Sunday, November 4, 2018

Pericope of the Week: A Bonhoeffer Moment?

My friend, Gene Brueggemann, a retired Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod pastor in Colorado, recently wrote an article for the online Daystar Journal, which I help to edit. Gene is 92 years old. For 55 of those years he was a campus pastor, most recently at Colorado State University. I have known him since the mid-1990s.

Gene has given me permission to share the first part of his article here. To read the whole piece, just follow the link at the end of the post. This excerpt from Gene's essay will serve as our pericope for this important week.

Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?
by Pr. Eugene Brueggemann

A Bonhoeffer moment is a moment of truth. It is a time of urgent necessity that is calling the church to bear witness to the truth when it is under prolonged and intense attack. Many American Christians, impressed with Bonhoeffer’s role and writings in the Nazi era, see parallels between then and now. The parallels are certainly there, as well as important differences.
The most obvious parallel is the rise to power of two ambitious, aggressive, highly-effective demagogues. Adolf Hitler was a dispirited veteran of the German army, a failure at painting and at staging a coup (the Munich beer hall Putsch) and the successful author of Mein Kampf, a book which inspired the Nazi movement. Donald Trump is a veteran of New York City real estate competition and Hollywood show time and the author of a book, The Art of the Deal¸ which displayed his values and modus operandi. Both candidates lost the majority vote but gained office anyway, Hitler by bullying his way to power against a politically and physically weakened Chancellor Hindenburg, Trump by the vagaries of the electoral college.
The most significant parallel, I believe, is their effective use of the Big Lie to promote the cause of Aryan/white nationalism in a succession of rallies. They had the ability to deliver spell-binding speeches which incited fear and loathing of their enemies. For Hitler, the Big Lie was that the Jews were traitors who had stabbed the German army in the back in the waning days of the Great War. Jewish bankers were disloyal citizens who counseled surrender, and Jews, of course, were behind a militant communism which threatened a weakened Germany. Hitler made centuries-old anti-Semitism not merely respectable, but essential in making Germany great again. The Aryans were the master race, the key to German exceptionalism.
For Trump, the Big Lie was of the same order but more subtle: he vilified immigrants early and often, those already within our borders, both legal and illegal, and those swarming the Southern border looking for jobs and asylum. Immigrants, he asserted, weakened the true American identity and were responsible for a crime wave. To shouts of approval, Trump demanded a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and the exclusion of immigrants (especially Muslims) from entering the country. The easy entrance of these immigrants was a threat to American exceptionalism. Barack Obama, the Kenyan outlier, and Hillary Clinton, the elite insider, were prime examples of Democrats who were responsible for the decline of American greatness into bland multiculturalism.
Trump did not campaign openly as a racist, and he did make gestures of reaching out for support from blacks. But he viewed Barack Obama with contempt, and for years he gained notoriety by vilifying him as an illegitimate president, who was born in Kenya and a secret Muslim.  The audiences that he roused most effectively at his rallies were insecure, socially displaced white citizens, many of whom held the common prejudices against blacks as people who stole jobs and committed crimes, while accepting hand-outs from the government. Trump’s rhetoric contained enough “dog whistles” to his audiences to betray the racist streak in his movement. With Steve Bannon as campaign director and adviser, Trump had access to those whom Hillary Clinton had privately identified as “deplorables,” the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.
Trump demeaned whoever stood in his way, beginning with the other Republican presidential candidates. A single word functioned as a Big Lie to define his opponents. This made him a most unconventional and entertaining candidate. Politics as show business never had such a star. He successfully demonized Hillary Clinton as a felon who should be locked up for using an insecure email server while Secretary of State. Hillary stood for the enemy within, the globalist elites who had hollowed out middle America with trade policies that shipped American jobs and factories to China, Mexico and Canada, a theme of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as well.
As effective as Trump was and is as an American demagogue wielding the Big Lie, he is not in the same league as Hitler and his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who perfected the Big Lie strategy with Teutonic thoroughness and backed it up with the threat and use of violence by the brown-shirted thugs of the SA. Trump’s attacks on the press, his shout-outs to harass reporters and dissidents and his welcoming the support of the KKK and right-wing militias are pale imitations of the Nazi campaign (but nevertheless frightening reminders of the power of hate and fear in politics).
The relation of religion to the National-Socialist agenda was the occasion for the first Bonhoeffer moment. In Germany, the Nazis entered into a concordat with Rome, which effectively muffled criticism or resistance from the Catholic Church, and they worked hard to make the Protestant state churches over in their image. They promoted a national union of the Evangelical Churches (Lutheran, Reformed, United), which was supported by the so-called Deutsche Christen (those German Christians who welcomed the inroads of Nazi ideology into the churches) and was headed by Nazi-appointed Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller. The churches in the German states voted for or against the proposed agenda of the Deutsche Christen.  Bonhoeffer was a member of the United Protestant Church of the Old Prussian Union, the largest state church in Germany at that time, which had been taken over by leaders in the Deutsche Christen movement, who implemented Nazi goals. Other state churches, such as the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Hanover, and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg, did not.
A strong resistance movement known as the Confessing Church emerged, which was headed by prominent German churchmen like Karl Barth, Martin Niemőller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Their goal was to rally support for the continued independence and confessional integrity of the Protestant churches. One hundred thirty-nine official delegates from eighteen of the state churches (along with some 200 guests) met and issued the Barmen Declaration in May 1934. In subsequent months, many thousands of additional pastors and church leaders would sign it as well. In this document, they stated that their intention was to stand “in opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the Protestant territorial churches by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices.” They insisted “that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit,” not through the Deutsche Christen, who sought to make the church into an “organ of the state.”
The Barmen confessors also stood in opposition to the enforcement of the Nazis’ racist ideology in the churches. For example, one daring aim of some Deutsche Christen was to remove Jewish elements from all Protestant hymnals and worship services. A few from the Deutsche Christen even sought to remove the Old Testament from the Christian Bible! With the passage of the Aryan Articles—which legalized the purging of Jews from Germany—Nazi church leaders insisted on removing from church offices all pastors who were of Jewish descent. They used the Aryan Paragraph (a law that blocked “non-Aryans” [Jews] from serving in all public offices) to force “non-Aryans” out of the ministry. Against these actions, the Barmen confessors held that Aryan supremacy was a false doctrine which adversely affected the churches’ mission of proclaiming the gospel.  The Barmen Declaration thus states against the Deutsche Christen: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions,” that is, to interpret the Bible to support the introduction of the racist agenda of a totalitarian state into the church. The Barmen Declaration also reminded the churches that God has placed limits on all secular government, including the Nazi regime: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special [biblical] commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life.”
Bonhoeffer became very active in the Confessing Church movement which emerged from the Barmen Declaration. He later led and taught at one of its seminaries, the one in Finkenwalde, and continued to do so “underground,” when that seminary was officially closed by the Gestapo. His resistance to the evils of Nazism included his participation in a political-military conspiracy, organized in part by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, which sought “to throw a spoke in the wheel” of the government in a number of ways, including the smuggling of Jews out of Germany. As a member of this conspiracy, Bonhoeffer also supported its attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Arrested for his activities in helping Jews to escape to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for almost two years. He was eventually executed on the orders of Hitler.
The introduction of the Aryan Paragraph into the church was condemned as false doctrine by the Barmen Declaration. The American parallel is the racial denigration of immigrants in America, both past and present. It was consistent with Trump’s leadership of “the birther movement,” which appealed to the widespread prejudice against blacks and immigrants lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. The Big Lie holds that this growing number of (mostly criminal) “others” are responsible for America losing its greatness. Donald Trump was making racism respectable again. The incident at Charlottesville last year exposed this reality–and also the strong resistance to it.
Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church held that Nazi ideology of the Aryan master race was a false doctrine that had no place in the churches’ teaching and public life. Facing the reality of the success of the Big Lie in American politics, this question arises: Are Protestant leaders advocating or resisting the false doctrine associated with the rise of Donald Trump, namely, that a white Christian nationalist America can and should be restored?
(To read the rest of Pr. Brueggemann's article, go here.)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Rostered and Called IV

Earlier this year, I became a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. I have already shared sections from the "entrance essay" that began the process. Here is the first part of the first section from the second essay, "the approval essay":

1. Person in Ministry
A. What is your understanding of God’s mission in the world? Describe your faith in the Triune God and how your Trinitarian faith has informed your understanding of God’s mission?

            God’s mission presupposes God’s creation of the universe through the eternal Word. That mission centers on God’s sending (missio) of the eternal Word into that creation in order to love and redeem it to the glory of God. This merciful mission of God to and in this sin-filled, sick, and suffering world includes then the exacting claim and comforting promise (promissio) of Jesus the Christ, the incarnate Word of God. Through him God’s reign is coming. Jesus speaks about it in parables, allegories, and aphorisms, and he actually begins to bring it by loving the unlovable, challenging the powerful and haughty, forgiving the guilty, healing the sick and disabled, comforting the fearful, freeing the burdened, raising the dead, eating with sinners and tax-collectors, and ultimately by dying and rising for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation.
            The risen Christ now says to his followers: “Peace be with you! As I have been sent by my Father, so now I send you” (Jn. 20.21). “Go, and make disciples….!” (Mt. 28.19-20). So following from the Son’s own being sent comes another sending, namely, the missio of the Spirit, the Comforter, who now summons people to change their old ways of thinking and living and to trust that for Christ’s sake they are reconciled to God and at peace with God (cf. Jn. 14.25ff.; 2 Cor. 5.19-20; Rom. 5.1ff.; 8.1ff.). The goal of the Spirit’s missio is the reception of the Spirit’s promissio by faith alone (Gal. 3.14; AC IV and V).[1] That missio is a mediated one: through the proclamation of God’s judging and consoling Word, focusing especially on the extravagance of God’s grace and mercy, which is “the proper function of the gospel” (SA III.4); through the washing of holy baptism, by which sinners are put to death with Christ and raised anew with him; through Christ’s holy supper, by which the people of God are forgiven, renewed, and refreshed—again and again “until Christ comes again”; through the production of spiritual fruit (Gal. 5.22ff.), which is the proper outgrowth of such faith in Christ, for the sake of the world’s deep needs; through “the mutual conversation and consolation” (SA III.4) of those who bear Christ’s name in the world. Called by the Spirit into this ecclesial fellowship with God and one another, all of God’s people are sent back (missio) into the world to share (trans-missio) the promise (promissio) of the good news of God’s redeeming love and grace in Christ for all people, especially for “the poor in spirit; the hungry; the thirsty; those who are ardently waiting and watching (Mt. 25.1ff.); the restless who in this world know that they are entirely in an alien land and that here they have no continuing city; those who long for and expect the solution of all problems solely from the coming Lord alone.”[2] Whatsoever we do unto the least, we do it to Christ (Mt. 25.34-40).
               I believe and trust in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, because of God’s missio to me, namely, to call me by the Spirit through the gospel, to enlighten me with the Spirit’s gifts, to make me holy and keep me in the true faith, just as the Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy” the whole catholic church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in this faith (SC II.6). I believe that I cannot believe without the Spirit’s ongoing work to create and sustain my faith on a daily basis. In times of deep doubt and uncertainty about God, I find strength in the promise of my baptism. Marked with the cross of Christ, my sins and death have become his, and his righteousness and life have become mine. In my baptism, the triune God has said, “You are my child. I love you and forgive you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” That cruciform promise frames each of my days. It sustains me in my living and working, in my cross-bearing and daily dying. It gives me hope for the future.

[1] I was first taught the connections among "missio,” “trans-missio,” and “promissio” by Robert Bertram. See especially his essay, “How a Lutheran Does Theology,” The Report of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Second Series, 1976-1980 (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1981), 77. The original title of that essay was “Doing Theology in Relation to Mission.”
[2] Edmund Schlink, “The Sojourning People of God,” in Edmund Schlink, Ecumenical and Confessional Writings [The Coming Christ and Church Tradition and After the Council], ed. Matthew L. Becker, trans. Matthew L. Becker and Hans G. Spalteholz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017), 258. Schlink’s ecumenical theology has had a significant influence on my own understanding of the mission of the church in relation to Jesus’ prayer that his followers “be one” (Jn. 17). I am currently serving as the editor and principal translator of the six-volume Edmund Schlink Works project. For an analysis of Schlink’s understanding of the vocation of the Christian theologian in a university, which deeply informs my own vocation, see my inaugural professorial address, “Christ in the University: The Vision of Schlink,” The Cresset 80 (Easter 2017), 12-21.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Pericopes of the Week: Jaworski and Ervin

Recent television appearances of John Dean led me last week to re-read several Watergate-related books on my shelf. Among these are Leon Jaworski's memoir, The Right and the Power: The Prosecution of Watergate (Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1976), and Sam J. Ervin Jr's The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy (New York: Random House, 1980). Dean's own Blind Ambition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976) and Theodore H. White's Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Scribner, 1975) also received attention. A short detour took me to the thirty-seventh chapter ("President Nixon and the Crisis in the Presidency") in the fifth edition of The American Constitution, by Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976).

Looking ahead to a future beyond 1976, the latter book ends with the following warning: "Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Nixon crisis is that an entire coterie of men who showed little or no understanding of the profound principles underlying constitutional government in the United States were able for some years to exercise effective control of the presidential office. They were at length repudiated. But the kind of challenge they posed can be met successfully in the future only as long as American society is knit together powerfully by a sense of destiny arising out of a common devotion to the underlying values of constitutional liberty" (Kelly and Harbison, pp. 1039-40).

In light of our present political crisis, reading Jaworski (who was appointed special prosecutor after Archibald Cox had been fired in the Saturday Night Massacre) and Ervin (who was the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate) produces multiple moments of deja vu.

Both of these public servants argued (1) that a judge can issue a subpoena for the president to testify before a grand jury (and/or produce subpoenaed evidence for a grand jury, thus severely restricting so-called "executive privilege"); and (2) that a grand jury can at the very least name a sitting president as an unindicted co-conspirator in an indictment.

Ervin went further:

"I reject this theory [that the president cannot be prosecuted for a crime unless he has first been impeached by a majority of the House of Representatives and removed from office by two-thirds of the Senate] on the basis of an extreme illustration. If he is exempt from criminal prosecution until he has been impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate, the President can constitutionally forestall his impeachment and removal from office, and thus evade responsibility for his criminal acts by perpetrating unpunishable homicides upon a sufficient number of those representatives and senators who think he merits impeachment and removal" (Ervin, p. 99).

Jaworski, who as a practicing Presbyterian occasionally offers commentary of a spiritual nature in this memoir, ends the book with this brief paragraph: "From Watergate we learned what generations before us have known: our Constitution works. And during the Watergate years it was interpreted again so as to affirm that no one--absolutely no one--is above the law" (Jaworski, p. 279).

While Ervin's book is frequently repetitious and occasionally devolves into a dry list of facts ("Haldeman said this.... And then Ehrlichman said this...."), it contains many bon mots. Here are a few:

"I can't resist the temptation to philosophize just a little about Watergate. The evidence thus far introduced or presented before this committee tends to show that men upon whom fortune had smiled benevolently and who possessed great financial power, great political power, and great governmental power, undertook to nullify the laws of man and the laws of God for the purpose of gaining what history will call a very temporary advantage.... The evidence also indicates that the efforts to nullify the laws of man might have succeeded if it had not been for a courageous Federal Judge, Judge Sirica, and a very untiring set of investigative reporters. But you come from a state like  the State of Mississippi, where they have great faith in the fact that the laws of God are embodied in the King James version of the Bible, and I think that those who participated in this effort to nullify the laws of God overlooked one of the laws of God which is set forth in the seventh verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians: 'Be not deceived. God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.'" (Ervin, p. 182)

Ervin quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson: "Men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the executive be under the law" (p. 223).

And Ervin ends his book by summarizing the comments he made to the Select Committee when it submitted its final report to the Senate in June 1974. Here is a brief portion of those remarks:

"[The presidential aids who perpetrated Watergate] apparently believed that the President is above the Constitution, and has the autocratic power to suspend its provisions if he decides in his own unreviewable judgment that his action in so doing promotes his own political interests or the welfare of the nation.... I digress to reject this doctrine of the constitutional omnipotence of the President. As long as I have a mind to think, a tongue to speak, and a heart to love my country, I shall deny that the Constitution confers any autocratic power on the President, or authorizes him to convert George Washington's America into Gaius Caesar's Rome....

"Candor compels the confession... that law alone will not suffice to prevent future Watergates. In saying this, I do not disparage the essential role which law plays in the life of our nation. As one who has labored as a practicing lawyer, a judge, and a legislator all of my adult years, I venerate the law as an instrument of service to society. At the same time, however, I know the weakness of the law as well as its strength.

"Law is not self-executing. Unfortunately, at times its execution rests in the hands of those who are faithless to it. And even when its enforcement is committed to those who revere it, law merely deters some human beings from offending, and punishes other human beings for offending. It does not make men good. This task can be performed only by ethics or religion or morality....

"When all is said, the only sure antidote for future Watergates is understanding of fundamental principles and intellectual and moral integrity in the men and women who achieve or are entrusted with governmental or political power." (Ervin, p. 312)

Friday, August 24, 2018

Rostered and Called III

Recently I noted that I have now become a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. I have already shared the first two sections from my entrance essay that began the process. Here is the third section of that essay:

(3) My Relationship with Jesus Christ. I have already referred to my baptism, which is the starting point for responding to this prompt. Nothing I’ve experienced in my life has been more important to me, my identity, and my vocation than that sacramental event in September 1962. Every morning and night I make the sign of the cross in remembrance of it. I make this same sign of the cross each Sunday in the divine service and in the weekly chapel services I attend at Valpo. Marked with the cross of Christ, my sins and death have become his, and his righteousness and life have become mine. In my baptism, the triune God has said, “You are my child. I love you and forgive you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” That cruciform promise frames each of my days. It sustains me in my living and working, in my cross-bearing and daily dying. It gives me hope for the future.
            My relationship with Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened through daily reading of Holy Scripture. My days thus begin with careful study of two chapters from an English version of the Bible and a paragraph from the Greek New Testament. After meditating on these Scriptural passages, I pray three psalms, offer a prayer ex corde that leads into the Lord’s Prayer, and then sing a hymn verse. Because of my ordination vow, which includes reference to the doctrinal content of the Lutheran Confessions, I try to spend at least thirty minutes during the workday studying the Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche. (Editing and translating the writings of Edmund Schlink have also entailed frequent examination of these writings.) Each year I focus on a classic figure in the Christian tradition, reading everything by that person as well by those who have written the most important secondary studies. For example, given the significance of this year [2017] for Protestants, I am reading straight through all of the available volumes in the American Edition of Luther’s works. Last year it was Kant; the year before, Augustine. But I also regularly “pray the news.” Each morning I read the New York Times and our local paper; during lunch I watch CNN (and sometimes listen to NPR); before dinner I view the NBC Nightly News and then the PBS NewsHour. I also regularly read several magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Economist, and the Christian Century. After dinner, my family has a brief devotion and prayer. Before going to sleep, I read two psalms and say a final prayer. (By meditating on five psalms a day, I am able to get through the entire Psalter each month.)
            My relationship with Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened through regular participation in the weekly Eucharistic service at Christ Lutheran Church, Valparaiso. Each Sunday I listen for the voice of the living Christ, the viva vox evangelii, a word that judges and forgives, renews and empowers, enlightens and propels, a word that is also joyfully received in the Eucharist itself along with everything else that Christ gives there. Sent forth by God’s blessing, I re-engage my various vocations (disciple, husband, father, professor, citizen) with the promise of Christ and his Holy Spirit.
            Let me say a further word about one of those callings, that of professor. Here I seek to love the Lord with all my heart and mind. I strive to teach my students in faithful obedience to Christ. In this way I seek to fulfill the Scriptural exhortation that was spoken to me personally in the pastoral blessing at my confirmation: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So I have read many books on the historical Jesus and Christology. I have written several essays and book chapters on the issue of “the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.” I have taught Christology to undergraduate students. I have been particularly interested in the development of Christological and Trinitarian dogma in church history—dialoguing with classic thinkers from the early church but also with more recent theologians—and I hope someday to write my own “Christian dogmatics” for undergraduates (which will be a sequel of sorts to my book on fundamental theology). In each of my classes I try to show my students—those who are Christian as well as those who are other-religious and non-religious—what a “critical” faith in Jesus Christ might entail, an informed faith that does not shrink from the hard questions relating to Christ and the apostolic witness to him. For those who are other-religious (e.g. Muslim, Hindu) and non-religious (“the nones”), I seek to share reliable historical and theological information about Jesus, to explicate what it might mean to believe in Jesus, and to invite respectful dialogue. So I speak about Jesus in a way that shares knowledge, welcomes dialogue, and encourages further reflection. Perhaps those students who are struggling with their faith, whatever their background might be, will consider that it is possible to move from a naïve, childhood understanding of the Christian faith, through criticism and doubt, to something akin to what my teacher Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.”
            I continue to struggle to relate my faith in Jesus Christ, my love and passion for him, to my work as a scholar of Christian theology. I have learned that scholars of Christian faith (i.e., people who are believers in Christ who also teach about Christian faith) need not be afraid to share such faith and passion with their students or downplay the knowledge of faith that they have gained through their formal education and the school of hard knocks. I have also learned not to pretend that such a scholar is really ever completely “objective” and “neutral” in teaching about Jesus Christ, even if I also know that I should constantly strive to avoid bias, prejudice, and distortions. Every semester I remind myself and my students of the functional wisdom of Bernard Lonergan’s advice to young theologians: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop and, if necessary, change.”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Rostered and Called II

In my last blog post, I noted that I have now become a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. Earlier this month I shared the brief autobiographical section from the first essay that started the process. Here is the second part:  

(2) Journey of Discernment. In 1946 my grandfather moved from Portland, where for twenty years he had been the founding pastor of a Lutheran congregation, to Salem, where he became the first LCMS chaplain to the Oregon State Hospital, the state penitentiary, and a large Lutheran nursing home. He retired in 1970. When St. John congregation experienced a pastoral vacancy, as happened to be the case when I was born, he was called upon to serve as the interim pastor. On the day I was baptized he told the congregation, “This first grandson of mine is going to be a pastor someday.” Being only twenty days old, I had no say in the matter, at least not on that occasion. Still, when I was a little older and people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” I would always respond, “I want to be a pastor, like my grandfather.” When I was in the second grade, my public elementary school teacher invited him to our classroom to talk about what he did as a hospital chaplain. I do not remember what he said that day, but I do remember that he made us laugh, that he spoke very kindly to all of us, and that my classmates treated me better afterwards. While he probably never read Meister Eckhardt, he nonetheless exemplified for me the wisdom of “being ready at all times for the gifts of God and always for new ones.” I was thus thankful for my grandfather and proud of him. That second-grade school visit fit with what I already knew from church and family gatherings: my grandfather was loved and respected.

            In my early years, he would sometimes take my brother and me with him when he did supply preaching on the Oregon coast or over at Bend (where my uncle had been pastor), or when he made a pastoral visit to Willamette Lutheran Home or to the Oregon State Hospital. The latter is where One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest was filmed and where the director of that hospital, Dr. Dean Brooks—who played himself in the film opposite Jack Nicolson’s “McMurphy”—frequently consulted with my grandfather and at his retirement spoke words of gratitude about him and his ministry. My brother and I also served as my grandfather’s acolytes at the retirement-home Good Friday service, an event we relished, mostly because we got out of public school for the day. Then and at other times he told me, “A good pastor loves the people, all the people, especially the ones nobody else loves.”
            In a very basic way, my calling to the pastoral ministry was not my choice; it was something thrust upon me by someone I greatly loved and admired. My grandfather’s piety and vocation rubbed off on me and I felt called to become like him. While at times that summons was a burden, especially when I thought about studying the sciences or when I envied my cousins who were on the way to successful careers as attorneys, mostly it was not. I do not recall ever thinking about pursuing another vocation, at least not for very long or to any significant depth.
            The only time of crisis in that regard came when my grandfather died of brain cancer in January 1980, midway through my senior year of high school. It was then, in the midst of my profound grief, that I questioned for a few months the road that had been set before me. Why had I always answered the question about my future the way that I did? Was it merely out of love for my grandfather and because of what I knew he had wanted me to become since the day he baptized me? Or was the Holy Spirit really calling me to serve as a minister of Christ? Over the course of that relatively short period of time, which lasted into my first year of college, I gained greater clarity in my responses to these perplexing vocational questions. That discernment process was helped forward through much prayer, mutual consolation within my family, and by serious conversation with my pastors and college professors. I also benefited from the encouragement and support I received from the members of St. John. Indeed, throughout my formal education, which included a year-long pastoral internship, people repeatedly voiced appreciation for the gifts God has given me, the external affirmation of which provided a much more solid grounding for my vocational goal than did my own internal feelings. For example, at my ordination, I felt more like Moses or Jeremiah (“Lord, don’t you want someone else?”) than Isaiah (“Here am I! Send me! Send me!”), figures who surfaced in the sermon that day, and was grateful later for the external words of encouragement. Through the years, the importance of that external assurance--including especially that ordination service itself--has only grown, especially when I was under fire for professing a theological point that rubbed a few “true believers” the wrong way or when I’ve been troubled by the awareness of my sins, failures, and shortcomings. Over the years I have learned the truth of Luther’s dictum, “Experience alone makes the theologian”—hence, the need to return daily to my baptism and to remember frequently the Scriptural words of promise that were spoken at my ordination, the gospel that was preached that day (by the same professor who had buoyed me along at seminary, Dean Hempelmann), the pastoral blessings that were spoken with the laying on of hands, and the congregation’s shout of “Yes!” (Remembering all this made my expulsion from the LCMS on 15 July ’15 all the more painful. I was grateful that my mom and the circuit counselor who had ordained me--Pr. Joel Nickel--were with me in Rome that night, in the Piazza della Rotonda, and that we could share a bottle of good Chianti together.)
            While my seminary education proved less enlightening than my college experience—primarily because the former dealt less effectively with the challenges of our modern and pluralistic world—I did go deep into the Christian tradition in those years. (The great strength of that seminary is its library.) It was then, too, that a few of my teachers began to suggest to me that my gifts might be better suited for an academic setting than a parish one. Early in my fourth year I thus applied to a number of divinity schools and universities. I ultimately went with the one that gave me the most financial assistance. (I would have gone to Cambridge University—I was accepted to Fitzwilliam College—but this was when Mrs. Thatcher was giving no funds to foreigners.)
            My years in Chicago only confirmed for me what my seminary professors had suggested: While I enjoyed throwing myself into parish ministry (e.g., teaching confirmation instruction to twenty-plus middle-schoolers every Monday evening, leading the young couples group [even though I was single!], preaching every other Sunday, leading a Bible class, visiting the sick and shut-ins, marrying, burying, preparing devotions for various parish meetings, etc.), I felt more at home in a Swift Hall seminar room. Even before arriving in Hyde Park, Martin Marty had become a role model for me, and so what a pleasure it was to sit in his classes and to discuss readings with him in his office. I wanted (and still desire!) to be like him. I am grateful for his mentoring and for the friendship we have shared over the past thirty years.
            I am likewise thankful for the gracious example, friendship, and support of four other theologians who were also sent into exile from the LCMS: the sainted Bob Bertram (whose library I inherited), Ed Schroeder, Dean Lueking, and Gary Simpson. They have taught me much about “grace under pressure.”
            The past twenty-five years of teaching, first at Concordia and now at Valpo, have affirmed the rightness of the path that Marty and others have encouraged me to follow. While I was sorely tempted to accept the repeated offer of becoming the called pastor of Immanuel, Michigan City, I think I am better suited for a teaching ministry at the undergraduate level, at least for the time being. Fully cognizant that the ambitious theologian can be a pestilence to the church, I only hope that in some small way I can contribute to the mission of the church in service to the world for which Christ gave his life.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rostered and Called

Late last month, word came that I am now officially rostered in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a minister of word and sacrament. The Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA has formally called me through its synod council to serve as a professor of theology at Valparaiso University. This call is the culmination of a three-year candidacy process. Back in the fall of 2015, a few months after I had been expelled from the LCMS, I contacted Rev. Heather Apel, assistant to I-K Synod Bishop Gafkjen, to begin a discussion about how I could become rostered in the ELCA. At the time, I told her that I did not want any special treatment and that I wanted to go through all of the steps of the normal process. She and Bishop Gafkjen, along with the I-K Synod candidacy committee, have been very gracious and helpful to me in this time of discernment. Indeed, these three years have allowed me to reflect more deeply on my sense of vocation and the future direction of my service in the ELCA and at Valpo. I'm grateful for the insights I have gained along the way.

This year marks the 90th birthday of my teacher and friend, Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, who is also rostered in the ELCA. He, too, has been a great "encourager" to me (for nearly thirty years!). His little autobiography, By Way of Response (Abingdon, 1981), made a deep impression on me when I first read it as a student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Indeed, it was a key factor in leading me three decades ago this fall to matriculate at the U. of C., where I continued my graduate studies after seminary.

As a part of the ELCA candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. So I've decided to share a portion of that material here and in some future TM posts. Consider these altogether as my own very modest and brief "By Way of Response."

(1) Autobiography. I was born in Salem, Oregon, on 10 September 1962 and baptized twenty days later by my paternal grandfather at St. John Lutheran Church, where he too had been baptized and ordained. At the time, he was serving as St. John’s interim pastor. My paternal uncle, also an LCMS pastor, was one of my sponsors. Twenty-seven years later I would be ordained in this same chancel.
            The main foci of my childhood were my family and its circle of friends, St. John, and the public schools I attended. Despite the severe injuries that my dad received in the Korean War (he was legally blind, partially deaf, and half paralyzed), he worked for thirty-five years at the regional office of State Farm Insurance. My mother was a legal secretary for much of that same period. Our family participated regularly in the divine services at St. John, and my younger sister, brother, and I hardly ever missed Sunday school or the children’s choir. Later we were very active in our church’s high-school youth group. All of these events, and the individuals who led them, deeply shaped my Christian faith and piety.
            In high school I was a member of the German club, the debate team, and the ski club. While some of my teachers encouraged me to think about studying one of the sciences in college, by the age of seven I was already convinced that God wanted me to take the same vocational path as my grandfather and his elder son. Still, the sciences, especially aeronautics and astronomy, have always attracted my curiosity. On clear nights throughout the year I often make time to gaze at the night sky through my telescope.
            In the fall of 1980 I matriculated at Concordia, Portland, a small Lutheran college, where I concentrated on Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English literature, among limited extra-curricular opportunities (e.g., student government, drama). While I initially struggled academically, I did pretty well in the final two years and ended up graduating with honors. Several professors helped me to clarify and strengthen my commitment to the vocation of pastor. Two of them have been mentors and close friends ever since then, especially after I joined Concordia’s faculty ten years later.
            Following college, I attended Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the alma mater of my grandfather (class of ‘24) and uncle (class of ’54). Decades earlier it may have been the premiere Lutheran seminary in the country, but all that had changed by mid-1974. My seminary education was thus quite stifling, apart from a few professors. More than once I thought of leaving. Nevertheless, I kept at it, hoping that after those few years of mostly stale, parochial theology I could return to the more ecumenical and “moderate” LCMS of my native northwest. I spent most of my time in the library, often out with friends, or at a nearby cinema. Along with a few classmates, one of my professors, Dean Hempelmann (who had been my childhood pastor and who has had a significant, positive influence on my education and pastoral formation), also encouraged me to stick it out, and so I did.
            After escaping seminary with a M.Div., I headed north for further study at the University of Chicago. Here I was blessed to encounter such scholars as Martin Marty, Brian Gerrish, David Tracy, and Paul Ricoeur. In these years, after my ordination in 1989, I also began serving full-time as an assistant pastor at Bethlehem, West Dundee, Illinois. So I became a commuter graduate student/pastor.   
            The high point of that half decade was meeting my future wife (on a blind date). At the time, she was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. We dated for three years, a period that included being ostracized by her father and suffering the death of her college roommate. I baptized Detra at Bethlehem’s Easter vigil in 1993, and we were married that summer. (Members of her mom’s side of the family—all native Greeks who are Orthodox Christians—could have played themselves in the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”)
            After serving Bethlehem for five years and doing additional interim work at a south-side congregation, I became an assistant professor at my undergraduate alma mater in 1994. There I taught courses in the New Testament, Greek, church history, and the humanities. I also regularly team-taught science/theology courses with a microbiologist. This occasioned some public attacks against my scholarship by a few zealous LCMS clergy. Thankfully, my ecclesiastical supervisor repeatedly vindicated my teaching and writings. Indeed, I became one of his closest theological advisers when I was twice elected secretary of that district (which comprises 270 congregations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, China, and Vietnam). I served on its board of directors for seven years.
            Despite that support, however, I decided to seek a new academic position beyond LCMS control. In these years I had endured several heresy trials, and my family was tired of the strain they had caused. So in 2004 I became a visiting associate professor of theology at Valparaiso University. I was then granted tenure in 2007, just as I began serving for two years as the director of Valpo’s study-abroad program in Reutlingen, Germany. In addition to my teaching, I have published several essays, encyclopedia articles, and book chapters. I have also written a large book on fundamental theology and another on the life and theology of Johannes von Hofmann (1810-77). I have also edited a book on nineteenth-century Lutheran theologians. Two years ago I began editing and co-translating six volumes of writings by Edmund Schlink. The first volume appeared in January 2017. Around that same time, I was advanced in rank to full professor.
            Alongside my full-time teaching at Valpo and during the time that I wrote Fundamental Theology, I also served as the interim pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Ind., from October 2010 to March 2014. For more on this, see
            On 1 July 2015 I was suspended from the clergy roster of the LCMS in the wake of an official charge of heresy that had been leveled against me by the Montana district president for an essay I had published on evolution. When I refused to appeal that suspension, I was removed from the clergy roster on 15 July 2015. On that day, I was leading a Valpo alumni tour in Rome. For more details on my expulsion, see

            Finally, and most importantly, since March 1999 my wife, who is the assistant to the dean of Valpo’s library, and I have been raising our son, Jacob, who is a junior in high school. [Update (8/1/18): Jacob will be a freshman at Valpo this fall, and will likely be majoring in electrical engineering.] These days, he’s mostly interested in computers, calculus, and German, but when he was four he suffered a life-threatening injury, a sub-cranial hematoma from a torn artery, which led to seventy-five ml of blood pooling on his brain. An injury that could have resulted in his death, or at least in his being severely disabled, has only minimally impacted his motor skills and cognition. He now has a question mark of a scar on his scalp as a consequence of the neurosurgeon’s three hours of delicate work. This miraculous outcome, however, was tempered by the death of my sister’s son, who was born the same year as Jacob and who died from neuroblastoma just a few months after Jacob’s emergency surgery. From those darker days to the present ones, we have lived with a sober awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life, but also with deep gratitude to God and for the hopeful promise that is given in our baptism, to which we return daily. We move forward under the sign of the cross.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Some Words from Bishop Munib Younan

At the end of March, I was privileged to host on our campus Pr. Dr. Munib Younan, bishop emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) and the past president of the Lutheran World Federation (2010-2017). He preached in our chapel on Palm Sunday and later spoke to my students about the challenges that Palestinian Lutherans face in his native Jerusalem and the West Bank. He shared some of these same concerns with a group of local Lutheran clergy that met with him on that Monday of Holy Week. The bishop's visit here was organized by Valpo's Office of Church Relations. I should add that Bishop Younan's son is a Valpo alum.

Pr. Dr. Mitri Raheb in Valpo's Chapel
I was greatly honored to have been invited by Dr. Mitri Raheb, former pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, in Bethlehem, Palestine, and the founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University there, to write the introduction for the new edition of the Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism in Arabic. (Dr. Raheb was also on campus last month. He preached in our chapel on Good Shepherd Sunday. Over lunch the next day, we began discussing plans for a theological conference that we hope to co-lead in 2020.) This new Arabic edition of the AC and SC was a joint project between Valparaiso University and Pr. Raheb and is based on Dr. Younan’s earlier Arabic translation of these important Lutheran documents. (One of my Arab students will have to check the translation of my intro, since I don't read that language!) The new edition was presented to Dr. Younan on the occasion of his retirement in 2017, which coincided with the observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. 

At Dinner with Bishop Emeritus Dr. Munib Younan
When Dr. Younan and I had dinner during Holy Week, I was able to thank him for his work on the important LWF document, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt; Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), which I used when I led 108 pilgrims to Germany for the observance of the 500th anniversary last October. At dinner, I also learned a great deal about the “back story” to this document, including Bishop Younan’s important conversations with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Some of you will recall that in his role as president of the LWF, Bishop Younan jointly participated with Pope Francis in an historic reconciliation service in Lund, Sweden, in 2016.

In addition to having served as president of the LWF (145 member churches in 79 countries, ca. 70 million Christians), Bishop Younan is a key ecumenical leader in the Middle East. For example, he is past president of the Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches and has been a central figure in the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which is comprised of leaders of Jerusalem's Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. So he is in a position to tell you what he sees on the ground in his part of the world. It is a not a pretty picture. Witness, for example, the front-page photos and accompanying news stories in today's edition of the New York Times.

"We are hurting," he told me. "Your president's decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem denies human rights in East Jerusalem and it hurts Christians in Palestine and the Middle East. Jerusalem must be for three religions and two states.... The conflict is political, not religious, and the problem needs a political solution." 

When I asked him what he hoped Christian leaders in our country--particularly Lutheran Christians--would do, he said very plainly, "I hope your voice can be stronger. I hope it can be clearer. I hope that you would explain to your fellow citizens that anything that harms us, harms you. I want to hear more voices that are critical of Christian Zionism in the United States. It is a heresy." (For the 2006 Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism, which was signed by Bishop Younan, go here.) "I hope you will visit me in Jerusalem, so you can see the reality, so you can see what Palestinian Christians have been suffering."

Despite the obvious pain and frustration that Bishop Younan expressed during his visit, he also gave voice to an abiding, sober hope: "I'm not optimistic in the short term. Nevertheless, we have learned not to give up hope. My hope is in the living God who was in Jerusalem. My hope is in the risen Lord." (I hope the Cresset could get permission to publish Bishop Younan's Palm Sunday sermon. It was powerful.)

Seventy years ago today, the state of Israel was established. Its creation was not the fulfillment of any biblical prophecy but the result of Zionist (Jewish nationalist) calls for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The murder of six million Jews in Europe radically changed the context for that aim. Its execution has led to ongoing conflict and outright war with Arabs and Palestinians who had been living on lands that were taken over and occupied by Zionists. That occupation has not ended. Instead, to quote today's main editorial in the NYT:  "Unilateral action, rather than negotiation and compromise, has served the purposes of successive right-wing Israeli governments. They have steadily expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank, on land Palestinians expected to be part of any Palestinian state."

Today is a day for heeding the words of the Jerusalem Declaration, including these:

"We call upon Christians in Churches on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism. These discriminative actions are turning Palestine into impoverished ghettos surrounded by exclusive Israeli settlements. The establishment of the illegal settlements and the construction of the Separation Wall on confiscated Palestinian land undermines the viability of a Palestinian state as well as peace and security in the entire region.prophecy. It was the start of an occupation that continues to this day."

Finally, I want to go on record as fully endorsing the statement sent out this afternoon by my presiding bishop:

May 15, 2018

Like so many here in our country and around the world, I am appalled and saddened by yesterday’s escalation of Israeli military action against protestors in Gaza. Many reports indicate that at least 60 Palestinians, including six children, have died and more than 2,000 have been injured as a result of Israel’s disproportionate use of force. Our church will support a planned medical mission from The Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem to Gaza to assist the wounded.

I join Bishop Sami-Ibrahim Azar of our partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), who today said:

We mourn with the families of the dead and dying and pray for the recovery of the injured. We believe that violent actions against the Palestinian civilians will hinder the potential for peace and reconciliation efforts between Israel and Palestine and will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.

I endorse his call “upon the Israeli government to show restraint and to pursue negotiations with Palestinian leaders rather than choosing violent action against unarmed protestors.”

Yesterday’s events should also be seen in the context of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. When that decision was announced late last year, I said:

This unilateral action would not support the cause of peace and a two-state solution but rather would unnecessarily create further tensions and possible violence that would make efforts to bring them back together for talks much more difficult.

I also support the ELCJHL’s long-standing position, affirmed by Bishop Azar today, that “any final status agreement will include Jerusalem as a shared city for Jews, Christians and Muslims with free access to holy sites for all and that it must serve as capital of both Palestine and Israel.”

Always, but especially in this time of deep distress, I urge us all to join his call to “continue to pray, advocate and faithfully work towards a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

God’s peace,
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Luther, a Forerunner of Trump? Quatsch! (Nonsense)

Martin Luther has been blamed for just about everything “bad” that has happened in the western world since the sixteenth century. That list is long, given those 500 years that separate us from him.  It includes everything from the multiple schisms within western Christendom and the promulgation of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry, to secularism, the Puritan Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, socialism, Bismarckian “blood and iron” ideology, the Russian Revolution, radical pluralism, ethical relativism, nihilism, and on to German National Socialism, Hitler, and the Holocaust. According to Michael Massing, one must now add to that list American-Evangelical support for President Trump. If you want to understand why an overwhelming number of white Evangelicals support Trump, look first to the sixteenth-century reformer. Luther has paved the way for Trump! So asserts Massing. For his article in the April 19th issue of The Nation, go here.

What are we to make of this thesis?

The number of errors and misrepresentations in such a short article are striking. The author has misconstrued Luther’s theology and social ethics and has misunderstood basic Christian teaching that is commonly taught across all Christian traditions. While no doubt many conservative Lutheran Christians in Michigan and Wisconsin helped to elect Donald Trump as president, don’t blame Luther for this. More to the point, midwestern American-Lutheran support for Trumpism is at odds with central theological and ethical emphases in Luther’s own theology.

Permit me to identify a few of the problems in Massing's article.

He has completely ignored Luther’s own sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and the reformer's basic teaching that "faith is to be active in love." As I point out in an online article about Bonhoeffer, Luther himself did not preach or teach that the Sermon on the Mount is merely an impractical ideal that Christians are incapable of heeding and obeying in the world. He rejected interpretations of the Sermon in his day that taught that the only way one could fulfill Jesus’ teaching was to withdraw from the world, for example, by living in a monastic community or by completely avoiding involvement in secular institutions or by radically reforming those institutions to form a Christian theocracy (as John Calvin would attempt to do later, actions that have had a far greater influence on American Evangelicalism—and the development of the republic—than Luther’s theology ever has had). There is no evidence in these sermons by Luther to conclude that Christ’s teaching is impossible for the baptized Christian to follow in the world or that this teaching was intended merely to reveal the sinful condition of the Christian. Rather, for Luther, the teaching of Jesus is directed to the individual disciple as a real summons to follow Christ concretely in this world (the world of sixteenth-century Saxony). The outcome of such faithful following will be faithful obedience, otherwise called “the fruit of faith, which the Holy Spirit must create in the heart” (WA 32:309; LW 21:15). At the same time, Luther taught that individual Christians cannot leave or forsake the world, but must live responsibly within it. This situation creates the deepest challenges for the individual Christian in the world: he or she is to live faithfully in obedience to Jesus’ statements and commands in the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time live as an individual in the world, taking part in its burdens, joys, complexities, and responsibilities. Luther was no antinomian. His sermons on the Sermon on the Mount are about as anti-Trumpian as they come.

Massing has mischaracterized the content, tone and tenor of the majority of Luther’s writings and sermons. If one spends even a little time reading through Luther’s multiple commentaries on various biblical books and his many homilies and catechetical materials (which altogether comprise more than half of the 120+ large volumes in the critical edition of his works), his demeanor is irenic and edifying, not polemical. To be sure, he could at times be mean-spirited, combative, harsh, repugnant ("I was born to war with fanatics and devils"), especially in his writings against the Jews (on this, see my post here), but he was hardly unique in this regard, especially in his context. Yes, Luther's words could occasionally be violent. There's no question about that. But in the totality of his writings, the feculent ones are thankfully a repellent minority. (I don't think Melanchthon’s quotation from Erasmus that he used in his sermon at Luther’s funeral offsets the opprobrium: Luther indeed displayed too much severity but "because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.” Erasmus, who suffered from thin skin and was prone to be Protean—the one condition of his that likens him to Trump—did write once that “Luther’s abusiveness can be condoned only on the ground that perhaps our sins deserve to be beaten with scorpions.”) It should also be noted that Erasmus did not criticize or shun Thomas More, despite the latter’s ability to be "as virulent and vulgar as Luther” (Bainton, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 241). Surely other debates were more vitriolic, e.g., More vs. Tyndale, Erasmus vs. Hutten. Even Erasmus could express anti-Semitic remarks that were just as reprehensible as Luther's.

He could also be bitingly sarcastic and even rude. He was not as "civil" as Massing suggests. For example, see what he wrote about Luther in his 1523 letter to Markus Laurinus, which was later made public, or what he wrote in his Sponge against Hutten (which indirectly attacked Luther), not to mention what he includes in the venomous first part of his Hyperaspistes.

The fact of the matter is, if Erasmus had wanted to stay in the Roman Church then he had to write against Luther. Erasmus gave in to external pressure, from Henry VIII and from the pope. As such, Erasmus started the conflict with the Wittenberger, not the other way around. Luther of course tried to persuade the esteemed humanist scholar to keep silent on matters about which he had only superficial knowledge, but that didn't work. Erasmus seems not to have been able to comprehend that he was attacking the very center of Luther's theology, not a mere unnecessary triviality about which the scholastics might have debated ad nauseam. (For his part, once the conflict got rolling, Luther didn't help matters by misunderstanding Erasmus' position on grace as well as his statement about being a "skeptic," nor was he particularly clear in a few statements that seem to assert that humans lack freedom even in earthly matters, something Luther elsewhere clarified he did not intend to do. While he tried his best to defend sola gratia sola fide, the mention of "reward" in the NT remains a sticking point against some of what Luther asserted. Still, Erasmus does not come off very well in this debate. Theologically, Luther's critique is largely justified. It certainly cannot be properly understood to be any kind of attack on humanism or on "reasoning" or against rigorous university scholarship. Humanism continued to thrive in Lutheran territories, especially in the universities there. Academic freedom is one of the positive consequences of Luther's reforms.)

At the end of the day, Erasmus and Luther had two very different understandings of human beings and their capabilities vis-a-vis God. While Erasmus thought otherwise, theological anthropology and the doctrine of predestination are not "useless," non-essential, adiaphoristic matters in the Christian faith. If faith is a gift of God—as all theologians in the sixteenth century agreed—and if God gives such faith to some and apparently not to others, and if justification can be received only by the gift of faith, then predestination is involved in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is a point that Augustine, the Council of Orange, and many other Christian theologians before and after Luther have underscored. God, who is omnipotent and omniscient, can foreknow only what God has foreordained, as Paul teaches in Romans (8.28-30; 9.15ff.; cf. Eph. 1). That being said, even some of us Lutherans hold out hope that God will ultimately have mercy upon all (Rom. 11.32). If Erasmus had trouble comprehending paradoxes, his trouble was not with Luther, but with St. Paul.

Nor was Erasmus able to avoid contradicting himself on Paul's teaching about predestination, when he elsewhere defined the church as “the hidden society of those predestined to eternal life….” How can one who denied the doctrine of predestination speak of the church “as the society of the predestined”? That Erasmus was persuaded in part by Luther’s theological arguments is evident in the fact that Erasmus later (in 1532) changed his commentary on divine election in Romans 9 to align more closely with Luther’s basic position. Erasmus struggled mightily to soften the rather plain teaching of Ex. 9.12, Mal. 1.2-3, and Isa. 45.9, which got re-worked by Paul in Romans 9-11 and then again later by Augustine. If all (both the outwardly good and the manifestly evil) are under the power of sin (Rom. 3.9) and in fact despise God, then “no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law” (Rom. 3.20). The justification of sinners is solely by grace, apart from good works. Such sinners receive the righteousness of Christ as a total gift by faith. As to the issue of theological anthropology, when one minimizes the power of sin within human beings before God, one minimizes Christ and what he has accomplished for all sinners.

Massing asserts that Luther prefigures modern-day American Evangelicalism, and he implies that American Evangelicals are familiar with Luther’s “fierce ideas, vehement language, and combative intellectual style.” He thinks that American Evangelicals are simply transferring that Lutheran style into the realm of American politics today. Based on my twenty-five years of teaching large numbers of students who come from American Evangelical backgrounds, 99.9% have never read anything by Luther, let alone any of his polemical writings. Massing’s assertion here strikes me as a perfect example of post hoc propter hoc. Might Evangelical anger have more direct and recent sources than Luther’s sixteenth-century polemics? Why now? American Evangelicals haven't always expressed such anger in public, even when they have been a minority presence in some parts of the country. Why the anger now? And why in this way? Luther is not a part of the answers to these questions.

Massing misunderstands Luther’s description of his so-called “Tower Experience” and confuses it for an example of what American Evangelicals call “a born-again experience.” The Tower Experience, which may or may not have happened in just the manner that Luther described in 1545, was a moment of joy, a discovery of God's graciousness toward the sinner, of God's gift of forgiveness, new life, and salvation, but it was not a "re-birth" experience in the manner of American Evangelicalism. For Luther, one is spiritually regenerated in baptism, not through some extra-baptismal emotional experience. Moreover, being “born anew” or “born from above” is not a one-time event, according to Luther. Rather, the baptized Christian dies daily with Christ through remembrance of his or her baptism, and then rises anew with him for loving service in the world. Luther did not oppose adult baptisms. He celebrated every baptism. (To be sure, in his day most people were baptized as infants.)

Massing completely distorts Luther’s actions during the so-called Peasants’ Revolt. Shortly after reading the Twelve Articles of the peasants, Luther wrote his Admonition to Peace. He began by chastising the princes and rulers and blamed them—not the peasants!—for the social unrest. He clearly stated that the peasants’ complaints about injustice were well founded and eminently just. Luther even underscored that for the sake of peace, the princes should accommodate themselves to the peasants’ demands. Only after chastising the rulers did he turn his attention to the peasants. He told them that their rebellion violated the gospel and both the teaching of Jesus and natural law. Their violent actions displayed a basic mistrust in God. While Luther sympathized with the peasants, he criticized their efforts to obtain earthly justice through violence. In the third and final section Luther chastised both princes and peasants and told both sides that each was acting contrary to Christian teaching. Only when he learned more fully about the open rebellion of the peasants, did he write his harsh treatise, Against the Robbing…. Given Luther’s apocalyptic views, he was convinced that no devil was left in hell; they had all gone into the peasants. While we today--500 years later--should rightly criticize Luther’s harsh words (and not merely because of what we know and he didn't, namely, that the world was not coming to an end in his time), one can understand why he wrote those words, given his theological presuppositions about social order, the rule of law, and the non-coercive nature of the gospel. Luther preached a gospel that promises that salvation is received, not achieved. It is not achieved through violence. (Since Massing refers in passing to Martin Luther King Jr., one is inclined to ask him what impact Luther had on Dr. King's father, so much so that Michael King changed his name after visiting Germany in 1936. What about that influence of Luther on America?)

Massing also misunderstands the place of the Bible in the life of all Christian church bodies, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant alike. American Evangelicals are hardly the only Christians who teach that the Bible is the central source and norm of divine Christian teaching. Massing’s favored Erasmus understood the New Testament as the written word of God, which is why he produced a critical Greek edition of it, one that Luther used when he translated the NT into German. Most of the writings of the church fathers are nothing but commentaries on biblical books, sermons on biblical texts, and devotional writings that seek to expound biblical teaching. What was the debate about between Luther and Erasmus, if not about how to understand certain disputed biblical passages?

What nonsense to assert that Luther taught that “ordinary believers” have been empowered “to define their own faith”! Christian faith is normed by the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, not by the personal whims of the individual biblical interpreter. Serious exegetes seek to avoid eisegesis. That is as true for Roman Catholic exegetes today as it is for those who belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church body that many within the contemporary American Evangelical world would not consider "evangelical." (How many members of the ELCA voted for Donald Trump? Probably many more laity than clergy. As my previous blog posts have indicated, I didn't vote for him.) Missing in Massing’s article is any reference to Luther’s biblical hermeneutics and his canonical criticism (e.g., Romans is far more central to Luther’s theology than the book of Revelation or the other antilegomena, all of which he suggested are non-canonical). Luther’s critical perspective vis-à-vis the biblical canon anticipates the development of historical-critical methods for biblical study (which American Evangelicals tend to reject). His understanding of biblical authority, grounded as it is in the sharp distinction between law and gospel--and the central witness to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen--is quite different from how conservative American Fundamentalists understand biblical authority. What American Evangelical will reject the whole law of Moses as outdated for the followers of Christ, as Luther did? Or will reject the apostolic injunction to avoid eating food with blood in it? (Luther loved blood sausage.) Or will reject as binding the NT command for women to wear a head covering? Did not Luther appeal to “clear reasoning” in his famous reply at Worms? The slogan “sola Scriptura” really tells us very little about Luther’s actual understanding of biblical authority and how biblical texts function within his theology. For him, Scripture was never alone. The one interpreting it was always using his or her reason, more or less. I would like to see the list of “the many key points” where the teaching of Southern Baptists parallels Luther’s university theology.

Massing asserts that Luther “refused to endorse measures that would concretely address [peoples'] needs.” This statement is false, as Luther’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and his Admonition to Peace alone demonstrate. What about Luther’s teaching that God’s law functions in civil society to restrain evil and promote the common good? What about Luther’s praise of human reason as a gift of God to be used to help the neighbor in need? While good works are not salvific (given what the apostles Paul and John teach about faith apart from human actions), good works do help those who need our loving service. Faith is to be active in love. What about Luther’s specific ordinances for poor relief? for setting up the common chest? for taking measures to alleviate local suffering? for establishing schools (for girls and boys)? What about Buggenhagen’s provisions for civic health care? for establishing hospitals? And what about Luther’s strong criticism against greed and usury? That alone is sufficient to see how vast a chasm exists between the Reformer’s teaching and modern American Trumpism. Luther was completely disgusted with “the calculating entrepreneur.” “He was convinced that the capitalist spirit divorced money from use for human needs and necessitated an economy of acquisition” (Carter Lindberg, “Luther on Poverty,” LQ 15 [2001], 85-101). Martin Luther was no American Evangelical capitalist. I think I can safely say that Luther would be disgusted with Donald Trump, were Luther magically to be transported 500 years from his world into our own. He would find much to criticize in our world, especially the greed, the excessive individualism, the fantasy of human autonomy, and how the poor are mistreated.

Suffice it to say, Massing’s article does not accurately present Luther’s teaching about “the two kingdoms.” They do not correlate to the terms “secular” and “spiritual,” nor are they “to be kept rigorously apart.” In addition to referring to “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of Satan,” which are in continual conflict throughout the world, Luther referred to the two dimensions of human life, namely, one’s relationship with God (“the kingdom of God’s right hand”) and one’s relationship to creation (“the kingdom of God’s left hand”). The “right hand” relationship with God is established by God’s gift of forgiveness and righteousness through Christ that is received non-coercively by faith in the gospel promise. The “left hand” relationship is also established by God in service to the neighbor for the sake of the common good of society. Unlike the right-hand operation of God through the word and sacraments, this “left hand” working of God in creation is coercive, grounded as it is in natural law and retributive justice. Moreover, God’s “left-handed” work in the world occurs through three “walks of life” (Robert Kolb's helpful phrase), namely, the church (as a human institution), political action, and the family. God has commanded duties and responsibilities for each of these “walks of life.” Important here, too, is Luther’s understanding of “vocation,” which Massing simply ignores. I wonder if he is familiar with John Witte’s excellent book, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation? Much in this book speaks against Massing’s unconvincing thesis.