Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mohammad and Jesus Embracing?


In his last major speech as leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan stressed religious unity, indicating that the problem in the world is that Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths are divided. According to the AP article in Monday's paper, he told the audience at Detroit's Ford Field "that Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammad would embrace each other with love if they were on the stage behind him."

Now I don't want to be accused in any way of saying that our Lord Jesus is anything but the embodiment of love in its purest form, but I just can't picture Him embracing the "prophet." It's not that our Lord did not love Mohammad as he loves the entire world. It's not that He is hateful or spiteful of the "prophet." It's just that such an "embrace" would not be a real indication of true, godly love. And why is that? For the simple reason that it would indicate that our Lord accepted Mohammed's lack of true faith and heretical teachings as legitimate with the Truth. True love corrects the sinner. True love shows the errorist where he is wrong. True love does not ignore the eternal plight of the unbeliever and treat him as if he is OK when indeed his denial of Jesus as Lord and God is the ultimate condemnation leading to an eternal hell.

No, He would not embrace him at that point. He would call him to repentance. Just like he did the Pharisees and Sadducees and other entrenched errorists of his day. "I came not to bring peace but a sword," he once said, not referring to a desire to bring warfare and death, but indicating that the Gospel would be divisive for those who refused to repent and believe. He preached peace, but not the papered-over type that ignores the real issues in our relationship with God. He called all to peace through his atoning death.

Farrakhan has seemingly dropped his fiery rhetoric for the ever popular ecumenical 'gospel.' Now instead of condemning those with whom he disagreed, he simply wants to accept them as spiritual equals. I think that his fiery, albeit error-laden message of the past, was more honest. The message we are all one regardless of what we believe is the ultimate satanic lie. And Farrakhan is not the only one to buy into it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lines Drawn in the Anglican Church


Well, the meeting of the bishops in Tanzania is over. They came from all over the world to discuss the state of the church. And it wasn't pretty. Apparently some in the rather liberal Anglican communion are fairly upset over the gay issue in the US. Upset enough to pass a resolution to put the US church on notice.

U.S. News and World Report (March 07 issue) writes that the meeting of bishops told the US church "that it has until September 30 to desist from ordaining gay men or lesbians as bishops and to stop sanctioning blessings of same-sex unions. Failure to comply, the communique said, would result in the expulsion of the 2.3 million-member American church from the larger communion." (23)

Wow! I didn't know they had it in them to take that kind of stand. However, we shouldn't underestimate the churches of the so-called "Third World." They are the ones who are putting their collective foot down and demanding accountability. It was the Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, in fact, who has taken several of the American breakaway parishes under his own jurisdiction. And get this: the archbishop "joined six other primates in refusing to celebrate the Eucharist with Schori [first female presiding bishop in the US]. Akinola [archbishop of Nigeria] was also pointedly missing from the Sunday service, where Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of the Anglican Communion, called for Christian humility on the part of all bishops." (Ibid)

It was also a Lutheran bishop from Africa that took some Swedish churches under his own wing as well, when the liberal church there would not respect the consciences of their confessional pastors. The leaders with true courage are coming from that place we once called the "dark continent." Now it is the one light trying to illumine the truth for the rest of the church.

I'm proud of those archbishops and bishops who took their stand. They certainly will take a beating from their liberal counterparts who will call them uncaring and insensitive and rigid and even unchristian. So be it. They are living the heritage of the church which dared persecution and banishment when it stood against the state and against heretics alike in the early church.

We should be humbled by the Africans. And we should be encouraged by them as well. Despite the call to desist from "incessant internal purification," or whatever it was called among us in the LCMS, they are showing us again that Truth counts. And that it is "good, right and salutary" to stand up for it. For that it what it means to witness to Christ.

Monday, February 26, 2007

They Found the Bones of Jesus?

Well, another Hollywood producer is taking a stab at Christianity. After 2,000 years the claims keep coming in. Conspiracy buffs grab hold of each new story as if this is the one to bring the giant down. The Da Vinci Code seemed to have all the markings of the ultimate weapon against the Faith, until good scholars simply unraveled the shoddy research upon which it was based.

Now Producer Cameron, maker of the blockbuster Titanic, has a new movie to sink the Faith. He believes that the discovery, 27 years ago, of 10 stone caskets in an ancient cave in a Jerusalem suburb, has finally given the needed evidence. The names on the caskets include Jesua, son of Joseph and Mary, among others. Oh, and they also have DNA evidence, they say. You can read the latest TIME story here ("Jesus: Tales From the Crypt," February 23.)

So what should we make of this latest salvo from the skeptics? Well, first of all, let's not forget that the Faith has been examined and attacked and questioned and doubted and denied for two millenia. And it's still standing. If Jesus had lived and fathered children, then why would we have to wait this long for stone caskets to surface and be noticed? Surely supporting historical evidence long before this would have conclusively confirmed that such a man lived and had a family and was buried in such a fashion. After all, the burial was not a pauper's burial. This man had to have some financial backing to provide for his family in such a way.

Furthermore, we still haven't dealt with the crucifixion. Many have tried to debunk this, and all the theories come up wanting. Or are these skeptics now going to doubt the whole written account of Jesus?

And this issue of the DNA - How on earth is this going to prove anything? Assuming the DNA is viable - and remember we're not talking here of a recent corpse, but a 2,000 year old pile of bones (if there are any!) - how can such DNA be connected to anyone else that will be indicative of who this man is? Do we have a genetic file on record of the line of David to compare the results? Or perhaps a genetic file was kept in Bethlehem and Nazareth of the various clans so that we can compare with those. Or maybe we want to consult the DNA of Mary Magdalene and her blood line kept, say, in the Vatican? Oh, come on now!

The best they may show is that they have the bones of a male, perhaps of Near Eastern descent. Maybe they can show some age. This just doesn't get me worked up.

Finally, the names, as the archaeologists already noted, are very common. There were many boys named Joshua in those days. And Joseph? Or Mary? This just isn't conclusive.

So, I guess we have to weather another attack that will simply rock the faith of those whose roots were shallow. For that I am sorry. Although the story is only days old (Feb. 23), why hasn't the scientific community responded yet? Where are the reputable scholars backing Cameron up? And why did it take over two decades to decipher the names? This should be front page news - if it was credible.

Oh, well. Guess it takes Hollywood these days to get anyone worked up over news that the Faith is a hoax. If that's our only worry, we're OK. The Word of the Lord endures forever.

P.S. If you want a good fictional read that is similar to this story, try Dr. Paul Maier's A Skeleton in God's Closet. Unlike the upcoming movie, his story ends on the Truth!

Oh, and BTW, one more thing: They didn't say they found any bones in those caskets! Wonder why that wasn't reported or commented on. Hmmm..........

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Temptation of Christ


The first Sunday in Lent invariably begins with the Temptation of Christ. It seems an appropriate way to begin the season. As we journey again to the cross we are reminded of the cosmic struggle that began in Eden and comes to a titanic clash at Calvary. In Mel Gibson's movie The Passion, there is a scene at the end where the camera pans back away from Satan. As he recedes into the distance below he is screaming. It is the cry of defeat. He has discovered that the cross was his undoing. The one he thought he defeated in death ends up the victor.

In the wilderness just after Jesus' baptism, Satan launched his first attack of a three-year war on the Messiah. I wonder how he reasoned out why Jesus was driven to the desert in the first place. Considering how he worked so hard to get Jesus to abandon the way of suffering and sacrifice for the easier road of cheap glory, I have to think that he understood - at some level - that there was a good reason to keep Jesus from the cross. Or did he? Did Satan understand that the cross would be his undoing? Or did he believe to the end that it was Christ's (only to discover the agony of his own defeat when Christ bowed his head in death)? For if he believed that the cross would be his undoing, why would he manipulate Judas to betray Jesus, a betrayal that contributed directly to His eventual death?

Regardless of what Satan thought, it was clear that suffering or no suffering, he wanted to derail Jesus' mission from the beginning by getting him to compromise on His obedience to the Father. He had to get him to live by a will different from the will of the Father. But did he really believe that he could do that? Did he really think that he could get God in human flesh to compromise on the divine will?

As I think about some of these things, it occurs to me that we give too much credit to Satan. Sure, he is brilliant beyond the minds of mere mortals. But that brilliance is limited. He simply could not grasp the essence of God's will and love. For all of his supernatural power and abilities, it was incomprehensible to him. Why would God want to save his creation? Why would he want to sacrifice His own Son to do so? Why would God want to live among His own as one of them? These things, I believe, escaped Satan. He didn't have an answer. And the evil hatred that filled his blackened mind blinded him from ever coming close to the answer.

Thus, the wilderness temptation. As brilliant as his tactics may be to set up a man for a fall into sin, he couldn't truly understand the power of the One he now attacks, or his single-minded commitment to the mission of the cross. And he couldn't grasp the power of the simple Word Jesus threw back at him. Like so many today he saw it only as a word, a sound, a syllable, a vocable, a sentence. He missed the unlimited dynamic of that Word to unmask evil lies and strengthen the soul in truth.

However, unlike Jesus, our temptation is a different affair. We are far more vulnerable and culpable. We fall more easily for His lies. We chose to see them as he presents them, not as they are. Thus, how we need to live "in Christ" at all times! How much we need to live out the reality of the burial and resurrection of our baptisms each day. Apart from Christ we are sitting targets and easy kill.

Lent is a season when we are reminded that the only life worth living is the one that is lived "in Christ." The Temptation account brings us back to the reality of the spiritual warfare in which we find ourselves at every moment. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm." (Eph. 6:12)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The EPIC Church Phenomena

So, have you heard about the EPIC church phenomena? The Tuesday post on One Apostolic and Catholic Church blog was very insightful in alerting me to this new movement, although I think that I heard about it before. Read "Contemporary Church = Baalam" and see the link they discovered to one of the EPIC church websites that is also LCMS. It is scandalous, to say the least. This church is currently using sex as a selling point to attract people. Check out the Yahoo News article here for more information. Admittedly the context of a news article is sometimes a bit deceptive, but his section really hit me:

Epic Church wanted to take a closer look at the issue of sex because it is so prominent in our culture today. According to statistics given by ABC's Primetime Live in 2004, over 29% of adults in America said they have had sex on a first date. The Kinsey Institute also reported that, by the age of nineteen, 77% of girls and 69% of boys have been sexually active. To add to those overwhelming statistics, the revenue that came in from pornography in 2005 was higher than the revenues of all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises combined. Television has even pushed the limit year- after-year, with the continuous addition of more sexual situations in both daytime and primetime timeslots.

"We're not here to condemn anybody," added Kade. "We wanted to do this series to help the community deal with a topic that can be difficult to address in the home. It seems that many people bottle up the sex conversation, which can often lead to bigger problems down the road."

My fear is that although they advertise themselves as a biblically-based church, they are going to soft pedal this issue when it comes to the prominent sins of our time. "We're not here to condemn anybody"? What does that mean? No law?

It would appear that the EPIC church movement is cross-denominational. In a brief search I found an article by a United Methodist bishop praising the movement. The EPIC acronym stands for "Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven, and Connecting." Very post-modern, to say the least.

They also appear very anti-historical and anti-traditional. In fact, it would appear that they revel in mocking the sacred. Check out Pastor Kozak's blog site here. He discovered an EPIC church advertisement for "Deep Dish Communion Wafers." Come again?

Their worship, predictably, is cutting-edge contemporary, and avoids any connection with the traditional liturgy of the church. At the website for Lighthouse Lutheran Church in Oklahoma (LCMS, by the way), they describe how their EPIC-styled church started, especially the worship aspect. I have always held that contemporary worship is contrary to the Bible's injunction to worship God in reverence, and here I found more proof. The author notes:

"The new worshipping group had no organist or pianist and Lutheran worship without music was considered unthinkable. Pastor borrowed his son’s boom box and the walls vibrated with contemporary CD worship music themes. (Several Jefferson’s Garden residents began to attend the worship not being sure if it was a church or a youth concert -- but the foot tapping enjoyment was obvious.)"

"Several Jefferson's Garden residents began to attend not being sure if it was a church or a youth concert." That tells you everything. If one cannot tell worship apart from a concert, then it is no worship at all.

Back about a year or so ago there was an interesting discussion of the EPIC church on Bunnie Diel's blog, and it resulted in an interchange with actual EPIC church members. The discussion is long in the comments section, but it is insightful if you really want to see how they think. Check it out here.

Also, the beginnings of this church movment, it should be noted, are firmly rooted in the Baptist culture. To learn more about their beginnings, check out the actual website here.

Overall, the EPIC church phenomena is in one sense just another faze the CG people have invented. However, it also feels very dangerous, even more so than the more tame versions of Church Growth events in the past.

Thanks to David for alerting me. I'll be watching this one more closely....

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ashes to Ashes....


Many Lutheran parishes, I suspect, still do not practice the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The resistance of introducing it, if it was not used before, would probably be: "That's too Catholic." For many older members would no doubt remember the old days when their fellow Catholic classmates at the local grade school would come in bearing that familiar "smudge" on the forehead.

Yet the symbolism is still so powerful for anyone who has attended a Lutheran graveside committal service. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the pastor intones as he reminds the people that the body is being committed in the "hope of eternal life." The reading from 1 Corinthians 15 (which is one of the two included in the pastor's agenda), points the listener beyond the grave, beyond death, even beyond that disembodied state they are now in, to the resurrection of all flesh, the ultimate goal of our salvation.

There is a humbling feeling to realize that our bodies, for all their youthful vitality and strength, can be reduced to less than $2 of chemicals and a small box of ash and bone. I have been with families when they scattered the ashes of their loved ones (a practice I really do not prefer), and it is sobering to see how this temple in which we once lived is now indistinguishable from the soil upon which it lies.

Ashes remind us like few things do, of the effect that sin has truly had on mankind. It removes the breath of life that God originally breathed into Adam's lungs. It reverses the process whereby man was brought from the earth by God's command and returned again to it (Gen. 3:19). In short, it brought death.

In a culture that wants to believe that sin is just a choice, neutral of all morals, this is a message that brings us back to reality. The wages of sin is death.

Ash Wednesday is the day when the church begins its Lenten journey by starting with that event of sin which made the coming of a Savior the critical need for man. It takes us to the ground and lets us see the damage that sin has inflicted. As the baptized we are buried again with Christ into his death, and we die in Him to the power of that sin. The reversal has begun. Life to death to life again. Earth to living being to earth to living being again. The font is both the tomb and the womb, the place of death and the place of new life. Our Lenten journey thus only beings with the ashes. It properly ends at the empty tomb where the dead body of our Savior was resurrected by God, and death is swallowed up by life.

The grave that sits before us today is only a reminder that the story is not finished. He is coming in glory still. The call to life has begun. Death's days are numbered.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Definition and Foundation of the Pastoral Office

My last post and the Bible study I am in the midst of regarding the Office of the Keys has sparked thoughts and questions beyond that specific realm. As was certainly hinted at, the public use of the Keys presupposes the Office that administers them, even though they properly belong to the Church, in a primary sense. I know that in addition to answering the obvious questions about confession and absolution and the need for such, I am also going to have to explain and teach the class about the scriptural foundations of the Office as well. Yet how many have honestly thought about the true scriptural foundations for the Office of Pastor?

Any one who has studied the background of the pastoral office well knows the diversity that exists in the church catholic. Lutherans have always confessed that the Office is singular and that all other offices in the church are auxiliary and find their reason in connection with the one Office. Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox and others naturally follow a more diverse path, staring with the apostles and ending up with a basic three-tiered hierarchy.

For those interested in a Lutheran discussion of this topic that centers on the Confessions themselves, I would recommend going over to the blog site Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. They are currently engaged in a round table discussion of the definition and foundation of the Office.

It would seem that the church is torn these days between a functional view and the nature of the office as one who represents Christ. Unfortunately large mega churches have not helped, creating a new order of CEO and "rancher" to administrate their sprawling campuses and numerous "ministries." We need to return back to the apostles and rediscover from whence this office came. We need also to return to our own confessional documents to see how our Lutheran forefathers worked through these very questions centuries ago.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

"I Forgive You All Your Sins" - Can You Really Say That?


As I prepared for our latest Bible study on the Office of the Keys, I knew that the biggest sticking point with some would be those words: "I forgive you...." How can a pastor forgive anyone his sins? Only God can forgive sins! That's true. But why must the "I forgive" be in opposition to "God forgives"?

I liked the explanation of this point put together by the editors of the Higher Things magazine (Winter 2006). After noting that the pastor speaks these words in conjunction with "by virtue of his office" and "in the stead and command of Jesus Christ," as well as "in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," they then go on to note the following:

"Those words make clear that the pastor isn't the one forgiving your sins. He doesn't say, 'I'm Bert, and I forgive you in the name of Bert. If anybody says you're not forgiven, tell 'm Bert forgave you.' Effectively the words say, 'I'm no one, but I've been called to the office of pastor. I'm here to tell you what Jesus says. And Jesus says to you, 'I forgive you all your sins.' That's why I tell you that you're forgiven in God's name, not mine.' (25)

I find it interesting that the Orthodox priests do not use the direct form of the Absolution that the Lutheran pastor utilizes. Given their high view of the "office," I would have thought that this would be natural. But, as I understand it, they use a more passive approach. Interesting.

Perhaps it seems to some that we are putting words in Jesus' mouth. Or how can we claim that Jesus is actually saying "I forgive"? This is a good question and the implications of how one answers says a lot about how one views the real presence of Christ. I suspect that many Evangelicals, for all their talk of Jesus, believe more in a real absence than a real presence. Traditionally the Reformed church has made a distinction about where the real, physical presence of Jesus is since his resurrection. They claim that it "remains in heaven." John Calvin could therefore talk about communing spiritually in heaven instead of partaking of the real Christ here on earth.

So, if you're not comfortable with the real presence of Christ here and now, then you naturally wouldn't be comfortable with thinking He was active in such a direct, personal way as to say "I forgive."

At any rate, when Jesus said "He who hears you hears me," He was commissioning his apostles as ambassadors with the authority of one who speaks for another. Dr. Harold Senkbeil in his book Dying to Live, the Power of Forgiveness, compares the pastor's authority in this case to that of a power of attorney. That was helpful for me. I remember when I had a PA for my mother before she died. I literally spoke in her place as if I was her. I could make medical decisions, sell her house, do anything she would do by her own voice and hand. That's the authority the pastor uses. He is not forgiving anyone by his own authority. He is acting in the official stead of his master who authorized him to do so.

So, the "I" in "I forgive" is Christ, not me, or Bert, or Sam, or Peter, or Jim, or Dave,....you get the point. What a wonderful thing to know that Jesus still speaks to us. What a comfort to know that He forgives MY sin. It's a living Word after all, not a dead letter.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Survival of the Luthran Church in Germany and Beyond

In the recent Religious News articles, this one appeared regarding the future of the Lutheran (or Protestant) church in Germany. I'm assuming they are referring to the "state" church in this case, where the church and its pastors are directly funded by the state, since the financial support seems to come from payroll deductions.

Luther's Spiritual Heirs Face an Uncertain Future
By Niels Sorrells

WITTENBERG, Germany -- Faced with declining membership and income, it's little wonder that Germany's Protestants see an overwhelming stretch ahead of them. And so they came here, 300 spiritual heirs of Martin Luther, to plot the future. No theses were nailed to any church doors. Instead, they talked about the church's future and discussed topics ranging from media branding to church finances. It's no secret that church attendance is dropping throughout Europe; Germany is no exception. What's key here is the actual number of people registered in the church -- and the percentage of their salary that is automatically deducted for church operations. It's a fundamental danger to the institution if they are not registered as church members. Demographic trends have made it clear that the day is soon coming when the church simply won't have enough money to keep operating.

Somehow the discussions about the fate of Germany's state church sound frighteningly similar to ones I hear in the LCMS. They are looking to save an institution. It's all about the numbers and financials. I know that we are talking a lot these days about evangelism in Missouri. Still, the motivation seems too often to come back to the fate of the Synod and its declining numbers.

The Synod has value, to be sure. Missions, educations, relief organizations, etc.. There are simply some things we cannot effectively do alone. But its survival is always secondary to the proclamation of the Gospel. If the state church fails to survive in German, then so be it. The free church there has been more effective in proclaiming the Gospel anyway. I remember some years ago talking with a recent graduate of Germany's university system where he went to train for the ministry. He mentioned to me that there were congregations in that country of at least 10,000 members, but with only a meager 100 in the pews on Sunday. Germany has more problems than finding ways to pay its bills.

The Lutheran church will survive despite denominations and state church organizations and even despite the ups and downs of a fickle economy. It will survive in little country churches scattered throughout the world, where small, faithful flocks gather each Lord's Day to hear the Word, feast at the Supper, and leave to live this faith in their daily vocations. They will survive at tiny outposts in a sea of relativity and indifference, much like the monasteries of the 5th and 6th centuries existed in the midst of pagan Europe. And by God's grace they will proclaim the Gospel and forget the numbers.


Infant Baptism - Sign of Pure Grace

In my continued reading of Klement Preus' book The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice (CPH, 2004), I ran across a wonderful quote that illustrated well the ideas in my previous post. The little story that follows was meant, in part, to demonstrate how practice can often affect doctrine, or the understanding of that doctrine. In this particular case it shows how infant baptism can be a powerful demonstration of God's pure grace in action. This account is about one of Pr. Preus' former members named Tom.

"[Tom] was raised Baptist but, upon the birth of his first daughter and the insistence of his Lutheran wife had been instructed in the Lutheran church. When I had the honor of baptizing his baby, I had talked to him extensively about the blessings of Baptism. One day Tom stopped by the house and gave me a tree to plant in the front yard. We started talking theology. 'You know, Pastor,' he drawled, as he turned the post hole digger for the seedling, "I don't think it would have been possible for me to come to the true knowledge of grace if we hadn't baptized my daughter.'
'How so?' I wondered.
'Well, when I looked down at that helpless little child who had never made a decision in her life, and I saw the water poured on her head and heard the words, I saw grace alone for the first time in my life. Before the Baptism I believed it, but that day I saw it. The morning of her Baptism we had to dress her and feed her. We chose her food and her clothes. We had brought her crib and painted her bedroom. We did everything for her. She did nothing. Throughout my life Baptism had been a symbol of people making decisions and doing something. Now, in the Lutheran church, well, my daughter's Baptism was a visual aid for grace alone." (109-110)

Who would have thought that the act of baptizing a baby would end up truly demonstrating grace for a former Baptist?

Often I will get the request to do baptisms privately. I have conceded to their wish, but do instruct people that the preferred practice is that it be public. Admittedly, in the early church this was not always so. But the practice of a public baptism is always a teaching tool in its own right. For many years adult baptisms were rare. Few had ever seen one in a Lutheran church. Now they are more prevalent as more of the children of the dropout Baby boomers come to the church looking for what they were denied in childhood. And as these adults are baptized, a demonstration of God's grace is again evident. Even though they missed the opportunity in infancy, and even though their parents despised organized religion or were simply too lazy to incorporate regular church attendance into their weekly routine, God graciously led his lamb to the font anyway. Infant or adult, it is always grace in action. And the act of baptizing shows the living God in action among his people.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Infant Faith

When we discuss Baptism as Lutherans practice it, inevitably the question of faith is a point of issue. It is mainly such because Lutherans practice infant baptism, which assumes the possibility of infant faith. But is this really possible? Can infants truly believe?

Some people believe that infants cannot have saving faith. Knowing that “faith comes from what is heard,” that is, the Word of God (Romans 10:17), they cannot believe that infants can hear and understand the Gospel in such a way as to have faith. For them it runs counter to all sound reason, experience, and psychology to believe that infants can believe.

Yet, what is faith? Is it a conscious premeditated decision which we can quantify and quote? And how much knowledge or intellectual understanding is required for it to be faith?

Obviously the quantity or size of faith is not a critical element, for Jesus once said that if we had faith “as a grain of mustard seed” we would be able to move mountains (Matt. 17:20). Also, faith is the antithesis of assured knowledge of all that is going to happen. For Paul wrote that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Faith is essentially trust –absolute trust without doubt (Matt. 21:21; James 1:6).

However, biblical faith in God (versus general “faith,” such as faith in a ship’s ability to stay afloat) is not something that we can create within ourselves. It is not an attitude or feeling or sense of inner conviction we can muster up at will. Ephesians 2:8 assures us that our salvation which is received by faith, is “not of your own doing, it is the gift of God.” In Romans 3:28 we are told “that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In Galatians 3:2, 3 Paul contrasts the receiving of the Spirit “by works of the law” and “by hearing with faith.” In Hebrews 12:2 Jesus is called the “author and finisher of our faith.”

However, having said all that, do we have any indication that children, especially very small children (even infants), really can have faith? And if they can have faith is it a true saving faith?

In Luke 18: 15 it says that people were bringing “even infants” to Jesus. The word in the Greek is brephe which means “baby, infant, newly born, unborn, small child.” In verse 16 Jesus says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The last word for child here is paidion, which can mean “a small child, an infant, one who has not reached their second birthday.” Here Jesus says that such small children were able to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. They can belong to it.

In Matthew 18:1-6 -- Jesus tells his disciples that “unless you turn and become like children (paidion) you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the next verse he refers to “whoever humbles himself like this child…” Does this mean simply that we must come to our Lord with a humble spirit? That would seem inadequate, since “entering the kingdom of heaven” is a matter of salvation, which is a matter of faith in Christ. Furthermore, Jesus expressly talks about “these little ones [mikros] believe in me”! (vs. 6) The word for “believe in” also means “to have faith in.” It is used frequently in the Gospels for adults regarding their faith in Jesus and His Word.

In Luke 10: 21 after the 70 disciples had returned from their mission, Jesus prayed: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes (napiois, a baby without full power of speech.).” In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul contrasts the power of human wisdom and learning with the so-called “foolishness” of proclaiming “Christ crucified.” In fact, he writes, the “world did not know God through wisdom,” but rather “through the folly of” the proclaimed Christ. The “word of the cross” is the actual “power” of salvation, not our natural reasoning abilities or intellect. As Paul would also say in Romans 1:16 of the “Gospel” or good news of salvation through Christ: “it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes.” ---It would appear that our intellect, as great a gift as it might be, can also get in the way of faith. Here Jesus surprises us by saying that the “hidden things” of God are revealed even to those who seem to have no obvious power or ability to reason or critically think.

In 2 Timothy 3: 14-16 Paul recalls how his protégé Timothy had “known the scriptures from childhood” which were “able to instruct [him] for salvation.” The word translated here as “childhood” is brephos which can mean “baby, infant, newly born.” Apparently Timothy had known the Word of God from a very early point in his life!

But wait a minute, you say. None of this makes any sense! Prove to me a child can believe as I do! And therein we have our key point. I cannot “prove” such a thing any more than I can “prove” God Himself exists. This is a matter of faith, not sight. We believe based on the promise of God's own Word.

Here is the rub: My reasoning mind claims one thing, but from the witness of Scripture we read another. The two are in conflict. The point is how I deal with the conflict. On the one hand I can deny there is a conflict. But that is ignoring the obvious. On the other hand I can simply remove the conflict by changing the meaning of the words to make them “fit” with my way of understanding. I cannot take it at face value. My reason must be the Lord of my understanding, not faith.

Dr. Uuras Saarnivaara in his book Scriptural Baptism writes the following:
“We have here a case in which Christ teaches one thing, and human reason, experience, and psychology teach an opposite thing. Christ says that infants, brephe, are acceptable to the kingdom of God – it is theirs. He also indicates that they receive it, since even grown-up people must receive it as infants. The reception must take place by faith only.

Human reason and psychology deny that infants can have faith. Jesus says that they can. You have to choose….where you follow your own reason and human psychology or Christ. I want to believe what Christ says of infants, even though I cannot understand it. Since the Lord says that infants can receive the kingdom of God, it is obvious that they can also be baptized….” (p. 18).(1)

God has blessed us with tremendous intellectual powers of reason, which we have used to solve some of the most perplexing problems of our times. But there is a limit to human reason. Theologians have talked about the magisterial use of reason and the ministerial use of reason. In other words, reason reigns supreme over all, even faith, or reason serves faith. Human reason within the unbelieving scientific community will gladly claim that reality is only that which is quantifiable by some scientific means of measurement. Yet we all know that the very fact of faith itself fails this test. So does the reality of the spiritual world, of angels and demons. True, some parapsychologists try to measure the paranormal world (ghosts), but hard-core scientists will not believe in anything unless it meets the strictest standards of human knowledge and reason.

Admittedly infant faith does not meet this test. Yet, it also does not fail it. No one can prove it is impossible. For Luther there was even an objective case to refer to in the Bible which made the argument possible in favor of infant baptism. He wrote: “Infants hear the Word of God when they are brought to Baptism; therefore they receive faith. This is proven in the case of John the Baptist who rejoiced in the womb when he heard the Word of God.” Read Luke 1: 41 where Mary “greets” Elizabeth and the unborn child John “leaps in the womb.” But is “greeting” the “Word of God”? We cannot know exactly what the greeting was, but a common form of greeting in Jesus’ day might be “rejoice, be glad” or even “peace be with you” – a very biblical desire. This was far more than the “hello” of today. Yet even if this argument is not convincing, consider who was in Mary’s womb. It was the Word of God in human flesh (John 1:14). John responded to the presence of this living Word of God by literally “leap[ing] in her womb.”

One final consideration is in order, which should not be used to “prove” infant faith, yet removes the immediate objection that infants are complete “blank slates” that only operate by some kind of reflex action. Through more recent scientific findings we have come to discover that infants are far more complex than we might have been led first to believe. It has been shown that infant brains have the capacity to process auditory and visual inputs and thus can process human language and make sense of their environment. Dr. Scaer writes that some studies have demonstrated that infants, even deaf children, are “born with grammatical categories which enable them to learn not one but several languages, and to keep these separate from each other, before they reach the age of one.” He also writes that “Many educational programs are based on the hypothesis that the first years are the most important for learning. Now this is not the basis for any argument for infant faith, but it certainly deserves more attention than those widely assumed but unproven claims that infants are without sufficient intellect, consciousness, or will.”(2)

Can infants have faith? Jesus and even Paul talk of them as if they do. Nothing in the Bible says explicitly that they cannot, even though we may “reason” that they cannot. And faith, as we see, is not defined by our power or the quantity of our intellect, knowledge or reason, but by God’s gift of life within us by the work of the Spirit.

Infant faith, in fact, is a powerful illustration of grace in action. Infants are highly dependant and helpless. They cannot do anything for themselves but cry. Yet in an amazing miracle God creates faith within them purely as a gift– a miracle, by the way, that is no less than the one he sustains in us each day!

FOOTNOTES:
(1) Uuras Saarnivaara, Ph.D., Th.D., Scriptural Baptism: A Dialog Between John Bapstead and Martin Childfont (New York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1953), 17.
(2) David P. Scaer, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Baptism, Vol. XI (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1999), 151. Note also that Scaer references an article by Annette Karmiloff-Smitth, “Annotation: The Extraordinary Cognitive Journey from Foetus through Infancy” in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 6/8 (1995): 1293-1313, from which some of these remarks are addressed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Eckardt: The Hallowed Ground of the Scientists

Now Pastor Eckardt is admittedly not a scientist (his expertise is in matters liturgical and historical). However, he has had the courage to begin a small debate on the way scientists go about the matter of establishing "fact" in the scientific community, especially regarding the issue of global warming. We are taught in this era never to question science. It's findings, no matter how potentially flawed are "hallowed ground." Read his article. What thinkest thou? I'm not a scientist either, but do try to keep the record balanced as I teach the Faith. The article can be found on the Gottesdienst site here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oprahism - The New Religion?


As I was driving back from the hospital this afternoon, I heard a preacher on the radio claim that Oprah Winfrey reaches more people through her TV program than any known minister today. She is viewed by some as a new Billy Graham, in terms of her spiritual influence on the masses. I didn't realize that her spiritual influence was so great. The preacher also noted that her theological orientation is certainly anything but classical Christianity. It would appear that she has more in common with the Unity school of thought with the idea of the "god within" versus the God of Scripture.

On Wikipedia, one reads the following regarding Oprah's spiritual influence:

In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called "The Church of O" in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential spiritual leader. "Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began 'Change Your Life TV', Oprah's most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality." The sentiment was seconded by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel According to Oprah. On the season premier of Winfrey's 13th season Rosanne Barr told Winfrey "you're the African Mother Goddess of us all" inspiring much enthusiasm from the studio audience. The animated series Futurama alluded to her spiritual influence by suggesting that, a thousand years from now, a religion known as "Oprahism" exists [The entire article on Ophrah is located here.]

Terry Matingly on the blog ReligionNewsblog.com has an informative article entitled "Just What are Oprah Winfrey's Core Beliefs?" Oprah fits the postmodern, self-help, therapeutic society very well. Matingly notes that:

One of the fastest growing segments of the population consists of people who call themselves “spiritual,” but not “religious,” noted Nelson. Winfrey clicks with media-driven, postmodern believers who stress the importance of personal experience and storytelling over the authority of religious institutions and doctrines. Meanwhile, many churches are trying to shed old names and labels, calling themselves “community churches” and adopting other post-denominational names.

And why is this important for most of us to be concerned about? Like it or not many who sit in the pew on Sunday listen to Oprah religiously during the week. As with so many other influences robbing the attention of our people, Oprah may indeed be undoing our work before we realize it. While we are busy dissecting the theologies of various other religious leaders, might it be time that we start explaining to our people why "Oprahism" is dangerous to their faith?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Images in the Church - Are Statues and Other Forms of Art Proper?


Throughout the church’s history there have been those who have felt that any image attempting to portray God in the form of a statue or picture was improper and against God’s own Word. This disapproval with “images” in church portraying the divine reached a feverish pitch in the Eighth Century when Emperor Leo outright condemned the worshipful veneration of images and relics, starting a period of iconoclasm, literally, "image breaking.” For the next 60 years the controversy raged in the church, sometimes condemning the use of icons, sometimes condemning the act of destroying those same icons. In the last “ecumenical” council, Nicea 11(787), iconoclasm was finally condemned, allowing Christians once again to enjoy these images as proper aids in worship without fear of the church condemning their use as “idolatry.”

In Luther’s time the old controversy was once again renewed among those the reformers often referred to as the Schwaermer (The “Enthusiasts.”) These rather fanatical reformers supported the actual destruction of sacred art and image as the destruction of idolatrous objects. However, Luther did not support their actions and defended the use of statuary and other art to represent divine truths.

Luther: “We judge the indiscriminate expulsion in many places of the images even of Christ and the apostles to be not only barbarism but also a case of remarkable ignorance.. But, you ask, if the usefulness of pictures and images is so great, why did Moses and the prophets prohibit and condemn them with such emphasis? I reply: Moses and the prophets are speaking of images made for people to adore and to believe that through this adoration they rendered God religious service. [Ewald M. Plass, compiler. What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959, p. 298.]

Yet is it not true that the very first commandment in Exodus 20 reads that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth...”? (vs.4) Yes, God did say these words. However, the word for “graven image” in the old King James Version can also be translated “idol” or “image.” The very next verse indicates that it is an “idol," or object of worship, that God was referring to when he also said: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God...”

Again Dr. Luther is helpful here. He writes:
We read of no instance in which God punished the Israelites because of images or altars except when they worshiped them. They kept the brazen serpent of Moses (Num. 2 1:8) until Hezekiah did away with it only because it was being worshiped (2 Kings 18. 4). In addition, I have a powerful proof text in Lev. 26:1: “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image; neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land to bow down unto it; for I am the Lord your God” How now? I seems to me that God Himself here explains clearly enough that worshipping is His concern… That is why the “making” also in the First Commandment must look to the worshiping and no farther.

Luther further commented on the unique value of the image Christ as an aid to faith:
"I do not entirely reject images, chiefly not the figure of the crucified Christ. We have an image of Christ in the Old Testament, the brazen serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, that all who had been bitten by the fiery serpents and looked at this brazen serpent should become well (Numbers 21). We, too, should do this. In order to become well in our souls, we should look at the crucified Christ and believe in Him. But when the Jews began to worship the serpent us God and did not consider ii a sign, pious Hezekiah came and tore it clown (2 Kings 18:4).
(Ibid, p. 299)

Dr. Luther obviously saw no problem with having statues or pictures of Christ in the church, or for that matter, of the apostles or other biblical figures. The key, he noted, is how they are received. If they are generally received in faith as objects assisting our worship of the only true God, then they are good. If they are used as objects to be worshiped themselves, this is wrong.

Which begs yet another question: If there is the danger that some might abuse these “images” in a way that is idolatrous, should we then take all images down lest such a mistake occur? Luther yet again makes a helpful observation. He notes that God has commanded us not to “lift our eyes unto the sun and other heavenly bodies in order to worship them,” and that “there are many people who worship the sun and the stars.” But then he adds: “Shall we, therefore, rashly attempt to pull the sun and the stars from the heavens? No we shall not do it. Furthermore, wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him. Shall we, therefore, kill all the women and pour out all the wine? Likewise, gold and silver cause much evil. Shall we, therefore, condemn them? Nay, if we wanted to drive away our worst enemy, who does us the most harm, we should have to kill ourselves; for we have no more injurious enemy that our own heart” (Ibid., p. 300)

Thus, the question regarding art in the church should not be “Is anyone using such a thing in an improper way?”, but “Is the church and its leaders encouraging us to use these things in an idolatrous fashion?” For there will always be people who use even the most innocent things in totally improper ways. But their abuse does not negate the possibility of their use. As the old Latin saying goes: Abusus non tolit usum, “abuse does not take away use.” In his Large Catechism Luther also repeats the saying "Abusus non tilit substantiam," or “The abuse does not destroy the essence but confirms it,” referring to an argument in favor of the efficacy of Baptism even when abused. He adds: “For gold is not less gold though a harlot wear it in sin and shame.” [Book of Concord. “On Infant Baptism.” (Concordia Triglotta, p. 747).] By extension we might say that a statue is no less proper and respectful in church even if someone should use it in an improper way in their own private hearts.

In the Lutheran Church art is always and merely “an aid” to direct our hearts and minds to the true worship of Jesus Christ, who is the very “image of the invisible God” (cf. John 14:9). For as the “invisible God” has become “visible” in the physical essence of His Son, so too do we direct worshipers to images that “reflect” that Truth.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is Inerrancy an Issue Again in Synod?

I recently got wind of an issue in the PSW (Pacific Southwest) district where the district's committee on constitutions was apparently prohibiting congregations from using words such as "inerrant," "inspired," or "revealed" in the confessional subscription portion of their constitutions. This issue carried over into their convention, and then was passed on to the CCM of Synod by their president for an opinion. The CCM, it seems, does not take issue with this. Or did I read it wrong? Why would a district's constitutional committee be encouraging congregations to avoid such time-honored descriptions of our belief regarding Holy Scripture?

You can read about the situation and see the pertinent documents here at the Concord site.

Gay Ruling Posses Tough Questions for ELCA

For many Lutherans who accept the scriptures at face value, and refuse to interpret them in light of popular opinion or current sociological trends, determining the legitimacy of homosexuality is not a problem. Openly engaging in a homosexual lifestyle is sin. It requires repentance. However, according to a recent (but undated) RNS article, deciding how to deal with "openly gay" clergy is a dilemma for the ELCA. And much of this comes from their dilemma of being caught between people who know it's wrong and their teachers who insist that the Bible claims otherwise. This issue has been brought up in convention, but to date without resolution. It seems that many laity are not ready to give up on what they know their Bible so clearly says.

Gay Ruling Poses Tough Questions for Lutherans
By Katherine Boyle
(UNDATED) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America may be asked to change its policy on gay and lesbian clergy after a disciplinary committee removed an openly gay pastor but suggested the church should find a way to reinstate him. The ruling mandated the removal of the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, an openly gay pastor in a committed relationship, from his pastoral duties in Atlanta by Aug. 15. However, the committee said it had reached that decision reluctantly, and suggested the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly next August should “reconsider and revise” guidelines prohibiting gay clergy.


Another dilemma for the ELCA is being caught in a legalistic bind. Their policies forbid what their leaders believe is the right course. For a Lutheran the truth always trumps policy. Although in modern, large denominations such is not always carried out in practice - even in the LCMS. In this sense the ELCA and the LCMS have a similar problem. By and large they are slaves to their policies. Now in this case I agree with their policy regarding openly gay clergy. They should be removed from their pastoral duties. But the disciplinary committee has seen the secondary dilemma. If they believe that being openly gay is OK, then why should they remove him? If the ELCA is by and large supportive of such freedom, then the policies should be rescinded.

But apparently they have not convinced the rest of the church of this yet.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Starting Point: Sin

In my previous two posts it has occurred to me that the critical and important issue at stake in this discussion is the starting point of sin. The philosophical underpinnings of psychology begin at a different point than theology (behavior, self-perception, relationships, etc.), and so it is no surprise when the two come at times to points of conflict. One 'school' of psychology seemed to find that correct starting point in the work of O. Hobert Mowrer. If you are interested, there is a very informative archived article from Time magazine, dated September 14, 1959, entitled "Sin and Psychology." Mowrer saw the inadequacies of the old Freudian insight psychotherapies, which simply assumed that if people gained insight into their troubled minds they might find healing. Mental hospitals were full of people, who if the Freudian theory was correct, should have been saints by then, instead of the troubled souls they were. The old theories were not working, Mowrer said.

It is understandable that Mowrer would go only so far with his new theory. And the greatest downfall of all is that he really did not have a good solution. In theological terms, he, as all before him, had only the law to use. They could only turn back to the person and ultimately declare: heal yourself. It is a dead end street.

Psychology, as was noted in a previous post, can ferret out symptoms of sin that the theologian misses. They see the evidence of the deeper problem. To that extent there is value. It's the philosophical baggage that inevitably comes with psychology that complicates the matter and turns the poor troubled person back in on themselves.

However, the Church has often missed the starting point of the issue as much as psychologists. If only we can help people to see what is wrong in their lives, they can then be counted on to apply the correct principles and straighten out the problem. Yet, we can never forget that man is, by nature of the Fall, a sinful creature. On his own he can do no good. Try as he might, he always comes up short. And worse yet, his guilt over his failure remains to haunt him.

In the Augsburg Confession the Reformers understood that the starting point was sin, but they also saw the solution in the unlimited grace of God in Christ, proclaimed and applied to the sinner's life through Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution.

Over on the blog site Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (which is a good site to check out!), Pastor Gregory Alms notes that:

"Sin is the starting place for theological reflection. The Augsburg Confession [AC] begins yes, with the doctrine of the Trinity but then quickly establishes that theology is not an abstract, philosophical enquiry into the nature of God or other intellectual matters but is a matter of sin and salvation. We are born, says the AC, without fear or trust in God. The God to whom we are introduced in the first article is lost to us. Theology begins with our lack of God. To begin anywhere else (e.g. the glory of God, the beatific vision, man's ascent to God) is to distort the Biblical witness from the start. Much as the Bible begins with God ("in the beginning, God") but quickly moves to the exile of our parents from that God, theology, devotion and piety must all begin in the fact of sin and our inability to reach to God, know God or follow Him.

This is a practical matter as well as a dogmatic one. Living in our baptism, living our baptism daily means beginning with sin, with death to the Old Adam. Every day we begin with sin, our sin, our condition, our actions, that which we must confess. This we never outgrow. Beginning with sin ensures that our eyes are focused then on Christ. Starting on our lack of God drives us to our only hope : the God who comes Advent!) to us, the God of the Incarnation, the God of the crucifixion, the God of the Gospel."

As I prepared for my first adult instruction class last night, my lesson began with sin. Did you know that the various words that are translated "sin" in the Old and New Testament amount to over 600 references? Sin is a central topic in the Bible. But then, why shouldn't it be? The Scriptures were written, essentially, to point us to Christ, the answer to sin's curse of death and hell, a curse that begins with the opening chapters of Genesis. And so we should do no less with the troubled. We cannot back away from sin. We dare not color over its dark and ugly hues with whitewashed dreams. But we cannot leave them there either, with only the accusing law that continually condemns. They need the sweet Gospel, the good news that declares them free in Christ. Only here in Christ is there healing. Only here.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Pastoral Care and Pastoral Counseling

First of all, I would like to thank Isabella for her helpful comments on yesterday's entry. It is worth reading.

In thinking about the topic of psychology and the church, I recalled a couple of resources that are helpful in defining the boundaries and role of the pastor in helping people in need. Back in 2001 I ran across a book in a bibliography of one of Veith's books that caught my eye. It was Pastoral Care Under the Cross by Richard C. Eyer (CPH, 1994). This was by far the best book on pastoral care that I had read over the course of my ministry. I emailed the author and complimented him, and told him that this should be required reading for every seminarian. It now is, at least in Ft. Wayne (Does anyone in St. Louis know if it is there??) Writing from the perspective of a career hospital chaplain, Dr. Eyer takes you through the varied human experiences every pastor would encounter even in a more typical ministry. His paradigm is very Lutheran, and very helpful: the theology of the cross. In addition to discussing issues of suffering, sickness, faith and healing, he then offers more focused treatments of specific groups: the elderly, those with AIDS, the dying, mourners, mental illness, the depressed and a ending chapter of medical ethics (of which he has also written a second volume, which I think is entitled Holy People, Holy Lives.)

Dr. Eyer notes that "there has been a subtle shift from the spiritual to the psychological, so that we no longer see ourselves as God sees us but as the psychologist sees us. When a man is charged with a senseless, violent crime, he is not thought of first as a sinner but as disturbed or mentally ill" (15). Eyer thus defines the challenge of pastoral care as trying "to move the sufferer from feelings of helplessness to a holy perspective" (19).

Eyer is careful to distinguish pastoral counseling from pastoral care, a differentiation, I would admit, that is often blurred or unheeded by many in ministry today. While the first is important in its own place and time, and requires the ear of a pastor to hear and proclaim and apply God's Word, pastoral care is that dimension of the office whereby the pastor is enabled to "suffer with the parishioner." The pastor enters into the realm of suffering as one who bears Christ's name, and brings the perspective of the cross to order the chaos of pain. And out of the cross comes the greatest healing: the absolving voice of the Savior.

There is always the temptation for pastors to slip into the role of counselor, trying to mimic what he believes is the superior way to help his member. Eyer, however, as one who has been in the midst of the pain of serious mental disarray, notes that what often struck him was "the loss of spiritual counsel available to people in hospital psychiatric units when their pastors play therapist instead of being pastors" (124-125).

A second resource that is helpful in this discussion, is an article written by Dr. Harold Senkbeil, now a professor at our Ft. Wayne seminary. His article is included in the festschrift honoring Dr. Marquart, entitled Mysteria Dei, and published by Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne (2000). The article is entitled "Generation X and the Care of Souls." He draws upon the ancient sources of long neglected wisdom from the ancient and medieval church, especially landmark works done by Clebsch and Jaekle (Pastoral care in Historical Perspective), and the work of Thomas C. Oden, among others.

Dr. Senkbeil is perceptive when he notes that "Psychotherapy is effective at ferreting out the truth, but it has no cure for the soul." On the flip side, though, he notes as well that "spiritual care has the cure, but is often inadequate to uncover the truth" (300). He recognizes that there is a role for both disciples in the overall care of the troubled. Thus, he notes with others in this discussion, that "there is room for a friendly partnership between psychology and spiritual care, provided that psychology assumes a servant role within the historic framework of the spiritual care" (288; emphasis added).

One area, not touched on directly here, that needs to be further addressed in this discussion, is the often forgotten and underused area of Private Confession and Absolution. Perhaps this would be a good discussion for a future post.....

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Psychological Good or 'Psychoheresy'?

As a psych minor in college, I naturally saw a value to the broad discipline of psychology for my future ministerial work. However, even being within one of the synodical schools, I felt a 'void' in my academic pursuits. Two areas troubled me. One was the plethora of competing 'theories,' which demonstrated to me early on that this field was anything but a unified discipline (as I soon discovered later in life also applies even to the so-called "hard" sciences.) The other was the seeming unwillingness of my professors to let theology inform, or at least, dialogue, with this discipline. It wasn't until I came to the sem that the two areas converged, and I was allowed the freedom to view matters through both lenses.

Since those days I have been aware of an ongoing debate in the church on the issue of psychology and theology. Again the views and theories abound, and some are simply in complete opposition to each other. There is the view, for example, that asserts that psychology in any form is incompatible with the Holy Scriptures. Authors such as Bodgan and Jay Adams are the vanguard of this position. Thus, alternate 'schools' within counseling have arisen, such as the so-called "nouthetic" school of Adams.

On the opposite side of the chart are those who have made psychology a substitute for theology. Counselors and psychiatrists become the new 'priests' to guide the people. Pastors are essentially deemed inadequate to deal with the interpersonal problems of the masses. This polarization has infected much of the church over the years, and we still feel its effects. I sometimes wonder if our educational institutions and districts rely too much on psychology in determining the health and worthiness of future church workers.

Then, in the middle there is an attempt to find a way to integrate legitimate findings or theories from psychology, while maintaining the integrity of one's theological position. I suspect that many Lutheran pastors may find themselves here somewhere along the continuum.

Occasionally, when I contemplate possible graduate work, my mind wanders back to my early goals of a degree in counseling, and the debate rages in my mind all over again. I find myself unwilling to reject all of modern psychology simply because of some parts that are incompatible with my faith. Psychology is not a 'pure' science. Sometimes it is referred to as one of the 'soft' sciences, obviously aware that the absolutes of other disciplines are noticeably missing here. Also, there are many 'theories' that are under girded by a philosophical basis more than a scientific one. Still, can one ignore the decades of credible research and its legitimate application to the treatment of the troubles that plague the mind?

I do think that the pastoral ministry has been often robbed of its former position in the "soul care," and that clergy occasionally abdicate their responsibility in this area because we have been taught to refer whenever a psychological problems presents itself. Certainly a balance can be found again.

In recent years I have been encouraged by another stream of study that should contribute greatly to the study of 'soul care.' As in biblical exegesis, there has also been a return to patristic studies to find a voice of ancient experience and knowledge to inform our sometimes infatuation with all things new. Although my library now possesses several fine volumes in this area, I have yet to embark on a solid schedule of reading. Perhaps this will be the year.

So, what do you think of the debate? Should we reject one for the other? Or should we find the best in psychology and be discerning as we apply it? Can theology find a partner here in dialogue, or are they from two realms, where "never the twain shall meet"?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Sixteenth Century Lutheran Views of Mary


So what did Lutherans think of Mary in the Sixteenth Century? Today we hear precious little about the Mother of Our Lord, save those times when her presence is unavoidable, such as Christmas or late Advent. On the other hand, there appears also to be a revival, of sorts, in Marian devotion among some in Lutheran circles. In a review of Beth Kreitzer's 2004 book Reforming Mary: Changing Images of the Virgin Mary in Lutheran Sermons of the Sixteenth Century (Oxford Univ. Press) in the January issue of the Concordia Journal, Dr. Timothy Maschke of Mequon gives a nice overview of the Marian views of our 16th century predecessors.

Preachers of this era (including Luther) retained the traditional Marian festivals for their Christological significance (Annunciation, Visitation, and Purification). However, the Mary in these early Lutheran sermons was not the Queen of Heaven or the great intercessor of mankind, but rather "an example of the faithful believer." They saw in her a model for all women and a good witness to God's grace. However, they did not shrink from her humanity, and freely noted the sinful weakness she possessed in common with all believers, or where it appeared that her actions may have been the result of sinful tendencies.

The Ave Maria, while popular even today in Catholicism, was also roundly critiqued in many of the sermons of this era, noting that the angel's words "are not a prayer, but a simple and proper greeting." Obviously Lutherans would have struggled with the AM from the perspective of Mary's role as a kind of "redemptive intercessor," especially the call to "pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death." Although it should be noted that the Lutheran Confessions do not deny that the saints of heaven pray for us (as a part of our understanding of the Communion of Saints and Una Sancta.) We simply find no command in Scripture to pray to them.

All told, however, it would appear that Mary was publicly recognized in sermons with greater frequency than we are accustomed to do today. The early Lutherans preachers saw in her an exemplary example of genuine Christian piety. Even her "chaste manner of travel" as well as her "neighborliness" were duly recognized. Still, these early Lutherans were careful always to note that Mary possessed no intercessory powers and did not actively participate in the actual redemptive work of our Lord.

A lack of Marian attention in sermons today is due, in part, to the lack of use of the minor festivals. One would be lucky to find a parish today that even retained the Ascension, let alone a festival such as the Visitation or Presentation. Still, this may be a good reminder that among Lutherans there is a need to recognize this previous and humble saint more than we do.

Note: While the January 2007 is only available in printed form, past issues of the Journal appear to be archived on the St. Louis Seminary's site here, for those who would like to read other excellent material from this good resource.