Monday, January 29th, 2007
In part of the larger exchange that has moved from Sanctification to Mortal and Venial Sins to Bonhoeffer, John Halton and demo21 got into a discussion of the necessity of certain works, and how to speak of them. Halton brought up an interesting way of speaking that I wanted to explore further. It was his pastor's answer to "Do I have to go to church?" His pastor asked why faith wouldn't want to go to church.
Now this manner of speaking can be very helpful in some instances. It has the advantage that it does not put the question directly on the person's salvation. It suggests, "Perhaps you really do have faith. I'll assume out of charity that your faith is real. But it is not faith which would suggest what you are saying, but some other part of you, perhaps the flesh." I'll accept this as a helpful way of speaking about some issues.
But I think it might still prove too much. This is yet another area where what we could call the "oral culture" of Christianity runs aground when a vocabulary designed to answer one set of questions runs into a vocabulary designed to answer another set. Or when casual terminology gets mixed into a discussion of Systematics.
To illustrate the problem, I wish to show how some of the key passages in Luther, which I myself treasure, will find themselves out of place in some very real situations. I then want to suggest how this relates to issues in which we find ourselves enmired.
Luther's discussion of the nature of faith in his Preface to Romans, the one that was so instrumental to John Wesley's "Aldersgate Experience," is taken as paradigmatic of Lutheran speaking by some. But we must remember that Martin Luther did not invent the New Testament terminology of faith. It has a larger context. I don't think Luther erred when he spoke, but the appropriate domain of his way of speaking should probably be reconsidered.
I would like to consider what might have happened if one of the ministering angels in the Garden of Gethsemane had been reading Luther without asking whether there were any exceptions to the rule.
[Luke 22:39-43a NASB]
And he came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him.
When He arrived at the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."
And He withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,
saying, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me, yet not My will, but Yours be done."
Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him...
[Alternative Ending from the Nag Himoddly Library]
And the angel said unto Him, "Where is your faith? 'Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God's grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures.' Yet you do not look glad and bold and happy. Just look at you. You're sweating drops of blood!"
There are times when we need the angels to read Walther along with Luther. "The Word of God is not rightly divided when a description of faith is given that does not fit all believers at all times." Now, I think that Luther is not exactly guilty here, if we read him rightly. Luther is engaging in typical Lutheran overstatement. In fact, his overstatement may have had some Scriptural precedent. Take where Jesus says that even with faith the size of a mustard seed, the disciples' word would move mountains (Matthew 18:20). Either this says something about faith's power that we never see, or it is speaking of a kind of faith none of us has ever possessed. But either way, we are not to despair when we don't seem to match the description. If our mental picture were to be the measure of what faith was to look like, perhaps even Jesus would fail the test, yet we know He had perfect faith.
So if the description is good, but the application is questionable, then how are such words to be used? How do we apply them to this church situation?
When we look at church through the eyes of faith, we likely see only gift. The fact that God's gifts are offered to us there will eclipse so many other things. Except that is not literally all we see. In fact, I'm not sure that gifts are literally all we see even with the eyes of faith. What's worse, we walk into church knowing that what we see is not what we get. On the Last Day, all will be revealed. But how much energy do we put into trying to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things, in cases where perhaps our suspicions were right all along? I have to wonder if St. John didn't breathe a sigh of relief when he found out that he wasn't crazy or wicked for suspecting Judas all along (John 12:6). Did he have to wonder whether Judas was the wheat that only appeared to be a tare? Did another disciple perhaps try to force that application on him? Did he feel wicked for fighting the application?
I think much that tries to pass as seeing through the eyes of faith is just denial. The trouble is, much of the time, we really cannot know whether a given insight comes from the Old Adam or the New Man. Sometimes it requires some life experience. Just look at how harsh Peter and John were with Simon Magus (Acts 8:20-23). I'm inclined to think that much of that harshness grew directly out of the experience with Judas. They had lived with a thief all those years and he became a betrayer as well. Peter has to wonder when he sees this whether someone like Simon wouldn't be the one who would deliver him over to his death. This was anything but theoretical to these men. This was not the result of some Puritanical pastor talking about the sinfulness of sin, trying to elicit a bigger and bigger "Ewww, yucky!" reaction. This was a visceral reaction to another potential Judas. If the man could still be saved, so be it. But they didn't want to spend another minute of time with someone like that.
Church is a place where the gifts are distributed to be sure. It is also a place where people bite and devour one another (Galatians 5:15). It is a place where people can be dishonored (James 2:6), or shamed (1 Cor. 11:22). And the list goes on. The apostles do not write off these realities as a "small price to pay" to receive grace. No. They see them as matters to be dealt with. Yet I see pastors put up with many such situations. Not, to my eye, out of sinful neglect. They have to pick their battles. But when their choosing their battles makes for laymen not wanting to come to church, they had better not start lecturing on faith in its chemical purity. Faith in its chemical purity would have made for the pastor taking on all the problems that have been festering for years. Faith in its chemical purity would have meant more Lutheran churches nearby so that we wouldn't have to drive so far to attend them. Faith in its chemical purity would have stopped my last congregation from driving out its pastor. If we wish to speak of what faith would do in its chemical purity, we must consider what it would do with a church in its chemical purity. If you want to discuss what pure faith would do to an impure church, you might want to duck. I suspect what a pastor wants is to know what a pure faith would do in an impure church if the faith considered itself impure and the church pure. Don't the Germans have a word for that? Is that not an UNDING?
Further, faith lives in a body. And "body" cannot easily be equated with "flesh." We come to church expecting not merely the Supper and the sermon, but the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, and when these are not at levels we may have known in the past, or at levels we know in our dealings with Christians outside the congregation, it hurts. It is like going to a dinner where you may well be served some of what you are used to. But other items are conspicuous in their absence. There are times where faith says, "I hate being teased. I'd rather go without. I'll feel my hunger less."
5:56 pm Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, January 24th, 2007
I fear that many Lutheran readers have no sense of antithesis when they read. Especially if the books are written by "our guys", they assume that they agree on all points. Or most points. (Adult converts to Lutheranism who do read with a sense of antithesis might fail to bring it to bear out of a humble belief that they still don't fully get the broader context of the system.) When someone like Bonhoeffer comes around and wants to redo everything, they imagine that because he still uses many of the same terms as we use, he has left more intact than he has. Well, I want to show how he has not.
I like to imagine what would have happened if Katrina from The Hammer of God had been reading The Cost of Discipleship before she stepped in to counsel the dying Johannes. Some lover of Bonhoeffer's book may imagine that what I am doing is a hatchet job, since surely Bonhoeffer would not speak as I will have Katrina speak. Be that as it may, Bonhoeffer has probably equipped scores of Katrinas to speak thus. I think at the very least, this will show that this work of Bonhoeffer was not aimed at the tender conscience of the dying. It was aimed to motivate young adults. Its vision of what they could do to change the world is what captivates people. What it fails to see is that these are not those for whom Christ chiefly came. Infant Baptism, while admitted to be efficaceous, seems out-of-place in Bonhoeffer's scheme. Do infants belong in such an army? On a very sacrificial day, he might imagine that yes, even they do. But they almost seem accepted on the grounds that yes, eventually they too can be taught discipleship. This is far from the "of such is the kingdom of heaven."
Well, somebody else can take up the task of reconciling Bonhoeffer to Lutheranism. I want to show the trouble in stark relief. I am interspersing lines from my old edition of The Hammer of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1960) with The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963). The quotes are not always direct quotes from Bonhoeffer, as I have made some changes in wording to make it fit the conversation. But you will find most of the content where I list it, so you will know that a reader of Bonhoeffer would have to do little tailoring to say what I have written.
Readers who have not read Bo Giertz really must. Only those who have read Giertz will know just how much better his Katrina was than the one of which I write.
The scene is the deathbed of a dying man whose life of sin is haunting him. A Christian friend named Katrina is visiting him after the failed ministrations of the liberal pastor Savonius.
"Katrina, I am a sinner, a great sinner."
"You are saying that on your deathbed Johannes. The early church had a clear insight into baptismal grace when people waited until their deathbeds. But alas, baptism is not to be repeated." (Discipleship p. 261)
"Yes he is the great Savior of those who let themselves be saved. But my heart is not clean, my mind is evil; I do not have the new spirit."
"You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are willfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to his call. Your difficulty is your sins." (Discipleship p.76)
"What then shall I believe, Katrina?"
"Only those who obey believe, Johannes. What can I say to you at this point? Even momentary desire was a barrier to your following of Jesus. It will bring your whole body to hell. It made you sell your heavenly birthright for a mess of pottage. You lacked faith in him who would have rewarded your mortifications a hundredfold. It's too late to do those now. No, you had your fill of lust. Get ready to pay the price." (Discipleship p. 147)
"But why, then, had I not received a clean heart?"
"Because the justification you received was the justification of the sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs" (Discipleship p. 47).
At this point Savonius is puzzled. "But before you came, the man described the joy he felt when the pastor read the absolution. It was for him as if the gates of heaven were opened!"
"No. He was mistaken. Absolution without confession is cheap grace (Discipleship p. 47). The man was self-deceived the whole way. How sad that I hadn't gotten to him sooner, when there was still hope."
Notes: If you wish to find the above passages in another version of Discipleship, then perhaps the following will help. The passage from page 261 above comes from Section IV, Chapter 28 on Baptism. The passage from page 76 comes from Section I, Chapter 2 on the Call to Discipleship. The passage from page 147 comes from Section II, Chapter 10 on Woman. The passages from page 47 comes from Section I, chapter 1 on Costly Grace.
I received a 505 error earlier trying to access the blog. I found a zero length blog comment. I'm not sure if someone unsuccessfully posted a comment or what. But I had to delete the file to fix the error. Feel free to repost, and if that fails again, e-mail me and I'll try to fix the problem manually.
2:03 am Pacific Standard Time
Monday, January 22nd, 2007
At Confessing Evangelical, a brouhaha has erupted over Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship. John Halton is attempting a sypmathetic reading. I've always hated the book, even back in my Calvary Chapel days when I would find Lordship Salvation teaching plausible. (Though I am a fan of Bonhoeffer's other writings.) Thomas wants it to be read in a larger context. Kobra and Larry from Kentucky have joined me in pointing out the dangers of legalism we see in the text.
I want to suggest a question to my readers. Try flipping through the Cost of Discipleship to see how often Scripture is used and what kinds of texts are cited. Just how deep does the Scriptural discussion go? My own impression is that much of the discussion is on broad theological motifs. Grace is spoken of at length. Bonhoeffer even coins the terms "cheap grace" and "costly grace." He has added terms to our theological vocabulary. But can he find these taught in Scripture? Are these the terms the Bible uses to address the problem Bonhoeffer finds? If not, then why not?
I am struck by the fact that Bonhoeffer feels the need to construct a solution. Did God not offer one? You see, this is a problem I have developed with Systematic Theology in general. And I am the son of an engineer. I do like systems. But for all they offer, I think they only really work well when we get to where we know that we are not unequipped when our systematics book is left at home. That we open the Bible and our system is alive and well. Because we're not foisting it on the text. If all our talk is in a technical vocabulary, something has gone awry. Would we ever be able to make our point without the jargon?
Bonhoeffer sees a problem in Lutheran Systematics, so he coins some counter terms. Then he reads these terms into a bunch of Bible texts. Only they are different texts from the ones the original systematic terms came from. "Grace" is in large part a Pauline term. St. Paul counters it to "works of the Law." We are saved by grace apart from works. Grace is exclusionary. The Lutherans noticed this and insisted upon it. Bonhoeffer thinks that in their insistence on this, they have undercut Jesus' teaching.
The sad thing is that he won't engage the issue on the ground of the Pauline Epistles. (I checked the index. While Bonhoeffer does quote from Paul a lot, these are either not the Lutheran core texts, or they occur late in the book, after he has made a case for a certain understanding of grace.) He reads his own conclusions back into the Gospels. And in many points they are plausible conclusions. Except this doesn't seem to be a convincing argument to me on one account. If all I had been given were the Gospels, I would not have thought it possible for St. Paul ever to write what he wrote. If I had heard the Sermon on the Mount in person, I would never have guessed that St. Paul's arguments in Romans would be a possibility. I would not be arguing grace against discipleship. I would think discipleship was all there was. St. Paul is a surprise. When Bonhoeffer just plows into the Gospels and asks, "Can we really believe that grace is what these Lutherans say it is?" it is tempting to say, "No, we cannot." For given the Gospels by themselves, I wouldn't reach Lutheran conclusions. Nor would I reach Pauline conclusions. The Pauline conclusions can only be the result of the death and Resurrection of Jesus reorienting everything, including the relative importance of the teaching of Jesus. St. Paul was an inspired apostle, kept from error on such matters. What he did was counterintuitive. But it must have been right.
A case could be made against the coining of the terms "cheap grace" and "costly grace" from the Gospels themselves, especially the parables. Calculation in the parables is always turned upside down. And as for Bonhoeffer's treasure in the field, all the sermons I've ever heard has suggested the Christ is the one who buys the field. So the grace is costly to him.
When St. Paul excludes works so as to exclude boasting, this offers us a test for an understanding of faith. He says, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God" (Romans 4:2). The implication is, he would have something to boast about before man. He could say, "The reason that I got in and you did not is because I did x and you didn't." Or "I didn't do x and you did." If we add discipleship to faith, then we are offering a potential ground for boasting. "The reason I got in and you didn't is that I followed Christ and you didn't." While it might sound fair enough or just enough, Romans doesn't seem to offer the hint of such a possibility. Such a boast is not just bad manners, or disobedience, or a culpable pride. It is excluded in principle by the means of receiving salvation. Since there are no works, there are no works to boast about. Likewise, I think it must be added, since there is no discipleship that gets us into heaven, there is no discipleship to boast about.
A further puzzle is how the disciples fit into the discussion. Bonhoeffer brings up Peter. But let us consider Judas. He also left his life to follow. Yet apparently even before the betrayal he was a son of the devil. So the outward break did not guarantee that these men had counted the cost. We have Peter who leaves everything, and can be found receiving revelations from heaven one minute and being the mouthpiece of Satan the next. It strikes me that these men became disciples without having this awareness of the nature of the calling that we imagine we're supposed to have. Nobody ever does. I look at Jesus' injunction to count the cost, and think there must have been irony to it. I think what we learn from the text of Scripture is that we don't know how to count. No. I can't build that tower. God will have to come down to get me. Maybe people have to try to build badly to discover this. But I fear that when people read Bonhoeffer, they imagine that they're going to find new internal resources to do a better job of dying. I just know that I'm bad at it.
If Thomas is right and those chapters at the end are to be taken seriously, then I have to wonder why Bonhoeffer thought he could afford to put them at the end. He has the chapter on Baptism where he mentions infant baptism, which he accepts as efficaceous, but perhaps dangerous. And he mentions the responsibility of the church towards the baptized. Did he himself consider baptism when he wrote the early part of the book? Was his target audience a baptized Christian? How was the baptized Christian intended to read the opening? I never had the impression from those opening chapters that it was even possible that Bonhoeffer would have thought that I had died with Christ already in my baptism. And I don't think that it is enough to say that this was the fault of my unhealthy Presbyterian church background that taught me badly. Bonhoeffer's whole book is addressed to an unhealthy church. As such, it should have addressed people so as to be understood by those who did not come to the book with all the heavy theological training, or more importantly, all the churchly care in the background. I'll just say this. I came to the book as a reader who did not have all the various means of assuring myself of my faith that Bonhoeffer thought were being misused in his time. As he tried one-by-one to take these elements and cordon them off only for use by the serious, he left me feeling bereft of any starting point. I just knew the ending point. My first act of disobedience.
2:33 pm Pacific Standard Time
Monday, January 15th, 2007
Along with the Third Use of the Law discussions, a discussion on Mortal and Venial Sins has arisen. I actually think this issue runs much deeper. It would be possible to maintain a sense of assurance of salvation in the face of Third Use preaching. I often did so in my earlier days as an evangelical. For a while, I even thought such preaching was beneficial. After all, God had saved me, so what could be better than being told how to pursue life in his kingdom? I wanted practical teaching. And I didn't feel the worse for hearing it most of the time. There is the rub. Most of the time.
The trouble is, a period of this can really take on some new dimensions that you don't expect. I'd like to present some of this autobiographically. But I want the reader to keep something in mind as he or she reads. The question at issue is not whether or not there was a good theological answer that could have been helpful in these situations had I known it. The question is whether my ignorance, combined with a belief in mortal and venial sins, would have been deadly, and what that has to say to our lives in general.
One of my phases of spiritual growth occurred after a best friend had some kind of conversion experience at Calvary Chapel. This friend had believed in God in his youth. But he had a very emotional crisis over deciding to trust God instead of having someone take his SAT tests for him. I do not now regard this as a conversion, even if it was a major moment in his journey. In any case, we started going to church together. A lot. And the church had a youth group with a very intense youth pastor.
For a while this was very amazing. We spent a lot of time in worship. We read a lot of Scripture. We even did street witnessing. That in itself taught me a lot. I could see just how people's egotistical personalities would get in the way, as when we would run into nominal Christians and one of our group would go after them. Where they got the gospel right with non-Christians, when they ran into nominal Christians, they had a very legalistic message. Toe the line, or else.
In any case, after some time I started to hear of a teaching called Lordship Salvation. For Jesus to be your Savior, He also had to be the Lord of your life. Now in itself, this didn't seem so threatening. Much of my energy was devoted to seeing this happen. Only then I would hear preachers in another context talking about how if Christ was not Lord of all, he was not Lord at all. Huh? What did it mean for him to be Lord of all? Every area of your life? Every minute of your life? Every second of your life? This was something else altogether. I went from pursuing something out of sheer love to pursuing something out of fear. And the fear was not a helpful motivator. It made me try harder and harder to achieve less and less. Before I would have worshipped because I wanted to. Now I would sing and my heart wasn't in it. Who could worship the God who had become a judgmental tyrant?
I remember when the connection with Romans 13 hit. This was first introduced to me once when a friend said, "Technically speaking, speeding is a sin." That is, when we would speed, even on the way to church, we were disobeying the governing authorities. Well, Christ had to be Lord of my driving. Or he wasn't my Lord. And he wasn't my savior. Well, I tried. This was particularly hard on a stretch of road near the UCI campus. There was one lane. I remember once working hard to drive the speed limit. At the end of the one lane stretch, some Asian guy passed me and flipped me off on the way past. In his mind, I was just being a jerk. Later in the week at church, I was steamed. I had put all this effort into things and felt terrible. Other people weren't struggling with this and were happy. What had gone wrong?
At another point, I remember "failing" at something I thought I was supposed to do. My brother had gotten me into Pro Life activisim. The thought occurred to me that I should take something from our garage that was supposed to weld metal on contact and put it on the door hinges of the abortion clinic. After all, what was my own freedom compared to the lives that were being lost. On a gut level this seemed to be a bad idea. But on an intellectual level, I had not, at 18, been given the tools to think this through. So in my mind I was committing a sin of omission. Did this mean I was not saved?
As I warned earlier, it would be easy for any Christian adult to say, "Well, the fact of the matter is, God did not expect that of you, so the point is moot." No, it really is not moot. For as much as I am better informed on the issue now, I have to see that such situations can come up again. My conscience can be ill-informed on an intellectual level. But if the Mortal and Venial sin distinction is made tightly, then I am in a catch 22. Anything that has an argument for being right, I must do without hesitation. Not to do so would be to risk having an evil intention. For some, this idea sounds far-fetched. But I had too much experience trying to apply such teaching while I took it seriously to think it is. While it is often true that the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak, sometimes what we think is the spirit is stupid and the flesh too smart to listen.
I'll have much more to say on this subject, both searching the Scriptures and searching the Confessions. But I want to leave my readers with one thing here. The idea that an individual Christian should be able to draw a fine distinction between carnal security and Christian confidence is a fantasy. When someone enters into a conundrum like I did, there is no confidence. It has been killed. Worse yet, repentance looks futile. Why? Because such teaching tells the person that their faith, during their disobedience, was a sham faith. But it felt real. If a sham faith could feel real during the disobedience, then perhaps all I've ever had is a sham faith. And I'll never know how to identify a real one.
"Oh, that's easy. By its fruits!" Sorry reader, you aren't really following the argument if you can say that. What fruits? What is to produce them? You won't have confidence in the mercy of God, because that won't avail for you unless you have faith. And without faith, no actions are good. So you have to have those fruits in order to know you have true faith, but you have to have true faith in order to know those fruits are good. If you've never run into this problem, you're lucky. The only way out of it is to take faith out of the equation altogether. To trust Christ. And not to ask whether the trust is real or not.
Those who want to get all anxious about whether faith is real or not only know how to kill faith. They can't make it live. If they think they have found a dead faith, they think they can revive it by prescribing good works. If that were true, then the preaching of Moses would be all we really needed.
2:36 pm Pacific Standard Time
Sunday, January 14th, 2007
To all my readers. I haven't posted since the beginning of the year, so all my postings are in the archives. Just click on December to see my latest postings, until I have my next post ready.
5:44 pm Pacific Standard Time