Monday, April 30, 2007

The AntiChrist: Call for Discussion Among Lutherans

Generally, I refrain from posting pieces on this blog that are not applicable in some way to all Christians everywhere. This post is different in that it is intended only for those who are, like me, members of confessional Lutheran churches. This post re-opens old controversies and is nearly guaranteed to raise tempers among both Lutherans and Roman Catholics. I have to respectfully ask the Roman Catholics to pass over this conversation as a matter internal to Lutherans. It is surely not news that Lutherans view the church of Rome as needing reform. This call is for Lutherans to maintain our witness to Christ while re-evaluating the idea that it is proper to identify the papacy with the antichrist; as such it will surely have more effect as an internal conversation among Lutherans (or at least Protestants). For that reason, comments coming from outside the intended target audience may be deleted for the sole reason of keeping the conversation within that intended target audience, contrary to my usual practice of letting a pertinent comment stand regardless of author, view, tone or helpfulness. Your understanding is appreciated.

Also, writing something in a recognizable call-for-debate format is tedious. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, really. But for all that, I think this is a necessary conversation and so here goes.

One of the foundational marks of Lutheran Christianity is its loyalty to Christ, especially its devotion to the cross of Christ and the mystery of the humble God, to the gentle yoke and easy burden of the gospel, the determination to lift high the cross and to trust Christ alone. We have an instinctive dislike for speculative theologies and for Bible interpretations involving artifice; the further a dogma drifts from the cross of Christ, the more certain we are that it is bad theology. We have a deep and abiding love for forthrightness and plain talk. We also believe that questions of Reform should be matters for open discussion in the church; we've even been known to nail our theses to church doors.

To this end, I have to ask:
  • Given that Lutherans reject Rome's decree "that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff"1, first because it is at the name of Jesus that every knee should bow, and second because Christ called leaders among his people not to lord it over others as Gentile rulers did, but taught plainly that the greatest among the apostles should be the self-humbling servant rather than the self-exalting ruler;
  • Given that Lutherans reject Rome's dogma that our works merit the attainment of eternal life2, in that eternal life is a gift beyond our earning, and eternal life cannot be attained apart from forgiveness of sins and is therefore is not attained by our merit;
  • Given that the antichrist is said to be known for his self-exaltation and his enmity for the Gospel of Christ;

Does it therefore follow that we are justified in identifying the office of the papacy with the antichrist?

Consider these points:
  • That not everyone bearing any similarity to the final and ultimate antichrist is truly the final and ultimate antichrist, since the sins and rebellions of the antichrist (self-exaltation and devaluing Christ) are common;
  • That even those who have gone so far as to rightly earn the name antichrist are not always the final and ultimate antichrist, as John taught that "even now many antichrists have come";
  • That we do not call everyone the antichrist who exalts himself, who claims that every human creature owes him submission; though we condemn self-exaltation as contrary to the spirit of Christ, and affirm that the one with all authority in this world is none other than God's Messiah, the true Christ;
  • That we do not call everyone the antichrist who teaches that our works merit eternal life, though we condemn the teaching that eternal life is merited by human works.
  • That those who have declared that the final and ultimate antichrist of history is none other than the office of the papacy have rendered a historical judgment without having seen all of history and so have reached a verdict without hearing all the evidence;
  • That the antichrist will only be known with certainty on the Last Day;
  • That the right judgment to reveal the antichrist rests with God alone;
  • That if before the Last Day we say that we have identified the antichrist, we may be proved wrong; and if proved wrong then we will have been teaching falsely;
  • That if before the Last Day we say that we have identified the antichrist and are proved wrong, we will have borne false witness;
  • That likewise if proved wrong, we will have sowed discord among brothers;
  • That if we present something as truth without knowing for a fact that we are truthful, then morally it is as if we had been false witnesses because of our lack of knowledge, even if at the Last Day we should be proved correct.
  • It follows that even if this criticism against the papacy is vindicated we cannot know that now and therefore cannot rightly teach it now;
  • That even one who speaks the truth finds himself in the wrong if he speaks without love -- this is not to say that strength and certainty and condemning wrong are to be faulted, but only to say that even these things rightly have the ultimate aim of bringing about repentance and reform;
  • That if we speak without love, we prevent ourselves from being heard except as an annoying and senseless sound;
  • That if we have become an annoying and senseless sound then we will not be heard even when we teach Christ's humility and Christ's merits;
  • That portraying the office of the papacy as the anti-Christ presupposes the impossibility of repentance or humility on the part of the papacy and hinders true love (if not precluding it altogether);
  • That associating the papacy with an unreformable character causes us to neglect preaching Christ's humility and Christ's merits in those places where Christ's humility and Christ's merits would be a message of greatest blessing.

With that in view, I would like to call for open discussion on whether it is acceptable to continue permitting the identification of anyone or any institution (including the office of the papacy) as the antichrist before the Last Day when the truth of the matter becomes known. In the spirit of reform, I would hold that we cannot rightly answer this question solely in terms of loyalty to doctrines derived in the Middle Ages, but must first and foremost consider our loyalty to Christ, to his call to make disciples of all nations, not to bear false witness, and to speak the truth in love. I would contend that refraining from calling the papacy the antichrist is right for our own sakes and for the sake of righteousness, and also makes us more effective witnesses of Christ's humility and Christ's merits. I would also contend that refraining from calling the papacy the antichrist will allow the church of Rome to hear our voice as something other than a clanging gong or resounding cymbal, and instead hear our objection: that supremacy belongs to Christ in such a way that there is no human office which can obligate us, and that salvation belongs to Christ in such a way that we do not earn it but receive it as an unmerited gift.

1 - Unam Sanctam, see concluding remarks.
2 - Council of Trent, Canon XXXII

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Trinity, God's Essence, God's Energies

Awhile back, Mark at Pseudo-Polymath graciously took up the question I put down at a previous Christian Reconciliation Carnival: for someone Eastern Orthodox to please explain their understanding of God's essence and God's energies. (See also here and here.) My understanding of the teaching is this: God, in himself and in his immutable essence, is not directly knowable; but that through his energies he interacts with the world and becomes immanent, present, and knowable. It is through God's energies that God creates, redeems, and even transfers attributes of his essence to us (e.g. makes us holy because he is holy). That could be material for several posts right there -- even assuming I'm understanding that teaching correctly -- but I wanted to mention why I'm investigating that.

The reason I asked was this: I think some of the Trinitarian issues are going to have to be revisited along the way to achieving reconciliation in the church as a whole, and I think the Eastern Orthodox understanding of God's essence and God's energies will come to play in that. Before anyone starts to be concerned on my behalf talking about revisiting the Trinity, let me assure you that I have no problem at all with the Nicene Creed, nor with any of the passages of Scripture discussing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, some of the expositions of the Trinity that have come out since have sounded awkward, as if the categories being used (essence/ousia, person/hypostasis) were not really the cleanest fit for what was being described. The Trinity as it is currently taught may be the best job that anyone could possibly do in describing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the categories adapted from ancient Greek philosophy; but that leaves untouched the entirely separate question of whether ancient Greek philosophy (even as adapted) was properly equipped to describe God.

As for those explanations of the Trinity in categories adapted from ancient Greek philosophy, some of the explanations have sounded contrived or forced. My concern is that our current understanding the Trinity does not do justice to God: that the awkwardness of the categories in handling the content is a sign that they are not a good fit. Even the best conception of God using these categories rarely attains to the height of true theology where what is taught can be recognized as good news, life-giving news. The current teaching is excessively technical in a way which tends to rob it of even the possibility of being good news for large numbers of people who are not technically minded (besides leaving "theology" for the "experts" and fostering divisions). In practice, this leads to a popular understanding that is flat and rote. Worse than that, the popular current understanding of the Trinity is tenuous because a flat and rote understanding is propped up by the threat of excommunication. I'm not at all saying that no theologian has done better; but I do think I'm describing the actual state of matters in an uncomfortably large number of cases.

It's not only the Eastern Orthodox understandings of essence and energies that I expect to come into play as we broaden, deepen, and refine our understanding of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I expect we will also need to incorporate the ancient Jewish concepts of God's Presence/Shekhinah and God's Wisdom/Torah (in the broad sense).

Just as a sample of what I could envision -- for the average person's understanding of the Trinity as good news -- imagine if the average person were to have a concept of the Torah as God's Wisdom which gives life, the Word by which he formed the world, the Word which gives form to our lives and transfers some of God's attributes to us, which makes us holy (as God is holy) and bestows on us God's image. Then imagine if the average person were to have a concept of God's Presence in the world through his Spirit, a living and active presence full of His glory, and by which the prophets spoke God's Wisdom. I think then you'd be fairly close to understanding the Trinity in alternative terms (in this case, in Jewish terms). When God said in the plural, "Let us make man in our image", did he speak to the Torah and the Shechinah? How far is that from saying that He spoke to His Word and His Spirit?

I'm not saying that rethinking the Trinity in terms of essence and communication and energies, or even in terms of I AM and Torah and Shechinah, is quite so simple as the quick sketch above. I certainly don't mean to say that the concept of God's energies maps directly onto God's Word and God's Spirit. I am saying that if the knowledge of God is going to be what it should be, we still have a lot of ground to explore, even after all this time.

Mark, I hope you're not too appalled at why I was asking. I would be glad if the 21st century of the church goes down in history as the century of reconciliation; or even if the 24th century did and our century was later considered mere groundwork. I would also be glad if the 21st century of the church goes down in history as the century in which we reached deep into our roots -- and even into the roots of our disagreements -- for more resources to know God.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Part 2: What If Your Profession Had Been Named

I had enough fun with posting What If Your Profession Had Been Named that I thought I'd do it again.
If reporters, journalists, and other authors came to him and said,"What should we do?"

Would he have said, "Do not bear false witness; Judge your neighbor fairly; Do not go about spreading slander; Speak the truth with love"?

Monday, April 23, 2007

What if your profession had been named?

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"

"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"

He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely -- be content with your pay."

These are some of the conversations recorded between John the Baptist and those who came to be baptized. But I can't help but wondering what he would say to us today. I know most of us could stand to hear, "Be content with your pay." But would there have been more pointed advice for some trades? What if ...
If some lawyers came to him and asked, "What should we do?"

Would he have said, "Do not defend the guilty nor accuse the innocent; seek only justice" and "Do not bear false witness"?

If some car salesmen came to him and asked, "What should we do?"

Would he have said, "Do not take advantage of the widows or the young" and "Do not use dishonest price scales to take extra money from the unwary"?

I know there are other professions that have a reputation for being ethically challenged. But do you wonder what he would have said if he were talking to people of your trade? Here's mine:
If he were talking to programmers, would he have said, "Do not inflate your estimates to avoid an honest discussion on the merits of a project"? Or "Don't abuse your expertise to give misleading answers that suit your convenience"? (You always suspected some of us did. Well, some of us do.)
If your profession had been named, what would have been said to you?

Friday, April 20, 2007

The kingdom of heaven is like ...

The flowers shown here are in my yard, not far from the fig tree, after a recent rainstorm. Christ compares the flowers of the field to Solomon in all his splendor -- and tells us that in comparison, Solomon falls short.

One thing I appreciate about Christ's teachings is that they are very much in touch with life and in touch with the earth. He explains faith with images of wildflowers and birds. And the kingdom of heaven, he tells us, is like fishermen at their nets, like shepherds with their sheep, like farmers planting grain. The kingdom of heaven, he tells us, is like an herb garden, or like a woman baking bread, or like workers in a vineyard. The kingdom of heaven is like a rare pearl; it is like buried treasure. It is like a wedding feast. The pictures he uses are very much alive, and stir up in us the desire for this kingdom of heaven.

This is not only to explain the kingdom of heaven in ways we can understand. It is also to remind us of the good in this world. Despite all the ways in which we have harmed the world and each other, still many things in this world remain like the kingdom of heaven.

To compare the kingdom of heaven to these things is to pronounce a blessing on farmers and fishermen and wedding feasts as things that already foreshadow the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Call for Posts: Christian Reconciliation Carnival #4

Christian Carnival #4 will be hosted by Mark at Pseudo-Polymath. His call for posts is up, entries are due by the end of the day on April 30, 2007. Mark takes the stand that the laity has the primary responsibility to drive the ecumenical movement and submits this as the special topic of the month:
The question I’d like to ask is, whether or not you are presbyter or lay, "What positive thing or things can, should, or must we do this today, this week, or this month, to foster and act in a way which helps drive the ecumenical movement forward?"
That's a worthy topic of the month! Posts are also accepted for the standing categories of Christian general interest, things ecumenical, questions, and polite debates. Spread the word!

Click here to submit a post.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Christ as Good News: For the World

Thor over at the Thinklings is stirred up by Jerry Falwell's recent statement,
We are not into particular love or limited atonement.
In fact, Falwell goes on to drop the "h-bomb" (heresy), which has already received comment elsewhere. Now normally I would have no idea what Jerry Falwell's most recent announcement might contain, but I got news of it through Thor's reaction:
Is he really suggesting that Jesus Christ was a substitutionary sacrifice for the all the sins of all those who will ultimately reject Jesus as Lord and Savior?
Well, Thor, it may be bait but I'll bite. Christ died for all: he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, not only ours but for those of the whole world. God is not willing that any should be lost, but wants all to come to repentance.

I suspect that we can place where the disconnect happens here: where the original quote (Falwell) discusses atonement and the reply (Thor) discusses substitutionary sacrifice.

In the Sinai Covenant, the Day of Atonement included a sacrifice that could be understood as a substitutionary sacrifice. This sacrifice was made for the whole people, but it was understood that the unrepentant received no benefit from a substitutionary sacrifice, even one offered on their behalf. That's because substitutionary sacrifice is not the whole of atonement. The objection that is usually raised against Christ being the atoning sacrifice not only for us, but also for the whole world, is an objection that sees forgiveness as forensic (in this case, a decree of acquittal or pardon), and assumes that therefore the whole of atonement is forensic, assumes that everything happens because the Judge decreed it.

If you assume a "reunion with God" view of atonement, then Christ being the atoning sacrifice not only for us, but also for the whole world doesn't pose a problem at all. We can confidently announce Christ's redemption not just to some subset of the world but to anyone we meet: Christ is for the whole world, and they belong to the world, therefore Christ is for them in particular.

I am going to take one of the classic prooftexts of substitutionary sacrifice and quote it in context. Notice how the apostle Paul assumes a framework of reconciliation with God -- and non-compulsory grace -- for his announcement of substitutionary sacrifice: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain." (2 Cor 5:18-6:1)

Take care & God bless

Monday, April 09, 2007

Christianity in Tolkien: A traitor's place in salvation

Tolkien's work is usually too subtle for plain allegorical comparison.
Frodo is not exactly a Christ figure. At the end his goodness fails; the temptation to claim the ring overcomes him.
But Gollum is much closer to a Judas figure, a traitor. Gollum's treachery was predictable and long-expected. The only thing that was largely unexpected was that his treachery worked out for the good, much like the treachery of Judas Iscariot or of the brothers of Joseph son of Jacob.
Tolkien brings out one of the themes of Christ's life in the character of Gollum: even treachery tends to go wrong, and traitors often do good that they never intended. It's not that Sam Gamgee was wrong to distrust Gollum; it's that Frodo was righter still to bring him anyway.

All graphics from New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, presented under fair usage.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Proclaiming Christ's Resurrection: Reclaiming the Good News

Have you ever heard someone say that July 4 is the day on which Americans believe that John Hancock and other revolutionaries signed the Declaration of Independence from Britain? How about saying that Julius Caesar was a man that historians believe may have once ruled Rome? I haven't either.

But that is the game that many play with Jesus' resurrection from the dead; that it is merely the day on which Christians believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, three days after a public execution. Over 20 sources within a century of the event mention Jesus' resurrection; a number of them have it as the main reason for bothering to write the documents that mention it. The opponents are conspicuous by their silence. If it were any other event, it would be considered beyond rational dispute. But it's not any other event. It is an event whose reality plainly disproves atheism and materialism and secularism. The resurrection is also an event which renders silly the traditional hand-wringing about choosing a religion; the resurrection is a clarifying moment in the history of the world. This is offensive to many. And because it is offensive to so many, the proclamation of Jesus' resurrection is often muted -- when it is not drowned out by shouts of protest.

This proclamation -- that Christ is risen from the dead -- cannot be muted, or apologized for, or proclaimed in a whisper lest it might offend, because it is good news. When it is proclaimed rightly it is good news even for those who might be offended. Because even those who might be offended know the score. The weight of death and hopelessness is heavy on the world. Life is too often marked by anger, fear, and hatred. Love is poisoned by greed and pride. And finally hope is dimmed by exhaustion and apathy.

Christ's resurrection changes that. It allows us to trust his promise to raise us up at the last day, to believe his promise to make our own graves empty, because his is empty already. It gives birth to a living hope that our lives are not so fleeting and meaningless as we had feared; that we are not, after all, unloved and unnoticed in the world, but beyond wildest dreams we have the love of God, creator of heaven and earth. Christ's resurrection also highlights the promise made at his death, the promise he made as he raised the cup the night he was betrayed: a covenant for the forgiveness of sins. Christ's death and resurrection open the way for the washing of our souls, the forgiveness of our own wrongs, a release from guilt and shame. It opens the door for us to forgive others, to love again, to keep no record of wrongs. In his death our hungry spirits are fed, our thirsty souls can drink their fill. Christ's love for us can create love in our hearts where there was none before, can create humility where there was none before, can create a desire to return to God. It brings reconciliation between us and God; it restores meaning to our lives. Christ creates hope where there was none before.

The angry sounds of protest we hear over the message of Christ -- those are the sounds of those who have not yet heard: hatred can be put away now. God's blessing is back in the land.

Christ is risen indeed! It's cause for joy.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Christ, Our Passover

What's on the doorpost of your home?
Write [these commandments] on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:9)
From that command sprang forth millions of mezuzahs. This command came after Israel's exodus from Egypt, historically not too long after another command:
Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the homes where they eat the lambs. ... The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. (Exodus 12:7, 13)
For the second time, what was on a doorpost marked a home as belonging to God's people. The word of God was placed on the doorpost like the blood of the lamb before it. But the blood had power that the command did not: to make death pass over, to make God's judgment pass by harmlessly.
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:29)
With God's impeccable timing, Christ's sacrifice occurred during the Passover celebrations when people were already mindful that God's mercy and God's deliverance from death were yet to be fulfilled in the Messiah. Tonight we do not proclaim law, but forgiveness and deliverance through Christ.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #3

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #3 is up at the Pacesetters Bible School Newsletter blog. Henry, our kind host of the month, has done a great job of pulling together the material. He has been a staunch supporter of this carnival from the beginning; please give him a read and (if you can spare it) a link.

Thanks again to all the bloggers working and praying for reconciliation.