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


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  2. I just stumbled across your blog via a long cyberspace journey from the ordain Women Now Facebook page. I'm an ELCA Lutheran whose church is pastored by a Seminex grad. So I have an interest on what "other flavors of Lutherans" think. You write an interesting blog and I am delighted to have stumbled across it. The discussion today absolutely floored me in terms of the the things the LCMS worries about: the presence or absence of death before the fall ?? I must admit I never noticed or worried about it in Genesis. This is just an observation from me, not wanting to start an argument but it does explain why Lutherans can't talk to each other!
    Heidi B Good from Sugar Land TX (near Houston)