Friday, November 29, 2013

Ominous Error of Natural Theology

The development of 'natural theology' is the march of history from Luther's primal experience (Urerlebnis) up to the Englightenment. It ended with the ominous error that Christian faith in God and 'natural knowledge of God' are essentially identical.
For the naive apologists, for many a dogmatician, even for many a politician who wanted to 'preserve religion for the people,' this was a comfort and a satisfaction. For the church Philistine, as Tholuck addressed him, it was reason for no longer knowing of an anguished conscience. But then came Ludwig Feuerbach. Then came Karl Marx and Nietzsche. They showed that the knowledge of 'natural' man arives at a totally different result. ... Was it surprising that the generation of the war and the collapse declared the Christian belief in God to be a delusion because it had been refuted by the terrors and the fate that had been experienced? If that generation had heard Luther instead of the theology of the nineteenth century and the preaching that lives on such theology -- it would have understood him and his primal dread (Urgrauen).

Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, pp. 57-58 (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis: 1962).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

World-famous Humble Little Country Doctor

Sidney Herald religion column published December 1, 2013

Many ask, “If God exists, why doesn’t He show himself? Then we would worship him.” Answers have been given from reason, philosophy, and piety, but God is not impressed with that. His reasons are personal.

Linus told Charlie Brown what he was going to do when he grew up. “When I get big I’m going to be a humble little country doctor. I’ll live in the city, see, and every morning I’ll get up, climb into my sports car and zoom into the country. Then I’ll start healing people. I’ll heal everybody for miles around. I’ll be a world-famous humble little country doctor.”

We laugh, but that’s us, and we expect God to be like us and show off. If He won’t, we doubt him.

In Trinity, God is humble in many ways. For today, here is one: the Father is humble towards his Son. The Father glorifies his Son, not himself. That’s his personal reason for not showing off.

When Jesus was baptized, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11). Jesus was not practicing ventriloquism. He was not throwing his voice to sound as if it were coming from heaven. That would be one person saying how pleased he is with himself. That would be vainglory. Because of the Trinity, the voice really is from heaven. The voice really is from another Person, the Father. The Father also is not speaking vaingloriously of himself. He praises the Son.

When Jesus was transfigured, “a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” (Matthew 17:5) The Father directs attention to his Son. He tells us to listen to Jesus.

When the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he said, “If you are the Son of God,” do this and that to prove it. Because Jesus trusted the Father, He resisted the temptation. When people said, “Are we not right in saying you have a demon,” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me.” (John 8:54) Jesus trusted the Father to glorify him. He knew his Father’s humility.

In the resurrection, the Father gave all authority to the Son in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18) In the ascension, the Father seated the Son at his right hand (Acts 2:32), and “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9-11) When the Church is resurrected, she will ascend into heaven. The Father will make something of a production. The production will not center on the Father himself. It will center on Jesus, the Lamb of God, in his marriage to the Church. (Revelation 19:6-9)

Though God does not show off, He shows up. The humble Trinity saves us from our pride through the shame of the cross. That shows enough for us to worship him, and to love him because he first loved us.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Law and Gospel: An Agonizing Contradition within Ourselves

The following is from David P. Scaer, Law and Gospel and the Means of Grace, pp. 4-5 (The Luther Academy: St. Louis, 2008).

According to a confessional Lutheran understanding, the law lays down God's requirements or regulations in such a way that sinful people by themselves cannot fulfill them. Those who understand the law's message in this way are aware they face eternal death for which there is no relief. Such preaching of the law leads them to repent of their sins with sorrow and contrition. In what appears to be a contradiction God offers in the gospel the sweet hope of salvation in Jesus Christ. The gospel creates faith, which in turn lays hold of Christ who is present in this proclamation, and by this faith the believer accepts the promises of eternal bliss with Him. Law and gospel are as complementary as they are dissonant. To use Fagerberg's words, 'Both cooperation and tension are found to exist between law and gospel.' Preaching the law without the gospel leads to despair and hopelessness. Without the prior proclamation of the law, the gospel cannot be appreciated or its terms understood, and therefore cannot accomplish its intended purpose. However, their mutual dependence on each other does not erase their contradictory messages, namely, that what one demands the other gives. Law confronts human beings in the condition of their sins and alienation from God, and gospel offers a completed salvation in Jesus Christ. Both are equally valid words of God, which when preached in tandem make Christians aware that they are sinners and God's redeemed children at the same time. This is known in Lutheran theology as the simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time justified and sinner." Only death relieves Christians from the agonizing contradiction that they find within themselves. In the same moment they are condemned by the law and forgiven by the gospel. Since the law and the gospel penetrate our inner being and uncover who and what we really are, no other Christian doctrine is as existential as this one. By it we learn not only about the God who condemns and saves, but about ourselves as accountable to God and still redeemed by Him. In addition it sets the terms for how all articles of the Christian faith are to be preached and believed.

From this we glean that, in the theological meanings of the words "law" and "gospel", we are confronted by:
  • two equally valid words of God
  • two words that are
    • contradictory, disonant, in tension
    • complementary, mutually dependent, cooperating
  • law
    • undoable
    • condemnation
    • death without relief
    • exposure
    • sinners
  • gospel
    • gift (what the law demands, the gospel gives)
    • hope of salvation
    • faith created by God acting in his word, not by any power of ours
    • eternal bliss with God
    • saints
So on this side of the grave we are sinner-saints, continually in existential tension under the two words, and understanding all other words in the light of these two words.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Jesus Visted Doc Martin's Surgery

Sidney Herald religion column published November 3, 2013

In the British television show, Doc Martin, the newly arrived doctor in a small village is annoyed by villagers using the waiting room of his surgery as a social club. They assemble without having medical complaints. Doc Martin rudely tells them, “If you don’t have an actual medical complaint, just get out.”

John the Baptist did that too, with people who came without spiritual confessions.

John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People were baptized by him, “confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:6)

But then John saw some coming without confessing sin, without repenting. He said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7) He outdid Doc Martin with that one. Without confession and repentance, John did not baptize. This is important to know later when Jesus came to John to be baptized. What did Jesus need to be baptized for?

John said someone was coming with a greater baptism. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

Who can baptize with the Holy Spirit? Who can baptize with fire? This must be a holy person. John said it was Jesus.

So, when Jesus came to be baptized, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” (Matthew 3:14-15)

Jesus already was righteous. He came from heaven that way. He had no sin, nothing to repent about. What did He mean?

Luther says Jesus accepted baptism from John because “he was entering into our stead … becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism.” (AE 51:315) Jesus came to Doc Martin with an actual problem, our disease of sin.

The atonement already was under way at the river Jordan. Jesus already was carrying our sins. Being substituted into our place as sinners, He substituted himself into the repentance that was due from us. In his state of humiliation, Jesus confessed and repented for us without himself deserving condemnation. He presented his confession and repentance on our behalf to the Father, and the Father credited us with these merits of Christ.

The baptism of Jesus is offensive. It tells us we need to repent. Worse, it says we cannot repent, so Jesus had to do it for us. It says we have to take charity; we are charity cases. That’s what happens when Christ’s beloved Church baptizes us into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In baptism, Christ gives to each one personally the gift of his repentance for us, and then his repentance lives in us, for the forgiveness of sins.