian preaching and teaching. This, one suspects, is the case in the Church of England (at least outside of evangelical circles) which Fry would have been exposed to growing up. It is certainly so in much of  the broader Christian mainstream. I well remember listening to a radio interview c. 2000 with one of the leading clerics of the Anglican Church in Adelaide who opined that he couldn't believe in the doctrine of original sin - notwithstanding its presence in the Church of England's historic Articles of Religion - because it was "creepy" (I'll come back to this observation, which is more astute than the clergyman probably realised).

Presumably such preachers resort to a sort of Teilhardian evolutionary schema in which humankind is "falling upwards", beckoned by God towards a state of perfect union with him through spiritual exercises and devotion to good works (which in contemporary mainstream Christianity are often expressions of particular political beliefs). This dovetails nicely with the contemporary desire to be "spiritual but not religious" - as if one could have the spirituality without the religious doctrine! - and no doubt provides a welcome supplementary income stream for those who conduct workshops and retreats focusing on spirituality. But without a doctrine of original sin this version of Christianity is semi-Pelagian at best and neo-Gnostic at worst. Mere spirituality is not enough to save us from ourselves. Indeed. the realm of spirituality can be just as much subject to the twisted egocentricity that results from original sin as any other area of life.

It is extraordinary that large swathes of what was once Christendom should thus abandon a doctrine with such apologetic power, by which I mean the power to not just explain our predicament, but to enlighten us and set us on the path to redemption. Having been dismissed by liberal theology in the 19th century as primitive and opposed to the prevailing doctrine of the day, which was evolutionary progress, original sin enjoyed a brief  revival in mainstream Christianity in the first half of the 20th century thanks to the so-called neo-orthodoxy proposed by Karl Barth, who was reacting to the unspeakable horrors of  World War One. But by mid-century Barth's neo-orthodoxy had developed into a political theology of the Marxist Left, a dead end if ever there was one, not least because it neglects one of the fundamental and inescapable tenets of the belief in original sin - fallen humankind is not perfectible in this life.

To be continued...

Note on 'religion'
The term 'religion' and 'religious' are so much open to misunderstanding these days that some Christians think their use should be abandoned, at least in reference to Christianity, lest the uniqueness of the Christian revelation be seen to be put on the same level with the other world religions. I see their point but I disagree nevertheless, and for what it may be worth I offer here my reason for doing so. I use the terms religion and religious in what is perhaps their most ancient sense as far as the Latin term from which the English word is derived goes, and that is to denote the rule of one's life or the beliefs by which I am bound in living.

This understanding of the term, I think, has the virtue of not being an abstraction. It can also be applied to the various 'religious' beliefs of humankind without necessarily implying that Christianity is on the same level, so to speak, as other religions. The fact is that while religions are not all equally valid, all human beings are religious - even the tiny minority of Western educated atheists are obsessed with God and with what rule of life they should follow if he does not exist.          


Monday, 24 August 2015

Two Views of Tolerance

"Two Views of Tolerance
Under the traditional view of tolerance, two aspects were required: first, that you respected the right of the person or individual in question to hold his beliefs and voice his opinions; and second, that you had a right to disagree with those beliefs and contest them both privately and publicly. As D.A. Carson paraphrases it in The Intolerance of Tolerance, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You do not have to like the person with whom you disagree, but you do have to respect and tolerate his right to speak.
This conception entails tolerance toward the person while allowing intolerance toward beliefs. Since beliefs are abstract objects communicated through propositions in written or spoken language, they have no inherent dignity in themselves. It does them no harm or offense to disagree with them or offer a rebuttal. Disagreeing with or being intolerant of a belief, in this view, is fundamentally different from being intolerant or hateful toward the person who holds that belief. In other words, this definition is built on a clear and obvious distinction between a person and his beliefs.
The traditional understanding of tolerance reflects a certain epistemology: namely, that there is such a thing as truth, it can be known, and the best way to discover the truth is through debate, reflection, and investigation. The pursuit of truth requires mutual cooperation, serious consideration of opposing beliefs, and persuasion through the use of reason. Coercion, exclusion, slander, and threats of force have no place in the search for truth.
Over the course of the last century, however, the old view of tolerance has been slowly transformed. The emergent new tolerance holds that persons who are truly tolerant accept the views of others and treat these individuals fairly. The key distinction is that under the old tolerance, one would accept the existence of other views even while rejecting some views as false; but under the new tolerance, one accepts these other views. In other words, all views are seen as equally valid and true.
The new tolerance rejects “dogmatism and absolutism,” affirms that each person has the right to live by his convictions, and eschews imposing one’s views upon others. Yet underlying this view of tolerance is a fundamental contradiction. Is not this concept of tolerance being imposed on all peoples and cultures, in direct violation of one of its own tenets? And as Carson points out, “does not the assertion, ‘Tolerance . . . involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism’ sound a little, well . . . dogmatic and absolute?"
Therefore, despite its appeal and aplomb, the new tolerance is both intolerant and internally incoherent."
From an article by Ben Crenshaw.  Read it all here.
Note on the illustration -  Non-American blog readers may be puzzled by the illustration. This internet meme - which adapts a scene from the wonderful 1980s film The Princess Bride - refers to several American city councils banning the establishment of restaurants of the Chick-Fil-A chain because the chain's owners have taken a public stance against same sex marriage on religious grounds. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Lectionary Reform, Anyone?

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is a good illustration of the power of editors. When one considers what has been left out of both the lectionary (the imprecatory Psalms, Jesus' conflict with the religious authorities in Matthew & John, the stoning of Stephen, the Apostles' miracles, Biblical teaching on marriage and get the idea) and individual lections it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such decisions have been influenced by the liberal theology of the editors, who were representatives of mainstream Catholicism and Protestant churches in North America. At the very least, the lectionary seems designed not to offend progressive sensibilities. The result is that we have an apparent feast of readings over a three year cycle which, nonetheless, almost invites the preacher to depart from it if the whole counsel of God is to be taught. 

Pastors and others who must prepare Divine Service week after week can also testify to the odd choices in the RCL that make their life difficult, like the present focus on Jesus' bread of life discourse in John 6. I appreciate the opportunity to preach through this chapter slowly, but I know many pastors don't and opt instead for a series of topical sermons during this time of Year B.           

What chance, then, of lectionary reform? 

Slim, I think. Despite murmurs here and there in both liberal and conservative liturgical circles, most churches have apparently far bigger issues on their plate at the moment, not least being steeply declining attendance and the difficulties of passing on the Faith to the next generation. But Lutherans do have a ready made alternative if they're prepared to address the question of lectionary reform.

There is surely a case to be made on several grounds for Lutherans reverting to the historic one year lectionary:

Firstly, the educational benefit of increased repetition at a time of increasing Biblical illiteracy - 'repetitio est mater studorium'. The editing of the RCL assumes a familiarity with Holy Scripture which simply doesn't exist among our people anymore (if it ever did); too often, as a result, hearers are unaware of the context of a reading and unable to make the connections the editors seem to expect. A one year lectionary would enable hearers to become more familiar with key Biblical texts - and let's face it, for many of those in the pews the lections are the only scripture they are exposed to.    
Secondly, historically Lutheran homiletics and hymnody was to a large degree shaped by the historic one year lectionary of Western Christendom, providing contemporary preachers with a wealth of material to draw on, even in English translation - the sermons of Luther, for e.g..

Thirdly, it would re-align, so to speak, the lectionary readings with the traditional Collects, which follow a one year cycle based on the traditional Christian year. The power of the Collects, which are an important part of our catholic heritage, is obscured by the RCL readings and I'm afraid most alternatives I've looked at designed to fit the RCL readings don't come close to them in language or content, although versions of the traditional Collects slightly revised for modern usage are helpful. 

There are also other benefits like the full restoration of Palm Sunday (for many years now I have simply reverted to the one year readings for that celebration, as the Palm/Passion mix of themes in the RCL just doesn't work, in my view). Palm Sunday may be only a late medieval development in Western Christendom but long before that it was one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern church's calendar and for an obvious reason: its observation best serves the liturgical celebration of the unfolding narrative of Holy Week. It also provides rich homiletical material for the preacher heading into Holy Week.

Of course, there are advantages to the RCL which  a one year lectionary cannot match; the question is, which option best serves the church's needs at present and in the future? I am leaning towards the option which will promote a deeper knowledge of the Holy Scriptures among our people and which offers historical continuity, both features which seem to me to be particularly important as we head into the "post-Christendom" era.       

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Appeal to Eastern Orthodoxy by Infant Communion Advocates

Form time to time in the debate over infant communion in the Lutheran Church appeals are made to Eastern Orthodox (hereafter EO) practice (the EO church communes baptised infants -see the picture of an African example). But while those on the theological left, so to speak, may be swayed by the ecumenical dimension of this appeal, and those on the theological right might be swayed by the antiquity of the EO custom, confessional Lutherans should be wary of appeals to the EO practice as a justification for infant communion. 

The antiquity of a practice is not, in itself, an argument in favour of its adoption. One of the earliest known references to infant communion is in passing in Cyprian of Carthage's account of the Decian persecution, which establishes the custom of infant communion as being practiced quite early (3rd C.).  Yet it is the same Cyprian who elsewhere urges a note of caution about accepting customs simply on the basis of antiquity: "Custom without truth is but the antiquity of error".

It seems likely that the misinterpretation of John 6:53 played a part in establishing the custom of infant communion in the early church. Augustine appeals to it, for example, so it is easy to see how other, less tutored minds might also latch on to this verse as a justification for infant communion. But did our Lord intend his words to be taken literally?  If so, no-one who believes, yet who through no fault of their own has not partaken of the Supper, could enter eternal life - the repentant thief on the cross, for example.  

The interpretation of John 6 as eucharistic was consistently rejected by Luther both in his early and later years as an exegete. For Luther the spiritual eating and drinking that is by faith was in view in John 6. This was confirmed for him not only on the grounds of the way language is used in the discourse itself but also because to refer John 6 to the Supper was to fall into the error of prolepsis - introducing the element of the Supper into John's narrative before it has been instituted (accepting, as a matter of course, the chronology of the synoptic Gospels).  

John 6 also features, of course, in Luther's conflict with Zwngli over the sacramental union in the Supper. But Luther had already adopted his view of John 6 ten years before that controversy reached its zenith at Marburg in 1529, as it appears in his lectures on the Psalms undertaken during the period of 1519-1521. Luther's interpretation of John 6 was not, then, an argument of convenience developed in the conflict with the Zwinglians, but a considered position reached on the basis of grammatical exegesis.  

The other texts commonly referred to by infant communion advocates -at least who realise the need for a scriptural "seat of doctrine" for the practice - are the "Let the children..." passages in Matthew and Mark. Yet, in context, neither of these instances concerns the Supper. Again, faith is explicitly in view, not the sacrament. Faith is the instrument by which we are saved, not the reception of the sacrament per se, a view which surely comes close to an ex opere operato view of the sacrament's efficacyThis is not to deny that infants may, and do (!), have saving faith, but it is to point to what is necessary for a beneficial reception of the sacrament. [We'll leave Holy Baptism aside for the present so as not to unnecessarily complicate the argument. Suffice to say that each sacrament must be examined in itself rather than under a general heading of "sacramental theology", under the guise of which much mischievous speculation has been carried out by contemporary theologians!]     

Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11 for the believer to examine his/her conscience before communing leads clearly to the inference that those partaking of the sacrament ought to be of teachable age and mind, so as to be able to "discern the body" (and blood) in the sacrament and examine their conscience accordingly. 

Granted, for too long the linking of first communion with confirmation in the Lutheran Church has unnecessarily delayed the full participation of children in the sacrament of the altar. Mindful of Paul's exhortation, the Lutheran Church would, in my view, do well to resolve this disputeby adopting the Roman practice of having first communion around the age of seven or eight, after the candidates have been adequately prepared by the pastor through a study of the sacrament itself and the use of the Ten Commandments as a guide to the examination of conscience. In fact, given that pastoral experience suggests that most parents neglect the teaching of the "Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments" to their children in accordance with their baptismal promises, the introduction of children to the sacrament earlier than generally occurs at present and after age appropriate instruction could surely only be beneficial to their spiritual development (?). 

The next problem to deal with is Confirmation...    

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Initial Thoughts on C. S. Lewis's 'Space Trilogy'

I'm presently reading C.S. Lewis's 'Space Trilogy', admittedly out of a sense of duty more than anything else. I got through Out of the Silent Planet and into the first few chapters of Perelandra during a week's retreat in Fiji whilst staying in a bure (traditional Fijian hut) on the side of jungle forested hill overlooking a lagoon and the south Pacific. Being cheap paperbacks, they were light enough to throw in the bag along with a collection of Lewis's essays and some other "paperback theology" without having to worry about excess baggage charges. With no TV, radio or reliable internet connection and a low pressure system bringing frequent showers - atypical for Fiji at that time of year - I got quite a bit of reading done!

I had previously gotten a third of the way through That Hideous Strength but gave up. Fiction is not my forte these days. I read quite a few of the modern classics in my twenties and enjoyed them greatly but as I've gotten older fiction, particularly fiction with metaphysical pretensions which, I've found, are rarely fulfilled, has come to seem an indulgence. Besides which, I've never particularly enjoyed science fiction. Thankfully, then, I found that in Out of the Silent Planet Lewis is a good enough writer to keep me engaged, even if I found it hard to suspend disbelief in the extended passages where he describes the landscape and inhabitants of Malacandra and consequently had to skip ahead looking for the next plot development.

Granted, Lewis wrote his trilogy before the 'space age' had begun, but with the knowledge even our very limited exploration of space has afforded us, Lewis's imagined Martian landscapes seem  outlandish (I note the informed speculation of scientists these days is that if any planets support advanced life forms they must be very like earth and their inhabitants consequently very much like us!). Reading the 'Space Trilogy' reminds of me of watching Dr Who; as a child I was enthralled with it (television, in black and white in those days, only began c. 3PM in the afternoon and consisted of BBC children's programs until Dr Who came on before the news) - but by the time I became a teenager it just seemed...well, silly.

Of course, Lewis's aspirations in his 'Space Trilogy' aim much higher than Dr Who, or indeed most science fiction. He writes not merely to entertain but with the purpose of setting forth a sort of Christian apologia to science fiction readers.That is certainly an admirable aim, but whether Lewis succeeds or not is the question. I suspect the genre of the science fiction novel cannot bear too much serious theological allegory. But I'm hoping Lewis  will prove that wrong by the time I finish the series,..       

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Can Western Societies Survive Without Christianity?

This - Is the West's Loss of Faith Terminal? by Douglas Murray - is a very interesting article not only because of the main question it poses and its observations on the reasons for the decline of the influence of the church on Western life (science/scientism and historical criticism of the Bible) but also because of its anecdotal reports that increasing number of Western converts to Islam, many of them women, do not consider Christianity a "live option".      

"Having been for some years, as Roger Scruton has put it, downstream from Christianity, there is every possibility that [Western] societies will either become unmoored entirely or be hauled onto a very different shore. Very unsettling questions lie dormant beneath our current culture.  There is, for instance, that question which Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde posed in the 1960s: “Does the free, secularised state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee?” It is rare to hear this question even raised in our societies. Perhaps we sense the answer is “yes” but we do not know what to do if this is the case.  But in fact the wind of opinion in recent years appears to have begun to blow against those who insist that Western liberal societies owe nothing to the religion from which they arose. Partly because the more we become acquainted with other traditions, the harder it becomes to sustain. Indeed, although some people still hold out, it should be evident by now that the culture of human rights has more to do with the creed preached by Moses and Jesus of Nazareth than that of, say, Muhammad. Nevertheless, the question of whether this societal position is sustainable without reference to the beliefs that gave it birth remains deeply pregnant and troubling in the West." 

Murray has no religious axe to grind, being an atheist and one time protege of Christopher Hitchens; to my mind that only makes his insights more valuable.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Was Cornelius Justified By His Works?

A Romanian Orthodox visitor to the old manse recently averred that the reference to the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:1-5 contradicts the Lutheran doctrine of justification 'by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone':  
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!”  And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter.
The claim is a good example of reading one's theological presuppositions into a text. Clearly, like all the saints living under under old covenant, Cornelius was counted righteous before God on account of his faith in God and His promised Messiah, whom he had heard of through his contact with devout Jews, from which faith his piety flowed. As Chrysostom notes in his sermon on the text, "Cornelius's doctrine and life were both right". Here also is Luther:       
"Cornelius, Acts 10:1ff , had heard long before among the Jews of the coming Messiah, through whom he was righteous before God, and in such faith his prayers and alms were acceptable to God (as Luke calls him devout and God-fearing), and without such preceding Word and hearing could not have believed or been righteous. But St. Peter had to reveal to him that the Messiah (in whom, as one that was to come, he had hitherto believed) now had come, lest his faith concerning the coming Messiah hold him captive among the hardened and unbelieving Jews, but know that he was now to be saved by the present Messiah, and must not, with the Jews deny nor persecute Him."Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, III, VIII, 8
Cornelius's devout mode of life was rewarded by God with the visit of the apostle Peter to complete his faith and that of his relatives and friends by proclaiming the good news of Christ crucified and risen, through which they received the Holy Spirit and were baptised. 

Anticipating a further objection: Nor can the claim be made that the Biblical teaching of reward contradicts Evangelical Lutheran doctrine, which readily acknowledges that God rewards the works of believers both temporally and spiritually. But not with the forgiveness of sins, which comes to us through faith alone, as the Bible teaches us. Melanchthon writes:

"Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the remission of sins, for grace or justification (for these we obtain only by faith), but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says, 1 Cor. 3:8: Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor. There will, therefore be different rewards according to different labors. But the remission of sins is alike and equal to all, just as Christ is one, and is offered freely to all who believe that for Christ's sake their sins are remitted. Therefore the remission of sins and justification are received only by faith, and not on account of any works, as is evident in the terrors of conscience, because none of our works can be opposed to God's wrath, as Paul clearly says, Rom. 5:1: Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith, etc."   Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, III.
 So, we can thank God for the example that Cornelius - the 'first-fruit of the Gentiles' as the Orthodox kontakion (prayer of the day) describes him  - provides us, by which we are encouraged to adorn our faith with devotion and alms-giving in the service of the poor.   

Monday, 30 March 2015

Luther Against The Antinomians: They Preach Easter But Not Pentecost

"The apostles at Jerusalem, together with many thousands of the Jews, had been justified by faith alone, i.e., by the grace of Christ; but they had their Nestorius and Eutyches sticking in them and did not see the consequence, namely that the law of Moses did not and could not contribute anything to this, but wanted to give it the idiomata which belong only to the Lamb of God, and said, as we have noted above, that the Gentiles could not be saved, unless they were circumcised and kept the law of Moses. That was the same thing as denying Christ and His grace, as St.Paul says in Galatians 2:21, “If righteousness come by the law, then Christ has died in vain”; and in Romans 11:6, “If it is of grace, then it is not of works.”But those at Jerusalem spoke thus: “It is, indeed, grace alone, but it must also be works alone; for without the law, no one can be saved, though a man must be saved by grace alone, without the law.” In plain German, that is cutting off one’s own nose, and not understanding what one says.
The schools call it, as I have said, antecedens concedere, and consequens negare; or consequens destruere and antecedens affirmare. It is saying Yes and No at the same time about the same thing. This no one must do, unless he is utterly ignorant or a hopeless scoffer.
That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today. They are preaching finely and (I can think nothing else) with real seriousness about Christ’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, and the other things that can be said concerning redemption. But they flee the consequence of this, as though it were the very devil, and will not speak to the people about the Third Article, which is sanctification, i.e., the new life in Christ. For they think that they ought not to terrify people, or disturb them, but always to preach in a comforting way about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and utterly avoid such words as these: “Listen! You want to be a Christian and yet remain an adulterer, fornicator, drunken swine, proud, covetous, a usurer, envious, revengeful, malicious!” On the contrary, they say: “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a fornicator, a miser, or any other kind of sinner, only believe, and you will be saved and need not fear the law; Christ has fulfilled it all!”
Tell me, is that not granting the premise and denying the conclusion? Nay, it is taking away Christ and bringing Him to nought, at the same time that He is most highly preached. It is saying Yes and No to the same thing.
There is no such Christ, Who has died for these sinners who, after forgiveness of sins, do not leave their sins and lead a new life. Thus they finely preach the logic of Nestorious and Eutyches, that Christ is this and is yet not this. They are fine Easter preachers, but shamefully poor Pentecost preachers, for they preach nothing de sanctificatione et vivificatione Spiritus Sancti, i.e., concerning sanctification by the Holy Ghost, but preach only about redemption by Christ, though Christ, Whom they extol so highly (and rightly so!) is Christ, i.e., He has purchased redemption from sin and death, in order that the Holy Ghost shall make new men of us, in place of the old Adam, so that we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 6:1, beginning and increasing this life here on earth, and completing it yonder. What Christ has earned for us is not only gratia, “grace,” but also donum, the “gift” of the Holy Ghost, so that we might not only have forgiveness of sin, but also cease from sinning.
Whoever, then, does not cease from sinning, but continues in his former wicked life, must have another Christ from the Antinomians, for the real Christ is not there, even though all the angels were to cry only “Christ! Christ!”; and he must be damned with his new Christ."
Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church (1539)

A few glosses...

1. The saying, most often levelled as a criticism, that Lutherans "Shout Justification! but whisper sanctification" cannot be applied to Luther. 

2. It is a false interpretation of Luther born of laziness which claims that his famous rejection of Aristotelianism was a rejection of the use of formal logic and not simply a rejection of the Aristotelian ethic of virtue as applied to Christian sanctification by certain medieval scholastic theologians such as Aquinas (virtue as habitus) which distorted Christianity in the way of works righteousness - Luther's main concern. 

Such interpreters delight in Luther's use of paradox to describe truths of Christianity (e.g. simul iustus et peccator), but apparently neglect the place of paradox in Greek logic and rhetoric, where it was already known that paradoxes can promote critical thinking and some can be veridical, i.e. true. Luther's delight in paradoxical statements is not evidence of irrationality in his thought, anticipating post-modern irrationality, but actually rests on his commitment to the law of non-contradiction as classically set forth in Aristotle's Metaphysics.

3. Luther's doctrine of justification did not involve a "legal fiction" because God's declaration of pardon for the sake of Christ is not an empty word but a powerful word which creates a new reality in the life of the sinner through the gift of the Holy Spirit which accompanies it and which equips the believer for the continuing round of death and life through daily repentance and faith. The distinction between justification and sanctification in Luther is notional and theological, but necessary for maintaining the purity of Gospel proclamation over against the perennial human tendency to inject works into the sinner's justification.    

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Who's Afraid of Friedrich Nietzsche?

When I was in high school I read Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols (I now remember it was paired with The Anti-Christ in a Penguin books edition)It was heady stuff, and not only because I was only 16 and finding my way in philosophy untutored, but also because the 'trans-valuation of values' that Nietzsche proposed - the rejection of Christianity, and with it the 'concept' of guilt and conscience, in favour of an amoral vitalism - was a direct challenge to the still very conventional world in which I lived. My family and upbringing was culturally Christian though not church going. I kept the book hidden lest my mother should find it! Now, older and wiser, I know that Nietzsche's attack barely touched the sides of Christianity properly conceived (which is strange, given that Nietzsche was a son of the manse; perhaps the relationship of father and son needs to be looked into more?). In short, Christians have little to fear from Nietzsche, who is somewhat "out there" as far as critics go.

But it seems that these days Nietzsche does not trouble Christians so much as the so-called 'new atheists', the popular philosophers de jour who, despite their nomenclature, actually propose little that is new, but merely recycle the atheistic arguments of the last two hundred years for a largely middle brow audience that has, to borrow C.S. Lewis's phrase, just enough familiarity with Christianity to innocculate it against the real thing. These folk are the contemporary representatives of the bourgeois, liberal European culture (transposed to a new world setting in the case of Australia, Canada & the US) that Nietzsche despised. Nietzsche is an unwelcome presence in their thought because of his fundamental contention that, contrary to their deepest convictions, morality is dependent on theology for its justification. 

This is the contention of English agnostic philosopher, John Gray, who writes in the Guardian...

"The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
 It’s a familiar question in continental Europe, where a number of thinkers have explored the prospects of a “difficult atheism” that doesn’t take liberal values for granted. It can’t be said that anything much has come from this effort. Georges Bataille’s postmodern project of “atheology” didn’t produce the godless religion he originally intended, or any coherent type of moral thinking. But at least Bataille, and other thinkers like him, understood that when monotheism has been left behind morality can’t go on as before. Among other things, the universal claims of liberal morality become highly questionable."

          Read it all here