Friday, February 26, 2016

Murphy's Review of "In Christ All Things Hold Together"

Just about a year ago, right around the time that Pr. Terry Forke, an LCMS pastor and district president in Montana, was preparing to file a formal charge against me for "teaching false doctrine" with respect to "six-day creationism" and evolution (cf. esp. "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind" here; and "Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS" here), the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) published its own study of "the intersection of science and Christian theology." I had planned to review this 139-page document last summer, but my expulsion from the clergy roster of the Synod in July interfered with that plan. After I had returned from Germany that month, I really wasn't in the mood to devote any time to such a problematic study of theology and science.

I may still post such a review of it in the near future, but for now I'd like to draw attention to a fine online essay that analyzes it superbly. The essay's author is the Rev. Dr. George L. Murphy, who grew up in an LCMS congregation. In the late 1960s he joined a Slovak congregation, when the Slovak Church was in fellowship with the LCMS (but a few years before it became the non-geographical "Slovak District" in the latter). During several years when he lived "down under," he was a member of the Lutheran Church in Australia. After returning to the US to begin teaching at Luther College, he and his family joined the American Lutheran Church, which later was a key player in the formation of the ELCA. So he has been a member of five different Lutheran church bodies over the course of a few decades--something of a record, I would think!

Dr. George L. Murphy
Dr. Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University in 1972. His focus was on Einstein's theory of general relativity. After teaching and conducting research in physics for an apostolic number of years, he matriculated to Wartburg Seminary, where he received his theological education. Ordained in 1983, he has served Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. He has also written numerous articles and books on the interface between science and Christian theology (from a distinctly Lutheran perspective). Since getting to know him (mainly through his wonderful books on science and theology, but also through regular email communication with him), I like to think of him as our North-American version of John Polkinghorne (who earned his Ph.D. in mathematical physics before becoming an ordained Anglican clergyman). George's books and writings on "science and theology" continue to be important resources for me and the students who take my summer-semester course on the Christian doctrine of creation (a course that leads us to engage Christian-Lutheran theological understandings in relation to mainstream scientific theories about nature and other issues in the natural sciences). For more details about Dr. Murphy, go here and here.

What about his review of the CTCR's report, In Christ All Things Hold Together: The Intersection of Science and Christian Theology (St. Louis: CTCR, February 2015)?

After a brief introduction, Dr. Murphy highlights its few positive features:
(1) The report addresses an important topic, one that many churches tend to avoid;

(2) The report's criticisms of "scientism" and philosophical naturalism are generally "on target";

(3) The report is right to note how Christian theology (and specifically the Lutheran teaching about "vocation") can support scientific work.

These features aside, Dr. Murphy finds a lot more negative ones than positive:

(1) The report sets forth a problematic understanding of "natural theology"; (Here I actually disagree with Murphy's Barthian-tinged criticism, since I think there needs to be proper attention to questions about human experience that arise in what has traditionally been called "natural theology" before one can turn properly to address God's clearer response to that situation in Christ (the gospel!), i.e., to our human condition, to life under the divine law, to the deus absconditus--cf. my book, Fundamental Theology, pp. 129ff.)

(2) The report affirms a flawed understanding of "intelligent design"; (This is not surprising, since the report's principal author is Angus J. L. Menuge, a professor of philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin, and a proponent of ID theory. You can learn more about him here.)

(3) The report does not understand how scientists actually conduct their work according to standard principles of methodological naturalism;

(4) The report fails to draw upon any of the leading Christian theologians who are engaged in discussions about "science and theology." (I mention several of these, including George, in my chapter on "Christian Theology and the Sciences," Fundamental Theology, 433ff.) I would add that as far as I know, the leading scientists in the Concordia University System were not consulted in the process of writing this CTCR document. I know of several practicing scientists at Concordia, Portland, and elsewhere in the CUS who take issue with many statements in the report that belie a wrong understanding of how science is actually done.

(5) The report does not seriously engage the leading, mainstream scientific theories that it opposes (e.g., neo-Darwinian evolution; theistic evolution);

(6) The report supports six-day creationism, which is quite different from today's mainstream scientific understanding of a 13.7-billion-yr-old universe, a 4.5-billion-yr-old earth, a very long process of evolution in the very, very long natural history of the planet, etc. "How are scientists – and indeed any interested people – in the Missouri Synod supposed to deal with the massive array of data, connected by well tested theories, that astrophysicists, geologists, geophysicists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and workers in other areas present in support of the current scientific picture of the world? No help is given with that." To me, this is the fatal flaw of the document.

Dr. Murphy ends his review by identifying the core problem with the CTCR report, namely, its misguided understanding of the nature of biblical interpretation, an issue to which I have also drawn attention and which contributed, at least in part, to my being given the LCMS boot.

Neither of the two (!) creation accounts should be read as "straight historical narrative." That way of reading them does violence to their genres. Murphy: "And why not consider what we know with some certainty about the physical world and its processes" in deciding what "the plain meaning" of a biblical text is? "Pascal had some worthwhile comments about that in the Eighteenth Provincial Letter." Neither creation story should be read as "scientific accounts but as different types of texts that compliment such accounts."

Bottom line: "Perhaps instead we should pursue a parallel Luther drew between the Word of God made flesh — a male Jewish human in a particular cultural setting — and the Word of God written by humans in a culture with a certain level of understanding of the world. In inspiring the writers of the Genesis accounts, God apparently did not feel it necessary to correct what we now know to be an erroneous picture of the world."

The entire review by Dr. Murphy can be read here. It nicely complements the review essay that my friend, Dr. Robert Sylwester, emeritus professor of education at the University of Oregon, wrote last year. You can read Bob's critical analysis here.

I hope both essays receive wide and attentive readings in LCMS circles--and beyond.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Theological Echoes and Tensions in Bonhoeffer's Discipleship

According to some scholars, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which forms the larger first part of Discipleship, marks a break with the interpretation of it by most previous German Lutheran theologians.  For example, in the context of Martin Doblmeier’s film, Bonhoeffer, John De Gruchy states that German Lutherans have traditionally interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal, whose sole purpose is to make people aware of their sinful condition, and that Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount presented a novel departure from this understanding. A similar assessment is offered by Friedrich Schlingensiepen, who states that Bonhoeffer interpreted the Sermon on the Mount in a way that was “contrary to the usual Lutheran interpretation.”  For Bonhoeffer, “the Sermon on the Mount was intended not only to lead human beings to the conviction that they are sinners who can be saved only through faith in the grace of God; even more, Jesus required consistent obedience from his followers. Anyone who claimed otherwise was preaching ‘cheap grace.’”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer's closest friend and principal biographer, Eberhard Bethge, also concluded that Bonhoeffer had held “the conventional Lutheran harmless understanding” of the Sermon on the Mount at least through 1929.  At that time, Bonhoeffer accepted the notion that a literal interpretation of the Sermon “would turn it into a law, and that law had been abolished through Christ.”

By the early 1930s, however, according to Bethge, “Bonhoeffer was entering new ground and an altered intellectual climate in his emphasis on the concreteness of faith in his interpretation of earthly discipleship, and his location of the disciple within the boundaries of historical and local decisions, fraught as they were with visible inconsistencies.” This “emphasis,” Bethge stated, was “in contrast to the Reformation era.” That conclusion seems already to have been made by Bonhoeffer himself when he remarked to his former teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr (in a 1934 letter from London), that the Sermon on the Mount “must be understood differently from the Reformational understanding.”  Gerhard Krause interpreted this remark to mean that Bonhoeffer himself “directed” Discipleship “against the students of Luther.”  In other words (to cite Bethge again), Bonhoeffer directed the book against his own earlier “conventional harmless Lutheran” understanding of the Sermon.

While Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship differs in tone and content from previous interpretations by Lutheran scholars, to claim that it marks a departure from “the usual Lutheran interpretation” can also be misleading, since it seems to ignore Bonhoeffer’s continuity with exegetical decisions taken by Martin Luther himself. Even after 1932, the year Bonhoeffer claimed to have become a Christian (which also entailed his adoption of a form of Christian pacifism), he seems to have underestimated the degree to which he still shared basic exegetical and theological insights of Luther on the Sermon on the Mount. Accordingly, Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon was not really "new for Protestant churches," as Schlingensiepen claims and as Bonhoeffer’s own remark to Niebuhr suggests.  Instead, Bonhoeffer uncovered issues and concerns in the biblical texts that German Lutheran theologians had been ignoring, repressing, forgetting, and distorting—insights that nonetheless are present in Luther’s own exegesis and that of a few other important Lutheran scholars from the century before Bonhoeffer, especially August Tholuck, whose commentary on the Sermon on the Mount was one of Bonhoeffer’s principal resources.

For further analysis of continuities and discontinuities between Bonhoeffer's Discipleship and Luther's sermons on the Sermon (and Tholuck's commentary on it), click this link.