Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Hammarskjöld Pericope for Christmas Eve

In Thy wind--in Thy light--

How insignificant is everything else, how small are we--and how happy in that which alone is great.

12.24.57

Friday, December 11, 2015

Nineteenth-Century Lutheran Theologians

This past week I learned that a new book I've edited has been published: Nineteenth-Century Lutheran Theologians, Refo500 Academic Series 31 (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

To give you some idea of the scope of its contents, here is a list of the theologians treated in the book (and the authors who wrote about them):


Friedrich Schleiermacher (Christine Helmer; Northwestern University)

Georg Hegel (Mark Mattes; Grand View University, Des Moines)

F. C. Baur (Mark Seifried; Concordia Seminary, St. Louis)

J. T. Beck (Roy Harrisville Sr.; Luther Seminary, St. Paul [emeritus])

Adolf von Harless (Lutz Mohaupt; University of Hamburg [emeritus])


Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig (Anders Holm; University of Copenhagen)

W. Loehe (David Ratke; Lenoir-Rhyne University)

J. C. K. von Hofmann (yours truly)

Gottfried Thomasius (Hans Schwarz; University of Regensburg [emeritus])

C. F. W. Walther  (Christoph Barnbrock; Theological Hochschule Oberuersel)

S. Kierkegaard (Carl Hughes; Texas Lutheran University)

Theodosius Harnack (Christoffer Grundmann, Valparaiso University)

Albrecht Ritschl (Darrell Jodock; Gustavus Adolphus [emeritus])

C. P. Krauth (Mark Oldenburg; Gettysburg Seminary)

Martin Kaehler (Carl Braaten; Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago [emeritus])

Nathan Soederblom (Dietz Lange; University of Goettingen)


Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

This is a book about Lutheran theology in the “long nineteenth century,” that period between the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century and the end of the First World War. With respect to the history of Protestant theology, this era began with the publication of Schleiermacher’s Speeches (1799), written in the wake of Kant’s critical philosophy, and it ended with the rise of Dialectical Theology, which was inaugurated by Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans (1919) and directed against the liberal Protestant tradition begun by Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. The end of nineteenth-century Protestant theology could also be tied to the beginnings of the modern Ecumenical Movement, which gained momentum in the aftermath of “the Great War,” largely through the efforts of Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931), who is the focus of book’s final chapter.

The book thus provides an introduction to fifteen Lutherans and one Reformed theologian who were active in this period. The one Reformed figure, Schleiermacher, has been so influential upon the development of Protestant theology, including its Lutheran stream, that his life and work are the focus of the initial chapter. Following the format of the essays in the companion volume on twentieth-century figures, each essay here covers the life, teachings, and abiding legacy of a given thinker. The goal of the authors has not been merely to identify how a specific individual was important in his own time and place, but to indicate why aspects of that person’s thinking might have a continuing significance for contemporary theological reflection. Hopefully readers of the book will gain deeper insight into our current theological milieu through an examination of these key figures who were active in the immediate wake of the Enlightenment and at a time when many Europeans were beginning to move beyond Christianity in search of other alternatives.

The project as a whole was initiated by the journal Lutheran Quarterly and carried forward through conversations with Jörg Persch of Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, “in order to determine how our recent past can help us shape our bearings in a new century.” Earlier versions of six of the essays (Schleiermacher, Hegel, Thomasius, Hofmann, Kähler, and Söderblom) were originally published
in Lutheran Quarterly. In addition to Schleiermacher—who, along with Kant and Hegel, has to be included among those who have had the greatest influence upon the development of modern intellectual history—the thinkers who are examined here are ones who saw themselves as working within the Lutheran-Protestant tradition of theology. Nevertheless, the reader will quickly notice the remarkable differences among these individuals in how they understood Christian doctrine and applied it to their world.

Twelve of the theologians presented here were Germans (one of whom became a U.S. citizen), two were Danish, one was Swedish, and one was American. Given the path-breaking significance of German theology in this century, one should not be surprised by the large number of chapters devoted to this tradition. No other English text provides as in-depth an examination of these key figures and
the implications of their theology for contemporary discussion. These are theologians who deserve to be better understood than they typically are, especially among English-speaking scholars. Each of the essays attempts to present its object in a new light and to show how that person not only gave shape to Lutheran theology at that time but also furthered the course of Christian thought itself.

For more information on the book, click on this link here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Interview

Earlier this year I was interviewed by the Rev. Gina Pond, who operates a podcast called "This Week in Heresy." She recently let me know that the interview is now available online.

The whole interview runs about an hour or so.

It can be found here.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Change in the Church on VUTV

Recently a few of our Valpo students did a two-part story on "Change in the Church" for our campus TV station. Our LCMS campus pastor and I were interviewed for the report. 

The first part can be seen here and occurs at the 2:14 part in the video:

The second part can be seen here and occurs at the 4:37 point in the video:

(The student who conducted the interview apologized later for wrongly positioning the camera, given the brightness of the sun that was streaming through my office window that day. I told her that perhaps the end result is fitting, since many in the LCMS think I am theologically "in the dark." Another person thought the lighting made me look a bit like how Salman Rushdie did in his early interviews after the Fatwa was announced against him, his face darkened in to order to keep his appearance incognito....)


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Brief Reply to Harrison's Recent Attack

Matthew Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, won't let up. He continues to be on the attack, despite the fact that I have been expelled from the LCMS clergy roster and will be seeking to become rostered in the ELCA. Case in point is his recent "missive" to "2013 convention delegates and other friends" in which he writes:

A now formerly rostered LCMS clergyman for two decades openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture and the confession of the Synod on the inerrancy of the Bible, evolution, homosexuality, the ordination of women, church fellowship and more. I have appointed a group that includes Secretary of the Synod Rev. Dr. Ray Hartwig and others from both the Commission on Handbook and the Commission on Constitutional Matters to suggest revisions to our current system for dealing with such cases. Small but significant changes will correct the problems and help assure we never have another such situation. God help us. 

This is not at all about the occasional pastor or retired pastor who may have scruples about a certain public position of the Synod and isn’t on a mission to tell the world about it. It’s about drawing a clear line should a church worker aggressively and publicly reject the Synod’s clear biblical teaching on very significant matters.


Some interpret these comments as mere "sabre rattling," as "tossing a bone to his ultra-right base." To me these words reveal a real effort on Harrison's part to make sure that actual theological dialogue (at least about the matters he has named in his laundry list) is impossible in the synod. These issues are "off the table," as Harrison has stated many times. Given the current climate in the synod--a climate that has been undergoing climate change ("global cooling") for more than forty years--it is highly unlikely that anyone who makes a living in an official LCMS institution (e.g., a congregation, synodical agency, college, seminary, other institution, etc.) would ever dissent publicly from any synodical "position." Such a dissenter would run the risk of losing his/her gainful employment. (Retired pastors are entitled to their "scruples," but they dare not speak forth from a soapbox, online or otherwise... They will have crossed Harrison's "clear line.")

It is no secret that I have tried to foster dialogue about a few issues that Harrison wants off the table. Have I done so "aggressively"? Hardly. I tried to initiate actual dialogue through the publication of two essays, one on six-day creationism and the natural sciences (published a decade ago) and one on women's ordination  (published sixteen years ago), but I got no takers. Instead, I was informed that formal charges of teaching false doctrine had been leveled against me. Harrison got elected, in part, because he promised to get rid of what he thought amounted to about "15%" of the LCMS clergy roster who disagree with "the synod's position" on many of the topics in Harrison's laundry list (i.e., his articulation of what he believes to be the synod's "position" on those matters).

It is also no secret that Harrison has supported those who filed formal charges against me. When I was attacked in this way, I felt the need to defend myself and the theological teachings I had set forth in those two essays. Although some have described what I have done over these past sixteen years as "baiting and swallowing my own hook, " those are not the words I would use. The simple fact is, from my perspective, those who filed formal charges against my writings were insisting on theological positions that are unsupportable, that go against our confession of the doctrine of faith, that detract from the centrality of the gospel, and that put something else as the sine qua non in place of the one gospel. These two issues about which I have written and spoken are hardly settled issues in the synod today--despite what Harrison and others might assert.

Isn't it interesting that two different synodical panels, comprised of several LCMS pastors from different parts of the country, concluded that what I had written in those two essays and the way that I had gone about defending what I had written (over against my accusers' understandings of what is essential to the Christian faith) did not constitute advocacy of false doctrine?

"Openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture..."? No. I vehemently reject that slander. These words of Harrison tell us more about him than they do about anything I have written or spoken. His opinion--and that's all this phrase of his represents--does not reflect the official exonerations I have received from several official LCMS entities over the past decade. These official judgments have been rendered by district presidents, a district board of directors, a review panel, a referral panel, an LCMS university board of regents, a university provost and president.

I was never found to have "openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Holy Scripture."

Sure, I have been critical of some of the synod's convention resolutions and statements (e.g., those that support creationism, that attack evolution, that reject women's ordination), but my criticisms are themselves grounded in Holy Scripture and the evangelical pattern of doctrine that is exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions. I contend that Harrison's own position marks the real departure from the Scriptural, evangelical teaching about faith, God the creator, the holy ministry, and Christian freedom. He is insisting on teaching that is just plain wrong--scripturally and confessionally. My argument from the Scriptures and the Confessions indicates why the synod's defense of six-day creationism and its insistence on a male-only pastorate are not merely unconvincing theologically but are actually harmful to the synod's mission in our western, scientifically-informed, egalitarian culture.

When I was formally and officially cleared of last year's charge of teaching false doctrine (dealing with my openness toward women's ordination), Harrison fumed, ranted, and threatened. Earlier this year he did so on his Facebook page. He also did so on the synod's website. Leaving aside the question about the propriety of his actions in this regard, one may ask the following questions: About whom did he fume? Against whom did he rant? Whom did he threaten? Not me, at least not directly. His anger was directed against the referral panel and its decision. He later seemed to be publicly angry with the NW District President, who had his own reasons for not suspending me last year.

In my final telephone conversation with my now former DP (back in late June), he told me that he felt he had no choice but to suspend me, given the pressures he had been receiving from Harrison and other synodical officials (e.g., convention resolutions against him). Throughout the past several years that these charges have surfaced and been dealt with, my former DP repeatedly assured me that he did not think I was guilty of advocating false doctrine. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that a majority of district presidents on the Synod's Council of Presidents (the COP [an apropos acronym, no?]) would not renew my clergy rostership, given the charges that had been leveled against me (despite my being repeatedly exonerated), and that it was just a matter of time before the COP gave me the boot from the clergy roster, given Harrison's influence over the majority on that Council.

It will not surprise me if Harrison's efforts at "Gleichschaltung" (getting the synod to be in the same gear, goose-stepping together, no one out of line) will lead eventually to his own gears getting jammed.

The one, sufficient gospel opens up a better way of doing theology, a better way of being a "synod." It creates the condition in which baptized people, grounded in Christ, who are equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, can draw upon those resources to address in an evangelical manner all the issues that appear on Harrison's laundry list. Real dialogue is difficult, a bit messy, complicated. Gleichschaltung may work for a while, but as a long-term tactic, it has always failed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A September Pericope from Kretzmann's "The Pilgrim"

Holy Cross Day marked the 40th anniversary of the "final crossing" of O. P. Kretzmann (b. 1901), gifted speaker, writer, educator, and president of Valparaiso University for nearly 30 years (1940-68). An East-coast Lutheran, Kretzmann was a graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1922). He also studied at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Prior to his Valpo years, "O. P.," as he is still affectionately called, was an instructor at the LCMS's "practical" seminary in Springfield, Ill. (1923-34), and then the executive secretary of the synod's youth organization, the International Walther League (1934-40). In this latter role he co-edited The Cresset, the WL journal that was devoted to critical commentary on the arts, literature, and matters of public life. (Since 1952 this journal has been published by Valparaiso University.) Each issue contained Kretzmann's own column, "The Pilgrim," which set forth his spiritual/theological musings and observations on timely issues. ("All the trumpets sounded for him on the other side." -- Pilgrim's Progress)

The bulletin at yesterday's morning prayer in the Chapel of the Resurrection informed the gathered few of the significance of the date: President Kretzmann died on Sep. 14, 1975. All around us stood the most visible reminder of O. P.'s presidency, the Chapel itself.

http://www.valpo.edu/150/history-presidents/kretzmann.php
I couldn't help but think of how he and so many other relatively "progressive" LCMS churchmen from his generation had made such a positive difference in and beyond the LCMS and its circles. For example, O. P. and his equally gifted brother, A. R., were among the initial signers of the "Statement of the 44," a much maligned document in the post-1975 LCMS but one that had encouraged a greater openness in the synod toward ecumenism, secular learning, liturgical renewal, active engagement with social issues, etc. during the decades after WWII. While the majority of the synod's membership was not directly impacted by the "moderate" moves that O. P. and his kindred spirits made in those decades (ca. 1935-75), those moderates set an evangelical tone, they provided crucial leadership, and they established several important means/venues by which subsequent change would come to the LCMS, especially among many younger pastors, Walther Leaguers, and graduates of Valparaiso University.

As if to underscore the occasion, late tonight (actually very early on Sep 15th!) I happened to come across a much smaller Kretzmann monument. As I was unpacking two boxes of books that have been in home storage among 40 other tubs for nearly eight years, what should appear but O. P.'s Cresset meditations from the WWII era: The Pilgrim: An Anthology of Articles which have appeared in The Cresset, published by the Walther League (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1944).

One of its final entries caught my eye, "September Leaf" (pp. 101-6). Parts of this meditation (including the original ellipses that were a typical feature of all of O. P.'s "pilgrim" reflections) will thus serve as our pericope this week:

I wonder if anyone has ever been fully prepared for the coming of autumn.... Perhaps as little as we are ready for the end of anything in life.... July and August meander along in apparent endlessness, one bright or sullen day after another.... There seems to be no change.... The crickets grow louder, the dust lies dreaming on the trees and bushes, the thunder comes with every other twilight.... Only when I look across the fence into my neighbor's yard and see the apples turn red can I tell that summer is waning and the time of harvest is near.... Then, inevitably and suddenly, there comes a morning when everything seems changed... From my window I observe that the maple has a few leaves which are brown.... Others are already on the ground.... The crickets chirp in a lower key, and a new note of melancholy appears in the whistle of the train down the valley.... The leaves begin to fall, at first lazily and alone, but then faster and faster as the wind rises and the travail of change comes over the earth.... The order and logic of inevitability are in them as they lie in their seemingly haphazard places....

[MB: And then comes a long quote from Thoreau, who "knew what their rustling and whispering say to us who walk through our autumn world..."]

This, then, is the season of the elegy and the mourner.... Certainly, however, there are meaning and purpose and knowledge, year after year, in the falling of a leaf from a dying tree.... Once more we see the great paradox of life and time: To live well and greatly, our journeying through the world must be a repeated experience of death.... We die, as the leaf dies, to the immaturities of childhood to be reborn for the responsibilities of maturity.... We die to selfishness to live for others.... We die to resentment against life for not giving us everything we desire to the glad acceptance of its hard discipline of sorrow.... We die to sin to live to God.... We die to the noise of time to live for the whisper of eternity.... Surely this is always and forever true: If we have not learned to die, we have not learned to live....

...Our watchwords are "here," "now," "today." The September leaf drifting quietly to the earth in its good time tells the whole story of all the names and tears of our dark age.... They, too, shall pass away.... Their hour is as definite as the hour of the September leaf.... No, there is nothing new in all this, but it is desperately worth repeating in an hour when we are living only for the hour and looking for the man of the hour and fear what the next hour will bring....

...The lesson of the September leaf is, of course, not complete.... It speaks of change and death, but not of immortality.... Slowly but surely we move from the hollow in which the leaf rests and the graves of the great to the high altitudes of faith.... Nothing which I observe in spring or in autumn tells me anything about the intimations of immortality which lie deep in the human soul and in divine revelation.... Between them and human reason hangs an immovable veil.... "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard." ...As far as my mind can reach, the end comes down when the curtain goes down... All that begins when the curtain goes up again lies on the other side of visibility... Beyond the nature of the existence which alone can be the object of scientific and reasonable knowledge there may be something in the human soul which desires deep eternity, but this desire is no proof for it.... For that assurance I must turn to Easter... The Christian faith would have died long ago if a miracle had not daily repeated itself--a miracle which remains as great and incomprehensible as it was 1,900 years ago.... The miracle is that a human soul in the face of death, loaded down with guilt which it can never make good, finds rest and immortality in an Eternal High Priest who loved the dying world even unto death.... This is the one unshakable foundation for our faith in immortality and eternity.... The September leaf is not homesick for the earth from which it came.... We, however, are, and ought to be, because the warm, silent cradle of the grave is the open door to our home....

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Pericope for the Week

Friend and fellow-traveler, Pr. Joel Nickel, who is a retired LCMS pastor in Oregon, sent me the following quote from a recent online post by Tom Nichols (TheFederalist.com). ("Nichols" is the English spelling of "Nickel"). Joel thought the quote "seemed directly appropriate to [my] situation." He notes, as have others, that even after my expulsion from the clergy roster of the LCms the vitriol against me by my detractors has continued.

Joel's final question: "Who is the pompous self-righteous prig who 'prays for your repentance'"?

Here's the Nichols quote:

For a fair number of people in what's supposed to be a democracy, "winning" in any normal political sense simply isn't enough. What they really want, and what they in fact demand, is that you agree with them. They want you to believe. It is not enough for these Americans to say: "I have had my day in court and prevailed." In effect, they now add: "If you still disagree, I will attack you without quarter and set others on you to deprive you of your status in your profession, of your standing in your community, and even of your livelihood." You will be forced to admit the error of your ways. You must accept that you've sinned. You must discard your own values and accept the ideas of your betters. (Original source: http://thefederalist.com/; the quote was also published in The Week, July 17, 2015).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Reformation 2017

Yes, July was eventful.

For me, much more meaningful and enjoyable than getting "the boot" from the LCMS was the eleven-day tour I led from Rome to Munich. Our focus was "art and faith." Despite the heat and humidity, the journey provided an opportunity for people to deepen their reflection on the Christian faith in the context of various works of art (from ancient times to the present). I was grateful to be with these pilgrims, whose humor, joy, wisdom, insights, questions, singing, praying, culinary commentary, etc., helped to put into a better context the experience of expulsion.

August has been "down" time--save for furthering a few book projects, teaching an online course, preparing for fall semester, putting up some bookshelves, golfing with my son and other friends, working in the yard, doing projects that my wife has wanted done. So my blog got pushed way to the sidelines.

Statue of Luther Outside the Frauenkirche, Dresden
I hope to make some additional comments about what transpired this summer, but for now I'd merely like to advertise another tour I'll be leading:

“In the Footsteps of Martin Luther and the Reformation” will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. This tour will take place Oct 24-November 6, 2017. Although the Valparaiso University Alumni Association is sponsoring it, participation is not limited to Valpo alumni (or Lutherans, for that matter!).

Participants will visit Wittenberg, Erfurt, the Wartburg Castle, Eisleben, Eisenach, Leipzig, and more. As I've done on past tours, I will provide color commentary along the way.

This anniversary tour will also include several performances by the Valparaiso Chorale and the Thomanerchor of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. I've been told that Valpo's chorale is the only university choir to be invited to sing in the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct 31, 2017. This will be the trip of a lifetime!

To learn more about the tour, go to:
http://www.eo.travelwithus.com/tours/rf17-55514-becker#eotours

That brochure tells you how to register for the trip.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via email.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Less Room in the LCMS Brotherhood

Since my ordination into the ministry twenty-six years ago this month, I have had to address several informal and formal accusations of "teaching false doctrine" or "teaching doctrine inconsistent with the public teaching of the LCMS." These accusations have included:

(1) denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures;
(2) advocating for the ordination of women to the pastoral office;
(3) rejecting rectilinear prophecy in the OT; and
(4) denying that the first chapters of Genesis must be understood literalistically, as an actual historical account (and holding that the data explained by the theory of evolution need not necessarily contradict our faith in God the Creator).

Prior to April, 2015, I have endured four formal charges of false teaching. Three of those trials had to do with the first, second, and fourth issues above. The process for each of those three cases took between four and five years, lots of energy, lots of money, and reams of paper. (The fourth case--having to do with the third issue above--was dismissed by my District President almost immediately for reasons I will not share here.)

I endured the process of those four cases because I thought the principles involved were worthy of exploring/defending and I thought my accusers were setting up a doctrinal standard that was sub-Lutheran and inconsistent with Article II of the LCMS Constitution. I thought those struggles were worth the effort. I leveled my dissent within the Synod for the same reason.

All of these previous cases ended with my exoneration. That includes the most recent case (issue number two above), the one a NW District Referral Panel finalized in my favor last October.

What was supposed to be "final," however, turned out not to be "final." President Harrison attacked me on his Facebook page, as did others elsewhere on the internet. Several LCMS district conventions have now also passed resolutions that call upon me to repent of my teaching. For more on this, see my "For the Record" here.

But now a new charge has been brought against me that deals, once again, with issues one and four. Last April the Rev. Terry Forke, the Montana District President, initiated this latest case. He accuses me of failing to defend the LCMS position that Gen 1-3 are "an historical record." He's also upset that I have failed to reject the theory of evolution. In his letter he calls upon me to recant what I have written in my online essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind," which you can read here.

In light of this most recent charge--and given everything else that has happened since President Harrison's Facebook post against me--last week Rev. Paul Linnemann, the NW District President, asked me to resign from the LCMS.

After a few days of thinking over and praying about his request, I let him know on Friday that I could not in good conscience resign. I told him that I thought such a decision would lend credence to the accusations of my accusers in the Synod, namely, that I have indeed acted improperly and taught falsely. More importantly, I believe that for me to resign would go against my ordination vows and undermine the principles I have sought to defend in each of the cases against me.

Perhaps in some future post I will comment further on the theological issues here. I do think the synod is hamstrung by some of its official documents from its past (e.g., Brief Statement; A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles). As I've tried to point out over the years, there is a better way of articulating the confessional doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption than by insisting on six-day creationism and a literalistic approach to the first chapters in Genesis.

Today I received official notice that President Linnemann has decided "to initiate formal proceedings under Bylaw 2.14.6 and request [my] expulsion from Synod." As an automatic result of this action, I am on "suspended status" under Bylaw 2.13.4.

According to Bylaw 2.14.6c, I have 15 days to appeal my suspension.

Nevertheless, I have told President Linnemann that I will not appeal his decision. Having suffered through those three previous heresy trials--which burdened nearly 17 of the past 26 years of my ministry--my family and I have come to the point of saying, "Enough! No more!"

Consequently, on July 15, I will be removed from the LCMS.

Yesterday I began to make inquiries into the process for becoming rostered in the ELCA. Later this summer my family and I will be joining Christ Lutheran Church (ELCA), here in Valpo.

My imminent expulsion from the synod has saddened me, since this church body that has been my spiritual home for nearly 53 years will no longer be that. As one of my seasoned LCMS teachers told me over the weekend, when I spoke with him about the situation, "This is no longer the synod of Emil Jaech and Emil Becker..."

I am also at peace. I have a clean conscience. Vis-a-vis these five official cases, I don't believe I have said or written anything that goes against my ordination vows or that contradicts or muddies the doctrinal content of the evangelical-Lutheran faith. I do believe that God's grace is sufficient to cover my sins, errors, and failures--and I remain open to correction. (I'm sorry, but the district resolutions that call upon me to repent of my teaching have not convinced me that I am guilty of teaching false doctrine in these matters.)

So I am shaking the dust off my worn sandals and moving on. I am grateful to be able to continue my teaching ministry here at Valparaiso University.

I am grateful, too, for the support I have received from many kindred spirits across and beyond the LCMS. They and the LCMS remain in my prayers.

Addendum on 7/5/15:
Just to be clear:
(1) I hold that "inerrancy" is not a helpful category for understanding the nature of biblical authority. Even Martin Luther, back in the sixteenth century, acknowledged that there are "errors" in Scripture.

(2) I am convinced that the Scriptures do not clearly prohibit women from serving in the pastoral office today.

(3) I do not reject predictive prophecy. The biblical prophets made prophetic-predictive statements about the future, including the future age of the Messiah, but this fact does not mean that the prophets saw directly and clearly to Jesus of Nazareth and made their predictions based on that vision. Direct prophecies are rare in the OT. More common are typical prophecies. These have an immediate meaning for their own day and an ultimate meaning that points toward the Messianic Age. God always has a way of surpassing biblical prophecies in unexpected ways.

(4) The genres in the early chapters of Genesis do not fit with the literary form of "historical report." The literal contradictions between the two creation accounts in Gen 1-3 are sufficient to push us in a different direction. The history of the exegesis of these chapters--beyond American Protestant Fundamentalism and its inroads in the LCMS--also helps to steer us away from interpretive dead ends. Finally, basic data discovered within the disciplines of the natural sciences also helps us to avoid literalistic, simplistic interpretations that are just plain wrong-headed and theologically unfruitful.

The referral panels and synodical officials who investigated the official charges against me that had to do with the above issues concluded that I was not guilty of advocating false doctrine.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Althaus in Marsh's Bonhoeffer Biography

Earlier this year I was asked to lead a public discussion of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). I told the people who had gathered in the Community Room of Valpo's Christopher Center that I generally enjoyed the book and had gained some new insights as a result of reading it, especially about Bonhoeffer’s time in the U.S. and his friendship with Eberhard Bethge. I did, however, find Marsh's speculations about Bonhoeffer's supposed homosexuality less than convincing and his characterization of Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge--which Marsh describes as tending in a "sexual" direction--unsupportable. Others have criticized Marsh on this score as well. As one friend of mine--who is himself a Bonhoeffer scholar--recently stated to me: "...There can be profound and enduring friendship, such as Bonhoeffer had with Bethge, without turning it "sexual..." When I spoke with Bethge a few years before he died and asked him about his relationship to Bonhoeffer, he simply replied, "He was my best and closest friend."

My own appraisal of Marsh's book basically coincides with the analysis that my friend Jim Nuechterlein (former Valpo professor of American studies and political thought, current senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, former editor of Valpo’s The Cresset and an editor at large of First Things) offered in his review that was published in the Oct 2014 issue of The New Criterion: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-ambiguous-witness-of-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-7962)

Unfortunately, Marsh's book contains several factual errors, particularly regarding another German Lutheran theologian from that era, namely, Paul Althaus (1888-1966).

These errors occur on pages 190-92, 215, and 439-40.

I contacted Prof. Marsh by email, but he has not replied.

What are these errors?

Contrary to what Marsh asserts on p. 190, Paul Althaus was never a member of the Nazi Party. He was never a "zealous Nazi" (p. 215). He never expressed an interest in attending the Barmen Synod. He never taught at Goettingen University. He never held a distinguished chair there. (Marsh has apparently confused Paul Althaus for Emanuel Hirsch.)

Between 1925 and his death in 1966 Althaus taught at Erlangen University, which Marsh correctly notes at the bottom of p. 142. But contrary to Marsh's claim, Althaus never "broke abruptly" (p. 191) with the so-called “Confessing Church,” since he never was a member of that dissenting group. He did not sign the Barmen Declaration nor did he join those who did. For confessional reasons he and the other key Erlanger theologian at that time, Werner Elert, could not support that Declaration because they thought it contained theological errors, e.g., they thought the document confused the law and the gospel and that its first two theses contradicted its fifth thesis. For Althaus and Elert, God works in two differing ways (“two kingdoms”), one way through creation and history (law, justice, retributive action, etc.) and the other through the gospel and the means of grace. These two ways need to be rightly distinguished from each other. These are matters that both theologians thought were muddled in Barth's document.

(Elert and Althaus did have an influence on the final draft of that Declaration. Bavarian Lutherans at Barmen insisted on adding that fifth thesis, which was not original to Barth's draft. The fifth thesis reflects the Lutheran concern to distinguish properly between law and gospel and to seek to maintain the proper distinction between the two conflicting ways in which God operates in the world.)

Paul Althaus
Contrary to what Marsh states at the top of p. 191, Althaus and Elert also opposed the Deutsche Christen and the formation of a single  Reich Church. They sought to defend the confessional integrity of the Bavarian Lutheran Church, which remained relatively "intact," unlike the so-called "destroyed" state churches elsewhere in Germany that had been taken over by the DC. Althaus and Elert explicitly rejected the Deutsche Christen claim that the unity of the church was constituted by "blood relations." For Althaus, the unity of the church is grounded in baptism, the gospel, and the unity of faith, i.e., the articles of faith exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions.

While Elert and Althaus acted foolishly and without foresight by signing the Ansbacher Ratschlag (a 1934 document that rejects the Barmen Declaration's Barthian understanding of divine revelation and affirms both "the Leader" and the National Socialist state as "good government"), they signed a revised version of that statement out of concern for Lutheran theology, not out of a concern to support Nazi racism or the Deutsche Christen. Nevertheless, when they saw how that document was being used by the Deutsche Christen, they distanced themselves from it.

Althaus cannot possibly be described as "more an opportunist than a quisling" (p. 192), nor is his theology accurately described on that page. Like many post-World-War-One German theologians (Bonhoeffer included), the Versailles Treaty was understood to be an unjust, vindictive punishment. As a monarchist, Althaus was troubled by the abdication of the Kaiser and the political and economic chaos that frequently erupted during the Weimar period. He was fearful of a Communist revolution and thought that Weimar democracy led to social chaos and ethical relativism. Like many conservative German-Lutheran nationalists, he longed for a central leader who could get past the seeming ineffectiveness of Weimar democracy. So Althaus was a conservative German nationalist and a conservative German Lutheran, who took seriously Luther's explanations to the Fourth Petition of the Lord's Prayer, the Fourth Commandment (which includes obedience to governing authorities), the First Article of the Creed (which in part spells out the creaturely domains or orders by which the Creator preserves creation in order to make human life and flourishing possible), and the so-called "Table of Duties" in Luther's Small Catechism.

Contrary to Marsh’s assertions, Althaus did not argue that the Word of God is "understood more effectively through the lens of 'general revelation' than 'specific,'" nor did he prefer "to emphasize God's self-revelation in history, nation, race, and culture rather than the primacy of Jesus Christ" (p. 192). Althaus would never have written such a sentence nor would he agree that "God's word to humanity 'equals the situation at any given moment... Obedience toward God consists of accepting one's allotted position in life as handed down by years of tradition" (p. 192). Instead, Althaus wrote that God's will is bound up with the two conflicting ways in which God operates in creation. (Robert Ericksen does not give the full context of this quote, but in any case Marsh has not accurately reflected what Ericksen himself wrote on p. 100 of his book, Theologians Under Hitler [Yale, 1985], the apparent source for much of what Marsh writes about Althaus. The key term here is "God's will," not "God's Word.") 

According to Althaus, these two conflicting ways in which God operates in the world are always mixed, and yet they must always be distinguished for the sake of eliciting faith in God's gracious promises. Law and gospel are thus to be distinguished in the will of God. What Althaus wrote about "nation, race, family, history," etc., fits under "law," not "gospel." 

The gospel was the preeminent concern of Althaus, since the gospel is the sole, sufficient basis for faith. If one examines his sermons from this period, one will see that he always emphasized the gospel of Jesus Christ as God's final word to the sinner, never "history, nation, race," or "culture." Althaus thus emphasized the gospel over against "the law."

For Althaus and Elert, “the orders of creation” had their own independent, unconditional, static, and absolute structure and authority for every human being who lives inescapably in them. These orders, the prevailing structures in society, were affirmed and accepted in such a way that their justification, permanence, and general validity were taken for granted. In his situation, Althaus was convinced that a single "Leader" for Germany was the best constituted form of government for the German "Volk" (a vision which, for Althaus, contained anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic elements, views that we rightfully criticize and reject today).  

Despite Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Elert’s and Althaus’s understanding of “the orders,” Bonhoeffer himself did not reject the teaching that there are certain specific “orders of preservation” by which God preserves this fallen, disturbed world and allows people to live in it in relative peace and safety.  For Bonhoeffer, “the orders of preservation” do not have an independent status or authority and cannot properly be understood as existing independently of the First Commandment or from any limiting contact with Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom.  Moreover, Bonhoeffer taught, in a way that both Althaus and Elert did not (at least not before 1936) that “the orders of preservation” could become demonic and idolatrous, and that the fallen world in which the orders existed adversely affected them. Much more so than Althaus and Elert (again, at least prior to 1936), Bonhoeffer recognized how even the “orders of preservation” could become anti-Christ and anti-human.

By the end of 1935, however, Althaus was gradually coming to see Nazism quite differently from how he had viewed it in 1933. Several scholars now recognize how he eventually adopted his own critical position over against the Nazi regime. So it is quite misleading to state unequivocally that he had given "National Socialism religious respectability" (p. 440). That might have been true in 1933-34, but much less so after 1935.

A new biography of Althaus provides a much more nuanced account of Althaus' political conservatism/nationalism than Ericksen was able to do in his one chapter on Althaus. For those who are interested, I highly recommend the 430-page book by Gotthard Jasper: Paul Althaus (1888-1966): Professor, Prediger und Patriot in seiner Zeit (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), esp. pp. 276ff. (Jasper is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and was that university's Rektor  between 1990 and 2002.) Jasper demonstrates that Althaus was privately skeptical about Hitler and the Nazi Party already prior to 1933 (see p. 215ff.).


For those who cannot read German, there is also the essay by Hans Schwarz, “Paul Althaus (1888-1966),” which appears in Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians, ed. Mark Mattes (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), pp. 136ff.

To be sure, Althaus made a terrible, naive political misjudgment about the events of 1933-34 (in this he was no different from many other conservative German nationalist academics, pastors, and priests) and he publicly endorsed the National Socialist "movement" between 1933 and at least 1936, but he wasn't a member of the Nazi Party. He didn't support the Deutsche Christen nor did he support rabid Nazis and their violence against others. He gradually came to see the error of his earlier support of Hitler and the national socialist movement.

Paul Althaus' theological understanding of "Volk" was wrong. The racist elements in that vision should be condemned. On that point, Marsh is right.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Rise of the "Nones"

For the past several years I have told my students that the most interesting development in the religious landscape of the United States is "the rise of the nones," that is, the growing number of adult Americans who claim no religious affiliation. ("The Rise of the Nones" would make a good film title, no?) While "evangelical" Christianity has been maintaining relatively steady numbers over the past couple of decades, both Roman Catholicism and mainstream, "establishment" Protestantism are undergoing decline.

A new Pew report, based on a survey of 35,000 individuals, gives us the latest data for gaining some understanding of these trends. To read that report go here.

The paragraphs that caught my eye were these:
Between 2007 and 2014, the overall size of the U.S. adult population grew by about 18 million people, to nearly 245 million. But the share of adults who identify as Christians fell to just under 71%, or approximately 173 million Americans, a net decline of about 5 million.
This decline is larger than the combined margins of sampling error in the twin surveys conducted seven years apart. Using the margins of error to calculate a probable range of estimates, it appears that the number of Christian adults in the U.S. has shrunk by somewhere between 2.8 million and 7.8 million.
Those who identify themselves as "former Christians" now represent just over 19% of the US adult population.

There is one misleading paragraph in the report:
The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition – including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations – now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

That paragraph gives the impression that the LCMS is within that "evangelical" camp (in the American sense of that term, not Luther's) whose numbers have plateaued or shown some increase. Yet a quick check of the LCMS's own statistical reports between 2006 and 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are available) reveals that in every one of those years the Synod had an overall net loss in baptized membership:

2007 -   2,383,084 baptized (representing a loss of 34,913 members in 2006)
2008 -   2,337,349 (a loss of 45,735 in 2007)
2009 -   2,312,111 (a loss of 25,238 in 2008)
2010 -   2,278,586 (a loss of 33,525 in 2009)
2011 -   2,231, 858 (a loss of 46,728 in 2010)
2012 -   2,196,788 (a loss of 35,070 in 2011)
2013 -   2,163,698 (a loss of 33,090 in 2012)

The reasons why Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism are declining in membership in the U.S. may be tied to factors that are unique to these groups and their settings here. The reasons why the Southern Baptist Convention and the LCMS are in decline may be entirely due to other factors. I will leave it to the experts in the sociology of religion to sort out those differences and to debate among themselves the principal causes for these specific declines.

While such reports have to be painted with a broad brush, I suspect the causes for decline vary from one church body to the next. Many people "drop out" of religion for all sorts of reasons. (The report points initially to "generational replacement," i.e., older religiously-affiliated people are dying and being replaced by younger non-religiously-affiliated individuals, but that doesn't really explain why younger people are not participating in religious organizations.)

I have my own hunches, based on limited, anecdotal evidence that I've collected over the years from the dozens of so-called "religiously-unaffiliated" people that have shown up in my required theology courses.

Many of these "nones" were raised in Christian homes and settings, but now no longer consider themselves "Christian." Several have labeled themselves "recovering Christians." Some of these are adamantly against all religions, especially Christianity, for "intellectual" and experiential reasons: "I used to believe in God, but what I know from the sciences and the overwhelming reality of evil in the world--much of it perpetrated by religious people--discounts such belief today." Others of them want nothing to do with "organized religion," but might dabble now and then with "spiritual" matters: "I believe in God, but want nothing to do with organized churches. I got burned by religion... I consider myself 'spiritual' but not 'religious.'" "Lord, I believe! Save me from your people!"

Quite a few "nones" are just unsure if they are "Christian" any longer, since they almost never set foot in a Christian congregation and are unclear about what they really believe regarding God, Jesus, etc. "My wife is Buddhist and I occasionally follow her lead when it comes to meditation or what not, but I don't go to a temple or church..." Still other "nones" just don't give much thought to religious or even "spiritual" questions and issues. For these "nones," time and energy are best devoted elsewhere. "During the week I'm very busy with school and my career and social networks. When the weekend comes around, I want just to relax..." Or: "The weekends were made for [fill in the blank]..., not doing a bunch of stupid religious rituals to a deity who may not even exist..."

The reasons for LCMS decline are also varied and complex, but I will suggest five:

1) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-intellectual," "anti-science." "I used to belong to the LCMS, but its position on six-day creationism is stupid and unsupportable, and so I left..." "I'm a Ph.D. in molecular biology and my pastor told me he would not commune me because I accept the theory of evolution, and so I joined a different church..." "Some LCMS doctrines are simply out of touch with basic scientific facts... I got tired of my pastor's ignorance and his bigotry against science..."

2) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-women." "I grew up in the LCMS, but when I entered college I became dissatisfied with its position against women serving as pastors and in other leadership roles..." "The LCMS is discriminatory toward women and I'm opposed to that kind of behavior... I left the synod for an Evangelical church body that supports the equality of men and women and recognizes the spiritual gifts of women pastors..."

3) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-LGBT." "I grew up in the LCMS and I'm gay. Over time I realized the LCMS was not a welcoming place for me..." "I'm not a lesbian, but I'm opposed to the kind of loveless words and actions toward gay and lesbian people that I have heard from LCMS pulpits and have witnessed in the LCMS over the years..."

4) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "judgmental" toward non-LCMS religious groups. "I was involved in two different LCMS congregations in Iowa and the pastors in both settings regularly preached sermons that were derogatory of other Christians. These pastors came off sounding like Pharisees... I got tired of their public bashing of others..." "I attended an LCMS congregation out in California for a while, but the pastor and many of the people there seemed most concerned to tell others what they were against (e.g., "liberals," gays, lesbians, Roe v. Wade, etc.) and to always pat themselves on the back for being 'the true church of the pure doctrine...' I didn't appreciate their loveless judgmentalism. There was no real Christian love in the place... I joined a non-denominational church as a result..."

5) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "the right-wing of the Republican Party at prayer." "I'm not a Republican and as such I didn't feel at home in that particular LCMS congregation..." "I don't agree with the politics of the past several LCMS presidents. On certain political issues, they don't speak for me. I left the LCMS largely for these reasons..."

There are undoubtedly other factors in play here, but for the time being I will continue to collect my own anecdotal evidence for why "the rise of the nones" is occurring. Perhaps this data will cause local pastors and congregations to do some serious self-examination, some sober soul-searching, some substantive reflection on the differences between motes and beams.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Few Comments on Death and Resurrection

A younger LCMS pastor recently directed a question to me (in the context of a private internet group to which he and I belong): “When it comes to evolution and the Scriptures you never deal with the problem of death.  I am very interested and open to theistic evolution but you lose me when it comes to the issue of death.  How can it be reconciled with theistic evolution?  It just doesn’t jive in my mind.“

A few people thought my response was helpful, so I’m taking the liberty of sharing it here. (I’ve added some content that was not in the original post.)

Death is always with us. We cannot not deal with it. It comes up in expected and unexpected ways. It affects each of us individually and all of us in our various circles of family and friends and fellow believers. For those of us who serve as ministers of Christ in congregations, e.g., as pastors or interim pastors (as I did recently for several years), the reality of death and its effects are near the center of our vocation. In a sense, the essential content of the Christian faith as a whole is directed to the reality of death. We are called to shed light on this reality, to proclaim the judgment of God that is wrapped up with it, and to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We are called to comfort those who mourn and to point to the Risen One as the basis of our hope, especially in the face of death.  We proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus as "the death of death." During Lent, the focus on our own mortal nature has been sharpened and intensified: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are mortally aware of our sins and our depraved condition. We are daily reminded of our need for Christ, his forgiveness, his new creation, and the salvation that he freely offers to us and the whole world.

And of course today, on Good Friday, our eyes are directed to the suffering, crucified Christ, even as we also anticipate the joy of Easter morning and the central apostolic proclamation: Christ is risen!

We look upon death differently because of Jesus Christ. We face our death in the sure and certain confidence that because Christ has died and has been raised from the dead, we too shall be raised—and even now may walk in the newness of that resurrected life. “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead… If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God…” (Col. 2.12; 3.1ff.)

That NT teaching is the largest context for dealing with the reality of death and all other earthly realities. That "good news" is at the heart of every evangelical sermon; it is the promise that is attached to the means of grace; it is the center of the Scriptures; it is the basis for all Christian pastoral care (and not merely at funerals); it is the principal theme in all of my university courses in theology. That NT gospel keeps the heartbeat of faith pumping. It is what gets me out of bed in the morning, allows me to go about my vocation with a deep sense of purpose and frequent joy, and gives me a sense of peace when I fall asleep at night.

This being said, one has to note that the context given by Col. 2-3 and similar NT passages is not the only context for addressing the reality of death and the questions it raises. There are other contexts that need to be taken into account as well, at least if one is to probe these matters theologically (i.e., academically, in relation to the natural and human sciences, medical knowledge and ethics). For instance, many contemporary people whom we seek to reach with the gospel—including people who have heard that gospel and continue to hear it and receive it in faith—wonder about the nature of death as a human reality in light of the evidence of death in the plant and animal kingdoms in the long history of the planet. Such evidence indicates that creatures have been dying—and going extinct!—for millions and millions of years, long before the advent of the first human beings. What are we to make of this “hard” evidence?

There is no question that creatures of God were living and dying long before the emergence of the first human creatures. The evidence of these pre-human deaths in nature is as irrefutable as the fact that the earth is spinning on its axis and orbiting the sun (additional natural facts that God has chosen not to reveal in his Holy Scriptures!). As I tell my students, the evidence here is something on which you can stub your toe.

This evidence needs to be taken into account by educated Christians, especially pastors and theologians and others who seek to make sense of the Christian faith in light of contemporary knowledge and in contexts that include scientifically-informed people.

The way I do this is to take note of the fact that the Scriptures illuminate and address the reality of death in the most profound and promising of ways. To begin with, the Scriptures do not contain a single, monolithic understanding of “death.” There is instead a great variety of passages that address and illuminate the reality and threat of death (both “physical,” “bodily” death, and other, harsher kinds of “death,” e.g., alienation and separation from God, “spiritual death,” the “second death” mentioned in Rev. 20.6, 14). Any good Christian dogmatics text will indicate that the Scriptures do not have a monolithic presentation about "death." I have found Pannenberg's reflections on sin and death helpful in this regard (see his Systematic Theology, 2.231ff.).

For the sake of brevity, we may take note of two key emphases about “death” in the Scriptures. On the one hand, natural, physical death is understood to be an aspect of finite, creaturely existence, as an aspect of life itself. This emphasis is especially prominent in many OT passages. “Lord, teach us to number our days [teach us to remember that we have to die] that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90.12). Our lifespan is in the hands of God (Ps. 31.15). Our lives do not belong to ourselves; they are a gift of God. We are created for life, yet in the end, all humans die (Ps. 89.48f.; cf. Eccl. 2.16ff.) It is God who returns people to the dust (Ps. 90.3) So the psalmist prays to God for protection from an untimely death. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73.26). Those who are blessed by the Lord die “old and full of years” (Gen. 25.8; Jud. 8.32; 1 Chr. 29.28). When one comes to a ripe age, “full of days,” then it is time for death. If death comes then, a person has truly lived. “You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, as a shock of grain comes up to the threshing floor in its season” (Job 5.26). Commenting on this aspect of the OT’s teaching about death, Eberhard Juengel  remarks: “To be delivered from death means that one’s life is prolonged so that the number of one’s days may be fulfilled (Exod. 23.26). In the end, for Israel, the longed for future time of salvation in the new Jerusalem was pictured as a time when there would be no old man who had not fulfilled his days—that is, who was not ripe for death (see Isa. 65.20; Zech. 8.4). Death can therefore be something other than a curse” (E. Juengel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery [Westminster, 1974], 76).

In other words, to be a creature, human or otherwise, is to be a finite, mortal being. Finite beings are not eternal. Death marks the end of every life. Every multiple-celled life must die. Physical, biological death is an aspect of our creaturely finitude that we share with all of God's other creatures, going all the way back to the very first simple, single-celled life forms. Creatures have an end. Karl Barth (d. 1968) was right when he wrote, "Finitude means mortality" (Church Dogmatics 3/2.625). The life we are given is an allotted time; it has limits, boundaries. “Death is intrinsically the end and limit of human life” (ibid., 588). “…[I]t also belongs to human nature, and is determined and ordered by God’s good creation and to that extent right and good, that man’s being in time should be finite and man himself mortal… Death is man’s step from existence into non-existence, as birth is his step from non-existence into existence. In itself, therefore, it is not unnatural but natural for human life to run its course to this terminus ad quem, to ebb and fade, and therefore to have this forward limit” (ibid., 632). We live our lives at present always under the shadow of death. “It then becomes clear that dying is the way of all the earth (1 Ki. 2.2)” (Juengel, Death, 67). (Even the Christian who takes the story of Adam and Eve in Gen 2-3 quite literalistically has to agree that “Adam” was subject to death from the very beginning of his being created. Adam/Eve were “mortal” creatures, even before they sinned, something Luther also acknowledged in his great commentary on Genesis.)

On the other hand, the Scriptures elsewhere reveal, especially in the NT, that human death is a judgment from God as a consequence of sin. “The wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6.23). As a result of sin, God has subjected creation to futility. The world is fallen, corrupt, and suffering under the judgment of God. Here death is the sign of God’s judgment. Death has become an enemy, the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15.26). Why? Because death brings us mortal sinners into the hands of Almighty God.

A careful study of the biblical words and Scripture passages relating to “death” helps to uncover the rich variety of meanings that these terms/passages convey for a fuller theological understanding of death. Many of these passages can be understood to fit within an understanding of the natural history of the world that includes the reality of death—the condition of creaturely finitude established by the Creator, the temporal character of all life, of death as the boundary of all life—long before the appearance of the first human beings.

BUT, and this is a big BUT: If physical death is merely talked about as a natural part of life, as merely something to be accepted as a part of the natural rhythm of this created order (though, to be sure, it is this, too), then a key biblical teaching is minimized or even lost. Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr and most other Protestant theologians are right to stress that there is a profound anxiety that overcomes one when one contemplates the reality of one’s death. Here the Pauline emphasis that connects “divine judgment” and “death” is spot on. We know that death is a threat not merely to our existence, but to our standing before God. Through death we enter into God’s perfect judgment. And that judgment is also then a kind of “separation” or “estrangement” from God, the source of our being. To paraphrase Tillich, when we are estranged from the ultimate power of our being, we are then determined by our finitude. We are given over to our natural fate (and all the other creaturely conditions that mark us and define us). We know then too well the truth of what we hear on every Ash Wed and at funeral services: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are under the domination of death and are driven by the anxiety of having to die. That leads to all sorts of other problems and sinful consequences, as we try to secure ourselves against the threat of death and against the sober reality of its being more than a mere inconvenience.

Our Christian hope, however, anticipates a new life beyond death and the divine judgment connected with it, a new life that has dawned for the first time in the multi-billion-year history of planet earth in Jesus of Nazareth. This new life has dawned in his death and resurrection from the dead—God’s decisive, final act in creation. Jesus alone makes this new life possible for all mortal sinners who put their trust in him. (I will leave open the question about whether or not the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the dawn of the new creation in him have positive implications for the future of God’s other creatures. I remain hopeful, in this regard, provided the new life of the dinosaurs means they no longer will eat meat...) God alone is able to bring us through death into new life through Jesus and the creating Holy Spirit. So Scripture also refers to death as liberation from this mortal life and as gain, so as to be with the risen Christ.

Set free from the curse of death, life’s end may therefore be understood more precisely as man’s natural death, as the end of that existence which he is by nature. It is not because of his nature but because of his guilt as a sinner that this natural death can become a curse. From the quite remarkable terminological fact that the New Testament makes a temporal distinction between the curse of death which threatens man’s existence and the true end of man’s life we can see that the end of man’s life does not have to be a curse: both Paul and John can say of believers that this death prior to life’s ending is something which for them is already past (Juengel, Death, 92).

The death of Jesus has inaugurated the death of death for us. Jesus has suffered the harshest, most damnable death of all, his suffering of God’s judgment upon all sins, so that we might receive life to the fullest.

So the death of which paleontologists, biologists, anthropologists, and other natural scientists speak, and which they analyze, needs to be set into that larger context to which the author of Colossians spoke (and speaks!). "Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth." There is here a more profound understanding of death than that which any natural scientist or medical doctor could offer, based on his/her scientific understandings of this old, fallen creation (as important as this latter knowledge is for our understanding of human beings and their place in the natural history of the world). The law and gospel of God offer a new interpretation of death, but not merely that. The gospel promises a great victory over death and the grave/ash urn/final resting place of human dust. “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14.9). That Easter promise makes all the difference for your finite, mortal, sinful dust. (For a profound reflection on precisely this point, see Bob Bertram’s classic, “Pardon My Dying: A Sequel to Ash Wednesday,” which is available at the online Crossings website. See also Ed Schroeder's essay, "Encountering the Last Enemy," which builds on reflections in Tod und Leben [Life and Death] by Ed's Doktorvater, Thielicke.)

Dying has been occurring in God’s creation since the beginning of the earliest life forms. At least for human beings, who uniquely bear the image of God and who are mortal sinners under the law of God, such “damned dying” (to quote Bertram) needs forgiving and it needs a resurrection.

Hence, the return to baptism again and again. While all creaturely life leads to death, Holy Baptism takes one from death to new life. According to the Gospel of John, the person who hears Jesus and believes the One who sent him, has eternal life; “he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5.24). Cf. the Colossians passage above, which makes the same point.

Hopefully, these informal comments give you a better idea of how I address the reality of death theologically in view of the physical evidence of death in the natural history of the world but especially in light of the gospel promise.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

For the Record

Over the past several weeks a lot has been published online and in print about me and my teaching. The President of the LCMS and many of his supporters have criticized me on his Facebook page. Two districts of the LCMS have adopted resolutions that call upon me "to repent" of my supposed "false teaching." The national newspaper of the LCMS has published articles about these two district conventions and about a recent meeting of the LCMS Council of District Presidents in which my teaching was discussed. In two of these articles I am mentioned by name.

In light of these public actions and events, I would like to offer my own response, "for the record."

You may read that response here.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fundamental Theology

Earlier today I learned that my new book, Fundamental Theology (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark), is now available in North America. I'm hoping the book will be beneficial to individuals who want to explore basic, preliminary issues in Christian theology. After providing brief overviews of the history of Christianity and Christian theology, the book analyzes issues relating to the reality of God (e.g., atheism, philosophical theology), the nature of Christian faith, central themes in special revelation, the authority and interpretation of the Christian Bible, and the interface between Christian thinking about God and other forms of knowledge. 

Each of the fifteen chapters ends with several study questions that invite additional reflection. These questions could serve to open up discussion within a group setting. Each chapter also contains suggestions for further reading. The book includes both a glossary of terms and a glossary of names. Martin Marty has written the Afterword. 

Carl Braaten (retired professor of theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago) read an early draft of the book and was invited by the publisher to give his assessment. According to Braaten, the book "is destined to become a standard textbook both in college and seminary courses of theology. I know of no better compendium of Christian theology to introduce beginning students to the study of theology." 

While I wrote the book primarily for high-school graduates, college students, and seminarians, the book could be useful in a congregational setting as well, perhaps as the focus for an adult forum or discussion group. The issues addressed in the book and the questions raised are ones that ought to be of interest to anyone who wants to think more deeply about Christian faith.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

When Religions Collide

"Do you want to speak with Big Detra or Little Detra?" Confused by the server's question, I thought to myself, "How many people named 'Detra' could there be in the world, let alone employed at the same restaurant?" A bit impatient, the busy server fired off a follow-up: "Do you want the younger one or the older one?" "I, I, I don't know. I think I want the younger one, but maybe you should send the older one over, just in case." "Well, you can't talk to Big Detra because she's not here. I'll get Little Detra."

A few minutes later, after I had noticed a group of servers and the hostess who had seated me cautiously eyeing me from around the corner, the latter hesitantly came over to my table. "I'm Detra," she said. "I'm sorry," I responded. "You don't know me, but Dave at the Squire, whom I think you know, has been after me for some time now to come here and introduce myself to you." 

As a young, single, culinarily-challenged assistant pastor of a large, suburban Lutheran congregation and a full-time graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I didn't have a lot of time to prepare or eat my meals. So I had gotten to know Dave, the bartender at one of the better eating places in town. I frequently found myself in conversation with him, while waiting for a table to open up. On many occasions, I just ate at the bar, which allowed the two of us to continue our discussions about religion, politics, literature, the arts, and other important matters. For nearly eight months, he'd been prodding me to go meet this young woman named "Detra" who worked at her family's nearby Greek restaurant and whom he knew from his frequent visits there, where he would go to eat his dinner on his days off. But I wasn't really in a position to date anyone at the time. Besides, I had my hands full with church and academic challenges. So I kept deflecting his prompts. 

I had passed that Greek restaurant I don't know how many times, typically when I went to make pastoral visits at the large regional hospital a few miles away from it. Sometimes I would eye it, as I passed by, and wonder about this woman with the strange name. 

On that particular dog-day, however, as I approached Paul's, I decided that I could at least stop in for a cup of coffee and check things out a bit, which is what I did after making a couple of pastoral visits to two of our hospitalized members. 

"My name is Matt and I've known Dave for a while. He asked me to come in and introduce myself to you." "Oh. Ok." And off she walked. Talk about "crash and burn." Although she never came back to the table, I did spot her on my way out. Mustering up some courage, I went over to where she was eating her lunch. "I realize you don't know me but I'm wondering if I could call you sometime to go to lunch." There followed a very long pause. "Normally I don't give out my number to customers. But since you know Dave, you can call me here, if you want." 

So that's what I did a few days later. A week after that, we had a picnic lunch together alongside the Fox River. Ten minutes into that meal she asked, "So what do you do for a living?" I was a bit surprised by the question, as I thought Dave had told her. "I'm a Lutheran pastor." I could tell by the expression on her face, this was not something she had wanted to hear. "Are you a Christian," I asked as casually as I could. Long, long pause. "I'm a Jehovah's Witness." 

I don't think either of us said anything for several minutes. We did, however, continue to eat the crab salad I had purchased from a deli. Gradually, we resumed our conversation and carefully avoided bringing up anything that might lead us back to the awkward subject of religion. After a couple of hours of rather enjoyable food-centered discussion, I took her back to her aunt and uncle's house, where she lived. (I later learned that her mom had died of a heart-attack when Detra was only nine. Her mom's side of the family is Greek Orthodox. Her aunt and uncle had been operating Paul's Restaurant for several decades--and that's where Detra worked. Detra’s other aunt, "Big Detra"--who stands all of about five feet tall!--also worked at the restaurant.)

That initial, somewhat “blind” date would have been our only one, except that I was smitten by her intelligence and beauty. I just couldn't get her out of my head. So, in addition to seeing Dave at the Squire, I started making sure that I ate at least a few of my meals each week at Paul's. While Detra tried to keep her distance, we still found opportunities to talk. Food had a way of bringing us together. 

But religion kept intruding and creating awkward conflicts. Some elders from Detra's local Kingdom Hall stopped by my office one day to tell me to stop seeing her. I told them that she was 23 and could make up her own mind about who she saw. A month or two after that, her aunt--the one who owned the restaurant--took me out to lunch to encourage me to stop seeing her niece: "Matt, you seem like a nice man. We don't want you to get hurt. We've tried unsuccessfully for many, many years to encourage Detra to become Greek Orthodox. All to no avail. If she won't listen to her own family, do you really think she'll listen to you?" My response: "You might be right. But I'm willing to try to keep the lines of communication open--and to trust the Holy Spirit." One of my members was shocked to learn that I was "dating" Detra. Initially he thought I was dating Big Detra--who is married!--but then he really became flummoxed when he learned I was seeing her niece, the one who is a Jehovah's Witness.

I had to have a special meeting with the elders of my congregation to explain the situation. For a couple of hours we discussed the matter. At the end of the meeting, the head elder, speaking for the senior pastor with whom I worked and the other elders, said, "Pastor, we trust you. We will pray for you and for Detra. However, we ask that you not do anything that would harm the ministry of this congregation." I assured them that I would ask God to help me to seek His will.

My parents, on the other hand, were worried and bewildered. "Matt, can't you find a nice Lutheran girl to date? Surely in that large congregation of yours, you could find someone! Not a Jehovah's Witness...!" One of my pastoral colleagues told me: "Matt, you always like to do things the hard way, don't you?" He joked that I surely was the only LCMS pastor in history ever to date seriously a practicing Jehovah's Witness.

At one point, during that first year, Detra and I were contacted by a producer from Oprah's talk show. Oprah wanted to interview us. Somehow she learned about us—a Chicago-area Lutheran pastor who was dating a Jehovah's Witness—and wanted to have us on her show to talk about how we were faring. We respectfully declined the invitation.

The greatest conflict was yet to come, however. Detra's father had become a Jehovah's Witness shortly before Detra was born. He had made sure that his two younger children were active in their local Kingdom Hall.  When he learned that one of them, his middle child, was seeing a Lutheran pastor, he was beside himself. He reminded Detra of her promise always to remain loyal to him and to Jehovah. Her dad told her that he would completely disown her if she continued to see me.

There were many difficult, troubling moments throughout the three years that Detra and I dated each other. During that time, we actually stopped seeing each other for extended periods--only to find ourselves together again at the same booth at Paul's or at the movies or at the Art Institute or a concert. It helped that Detra met gospel-oriented people from my congregation, who showed her unconditional love and acceptance. It helped that she enrolled at Concordia, Chicago, where she took some theology classes as a  part of her degree program in education. It helped that her roommates at Concordia could talk about the Christian faith in ways that were better than my more "academic" approach. It helped that the Christian message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ is truly a good message, almost too good to be true!

That message was tested in all sorts of ways, none more significantly than when Detra learned that her college roommate, Becky, had died as a result of complications from a bone-marrow transplant. We went to Becky’s funeral in St. Louis, where the gospel was proclaimed loudly and clearly in word, song, and deed—with joy and hope and confidence in Christ’s victory over death and the grave. On the way back to Chicago, we were mostly silent. And then, rather out of the blue, Detra told me, “I want to be baptized.”

After being instructed further in the Christian faith by another local Lutheran pastor, she was baptized on Easter Sunday, 1993. We were married later that summer. (If you’ve seen the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you have an idea of what ours was like. On our wedding day I had asked a couple of the groomsmen to keep their eyes open for Detra’s father, in case he should try forcibly to stop the ceremony from taking place.)

True to his promise, Detra’s father disowned her. Despite her efforts, her father refused to meet me. He was angry that his daughter had left him and her childhood faith to marry this apostate. Thereafter, year in and year out, we never heard from him. He was not a part of our lives, not even when his grandson was born to us in 1999. Actually, that’s not quite right: there were times when the absence of Billy Joe in our lives created problems of a special sort, which I need not describe. For more than twenty years, we were estranged from him. Actually, that’s not quite right either, at least in my case and that of my son: I had never met my father-in-law and my son had never met his Grandfather Crunk. How can you be estranged from someone you haven’t ever met?

Exactly one year ago this weekend, however, a minor miracle occurred. We got word that Billy Joe was not doing well and that he wanted to see us, to meet me for the first time, and to meet his 14-yr-old grandson. We were cautiously joyful, excited, nervous, and perhaps a little fearful. We didn’t know what to expect. How would that meeting go? What would (or wouldn’t) be said? But we knew we needed to risk the encounter and to trust that God could bring about reconciliation.

Our meeting went better than any of us could have imagined. Billy Joe was happy, pleased to see his long-lost daughter and to meet her family. There were hugs and smiles, jokes and stories, moist eyes. We were surprised to see on his dresser and bookshelves all of the photos of our family that Detra had sent him through the years. Despite the fact that his daughter had been "disfellowshipped" from the JWs, he had not destroyed the photos. At one point, Billy Joe, who was in a wheel chair, and I were off by ourselves. “I know you know that I didn’t want Detra to marry you. I had hoped she would remain a Jehovah’s Witness. I know now that she is happy with you.” I didn’t say anything, but nodded my appreciation for the comment. He then continued, “I know we’re all trying to go to the same place.” “It’s all by God’s grace, isn’t it?”, I asked. “Yes. You are right. It is by God’s grace.” When it was time to go, he shook my hand in both of his. He hugged his daughter. Our son then went over and hugged him. “Grandpa, I love you.”

We left that day with a sense of quiet gratitude. I knew that my sermon for the next Sunday would have to be different now.

We have tried not to be bitter and angry about all the joys that could have been shared--but were not--with Billy Joe during the previous twenty-three years he had been separated from us. There were certainly times during those years when I was angry with him and, I’m sure, he with me. Detra, too, had to face her own anger, frustration, and sadness that occasionally confronted her. We had often pondered all that could have been experienced with her dad but didn't happen. Nevertheless, during this past year, we have been thankful for this reconciliation and the contacts with her dad that subsequently occurred.

This past October one of Billy Joe’s step-children (the daughter of his second wife) called to tell us that Billy Joe had unexpectedly died a few hours earlier. As we drove south later that day (he had always lived in southern Illinois), I couldn’t help but think that our time of mourning would be tempered by what had happened last January. God’s grace and mercy had had their way again.

During the funeral and afterward, when we again found ourselves together as a family, eating a good meal, I kept returning to what Billy Joe had acknowledged to me a year ago when he and I had been by ourselves.  

Rest in God's grace and peace, Dad.