Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pericope of the Week: A Letter to the Editor of The Economist

Sir --

"Theological" does not mean irrational or fanatical ("A deficit of common sense," October 27th). Theologians are committed in principle to applying reason to subjects of central human importance, in the same way that climate-change scientists, politicians and economists should be.

Judith Gardom
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Brief Note on Alister E. McGrath

Dr. Alister E. McGrath

I was quite pleased to learn this week that Dr. Alister McGrath, one of the leading evangelical scholars today, gave a key address at the International Conference on Confessional Leadership, hosted in Peachtree, Georgia, by leaders and theologians in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. From media reports about his address, it sounds like it was well-received by the 120 participants who were invited to attend. If his talk was anything like the one he gave at a recent American Academy of Religion conference, one can understand why his words went over well.

I would have liked to have heard him in Georgia, too, but I wasn't invited.

Still, I am encouraged by reports about his address, as they suggest that perhaps these leaders in the LCMS and its partner churches are more open than I had thought toward hearing from a theologian who seeks to engage the contemporary world with the evangelical promise of Christ. The fact that Dr. McGrath does so  with great understanding of the modern sciences and with growing sensitivity toward some modern cultural developments (e.g., egalitarianism) is especially welcome.

As an LCMS pastor and university professor for more than twenty years, I have tried to follow his example of doing critical, contemporary evangelical theology. For me, this has meant pursuing truth wherever it might be found, most immediately within the context of modern universities (such as the ones in which you and I teach and conduct research), and then relating those truths to the truth of the gospel promise.

These intellectual paths have led me to be critical of a few of my church body's official doctrinal stances,  since they conflict with basic facts in the natural sciences (the LCMS has officially rejected all understandings of so-called "macro-evolution") and are unnecessary obstacles in the mission of reaching out to scientifically-informed people in our western, egalitarian societies (the LCMS has also rejected the practice of ordaining women as pastors and does not normally allow women to teach theology in its universities and seminaries).

I suspect that Dr. McGrath did not draw attention to his published criticisms of positions similar to the ones the LCMS has officially taken, since that likely would have been awkward for him and his hosts, but anyone who reads his writings will know that he indeed calls for evangelical churches (like the evangelical-Lutheran LCMS and its partner church bodies) to be open to the valid insights and knowledge from the natural sciences and to engage in respectful dialogue and conversation with feminist theologians.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read that Dr. McGrath was given a positive hearing at this LCMS conference.

We can be thankful for his efforts to reconcile Christian faith with knowledge from the modern natural sciences. We can be grateful for his positive appraisals of those many Christian thinkers who have sought to bring modern evolutionary theory into a positive relation with contemporary articulations of Christian faith. (See, for example, what he has written about "evolutionary theism" on pp. 193-3 of his book, Science and Religion: An Introduction.) Throughout his work he has encouraged evangelical Christians to use modern tools for biblical exegesis and to follow contemporary hermeneutical principles that take into account modern forms of scientific knowledge. He also encourages evangelicals to engage feminist theology positively, as he does in the most recent edition of his introduction to Christian theology. (My positive review of the first edition appeared in the Concordia Journal, back when I was not the persona non grata that I have become in the LCMS for writing and speaking publicly about these same issues.)

Apparently the LCMS and its partner churches are now becoming more open to hearing from evangelical theologians who support theistic evolution and a positive engagement with feminist theology--at least as long as they are not members of the LCMS or one of its partner churches!

One wonders if Dr. McGrath was able to converse with the leaders in Georgia on the above issues. Was he able to share with them his criticisms of the kind of Protestant-fundamentalist theology that is so different from authentic evangelical-Lutheran theology (Dr. Luther's understanding of "evangelisch") and that has led to severe restrictions and even repercussions against theologians who seek to explore these important issues in many evangelical churches, including the LCMS.

His approach in part led me to write the essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind" (based also in part on a chapter in the book by Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), since his approach could be helpful toward getting the LCMS and similar evangelical churches out of the dead-end position they have put themselves in by publicly attacking every understanding of "evolution" and by constantly attacking those who also seek to engage and learn from biblical theologians who are sensitive to feminist issues.

We should also appreciate his critical work over against the neo-atheists. This is a concern that I share, too, and thus I've tried to engage the same anti-theologians in my new book, The Promise of Theology. So thank you, Dr. McGrath, for your work, which is to say, thank you for your intelligent witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pericope of the Week: The Theological Declaration of Barmen

Over the years I have regularly taught a university course on Christians in Nazi Germany. I am doing so again this semester. Since I continue also to serve a pastoral vacancy in our area, a few weeks ago I began an adult class there on the same topic. This week both sets of students are examining the "Theological Declaration" that came out of the confessing synod that met in Barmen, Germany in May, 1934. The purpose of the Declaration was to identify the false teaching of the so-called "German Christians," those who sought to change the Protestant Church in Germany to reflect Nazi ideology, for example, by excluding from the pastoral ministry those Protestant pastors who were of Jewish ancestry, and to call upon those who accepted the Declaration to act in accord with its judgments.

Karl Barth
The principal author of the Declaration was Karl Barth, professor of Reformed theology at the University of Bonn, although some Lutheran theologians made contributions to it as well, most significantly in the fifth article (which was not a part of Barth's original draft).

Unfortunately, the English translation of the Declaration that occurs in Arthur C. Cochrane's book, The Church's Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962; pp. 237-42), is not entirely accurate. The online reproduction of that translation ( also includes material that was not originally a part of the Declaration itself, and it omits some material.

I have therefore attempted a translation of the Declaration myself and include it below as this week's "pericope." My translation is based on the seventh German edition: Martin Heimbucher and Rudolf Weth, eds., Die Barmer Theologische Erklärung: Einführung und Kokumentation, foreword by Wolfgang Huber (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2009), 33-43.

If anyone has suggestions for improving my translation, please feel free to share them with me.

Edmund Schlink
I should add that I have written about two German-Lutheran theological responses to the Declaration in the 1930s. The first response was basically positive, namely, that of Edmund Schlink, who signed the Declaration and became a member of the Confessing Church. (See my essays: "Edmund Schlink (1903-1984), Lutheran Quarterly 23 [Winter 2009], 406-38; "Edmund Schlink on Theological Anthropology, the Law and the Gospel," Lutheran Quarterly 24 [Summer 2010], 151-82). The other response, however, was basically negative, namely, that of Werner Elert. (See my essay, "Werner Elert in Retrospect," Lutheran Quarterly 20 [Autumn 2006], 249-302). Whereas Schlink likely could not have supported the Declaration had the fifth article been excluded, Elert could not support the document because he thought the first two articles were contradicted by the fifth article. For him, Jesus Christ is not the only word of God, and the other word, that of the divine law, is to be sharply distinguished from the promise of the divine gospel. Such a distinction also relates to the Lutheran insistence that God works in the world through two differing operations, the so-called "two kingdoms," which is summarized in the fifth article of the Declaration.

Theological Declaration concerning the Present Situation of the German Protestant Church

            According to the opening words of its meeting on July 11, 1933, the German Protestant Church is a federation of confessional churches which grew out of the Reformation and which have equal rights beside one another. The theological presupposition of the unity of these churches is given in Articles 1 and 2.1 of the Constitution of the German Protestant Church, which were recognized by the national government on July 14, 1933:

Article 1: The inviolable basis of the German Protestant Church is the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is attested for us in Holy Scripture and brought to light anew in the confessions of the Reformation. Hereby the full power and authority which the church needs for its mission are determined and delimited.

Article 2.1: The German Protestant Church is comprised of churches (state churches).

            We, the unified representatives of Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches, free synods, church congresses, and congregational organizations at the confessing synod of the German Protestant Church declare that we stand together on the basis of the German Protestant Church as a federation of German confessional churches. Thereby the confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, universal, and apostolic church binds us together.

            We publicly declare before all of the Protestant churches in Germany that the common element in this confession is severely endangered, as is the unity of the German Protestant Church. It is threatened by the teaching methods and actions of the ruling church party of "German Christians" and the church government undertaken by them. These methods and actions have become more and more visible in the first year of the existence of the German Protestant Church. This threat consists in this, namely, that the theological presupposition, in which the German Protestant Church is united, has been continuously and fundamentally thwarted and made ineffective by foreign presuppositions, both on the part of the leader and speaker of the German Christians and by the church government. When these presuppositions are held to be valid, the church ceases to be the church, according to all of the confessions in force among us. Likewise, as a result of this, the German Protestant Church is intrinsically impossible as a federation of confessional churches.

            As members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches we may and must speak together today about this matter. Precisely because we want to be true and remain true to our diverse confessions, we may not keep silent since we believe that in a time of common emergency and crisis it is fitting for us to speak a common word. We commend to God what this may mean for the relationship of the confessional churches to one another.

            In view of the errors of the German Christians and the present government of the national church, which are desolating the church and thus also the unity of the German Protestant Church, we confess the following evangelical-Protestant truths:

1.   "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me" (John 14:6). "Truly, truly I say to you: he who does not enter into the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way, he is a thief and a murderer. I am the gate; if anyone enters by me, he will be blessed" (John 10:1, 9).
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one word of God that we are to hear, which we are to trust and to obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the church can and must recognize as sources for its preaching, apart from and beside this one word of God, also other events and powers, figures and truths as God's revelation.

2.   "God made Jesus Christ to be for us our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).
Just as Jesus Christ is God's assurance [Zuspruch] of the forgiveness of all our sins, so also, and with the same earnestness, he is God's powerful claim [Anspruch] upon our entire life. Through him a joyous liberation from the godless conditions of this world occurs for us, a liberation for free, grateful service to his creatures.
We reject the false doctrine, as if there are domains of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, domains in which we would not need justification and sanctification by him.

3.   "But let us be upright in love and grow in every respect into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together" (Eph. 4:15-16).
The Christian church is the congregation of brothers in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the church of forgiven sinners, it has to testify in the midst of the world of sinners, both with its faith and its obedience, with its message as well as with its order, that it alone is his property, that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and by his direction in anticipation of his appearance.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the church could relinquish the form of its message and its order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

4.    "You know that the worldly rulers lord over others and the chief lords have power. It shall not be so among you; but if anyone wants to be great among you, let him be your servant" (Matt. 20:25-26).
The various offices in the church do not establish any lordship of one over the others, but the exercise of the ministry is commanded and entrusted to the whole congregation.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the church, apart from this ministry, could give itself and allow itself to be given over to special leaders who are vested with ruling powers.

5.     "Fear God, honor the king" (1 Pet. 2:17).
Scripture says to us that the State, according to divine arrangement, has the task to be concerned for justice and peace in this still unredeemed world in which the church also stands, and to do so according to the standard of human insight and human ability, under penalty of threat and the use of force. In gratitude and reverence toward God, the church recognizes the benefit of this, his arrangement. The church reminds itself of God's kingdom, of God's command and justice, and thereby, of the responsibility of those governing and of the governed. It trusts and obeys the power of the word by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the state, beyond its special task, should and could become the single and total order of human life and thereby fulfill also the intended purpose of the church.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the church, beyond its special task, should and could take over state-governmental actions, state-governmental tasks, and state-governmental positions and thereby become itself an organ of the state.

6.    "See, I am with you every day until the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20).
       "God's word is not bound" (2 Tim. 2:9).
The task of the church, in which its freedom is grounded, consists in this, namely, to pass on the message of the freeing grace of God to every nation, in the place of Christ and thus in service to his own word and work through sermon and sacrament.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the church, in human arrogance, could place the word and work of the Lord in service to any arbitrarily-chosen wishes, goals, and plans.

            The confessing synod of the German Protestant Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgement of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological foundation of the German Protestant Church as a federation of confessional churches. It invites all who are able to agree with its declaration to keep in mind these theological judgments in their church-political decisions. It requests all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.

Verbum Dei manet in aeternum. [The word of God remains to eternity.]

Monday, September 24, 2012

Germany and the Czech Republic in July 2013

St. Thomas Church - Leipzig
Next summer I will once again be leading a 12-day tour to Germany and the Czech Republic. Not only will we visit significant places connected with the lives of Martin Luther and J. S. Bach, but we will also explore other sites that are important in the history of Germany. The journey begins with a few days in bustling Berlin. From there we will travel through Wittenberg, Leipzig, Erfurt, and Dresden, and then on to historic  Prague.

Along the way we will visit the home of "Hitler resister" Dietrich Bonhoeffer, explore the rich cultural opportunities in the German capital, tour the state-of-the-art Luther museum and other exhibits in the town he made famous, undertake a pilgrimage to the Wartburg Castle (and see its rich variety of religious relics and artwork), visit the Bachhaus museum in Eisenach (where we will learn about and listen to all things Baroque), experience world-class music at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and at the recently-renovated Frauenkirche in Dresden. There will be shopping and museum-exploring in Berlin and Prague, people-watching in various market places and town squares, eating wonderful meals in such places as Leipzig's Auerbach's Keller (made famous by Goethe), and lingering in an art museum or two. We will engage German history and culture from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. So we will learn about Goethe and Schiller, but also walk the haunting grounds of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp and wrestle with the dark side of Germany's more recent past.

What better way to spend a late afternoon in July than to sample a good German beer or wine over conversation at an outside cafe in the shadow of a medieval cathedral, as you watch others going about their business in the town square or market place... And then to catch an early dinner before heading off to a cabaret show or the opera or an evening concert...

Zwinger Museum - Dresden
As one who has taught university courses on Luther and Bach (and who lived and taught in Germany for two years [2007-9]), I will be providing "color commentary" on the places we visit and the histories we uncover. While there will be several guided walking tours, there will also be much time for informal conversation and discussion.

I should stress that one does not need to be a Lutheran Christian to enjoy this experience! Just ask the several non-Lutheran participants from last summer's trip! In fact, two of them told me after last year's journey that they planned to publicize this upcoming trip to friends at their local Roman Catholic church.(Several of the participants are also Valparaiso University alumni, but one need not have any connection to my university to join us!)

Our tour company is Trans World Travel, located in Highland Park, Illinois. They have been organizing and leading tours to Europe and elsewhere for several decades.

To download a color brochure about the trip, visit
Then click on the link that will take you to "Luther/Bach Trip 2013."

To register for the trip, simply print off the brochure and send in the registration form to Trans World Travel. They are handling all of the actual travel arrangements.

Since space is limited, I encourage you to register soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Religion in the Economist

Among the more interesting journals about religion that I read on a weekly basis, none is more insightful and provoking than the British Economist. First published in 1843, its original purpose still graces the masthead: " take part in 'a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.'" Given this nineteenth-century liberal, modernist aim, one might think "religion" and even "theology" would be relegated in its pages to the wrong side of that "severe contest." Not so. Or, at least, not always. Perhaps in a way not foreseen in the mid-1800s, "religions" have persisted into the present. Whereas less than a century before the magazine's founding, David Hume confidently predicted that "within 300 years" most all religions would cease to exist within modern, scientific societies, such has not been the case. If anything, a well-educated business person today needs more knowledge of the world's religions and their impact on societies and regions than was the case in Hume's eighteenth century. Careful reporting on human beings, their hopes and fears, their beliefs and behaviors, cannot avoid the long shadow of "religion" and even "theology." The faith-dimension to many of the most troubling of problems in the contemporary world cannot be avoided: the growing gap between rich and the poor, the population explosion, ongoing violent conflicts between different racial, cultural, and religious groups (the arming of which no one seems able to stop), the global environmental crisis.The list could go on. So it is not surprising that "religion" and even "theology" appear in such a secular-minded magazine as the Economist.

Witness this week's edition (Sep 15, 2012). Beyond the several pages devoted to Muslim rage and violence in response to a vile, online anti-Muslim film made by a Coptic-American Christian, attention was given to:

(1) two letters to the editor on "atheism" (in response to an earlier article on "growing disbelief" in America). One of the letter writers wrote, "I can't imagine how belief or unbelief in a god would made any difference in my life. I'll still try to treat my fellow man and woman like I'd like them to treat me. It really is possible to try to be good without the aid of an organized religion or belief in the supernatural." But did you invent the notion of "treating your fellow man and woman as you'd like them to treat you?" And how well are you doing at that? What if you are not the only judge of your behavior?

(2) no easy choices in Syria, now that the death toll is approaching 30,000 and the refugee count ten times that amount;

(3) religious differences among the Syrian rebels and how that is complicating their resistance;

(4) moral-religious issues relating to women's health care and their impact on the US presidential election;

(5) gay marriage ballot measures in several US states;

(6) the lack of much debate about foreign policy between the two US candidates (the editorial makes reference to Pres. Obama's failed "ambitious plan" to "reach out to Muslims" so as "to reduce the antagonism of Muslims toward the West and Israel");

(7) the growth of private universities in Brazil, some of which are Roman Catholic;

(8) the Haqqani network that is straining US-Pakistani relations;

(9) the heated election for mayor of Jakarta (Muslim-Christian tensions in Indonesia);

(10) the new moderate Islamist president of Somalia;

(11) the elections in the Netherlands (Christian Democrat setback; anti-Muslim politics);

(12) Peddling religion in Turkey (relationship between Muslim theology and modern sciences);

(13) Angela Merkel's (Lutheran?) austerity in the euro crisis;

 (14) moves among British Tories toward better relations with gays (which is upsetting to conservative Christians);

(15) the pros and cons of circumcision (and controversy surrounding communities that want to ban the religious practice);

(16) reinventing Bach (review of a new book about how modern musical technology has allowed Bach's music to be reinvented by its interpreters);

(17) a review of the book, "And Man Created God: Kings, Cults, and Conquests at the Time of Jesus" (a review that would have been better had it paid closer attention to the work on Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, who is mentioned in the earlier review on the Bach book);

(18) an obituary of peace-maker, Roger Fisher, whose knowledge of the world religions was central to his work as "a fixer."

This was not an atypical week. When time is limited, one is hard-pressed to find better analysis of global events, including their religious dimensions than this weekly newspaper.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Human Animal and Other Animals in God's Creation

This summer I am again teaching a course on the Christian doctrine of creation. Early in the semester we wrestle with the place of human beings in creation and with the idea of "human exceptionalism," the notion that human beings are qualitatively different and separate from/above all other animals. Among those most critical of this idea has been Benjamin Hale, who writes for Harpers magazine. Last summer, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, he contributed an essay on Psalm 8 that attacked "the anthropocentric ordering of the Judeo-Christian universe," a view that "enrages" him "more than anything else in the Bible." He thinks it "has fostered an attitude dominant in our culture that uncompromisingly divides 'man' from 'beast.' Christian theology requires the assumption of human exceptionalism, since the Christian heaven is a human one. It requires us to assume that we alone have a culture and the capacity for morality; that only by the light of our 'unnatural' (whether this means supernatural or contradictory to survival of the fittest) human morality can we overcome the amoral, purely self-interested State of Nature. The dichotomy that pits humanity and morality against 'nature' does not align with observations of moral, social, and altruistic behavior in primates or in many other mammals--dogs, elephants, bats--something that suggests that both the good and the bad in us have precedent in other species" (Benjamin Hale, "Lower Than the Angels," Harpers Magazine [June 2011], 38.. In the August 2012 issue of the same magazine, he has written a film review that also makes reference to his critique of "human exceptionalism.")

I recently asked my students to respond to Hale's portrayal of "the Judeo-Christian universe" and its supposed assumption of "human exceptionalism." Many defended the idea that human beings, at least as understood within the main religious traditions, are indeed different from all other animals because they can use their reason and freedom to go against "natural" impulses and instincts that serve the self (and often do harm to others). While acknowledging the biological-evolutionary connection that human beings have to all other life forms on the planet, other students argued that human beings are uniquely qualified and positioned to act differently from other animals. This is both a challenge and a threat, since human actions can both help and harm other creatures and creation itself. 

At least a couple of students questioned Hale's assumption that "Christian theology requires the assumption of human exceptionalism, since the Christian heaven is a human one." For starters, these students noted that other creatures beyond humans will populate heaven. What about angels, for example? But students also noted that the difference between human beings and other animals does not necessarily mean that humans can mistreat animals. "The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel" (Prov. 12:10). 

Still other students asked, "Is it not also possible that other animals will be brought into God's future?" What about the vision of Isaiah of God's "new heavens and new earth" (Isaiah 65:17-19; cf. Rev. 21:1), which does not merely include renewed human beings but also renewed animals? "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain" (Is. 65:25; NRSV). This new age is further described in 11:6ff: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them..."

The question of "human exceptionalism," supposedly premised on an animal-less heaven, is not merely an academic issue. It is also a pastoral one. Last week our 2.5-year-old "Schnoodle," Skipper, was killed by a fast-moving car on the county road behind our house. My wife had taken him for a walk in our quiet sub-division, but upon coming home he saw a wild rabbit and got away from my wife. His instincts told him to chase that critter, and so he did--and his chasing took him right out into the road. 

I wasn't present for the accident, but shortly thereafter my neighbor and crying wife appeared at our front door. Skipper was a mess. It was clear he had suffered severe head trauma and was bleeding internally. He was unconscious but still breathing. My son, Jacob, who has had only this one pet (other than a little hamster), immediately starting screaming and crying. We all quickly jumped in the car and tried to get Skipper to a pet hospital, but he died in my wife's and son's arms in the back seat. It didn't help that all the local vet offices were closed, with it being Sunday, and the closest pet hospital was forty minutes away.

It all happened so fast. I even remember pinching myself, "Is this really happening." And then to hear as I was driving the car, "I think he's gone."

But where did he go? Did he have a "spirit" or a "soul," like the Scriptures say human beings do? Skipper certainly had "life" and "breath" in him, and we've been around enough other pets to know that he had had a distinct "personality."

Skipper's death has been like losing a child. My 13-yr-old son laments, "I have lost a brother." For the past several days, as we wander through the house, we'll see things that remind us of him, spots he used to go to (and spots he has left behind!), items he's chewed, toys he's played with. We buried him in our backyard that Monday morning and put a grave marker over the spot, just like you would for a deceased human being. Certainly, anyone who has had a beloved pet knows what I'm talking about. They really become a part of your family. You have a deeper relationship to them than you realize, until they're gone. Skipper brought us a lot of joy and laughter. He could be so goofy at times. Our lives were made fuller because of him.

Do all dogs go to heaven? Just the good ones, the loved ones? Do not the visions of Second- and Third Isaiah, and John, indicate that non-human animals, too, will be brought through death into God's new creation. I find it difficult to believe that God would create all these varied creatures, just to have them die rather senselessly, if they too were not an aspect of God's eternal plan. Why couldn't the Creator of all these animals not make a provision for them in that future world? The actions and words of St. Francis to bless animals would also suggest this possibility.

As word of Skipper's death reached other family members and friends, one of them told me that when he had been a student of Jaroslav Pelikan at Concordia Seminary, Pelikan had told them about his own pet's death and how it had affected his family. His son, too, asked him, "Will there be pets in heaven?" Dr. Pelikan responded by saying that if that was important for his son's happiness in heaven, then his son's pet would surely be there. This is what I have told my son, too.

Coincidentally, today's "Sightings" article by Carol J. Adams, "Five Religious Approaches to Thinking about Meat Eating," raises the same issue about the relation of "human beings" to "animals" in God's creation. Adams, who participated in the first-ever panel on "Animals and Religion" at the American Academy of Religion in 1994, has identified at least five approaches "for addressing the issue of the consumption of animals" that arise when one studies religion: 

1) Most religious traditions postulate a vegan beginning. In the religions that hold the Book of Genesis as a part of their scriptures, a vegan diet is pronounced as the appropriate food for human beings (Genesis 1:29); the much-contested “dominion” granted in Genesis 1:26 is dominion within a vegan world. Christopher Chapple suggests the possibility that one can trace religious ideas of the practice of nonviolence to an ancient renouncer tradition that later gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism and influenced aspects of Hinduism, including the classical yoga school. This is one of the reasons Rynn Berry calls Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism the “four ahimsa-based 'vegetarian’ religions.” What do those beginnings suggest about our relationships with other created beings?
2) As mentioned above, some find it helpful to invoke what Jesus, the Buddha, or Mohammed ate. Recently, the question has shifted to “if they were alive in our time, what would they eat now? If they learned about the way animals live and die within factory farms, what would they do?” Would they agree with the winner of the recent New York Times competition that “most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor”?
3) What is the nature of creation and what is our place in it? Some religious traditions are seen as reinforcing human-centeredness because they appear to suggest that humans are the teleological fulfillment of creation. Are we removed from creation or embedded within it? If our relationship with creation is a religious issue, and since animals are a part of creation, is not our relationship with animals also a religious issue? Karen Davis suggests in response to Aldo Leopold that before she could think like a mountain, she wanted to know if that would include thinking like a chicken. In other words, we should not lose sight of the individuals within creation.
4) What are the effects of anthropormorphizing God? Does an anthropormophic God cause us to see animals as excluded from God’s love or concern? Moreover, what is the effect of seeing humans as in God’s image? Why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power and manipulation and hegemony instead of compassion and mercy and emptying unconditional love? Do we anthropomorphize God out of properties that we are most likely to be using against others? We are most likely to assert the image of God when we are lording over others, and using our power. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, kindness to animals, get associated with a picture of wishy washy ineffectualness and weakness—qualities often seen as undesirable.

5) How do we show compassion and who are our neighbors? Do animals fall within a religious call to be compassionate? Are animals our neighbors? While most religions might have what some call a “miminal treatment” ethics regarding how animals should be treated, recent writings argue for expanding that. In their Religious Vegetarianism, Kerry Walter and Lisa Portmess suggest, “Whatever the sacred and the holy are thought to be, the human slaughter of animals questions it, renders it paradoxical, demands reflection.” In my own work, I have found the writings of Simone Weil illuminating. Weil writes that all our neighbor requires of us is to ask “What are you going through?” and to be willing to listen to the answer.
What are you going through, chicken, cow, pig, lamb, fish? This may be a more profound and urgent question in the twenty-first century than ever before. 

("Sightings" comes each Monday from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.) 


Berry, Rynn. Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World’s Religions. New York and Los Angeles: Pythagorean Publishers, 1998.

Chapple, Christoper Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Davis, Karen, “Thinking Like a Chicken,” in Carol J. Adams, and Josephine Donovan, eds. Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portmess, ed. Religious Vegetarianism from the Hesiod to the Dalai Lama. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Weil, Simone. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to The Love of God,” in Waiting on God. London: Fontana Books, 1971. 

Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Woman-Battering (in Fortress Press’s Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series), Prayers for Animals, and a four-book children’s series of prayers for animals. In addition, she has edited and co-edited five anthologies, including Ecofeminism and the Sacred. She is working on a book on theology and animals. Her website can be found at

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Couple of Questions from an LCMS Vicar

Every now and then I get an email from someone who has read my online essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind" (The Daystar Journal [Summer 2005 issue]), and desires some clarification. Last week an LCMS vicar contacted me for just this purpose. He's given me permission to share his email here:

Dear Dr. Becker,
...I have always struggled with the tension that exists, more generally in the larger Christian community and more specifically in the LCMS, between theology and science. This issue is nowhere more present for me than in the debate over evolution. I recently read your article "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind," and appreciated your insight on the issue. I especially liked your distinction between "primary" and "secondary causes," how theology seeks to understand the triune God, and science seeks to understand the secondary causes (in this case the genesis of the cosmos). I also appreciate your critique of those who reject a Copernican view of the cosmos in favor of a literalistic reading of the scriptures. (Ironically, they reject evolution on these same grounds.)

That said, I am still wrestling with several concepts in your paper, and humbly ask for clarification. (I understand you are a busy man, wearing many hats.)

1. You state:

For example, scientific data about the reality of physical death in the animal and plant kingdoms prior to origin of human beings (e.g., fossils of animals that lived long before the origin of human beings) must lead those who interpret the Bible in light of scientific knowledge to restate the nature of God’s good creation prior to the advent of human sin (e.g., such a good creation must have included the reality of death prior to the existence of human beings) and the character of the historical origin of sin (e.g., the advent of sin is to be traced to the first hominids who disobeyed God’s will but not necessarily to their having eaten from a tree in an actual place called the Garden of Eden several thousand years ago).

The seminary and many theologians sight death before the fall as their primary concern with evolution. In your paper, you do not seem to hold the same concern. I am wondering how you reconcile this issue, especially in light of Romans 6:23? It seems like you are creating a disjunction between sin and death. How does one do this in light of the gospel, namely that Jesus conquered death and, thus, sin?

2. Earlier, you state:

   But “reason” has its limits, according to Luther.  Reason is given to human beings for use within the earthly or natural domain.  Here, reason has its proper role and function.  As noted above, Luther is even prepared to acknowledge that the powers of human reason remain largely uncorrupted by sin.  For Luther, it was simply a matter of making proper distinctions, especially between “the things of nature” and “the things of the Spirit.”  Only when transferred from the natural domain into matters of the Spirit, does “reason” become a “whore,” according to Luther. Before God (coram deo), reason is unreliable and of no use to human beings; but within the world (coram mundo), reason is reliable and of great use to human beings.

Before God, reason is unreliable, because human reason is corrupt and cannot comprehend the hidden God. Before the world, is human reason any less corrupt? I understand that we use human reason to interpret the scriptures, but it seems like you are suggesting that we let our interpretation of creation guide our interpretation of the scriptures. Does this place reason on par with or above the scriptures?

Again, thank you for your response. I understand you have come under criticism for discussing such things, and I by no means desire to criticize you in this email. I am simply curious about your reflections on these issues.

(LCMS Vicar--name withheld)

Here's my edited response to him:

Dear Vicar-------,

Thank you for taking time to read my essay and to ask your two questions.

With regard to your first question: I need to state clearly that the human experience of death is revealed in the Scriptures to be a judgment from God for human sin. The Scriptures clearly teach that sin and the death of human beings are related, as your reference to Rom. 6:20-23 indicates. However, Paul is not talking here about biological death among animals (and this would include human beings insofar as they are animals, too), but about the death that is experienced as God's judgment by human sinners. Paul's teaching only make sense in reference to actual human beings who live "on this side of Eden." In our present situation, the biological death of human beings is now revealed to be a judgment from God. Death now "exercises dominion over" human beings, "even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam" (Rom. 5:14).

The Scriptures do not speak of "sin" in reference to animals, nor do we understand their biological endings as a judgment of God (unless you understand Rom. 8:20-21 in this way, but even there the reference seems to be to the suffering and decay of human beings in the old creation who are awaiting their revelation as the children of God, not to the biological death of all creatures). The Scriptures speak of sin and "the dominion of death" only in reference to human beings. The fact that animals have died for millions of years before the appearance of the first human beings is only problematic for those who insist on reading Gen. 2-3 as an actual literal-historical account of a time of "innocence" and "immortality" prior to an actual, literal "fall into sin," after which human beings became mortal. It is also problematic if one thinks the Scriptures teach that the death of all creatures is the divine judgment for the sin of the first human beings. As far as I can tell, the Scriptures do not teach this. Gen. 3 should not be read as an historical account of an actual event, but as a profound narrative that reveals what human beings are before God: anxious, tempted, finite sinners who have come under the judgment of God.

A theological reading of these early chapters of Genesis discloses to oneself and to other human beings our own incapacity for good, our sense of common guilt with all other human beings, and our need for redemption. We are aware of ourselves as creatures of God, created in the image and likeness of God for relationship with God and for freedom and creativity in the world (and in this sense, every human being has a sense of an "original perfection" before God, to use Schleiermacher's phrase, a time of innocence/perfection that has been lost to them), but we also are aware that we are now estranged from God, enslaved to sin, adrift in the world, disconnected from God's will, mortally judged, and in need of Christ's salvation. The revelation of God's law clarifies and intensifies this estrangement and divine judgment.

One need not interpret the stories in Gen. 1-3 as reports about two actual events in the past, "creation and fall," or hold to the (non-biblical) notion that all biological death is the result of the actual sin of two human beings in the past, to arrive at a true theological understanding of human beings as fallen creatures, as theologians from Schleiermacher to Tillich have also correctly underscored.

My reading of Rom. 6:20ff. is that every human being, from birth, is a slave to sin. We can only talk about human beings as sinful creatures. We know of no human being who is not a sinner, save One, Jesus. To the extent that human beings are biological animals, their lives are conditioned by the same conditions that affect all other creatures. They are finite and mortal. But unlike other creatures, human beings have been created for freedom and creativity within creation and we continue to reflect the image and likeness of God (albeit in a distorted manner because of our sinful condition), and we are also aware of our estrangement from God, that we are "slaves to sin," and incapable of saving ourselves.

There is no escaping the fact that our deaths are closely connected to our experience of God's judgment against our lives, that our lives do not go on forever, that they come to an ending, and that they are put into the divine balance, so to speak. But Christ, the new human being, has freed those who are enslaved to sin from the judgment of God, has united them in himself through baptism into his death and resurrection, and has invited them to trust that so united they will be brought through death into eternal life. (As to the ultimate future of God's other creatures, I am agnostic.)

With regard to your second question: human reason and our senses are preserved by God and they give us reliable knowledge of God's creation, as Luther's explanation to the First Article indicates. Despite Luther's criticism of the wrongful use of "reason" in theological matters, he freely acknowledged its rigorous use in natural philosophy (what we today would call "the natural sciences"). Melanchthon had an even more positive view of reason in these areas than did his elder colleague. To deny the power of reason to uncover accurate knowledge in nature is to deny God's preservation of our reason and senses vis-a-vis the things of this world. When the Scriptures refer to matters of this world that are also investigated by people using their God-given and God-preserved reason and senses, then the latter investigations are helpful for identifying false interpretations of those same Scriptural passages. That is why I have criticized those who reject the Copernican theory in favor of a literalistic reading of all those biblical passages that refer to the immovability of the earth, to the earth resting on pillars, to the four corners of the earth, to the sun moving around the earth, and so on. A basic hermeneutical principle is that one should read a passage literally unless there are good reasons for adopting a figurative or symbolic reading. In the case of the above cosmological passages, extra-biblical knowledge has provided solid reasons for adopting figurative readings of those passages. If we did not allow the natural sciences to inform our reading of the cosmological passages in the Scripture, then we would have to insist with Dr. Pieper that indeed the Copernican theory is wrong because a literal, straight-forward reading of the Bible indicates that the earth does not move, that it is resting on a foundation (or on pillars), and that the sun does move around the earth (Josh. 10; Ps. 19; etc.). Thankfully, the Augustinian-Lutheran-Melanchthonian approach to biblical interpretation allows the natural knowledge of nature, gained through the use of God's reliable gifts of reason and the senses, to shed light on how we are to interpret biblical passages that also refer to the cosmos. Such knowledge now assists us in eliminating false readings of the narratives in the early chapters of Genesis and to minimize the tensions to which you referred regarding the interpretation of the Bible in light of scientific knowledge of the natural history of the earth.

Hope this helps to clarify.

Warm regards,
Matt Becker

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

deus absconditus

The other night, shortly before the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I happened to watch the 1958 film, A Night to Remember. It was hard to miss, given the amount of media attention to the anniversary and all the documentaries that flooded cable t.v. Not as technologically innovative as the blockbuster by Cameron, and lacking the strong romantic sub-plot, the earlier film nevertheless is surprisingly good. It focuses more on what happened--and didn't happen-- that fateful night in 1912, and it stresses the common humanity of all involved (on the actual ship, in the film, on the couch watching the film). In my opinion, some scenes are better than any in the later film.

One such scene that I think is particularly memorable is the first glimpse one gets of the iceberg that will eventually sink the "unsinkable." All of a sudden, it's just there, a kind of unexpected white mountain, mysterious, yet majestic, fascinating, and yet terrifying. It is the kind of image that Otto might have used to describe "the mysterium tremendum" in Das Heilige (The Holy), published in 1917 (and translated six years later as The Idea of the Holy by John W. Harvey [Oxford University Press]). A kind of shudder came over me at that moment, even though I've seen the film many times. I suppose it is not unlike the first time one witnesses "the white whale" in Moby Dick, a figure that many readers of Melville's novel have likened to God. We, the reader or film viewer, know that the mysterious object, whether iceberg or whale, is going to doom people, to bring them under the cold water. Are we not overcome by awe and wonder and fear?
The Scriptures also point to this experience when they make reference to the almighty and holy God, whose ways are mysterious and "hidden" from the reasoning and control of human beings. Martin Luther thus spoke of the deus absconditus, "the God who is hidden," whose majesty and unfathomable power are concealed to all of creation. This is the God who creates "weal and woe" and who causes fear to arise in human hearts, who fills them with wonder and perhaps dread in the face of the Wholly Other, who suddenly comes upon human beings when they least expect. This is God in wrath and judgment, whose jealousy is absolute, whose ways are not our ways. Humans experience "the hidden God" both as God's numinous, tremendous presence that confronts the sinner (how God is a consuming, devouring, raging fire that makes of us dust and ashes) and as God's absence (how God seems distant, cold, uncaring, mixed up with irrational "fate"). Luther thought that in such situations God and Devil seem to be one and the same: "For God deals with us and brings us to ruin with power, smites and hammers us and pays no heed to us... In his majesty He is a consuming fire... From whom no one can escape: if he thinks on God aright, his heart in his body is struck with terror... Yes, as soon as he hears God named, he is filled with trepidation and fear" (Sermon on Exodus 20). This is why Luther interprets the First Commandment to mean, "We should fear, love, and trust God above all things."

God "who dwells in unapproachable light" is nevertheless approachable through the promising word of mercy, the Word that became incarnate in Jesus. Here, in Christ, the Holy One is pure goodness and compassion. Here, in Jesus, God's infinite majesty has condescended to us in love, has become familiar, intimate and, more to the point, merciful and forgiving. Here, in Jesus Christ, is God's great "nevertheless," God's promise of forgiveness for the ungodly, God's promise of eternal life for mortal sinners, God's promise of salvation for the condemned and the doomed.

This good news is always a "counter-factual promise" because the one so forgiven still experiences sin and senses mortality in this life. The one so loved still lives in a world of "fate," of evil and injustice, in a world marked seemingly more by the absence of God and the realities of sin and the universality of death than by God's gracious and uncanny presence. Thus, the gospel is always and only a gracious promise of divine mercy and forgiveness for the sake of the crucified and risen Christ, with no apparent, visible support in the world of sense experience, save the preaching and announcing of that promise, which is also attached to Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

The intended aim of the promise is "faith," since faith alone can receive the promise. We live by faith "against appearances" (Werner Elert), not by sight, since there is much that contradicts the message of the gospel in the world of appearances. Against appearances and doubts and, yes, even against the deus absconditus, one trusts the divine promise, that it will be fulfilled eschatologically, in the end. So we live and wait in hope.

Both "fear" and "trust" mark the Christian life, mixed up with "love," but ultimately it is the summons to trust that overcomes our fears, even our fear of almighty God, whose judgments remain an ultimate mystery, but less so in view of Christ. In that faithful view, the summons to love as Christ has loved is also again possible to heed and to follow. Thus the Christian of today joins St. Paul in confessing: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ  who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pericope for the Week: Vaclav Havel+

Earlier this month The Economist's "Lexington" warned readers "to be sceptical when politicians speechify on religion" (March 3, 2012, p. 44). Given the low level of public discourse on religion, it is rather easy to agree with this advice. The article, "One Nation under gods," provides some historical-critical exegesis of a 1960 campaign speech by John F. Kennedy, in which the Democratic Catholic (or Catholic Democrat) explained his understanding of the separation between "state and church" to a group of Protestants who, it is safe to say, were rather skeptical about Catholic politicians. In that speech Candidate Kennedy argued that the state should never favor one religion over another: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

While the article does not refer to how those words, particularly the second to the last clause, might have been understood by those religious groups and individuals who were protesting unjust civil laws in America and who were working toward the creation of better civil rights legislation (one thinks immediately of MLK Jr.), the article does refer to the two principal, conflicting philosophical traditions on the place of "religion" in American public life that have been present since the republic's founding: (1) the Enlightenment "secular," "rational" tradition that tends to personalize/privatize/de-value "religion"; and (2) the Puritan "Christian" tradition that seeks to subsume all "publics" under the Sovereignty of God.

The immediate references for Lexington's reflections were, of course, the flap over contraception and insurance in Catholic institutions in relation to a health policy of the current U.S. President and "the noisy religiosity" of one of the Republican presidential hopefuls who has attacked Kennedy's speech and Mr. Obama's attempt to reconcile the above traditions.

All of this got me to thinking about another politician, one who didn't really want to become one but who was nonetheless thrust into that calling by circumstance in his native country: Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, two of whose books have been beside my bed for the past week. The first, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, trans. Paul Wilson (Random House, 1990) is a set of extended interviews that Havel gave in the 1980s. The other, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, trans. Paul Wilson et al (Fromm International, 1994), is a collection of speeches. Both books reveal that, in his own way, Havel also wrestled with the tensions and contradictions between that same Enlightenment tradition and the broader, western Christian tradition. As a poet and dramatist and philosopher, Havel, who died on December 18 last year, lived in the wake of the Enlightenment's critique of "religion," metaphysics, and the transcendent, and yet, as one who suffered political oppression because of how that same tradition had contributed to the formation of an officially-atheistic state that he and so many others saw as inhumane and stifling, he came to appreciate the critical and creative spirit of those who saw beyond this world to "something" that gave them realistic, creative hope. Unlike the kind of "noisy religiosity" that pervades contemporary American public life, Havel's was a quieter, more nuanced, cautious, even "surprised-by-grace" public piety. But piety it was.

This week's pericope comes from the first book:

Question to Havel: Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?

Havel: I should probably say first that the kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don't think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favorable signs in the world. I feel its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are, though of course I can't--unlike Christians, for instance--say anything concrete about the transcendental. An individual may affirm or deny that his hope is so rooted, but this does nothing to change my conviction (which is more than just a conviction; it's an inner experience). The most convinced materialist and atheist may have more of this genuine, transcendentally rooted inner hope (this is my view, not his) than ten meta-physicians together.

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed... In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from "elsewhere." It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. (Disturbing the Peace, 181-82).

Monday, February 27, 2012

Summer 2012 Valpo Germany Tour

Thomaskirche Altar
I have been asked to serve as the faculty leader for a tour to Germany this summer that is being organized by Valparaiso University. The tour will intersect with our university choir, which will also be touring at the time.

Apparently there are still a few openings, if you or someone you know would like to join us. Right now, there are 17 registered to go, but we could take as many as 25.

After an overnight flight to Berlin, we will spend two full days in the German capital. Then it is on to Leipzig, where we will spend three nights. There we will hear Valpo's Chorale at the famous Thomaskirche (at both the Sat. motet service and the Sunday main service), tour the Nicolaikirche (where the 1989 freedom demonstrations had their start in the Monday evening prayer services), and visit other interesting sites connected with J. S. Bach and the city's history.

We will then travel to Wittenberg (one night; touring the small town and its places connected with Martin Luther and his associates) and then to Eisenach (one night; visiting the Bachhaus museum and the Wartburg Castle, where Luther translated the NT). The next day we will travel to Weimar, to see the cultural capital of Germany and also the Buchenwald concentration camp, and then on to Dresden. There we will again connect up with Valpo's choir (at Meissen), but also visit the restored Frauenkirche, a museum devoted to the allied bombing of the city in 1945, and other cultural sites (Zwinger museum, Semperoper, etc.).

Participants will have plenty of free time, too, to shop and do sight-seeing on their own in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden.

The Zwinger in Dresden
For nearly twenty years I have taught university courses in the history of Christianity, focusing especially on the history of Lutheran theology. I lived and taught in Germany for two years, when I served as the director of Valpo's study-abroad center in Reutlingen. This is also where I developed a course on Martin Luther and J. S. Bach, which I continue to teach regularly.

On this tour I have been asked to provide historical, cultural, and theological insight into the various places we will visit. I hope also to stimulate discussions about the abiding significance of Luther and Bach and how their ideas and actions have shaped the contemporary world and church. Along the way we'll get to hear some great music from Valpo Univ's choir, led by Christopher Cock. Valpo's president, Mark Heckler, will also be with us.

The dates are Tues, May 29, 2012 (depart for Berlin) through Sat, June 9, 2012 (depart for the USA from Dresden). The cost is $2300 (for a twin, double-occupancy) or $2525 (for a single). This price does not include airfare, but it does include 10 nights hotel accommodations in 3-star tourist hotels, continental breakfasts, several lunches and dinners, touring on the coach bus, the Valpo concerts, whatever insights you might glean from yours truly and our professional tour guides, museum entrance fees, and all hotel and service taxes.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact The Global Gurus, at 888-850-6831.

Please feel free to forward this post to friends and family and to share the basic info in your church's bulletin or on a bulletin board.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dissent in the LCMS

All Martin Luther wanted to do with those 95 theses was to discuss them with his academic peers and ecclesiastical supervisors. He wasn't out to divide or destroy the church; he merely wished to discuss his ideas about reforming it. Over time, though, his concern about the sale of indulgences gave way to deeper concerns about the church as a human, fallible institution and about the abuses of church authority. He was threatened with excommunication, then excommunicated, then made into an outlaw, and subject to all sorts of punishments. As a result of his spiritual and mental sufferings, he was driven back to Christ and to Scripture. Gradually, his understanding of the gospel sharpened as he encountered further resistance from church authorities (and ultimately the Pope), and this sharpening led him to take positions that were critical of other church beliefs and practices, some quite ancient and venerable, that he judged to be contrary to the Scriptural gospel and Christian freedom.

While no one showed up to debate those 95 bullet points in the fall of 1517, church leaders certainly took note of them and began to act against the Wittenberg heretic. Their actions and words against him, especially when he perceived that they fell short of his reference to specific Scriptural and historical evidence, led him to adopt a more radical position against the hierarchical church and its coercive power. While holding firm to conciliar decisions about the dogmas of God and of Christ, which serve the truth of the gospel, he held that the authority of the church resides solely in its proclamation of the evangelical sense of the prophetic and apostolic words of Scripture. This gospel proclamation, delivered through evangelical preaching and the administration of the sacraments in accord with the gospel, bears witness to Christ, the living Word of God. Luther thus rejected Roman tradition as an authority, even as he also criticized Protestant sectarianism for its denial of the evangelical and sacramental means of grace.

When attacked, Luther appealed to his baptism and to the fact that he had been made a doctor of theology. He frequently had to defend his callings, especially against those who sought "[to make] sport of the authority of all doctors of theology" ("Disputation against Scholastic Theology"). While he rightly distrusted his own wisdom (Prov. 3:5), he distrusted even more the received "wisdom" of the medieval Scholastic theologians, when it ran contrary to clear Scriptural teaching and the truth of the gospel, and he thus dared to present publicly his arguments and Scriptural interpretation before the judgment of all, so that they could decide if his arguments and interpretation had been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul and St. John and the other authentic prophets and apostles.

I've been thinking a lot about Luther's struggles with the church authorities of his day because I, too, am a baptized doctor of theology who finds himself presently in conflict with a few church authorities (even as I fully and humbly acknowledge that I'm no Martin Luther!). 

For more than a decade I have been involved in discussions with my "peers" in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (inclusive of both clergy and educated laity) about the interpretation of the first chapters of the Bible and the practice of ordaining only men to the office of the holy ministry. (These issues are related in the LC-MS, since the latter practice is based partly on a commonly-held interpretation of the former Scriptural texts.) During this time I have honored and upheld the LC-MS's doctrinal positions, in accordance with guidelines and definitions provided by the synod, the synod's Board for Higher Education, at least one of the boards of regents of one of the synod's universities, several current and former district presidents, a former synod president, a former seminary president, and a district board (on which I served as secretary for many years).

While I would have preferred that my questions and probing about these theological matters be discussed and debated freely within the synod, especially in its academic institutions, without the threat of expulsion from the brotherhood, given the way the synod is currently structured, matters of theological difference within the synod get quickly put into the adjudicatory process that is outlined in the synod's Handbook (viewed by many as almost on the same level as Scripture and the Evangelical Confessions). According to Section 1.8 of the 2010 edition, "Dissent from doctrinal resolutions and statements is to be expressed first within the fellowship of peers and then brought to the attention of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) before finding expression as an overture to the convention calling for revision or recision." The Handbook does not specify how one is to bring such dissent to the attention of the CTCR, nor does the Handbook indicate how long one must express one's concerns "within the fellowship of peers" before bringing the concerns to the attention of the CTCR.

Over the course of twenty years of publicly teaching theology as a member of the synod, when I have publicly expressed concerns about the synod's position on women or on the interpretation of the Bible's cosmological passages in light of modern scientific knowledge, I have been formally charged with teaching false doctrine. In all cases, the charges have been resolved in my favor or dismissed or not pursued after a certain amount of time. In all cases, too, there has been very little theological discussion about the pertinent issues. Rather, the accuser always assumes that because the synod has a clear position against women pastors, a member of synod who might question this position is guilty of advocating false doctrine."Because Mother Missouri has spoken, how dare you to question her interpretation of Scripture?!" That seems to be the sentiment. (And let's be clear here: We're not talking here about the essential dogmas of the church, the doctrine of God, the person and work of Christ, sin, faith and good works, or the means of grace, etc. The matters to which I am referring concern the interpretation of Scripture with respect to church order and the contemporary understanding and application of biblical cosmology and anthropology.)

Perhaps because of what happened to LC-MS theologians back in the 1970s, there has developed a climate of fear within the synod that stifles theological discussion and debate. The synod lacks "free space" to discuss intellectual matters that are peripheral to the gospel yet still related to it and to the freedom that gospel creates in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church. Because of the real possibility of being removed from the synodical roster for questioning even seemingly peripheral matters, like church order and biblical cosmology, the structures of the synod insure that very few are willing to question a synodical practice or a widely-held interpretation of some verses in the Bible for fear that they will have to undergo a heresy trial, spend time defending themselves, and face possible expulsion from their gainful vocation.

The synod, at least on paper, allows for dissent. I have tried to follow the process outlined in the Handbook. Early last year I brought to the attention of the CTCR my dissent on two synodical positions. I did this by distributing to the CTCR copies of a book I had edited, A Daystar Reader, in which are published two essays of mine that dissent from synod positions about women pastors and modern scientific theories. At that time I thought that this action of mine was sufficient to bring to the CTCR's attention my dissent. However, last summer I learned from my district president that it was insufficient.

In this dissent I identify two issues about which I have concerns and critical questions:

(1) I am convinced that the synod's practice of restricting the office of pastor only to men is wrong. The synod's defense of such a restriction runs contrary to biblical and confessional evidence, does harm to individual consciences (especially to those LC-MS women who have been called by God to serve as pastor but cannot do so within their own church body), runs contrary to Christian freedom, and needlessly frustrates the work of the Holy Spirit in the church's mission within our western, egalitarian society. For my dissent to this position of the synod, one can read my online essay, "An Argument for Women Pastors and Theologians," An earlier, de-footnoted version of this essay was published in A Daystar Reader.

(2) I am also convinced that the synod's position of interpreting the first two chapters of Genesis to mean that God created the universe over the course of six twenty-four-hour days, and that the general theory of evolution must be rejected, is wrong. The synod's defense of such a literalistic interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis ignores the problems and contradictions that are involved in such a literalistic interpretation of these chapters, runs contrary to physical evidence in God's "book of nature," does harm to individual consciences (especially to those educated Christians who know the biblical and physical evidence that contradicts such an interpretation), and needlessly frustrates the work of the Holy Spirit in the church's mission within our western, scientifically-informed society. For my dissent to the synod's position on the interpretation of the first chapters in Genesis, see my essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind," in The Daystar Reader (also available online at

Back in November of last year the CTCR officially responded to my letter of dissent that I submitted to them last June. In that letter I identified the two concerns I have and directed the CTCR to my published essays on these matters. You may now read the CTCR's response to my essays at

I did not receive that CTCR response until much later, for reasons that are unclear to me, but I finally did read it last month. It struck me as a non-response to my materials. So I sent the CTCR the following letter:

The Baptism of our Lord 2012

The Commission on Theology and Church Relations
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
1333 S. Kirkwood Rd
St. Louis, MO  63122

Dear members of the CTCR,

Grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God our Father through His beloved Son, Jesus, in the Holy Spirit.

For some unknown reason I did not receive your letter of November 15, 2011. It finally came this past week as a result of efforts on the part of Rev. [Paul] Linnemann to have a copy of the letter sent to my university address.

Your letter surprised me for several reasons, especially because it avoids responding directly to the exegetical and theological points I have made in my essays.

With respect to the issue of the ordination of women, you state that my essay on this topic "does not reference or quote a single resolution or doctrinal statement of the Synod regarding the service of women in the church." While this is technically true, the essay does in fact accurately describe the position that the Synod has taken on this topic, both in its resolutions and in several CTCR documents.

The "order of creation" argument has often been made within the LCMS to support a male-only pastorate and it has been made in the way I describe it.

            i) One of the two guiding principles adopted in 1969 Resolution 2-17 is that women should not "violate the order of creation." While that resolution does not define what this expression means, it is clear from subsequent synodical materials that the "order of creation" notion means that women are subordinate to men within creation and cannot exercise authority over them. A 1970 decision from the CCM ruled that women may serve as officers and members of board and committees "as long as these positions are not directly involved in the specific functions of the pastoral office… and as long as this service does not violate the order of creation (usurping authority over men)" (emphasis added). In the 1985 CTCR Report, "Women in the Church," the CTCR wrote, "The Order of Creation. This refers to the particular position which, by the will of God, any created object occupies in relation to others. God has given to that which has been created a certain definite order which, because it has been created by Him, is the expression of His immutable will. These relationships belong to the very structure of created existence" (p. 21). The relationship of male to female is further clarified on p. 27: "The idea that God desires man to be the head of woman and woman to be subordinate to man is rooted deeply in the Old and New Testaments." This "order of creation" principle has been repeatedly affirmed in synodical convention resolutions (e.g., 1981, 1986).

            ii) While my dissent in no way describes "the order of creation" argument as "having primarily to do with the 'order' (the 'chronological sequence') in which God created Adam and Eve," as you incorrectly describe my criticism (my dissent never states that the Synod has presented the order of creation argument "as a mere matter of 'chronological sequence'"), the CTCR itself in its 1985 report stated that the "order of creation" also involves "the headship" of the man over the woman and that this headship is based on the chronological order of woman coming from man: "[The apostle Paul] argues for male 'headship' on the basis of Genesis 2:18-25, which teaches that the man did not come from the woman but the woman from the man and that the woman was created for the sake of the man… [In First Timothy 2:13-14] Paul appeals to the temporal priority of Adam's creation ('Adam was formed first'; cf. Gen. 2:20-22), as well as to Eve's having been deceived in the fall (Gen. 3:6), to show that women should not teach or exercise authority over men in the church" (p. 22; emphasis added). The current CTCR has evidently overlooked this chronological aspect of "the order of creation" argument as it has been set forth within the CTCR's own earlier report.

            iii) Your letter does not acknowledge that indeed 1969 Resolution 2-17 makes explicit reference to "the order of creation." Apparently the current CTCR has overlooked that important second paragraph in the resolution: "The principles set forth in such passages, we believe, prohibit holding any other kind of office or membership on boards or committees in the institutional structures of a congregation, only if this involves women in violation of the order of creation." Clearly, this expression serves as "code language" for the kind of argumentation set forth in the 1985 CTCR report regarding the subordination of women to men in the created order of the Creator and the prohibition against women exercising authority over men. That same 1969 resolution uses the expression "the order of creation" synonymously for "the principles set forth in [those] passages" "which direct women to keep silent in the church and which prohibit them to teach and to exercise authority over men." It was this argumentation, which is not argued at length in the 1969 resolution but which is behind the expression "order of creation" within that resolution, to which I was primarily responding in my essays (both the one in The Daystar Reader and the original one which I am herewith enclosing).

            iv) I am troubled that the CTCR could not take more time to respond directly and concretely to my specific arguments and evidence against the ideological construct of the "order of creation" within the 1969 resolution and the 1985 CTCR report, let alone the other specific arguments I present against limiting the pastoral office only to men.

Furthermore, you state that my "dissent regarding creation and evolution also suffers from a lack of specificity and focus." With all due respect, I do think my description of how the synod has historically understood the "six days" in Genesis is accurate and that I was quite clear in my rejection of this understanding for all of the reasons I set forth in my essay.

            i) The Brief Statement, authored principally by Dr. Pieper (who also rejected the Copernican Theory), asserts: "We teach that God has created the heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty Word, and in six days." The 1967 Resolution 2-31 uses the same language: "…Scripture teaches and the Lutheran Confessions affirm that God by the almighty power of His Word created all things in 6 days by a series of creative acts." How is this language, adopted by the Synod when it adopted the Brief Statement and then when it reaffirmed that same language in the 1967 resolution, any different in actual content from the language in my June 29th letter, namely, that "the synod's position of interpreting the first two chapters of Genesis to mean that God created the universe over the course of six twenty-four-hour days." Are you suggesting that it is acceptable doctrinally to interpret the "six days" as being different from "six actual, twenty-four-hour days?" I understand the history of such a reinterpretation of "day" (YoM) in this context, but such an interpretation has not been widespread within the history of our Synod and has never been officially adopted by synodical resolution. In point of fact, the position of the Synod on the interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis and the Synod's corresponding rejection of the modern scientific theory of evolution is reflected in Dr. Kieschnick's words from his 2001 presidential acceptance speech: "I believe the world was created in six 24-hour days…" After this one sentence he was given a lengthy standing ovation by nearly all the convention delegates. Based on that action alone, I think my description of the Synod's position is quite accurate.

            ii) To put the matter as clearly as I can, I am opposing the Synod's opposition to the well-established physical facts of evolution. The Synod should adopt a more cautious approach about condemning scientific theories and should allow for modern natural knowledge of God's creation to shed light on how one is to understand the language and genres in the first chapters of Genesis. We should learn from our forebears who were forced to adjust their interpretations of cosmological passages in Scripture to accord with modern cosmology, as has happened with respect to the acceptance of the Copernican Theory (Dr. Pieper's rejection of that theory, notwithstanding).

            iii) In my dissent I did not confuse A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles with its study version. While I quote from the study version that was distributed after the 1972 original document, the sections from which I quote are direct quotations from earlier synodical statements and resolutions (e.g., the 1959 Statement on Scripture, the Brief Statement) or from the 1972 document itself (e.g., the sections on "The Gospel and Holy Scripture" and "Original Sin"). All material I quote is from synodically-adopted documents.

            iv) Whereas I have concerns about some of the phrasing and emphases within 1967 Resolution 2-31, I agree with the basic doctrinal content presented there.

With respect to my understanding of Scriptural authority and interpretation, I do not think you have been very helpful by merely directing me to A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles. I am well aware of the contents of this document, one of the most controversial in the history of the Synod.[1] It has rightly been criticized for its failure to take seriously the historical character of the Scriptures and the temporal and cultural distance that exists between the biblical writings and modern western interpreters of those Scriptures who have, as a part of their mental framework, knowledge of facts that were unknown to the biblical authors. Our post-Copernican, post-Darwinian worldview is different from the cosmological views presented in the Scriptures. While I acknowledge that the historical approach to the Scriptures conflicts with modern ideas that Protestant Fundamentalists have set forth about Scripture, notions that are reflected in Dr. Pieper's Brief Statement and the Preus-authorized A Statement, I do not accept that this approach is "clearly incompatible with the Synod's doctrinal position on the authority and interpretation of Holy Scripture," a position which can only be the Scripture's own position on itself (which is not really possible). Of course the Lutheran Confessions do not refer to the inerrancy of Scripture either, as that concept developed after the 17th Century, or to post-Enlightenment methods and principles of biblical interpretation, but instead refer to the Scripture's teaching of law and gospel as the key that unlocks the meaning of the Scriptures.

My approach to the interpretation of the Bible (and Genesis 1-11, in particular) is almost completely shaped by the 1967 CTCR report, A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies (commended by the 1967 Synod Convention [Res. 2-02]; see also 1969 Res. 2-04), which includes the following statements:

"In hearty agreement with the Lutheran Confessions we affirm that the right understanding of the Gospel (including the proper distinction of Law and Gospel as grounded in the article of justification) is the key that finally unlocks the meaning of Sacred Scripture (Apology, IV, 2-5; FC, SD, V, 1).  We therefore hold that all theological questions raised by any interpretation must be posed and answered with reference to this central concern of the Scriptures.  We also hold that those technical questions involved in interpretation which neither aid nor impair the right understanding of the Gospel (in its full sense) ought not become a matter of controversy in the church" (A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies, pp. 8-9).

We consider the following to be basic and legitimate elements of the so-called historical-critical method (cp. “Guiding Principles for the Interpretation of the Bible” as accepted by the Ecumenical Study Conference, Oxford, 1949):

1. Establishing the text…

2.  Ascertaining the literary form of the passage. This entails, as an aid to better comprehension, analyzing the Biblical passage in terms of its formal structure and character at the hand of such questions as these:  Is it prose or poetry?  Is it an address, a prayer, a monologue, a treaty, an edict, a letter?  Is it an oracular saying, an invective, a lament, a liturgy, a proverb, a parable, a creed, a hymn? and so on.

3.  Determining the historical situation. This entails discovering, so far as possible, the original setting—in time and place and circumstances—of the document, its author, and its readers.

4. Apprehending the meaning which the words had for the original author and hearer or reader. This entails careful investigation of the actual linguistic usage and idiom (together with their overtones conditioned by the social context in which they appear) of the author and his contemporaries in the light of the Biblical data and also of such extra-Biblical literature as may belong to the same social context.

5.  Understanding the passage in the light of its total context and of the background out of which it emerged. This entails consideration not only of the text’s antecedent and contemporary circumstances—religious, cultural, historical—but also of the full range of the Biblical witness in both the Old and New Testaments" (ibid., 9).

"The problem of 'history' needs to be handled with extraordinary sensitivity by the Christian interpreter.  He cannot adopt uncritically the presuppositions and canons of the secular historian.  In his use of historical techniques the interpreter will be guided by the presuppositions of his faith in the Lord of history.  It is indeed true that Christian faith rightly sees in the historicalness of God’s redemptive work (His entry into and participation in our saeculum) a divine warrant for the use of 'secular' means and methods in the study of His Word, including linguistic, literary, and historical analysis of the texts.  But at the same time faith recognizes that there is more to history than can ever be adequately measured by 'laws' derived exclusively from empirical data and rational observation…" (ibid., 10).

"The undeniably necessary effort to hear a text of Scripture first of all in its particularity, its meaning 'then and there,' must be balanced by an equal effort to hear the text both in its integral relation to all the rest of Scripture and in its meaningfulness for all who hear it today. This effort does not require an arbitrary flattening out of the rich variety of the Biblical witness into a dull one-dimensional uniformity…" (ibid.).

"Whatever cognizance needs to be taken—as indeed it must—of the connection between Biblical materials and their background in the whole complex of social, cultural, political, economic, and religious factors of their day, a clear distinction must nevertheless be maintained between the unique, divine, and revelatory character of Scripture and the sheer human and contingent character of Scripture’s earthly milieu.  Parallelisms between extra-Biblical materials and the form or substance of Scripture do not as such constitute causal or substantive relations.  This is not in the least to deny the genuinely human and earthly dimension of Scripture itself…" (ibid.; See also the “Introduction” to the CTCR document [1969], A Project in Biblical Hermeneutics, 5-18).

May I remind the current CTCR that the committee that articulated these principles and set forth the legitimacy of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation included Robert Preus, Ralph Bohlmann, Raymond Surburg, H. Armin Moellering, Martin Franzmann, and Heino Kadai.

The 1967 CTCR Report and its 1969 Project in Biblical Hermeneutics have been very helpful to me over the years, especially as I have sought to understand how the Bible is to be understood and applied today with respect to scientific knowledge about creation and about the service of women in the contemporary church. In light of the synodically-commended hermeneutical principles in these documents, could you show me how my observation about the influence of Aristotle's social teaching on the New Testament is incompatible with the Synod's position on Scripture, since one of the hermeneutical principles is to understand a biblical passage "in the light of its total context and of the background out of which it emerged?" Or how modern scientific understandings of human origins are necessarily incompatible with the Christian understanding of the doctrinal content of Genesis 1-3 (and other Scripture texts that address matters about creation and theological anthropology), especially if one attends to the distinct genres present in the first chapters of the Bible and how these are not "scientific" but phenomenological and culturally-conditioned?

If one argues that the Synod changed its position on Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture between 1967 and 1973, I can accept that argument, but I would simply respond then by saying that the Synod commended a better position on Scriptural interpretation in 1967 than it adopted in 1973. I believe the Synod erred in 1973 when it adopted the resolution about A Statement, an outcome that was more the result of political maneuvering and making sure of convention votes than it was of careful theological argument and understanding. Hopefully, in the future, the Synod will once again commend the hermeneutical principles and historical-critical method that it commended in 1967 and 1969. The hermeneutical principles set forth by the CTCR then and by its special committee on biblical hermeneutics (a committee that included the participation of the principal author of A Statement!) in those years are the right ones for us to be using and commending today.

Finally, the distinction between a so-called "magisterial use" of "reason" and a "ministerial use" is a false one and merely a convenient way to discredit an interpretation of Scripture with which one disagrees without offering reasons for that disagreement. The same kind of distinction between "magisterial" and "ministerial" uses of reason was used at the time of Galileo to discredit his re-thinking of those Scriptural passages that clearly state the sun moves around the earth and that the earth does not move. In that context the defense of "a ministerial use" of reason, to serve "what Scripture clearly teaches," would necessitate the acceptance of a geocentric worldview and the rejection of the Copernican theory. In point of fact, the real issue, then as now, is not "the use of reason" at all, but what is the appropriate understanding of the Scriptural texts in light of the natural knowledge of God's creation, what is the genre of the Scriptural passages in question, what is the meaning of the biblical language "in that distant time and place," and how can one balance that historic meaning with contemporary understanding. The meaning of at least some biblical texts, such as the ones that deal with cosmology, may not be the same today as it was "back then." We certainly don't understand many cosmological passages in Scripture in the same way as did pre-Copernicans.

Within the academic discipline of theology scholars have the duty to "be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop and, if necessary, change," to use the helpful prescription I learned from my teacher, David Tracy, who learned it from his teacher, Bernard Lonergan. I believe that you who serve on the CTCR have this same responsibility, as do I.


Matthew Becker

[1] One should note, too, in passing, that A Statement, adopted by the slimmest of majorities in a highly politicized and polemical context, has the same doctrinal status as any other doctrinal resolution adopted by the Synod. It was never formalized as an official statement of the Synod, since it was never adopted by the required 2/3 majority of LCMS congregations.

So that was the letter I sent in January. Then, last week, the executive committee of the CTCR put on the CTCR's webpage a reply to my January letter. After reading this second document I have concluded that the CTCR, just like the Roman curia in Luther's day, is not interested in having a theological discussion about matters that are not as simple as the CTCR and other synod members seem to think they are. I'm not the only member of the synod who has questions about these issues. But how is real theological discussion possible in a church body where critical inquiry about the understanding and application of Scriptural teaching is dismissed with the words, "He has a different understanding of the authority of the Bible, so we don't have to pay any attention to his specific exegesis and theological analysis?" Just as in Luther's day, the appeal is to church authority (in this case, that means synodical resolutions and statements and synodical traditions), as if that is really going to address the specific points of theology in a dissent about some synodical resolutions. How is C. F. W. Walther's principle that synod members have only two authorities, Scripture and convincing, being applied in this situation?