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Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008
My topic reminds me of an old joke. "There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't."
I'll start by saying that which kind of person I am varies by the subject. I do think that there is a spectrum, however, in how people approach this kind of issue, be it in religion or politics or what-have-you. (I do, however, hate when people bring up political sides in a religious context. The occasional discussion is one thing, when people are careful to allow dissent. But to create another division in the ranks is a bad thing.) The longer I observe these matters, the more I learn.
One thing I notice is how people who are solidly on one end of this spectrum or the other often expect that everyone else functions as they do. Those who are "siders" expect others to be siders. Loyalty is the key virtue in their world. "Whose side are you on?" For someone on "their side" to listen to someone on the "other side" is tantamount to treachery. On the other hand, the "non-siders" often feel that they are having their ability to judge without prejudice compromised when one of the "siders" on their side tries to warn them against "listening to the enemy." And for a "non-sider," fairness is the key virtue. "In a free marketplace of ideas, the best one will surely come to the top, at least among those who are actually thinking."
It gets even more complicated.
What about when a "sider" on one side sees a "non sider" on his own side listening to a hard "sider" on the other side? If the "non sider" is very unaware of siding in the first place, friction will occur. "What? You expect me to ignore a good argument? Don't you think our position is solid enough to take a few hits?" "That person is not offering arguments, but propaganda." The irony is that some "siders" will be much less anxious to watch a "non sider" of their own side listen to a "non sider" of the other side.
Non siders tend to get along with each other pretty well. They can get along with all kinds of people. But some of them are pretty unaware of how political people can be. Some will probably be tempted at times to leave their side just to get away from other "siders." It probably wouldn't work, as "siders" exist on every side imaginable.
Privately, it is possible to arrange all sorts of understandings about degree of expected agreement; how much arguing is tolerated, expected, or enjoyed; when things will be taken personally. But the more public people are, the less neutrality they can expect to enjoy. If you stand for a position, your side will expect you to uphold it. Or to be very public about changes so they don't expect you to be a trustworthy defender. Or at least to know which issues to expect you to be on their side on.
It was interesting to observe some of the dynamics at work in the John Adams series. Adams tried to hold to a middle course. He and Washington tried to steer somewhere between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians. In the end, it didn't work very well. Adams ended up being on the outs with both parties. I respect his attempt to hold a moderate position where he thought it was right in principle. (I do not agree with that position, though. I adore Thomas Jefferson.) But I have to laugh at his earlier assumption that it was the most viable position. In those places where moderation is right in principle, you have to still expect that you'll probably be in a minority.
11:54 am Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, April 19th, 2008
This topic is probably relevant to people far from my theological circles. It has to do with how I've observed minds change in the past. Mostly with how you find out people have changed their minds.
The main thing I've noticed is that people rarely show a change of mind during the course of an argument, even a successful one. They will argue like they think they're right to their last counter-argument. You won't discover till later that they changed their minds. They might even tell you that it happened while you were talking, but you saw no sign of it.
Once I saw this happen during a lecture series when a favorite professor of mine was giving an introduction to Lutheran distinctives. In the audience was a man and his wife. They had both attended charismatic churches together. The man had a Lutheran background and was wanting to return. The wife was convinced that holiness teaching was true, and had little desire to become Lutheran. She attended the lectures because of, and only because of, his wishes.
She was fiery. During Question and Answer period, she sounded indignant. She offered Bible verses and arguments from reason. They were well-chosen. The good professor provided solid answers. Afterwards, some of us were discussing the evening and saying, "If she ever becomes Lutheran, she'll make a great one." She may have been "against us," but we loved her passion. We also thought we were speaking out of wild hope, as she gave no signs of openness.
Well, she did become Lutheran. What was more, later she told us that she went straight home that night and drank a beer and smoked a cigar. Okay, contrary to popular belief, that isn't exactly a conversion to Lutheranism itself. But the woman was way more open to reconsidering her position than we ever imagined. We thought the first crack in the armor would happen, if at all, after many months. Publicly, we saw her continue to ask hard questions. The surprise that hit me was shortly after this finding she had joined a Lutheran church, and had not only accepted a belief in the Real Presence, but had strong feelings towards it almost from the start. I only later heard her confess how that first night at the lecture had really gone for her.
A fellow seminary student, I'll call her Christina though that wasn't her name, told me of how when her friends in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship had worked on evangelizing her, she gave them a lot of grief. They had convinced her Christianity was true. But she didn't want to give up control of her life. One woman probed where she was. "Well, it looks like this is all true, but I don't see why I should do anything about it," she replied. Her friend got very upset. All she could do was say, "Christina, you're going to hell!" Christina said that when her friend stormed off, she sat down and said to herself, "Christina, you are miserable. Nothing could make you feel worse than you feel right now. Not even becoming a Christian!" So she did. Later, her friend was shocked. Her friend was convinced she had just blown something that a group of them had been working on and praying about for months. No. As foolish and flustered as she felt when she did it, it was just what the doctor ordered.
This dynamic is something I've seen a lot. What was really entertaining was when someone would argue a doctrinal point and be red in the face. My first indication that they had changed position was that they had argued the new position with someone else, and they were indignant that the other person didn't see the truth of it!
Looking back, I can see how many times, in greater or lesser ways, I have been the same way. I feel sorry for my youth leaders who probably thought the seed had hit rocky ground.
One argument was over the natural consequences of promiscuity. A leader used the analogy of gluing two pieces of paper together and tearing them apart. How it did damage to the integrity of each sheet of paper when this was done. I decided to test the analogy by saying that with paper, sometimes you did get it apart with little damage. The leader decided to acknowledge the point and say, "But what happens when you continue to do this? How many times will it work?" I saw his point. His willingness to perhaps understate his case made it stronger.
Now I think he could have been right in saying there is damage each time, whatever happens with paper, people are made to connect more deeply. If they can manage to join and unjoin without damage, they probably do so by being slippery. Their ability to join has been compromised altogether. That is another kind of damage.
In any case, I've been on both sides of such arguments, and have a sense of how it goes. I don't expect to see capitulation when I present something. There are a few people who are open enough to allow you to see it to happen. But most need either to save face, or to ruminate a bit. I don't think it is only ego involved here, though ego would be enough to explain a lot of it. People might sometimes just need the space to know that their decision is being made on the basis of the case and not the other person's pressuring.
I dislike evangelistic methods that emphasize the importance of "closing the sale." The sales language should be a tip-off that we are far from the Biblical outlook. You are not the only one at work. God is at work. The Holy Spirit continues the work when you have stopped talking. If that is not true, we can stop evangelizing altogether. Why bother to do any of this if what we are talking about has no truth to it? But if it is true, we can relax a little. We should start more conversations, and conclusively end fewer.
12:34 pm Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, April 16th, 2008
I recently ordered Derek Kidner's little commentary on the Book of Proverbs. (It really is little. It could almost fit into a shirt pocket.) I haven't usually been strongly drawn to the book of Proverbs, but I'm usually not put off by it, either. Kidner's book sounded interesting after a mention of it by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio magazine. I have not been disappointed.
I write this less to speak of observations of particular parables—typical of Kidner's treatment is to mention whe rendered it most felicitously, often Moffatt—and more to speak of how odd something has started to appear to me.
In the worship wars, we find that the Psalms have a lot to say. These are divinely wrought songs that may serve us as a great example of how to worship. In some Reformed churches, the Regulative Principle is taken to exclude all other songs. But many who don't go this far see the wisdom in using the Psalms as a kind of a pattern. Given new knowledge of Jesus, we will wish to write something informed by the Psalms to worship our Lord "with a new song." The older I get, the more I find myself thinking we ignore such patterning to our own detriment.
But whether we use the Psalms for worship or not, we do sing!
In the case of Proverbs, the very practices that make the book useful have fallen totally into disuse. We try to fit them into our devotional lives. Some of us memorize the Proverbs. But do we USE THEM?
Kidner writes of the wise men of Israel and other ancient lands. The Egyptian sages left behind large tomes of wisdom literature. And in the ancient world sages from different lands would visit each other and test each other's wisdom. Solomon's own gifts in this area were prodigious. But he not only amazed foreigners, he resolved disputes among his people.
It is here that an idea came to mind. When St. Paul chides the Corinthians with the question "Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren," it appears that an office is missing in Corinth. In the ancient world, a wise man like Solomon would hold court to resolve disputes. The picture of dispute resolution almost suggest the use of certain methods, like proverbs and parables.
What would our churches look like if we did have such an office? What if some members of our congregation were schooled in such methods so that they could hold court and resolve disputes? It is intriguing to consider.
Of course it is dangerous to embark on new methods. I find it scary enough to watch churches embark on doing church discipline when they have no experience in doing so. There are generations of wisdom missing. There is a kind of counsel that should be offered so that pastors don't make the dumb decisions they make when they haven't been warned. (e.g. "Don't listen to the first person who comes into your office to explain the situation.")
But I think we have lost something by not keeping this up. I wonder how it could be instituted in a more gradual way. Would there be ways of meeting to try out the methods on hypothetical questions? Could we make it worth someone's while to learn some proverbs, whether Solomonic or otherwise?
Hearing the wisdom of older people from outside the family has been of great help to me in my own life. It was not delivered in the ancient forms, of course. But I think there is a kind of wisdom even in the form, just as I think the form of a Psalm is something that has value for church music beyond the Psalms given to us.
We were foolish when we decided we didn't need the wise.
12:13 am Pacific Standard Time
Monday, April 14th, 2008
In her comments to my previous post on the Hilighter Hermeneutic, Rebecca Johnson cited some awful training she had been subjected to regarding the use of Law and Gospel. This shows me that what I have been seeing as straw man argumentation might have real instances behind it. This makes it all the more important to distinguish good use of Law and Gospel from bad.
The key proposition I wish to defend is that Law and Gospel must always be distinguished. When I defend the "hilighter hermeneutic," I am mostly defending the idea that we really could go through the Scriptures and mark things out as Law and Gospel. But let me cite what Rebecca wrote and respond point by point.
While I totally and completely agree that a proper distinction between law and gospel is absolutely necessary (we would have no gospel otherwise), I think in some circles it's become far too formulaic an exercise, resulting in an absolutely horrible reading or application of a particular text.
We are in full agreement here. And I don't think that just anything that labels itself Law and Gospel is legitimate.
While a student at Concordia, I was actually taught (not by our favorite good guy) to read passages and draw either a smiley face (gospel) or a frown face (law) next to the passages. I think we were allowed to put an open mouth face (response), too. We were then told to create a devotional from a certain passage. If it was all law, we were to "import" gospel. If it was all gospel, we were to "import" law.
I suppose the prof could have argued that this was just a way of doing hilighting without hilighters. Except it conveys more than that. Why not just a plus and a minus sign?
This surely conveys an understanding of Law and Gospel as moods. Are they supposed to be God's moods or our moods? Surely ours. The happy face, while a bit trite, could be argued to convey the idea we find in the Benediction, "The Lord make his face to shine upon you." But Law would mean not primarily sadness, but anger or wrath. If the face is supposed to be God's face, surely eyes with angry brows would be the appropriate symbol. Sadness is what we find when we find we have fallen short. So these faces are ours. These are then seen as target emotions to produce by speaking. It is a short distance from that idea to the idea that what the preacher is to do is to create these emotions, perhaps as a reaction to those of the preacher. Scolding may be what is done. And in my experience, this is a bad idea. Pastors who scold are not the best conveyers of the Law. When I have heard it preached at its best, the kind of guilt I have felt is not the external "You left dirty dishes in the sink" guilt. It is true guilt. It goes to my state of being by holding up a mirror. A mirror need not scold me. It just needs to be accurate.
This idea of importing Law and Gospel is interesting. I don't think that the problem is that this is formulaic. I think the problem is that it was not taught correctly. It springs from a wrong understanding of the Bible. In a certain sense, it may even betray a lack of confidence in Law and Gospel itself. It may well convey a belief of Law and Gospel as ultimate truth, but it does not believe that these truths are actually embodied in the Scriptures.
What I find funny in some of these discussions is how certain doctrines like Law and Gospel get questioned while other doctrines like the applicability of all Scripture to us remain unquestioned. These two teachings are tied together pretty intimately. Where we are given grounds for thinking that all Scripture is applicable to us, we are also given grounds for seeing the Gospel given pride of place. For instance Romans 15:4 says "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." This offers a universal purpose for all Scripture, and that purpose is to offer hope. This would suggest that when the Scriptures are used to another end, they are being misused.
This does not merely apply to the Bible as a whole, but to particular books. As St. John writes, "but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31). I think this gives us some sense as to how we might handle a passage that seems to be Law without Gospel.
If in the Book of John, where we know the book as a whole was written so that we might believe, we come across a passage that appears to be all Law, then we have to ask some questions of how the passage relates to the book as a whole. How does it serve the book? Looking through John, finding a sizable section that does not contain Gospel is a challenge. But let's take John 12:20-26. There are hard words for the Greeks who seek Jesus. A pastor might feel as if he's doing violence to the text to issue the challenge "He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal," following it by a quick assertion that "None of us does this," and a quotation of John 3:16. (At least here, though, this would be an appeal within the book of John!) But is it really more responsible to treat this passage as standing alone, apart from the rest of John? We have to ask HOW this passage serves what John himself states is the broader reason for the book. What does this say that brings us to faith? How does this encourage us and give us hope? How this relates to the broader proclamation of the Gospel in John will probably take some pacing in the pastor's study. Here formula ends. But after some good wrestling, I think a good pastor could bring in the Gospel without making people feel as if it had been imported from nowhere. To leave this starkly is to ignore the experience of Peter, who no doubt heard these words, and soon afterwards tried to save his own life (John 18:25-27). He was only ready to lose his life after a meeting with Jesus after the Resurrection. Jesus' word predicted his betrayal, and then Jesus' word predicted his faithfulness (John 21:18). Peter's own resolution did not make the difference.
As to importing Law, that is another matter. I think if you take Law in the sense of making people feel guilty, you might have to import it. Except I think the broader reason for believing in Law preaching is that without Law, the Gospel makes no sense. What I would suggest is checking the passage to see if it may not provide enough of its own rationale. Where Jesus talks of being the Good Shepherd in John, what is the Law? Don't be a bad shepherd? Perhaps. But it may be enough to talk of the existence of bad shepherds as we find Jesus doing in John 10:8&10, with extensive references to the Old Testament accounts of those bad shepherds. (My pastor did this yesterday.) When we equate the Law with the frown, we may miss what is in the text that serves the Law's function in the text. The Law drives us to Christ. But knowledge of bad shepherds might do the same. For that text, that is the Law.
I think it is possible to read Law and Gospel more organically than many do.
But I don't want to fall into the opposite ditch of saying, "Scripture is just very complex. You can't reduce it to Law and Gospel." This sounds sophisticated, since it recognizes a multiplicity of purposes. But we came to a belief in Law and Gospel from Scripture passages where the divine author told us the broader meaning of Scripture, not from empirical observation of our own. In many cases we may have to wrestle before we can see how a particular passage can be proclaimed. And I loved the words of one Lutheran writer who had a response to similar words about another church's polity. To "Our view is more comprehensive," he said, "A bit of dis and dat and dem and dose."
That there can be more teaching than Law and Gospel could mean more than one thing. If an art instructor made the claim, "You can represent the whole world in black and white," the instructor would be saying something true. With a piece of charcoal and a white piece of paper, you can represent all kinds of things. The student who would respond, "That completely neglects the fact that there are round objects and skinny objects and even clouds," would be missing the point. On the other hand, if the student said that to someone who had listened to the art instructor and gone outside, looked at the world, and come back with a list that said, "Black, black, white, black, white," the student's complaint might be a good one. The whole Bible may divide into Law and Gospel, yet some pastor's rendering of the Bible into Law and Gospel might not be a true rendering.
12:28 pm Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, April 9th, 2008
A commenter on another blog I frequent made reference to the way some people use the distinction between Law and Gospel as a "highlighter hermeneutic." I took this to be sarcasm. That is, the idea that we could go through Scripture and label each section either Law or Gospel was seen as very naïve.
I think our confessional position is that we could go through the Scriptures with a couple of highlighters and find each section to be predominantly Law or Gospel. While there would be many sections susceptible of both readings, I think that is a secondary insight. One that I would like to see pursued at length in any Bible class AFTER the distinction has been presented and defended.
That we can divide all Scripture into Law and Gospel is a confessional commitment. As we are told the the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
5] All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal. 6] Moreover, in this discussion, by Law we designate the Ten Commandments, wherever they are read in the Scriptures. Of the ceremonies and judicial laws of Moses we say nothing at present.
[Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV, 5-6]
While this section does not command the use of a highlighter (I'm sure marginal markings or HTML markup would be just fine), the ability to distinguish is certainly maintained. It is said to be true of "all Scripture" that it can be distributed into these topics.
Some say that what is wrong with how Lutherans do this is that what they are doing is hermeneutical rather than merely pastoral. Of course, they say, we can use Scriptures in these two ways. But when we do this we are not reading naturally. We are imposing meanings foreign to the original text.
I take issue with this. I could understand such an idea coming from a purely naturalistic conception of Scripture. If the Bible was written by all these various human authors, perhaps more than any of us with conservative presuppositions are inclined to admit, then for these authors all to be writing of two messages only, they would have had to have been in collusion, which is very unlikely. [Though I have to say that even on naturalistic grounds, the possibility cannot be discounted. Each writer could saturate him or herself in the preceding writings and write only what was in line with what came before. Editors could take out what later proved to be dissimilar.] In any case, it is easier from a naturalistic standpoint to say that the only way to really know the text is to sit down with a book on its own and study it as much as possible. All theories will be provisional, and few will be able to know more than one book very well.
For those who believe in a higher view of inspiration, I think we are in a different spot. We are not claiming that any mere human reader has the vastness of knowledge to be able to say that the Scriptures all have a common message. This is something we take on faith when the New Testament tells us so. We are accepting the reading of an apostle as being divinely inspired. We likely find the claim somewhat plausible when we accept it. And we adopt the outlook entailed by this view, finding over time that it yields coherent readings.
The idea that we are using a hermeneutic is not just the statement of one who has not considered the matter at great enough depth. Dr. Horace Hummell has written on this very subject, and says, "That one 'should' divide all of Scripture into these two doctrines plainly implies a hermeneutical master key" (found here). If Law and Gospel are not a valid hermeneutic—if dividing Law and Gospel is not a valid hermeneutical method—then the Lutheran confessions are in error.
When St. Paul tells us "Now we know that what things soever the Law states it utters to those who are in connection with the Law, so that every mouth is stopped, and all the world is become subject to punishment for God" (Romans 3:19 Lenski's translation), he is offering a hermeneutical principle. This tells us the purpose for which the Law was given. If we can divide all of Scripture into Law and Gospel, and this is what the Law was given for, then we have to be willing to say that the purpose for which vast areas of Scripture were given was primarily to close people's mouths and make them accountable to God. To try, after this was said, to make these primarily "house rules" for those who are in a covenantal relationship with God is to miss the point. The "Law" holds all the world accountable.
As I said above, many passages can be read as Law or Gospel. Luther finds much Gospel even in the Decalogue, as does St. Paul (Ephesians 6:2). But given Romans 3:19, I think we have to see this as a secondary reading. The commandment "Honor your father and mother" was given so that every mouth may be stopped. Everyone breaks this commandment. If we don't see this as a threat, we have not read the commandment aright. Now there is precedent for taking "the Law" as being broader than the Decalogue. But it would be odd to say that all the Law except for the Decalogue was given primarily to reveal sin, but the Decalogue was given primarily to instruct us in good behavior. The Decalogue is the Law within the Law. It must be the chief example of something written to serve the purpose that all Law serves.
12:02 pm Pacific Standard Time
Tuesday, April 1st, 2008
A night watchman at the Castle Church in Wittenberg was surprised during his early rounds this morning to find Martin Luther's tomb disturbed. The large stone on which the brass plaque with the Reformer's name and epitaph were inscribed had been turned over on its side. The warden approached slowly, thinking that perhaps he was witnessing evidence of a post-Easter miracle.
"I'm not normally a superstitious person," he explained in his thick Saxon accent. "But this was a real marvel. Something amazing had surely happened"
When he approached the tomb, he found that all was accounted for, but Luther's coffin was upside down. Luther had apparently rolled over in his grave.
The event has been variously interpreted.
"I think that the scandal with the radio show Issues, etc. was the cause of it," said Mollie Hemingway in the Wall Street Journal. "Luther dealt with church bureaucrats in his own time, but the ones we see today make Tetzel and Pope Leo appear subtle."
LCMS President Jerry Kieschnick suggested that Luther had not really turned over in his grave, but had tried to exit his grave in order to evangelize visiting tourists. "We counted that as two hundred and thirty-seven Ablaze! encounters, even though he wasn't able to leave his coffin to talk to anyone. It was such a dramatic gesture, and we want people to know that God doesn't care about success, but only cares that you tried."
Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto said this was a hasty conclusion. "This is what happens when journalists no longer do field work. What incentive does Jerry Kieschnick have to check out the facts?" "And what are the facts?" an interviewer asked him. "I am not certain yet," he answered. "But this could be the work of the Aum Shinrikyo cult who believe that Luther was an incarnation of Shiva, the God of death. Pope Leo himself held similar beliefs in the 16th century, something which has been ignored by the history books. But I plan to visit Wittenberg myself to find out later this week. One thing that we know already is that this happened at night when the church was locked so there were no tourists involved. The Ablaze! numbers were clearly fabricated."
11:21 am Pacific Standard Time