The Doctrine of Scripture

A friend recently noted that if you look at the writings of our synod’s early fathers, you find much about the doctrine of scripture itself. But between about 1900 and 1945, that ended. Instead, you find occasional articles or conference themes, but no solid books. Even today, a quick search of the CPH catalog reveals basically one book on the doctrine of scripture, and that is by Johann Gerhard (Who is definitely NOT a 20th century theologian, thanks be to God!)

About the same time that we began ignoring the doctrine of scripture, we also began to struggle with the doctrine of scripture. One may say it culminated in Seminex, but we still struggle – and that struggle is once again increasing. We now have people teaching that one of the Sedes Doctrinae for Holy Baptism is more properly considered antilegomena than homologomena. Only an extremely low view of the doctrine of scripture could allow for such a thing.

So what happened? Did we abandon the doctrine and therefore stop writing about it, or did we stop writing about it and therefore abandon the doctrine. Like the chicken and the egg, we can’t get to the origin in that sense. I think the two probably happened contemporaneously, and fed each other. But this much is fairly certain: During the early 20th century, the LCMS abandoned a confessional Lutheran and scriptural view of scripture, and began accepting a modern textual critical method. When I was in seminary, it was explained that higher criticism was bad, but lower criticism was ok. I think both are a modern capitulation to scholardom. The pre-“enlightenment” church did not think in such terms. Questions about scripture were never questions of manuscripts and scientific inquiry into the psychology of the author, but attestation of the church. Canonicity was apostolically driven, not archaeologically driven.

I know I’ll have fifteen people arguing with me about this – you’re unfairly characterizing modern textual criticism, we need to keep up on current trends, our scholars need to be conversant with current scholarship, we don’t want to be fundamentalists,etc. But I’m not suggesting fundamentalism. I’m suggesting we stop treating every method of biblical interpretation that existed before 1850 as “historical theology”. Fundamentalism is a modern and very limiting way of looking at scripture. But it arose about the same time as modern textual criticism – so in that sense, they are both equally modern and I would argue both equally limiting.  Consider Chemnitz’s seven-fold definition of tradition, and compare that to what was taught in my hermeneutics and isagogics classes. And then compare that to the current seminary curriculum, which I’m told no longer requires a hermeneutics class.

I’ve had several people over the last few months – disparate situations, locations, and overall outlook – who have suggested that textual criticism is not really all its cracked up to be. I would agree. I’m glad there are people out there who understand it, are interested in studying it, and can respond to the challenges of it. The problem is, that few who study it see it as “learning the enemies tactics so we can effectively refute it and remain faithful”. It’s more likely to be seen as “a valuable tool that can help us unlock the key to the scriptures more fully than our fathers did”. It’s arrogant to assume we understand scripture better than Iraenaeus, Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhardt. But more than personal arrogance, it has lead many of those same people to deny Jesus said “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”

And that’s a problem, no matter how you look at it.

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The Bible Without Verses

I’m Preparing for next year’s tri-point parish bible study on the Book of Acts (One ten week bible study, repeated three times). Step one is to read the book of Acts. I thought I’d try out my Bibliotheca Bible. It’s formatted like a regular book: no cross-references, no footnotes, no verses, no headings, not even chapter numbers! I thought it might give me a better sense of flow and rhythm. What I didn’t expect is that it would make the entire book seem more… human.

With the bible chopped up into tiny little bits, it becomes informational nuggets. I was shocked to discover the personalities of the apostles in ways I hadn’t seen before. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the words – I had many of the memorized, or nearly so. I knew what was coming next. It wasn’t that I hadn’t read it or was unfamiliar with it.

 

We don’t put up with that sort of nonsense in any other book. But for too long, we’ve thought that more information is better when it comes to the bible. It isn’t. It turns out, the Word of God is sufficient. I’ve found reading Acts to be a delight. Ok, so reading scripture is always a delight. But I’ve been able to just get lost in the Words which the Holy Spirit caused to be written, and in the thoughts behind those words. When I bought this set, I figured is was mostly a nice little novelty book, but not one I would ever seriously use. The last two years, it has sat undisturbed on my shelf. I have changed my mind. I think it may become one of my most used books. I’m kind of interested to see what happens to this Sunday’s Gospel, to say nothing of the Christmas Account, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension (recounted beautifully by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Saint Mark’s Gospel).

The price has gone up significantly since I ordered it on kickstarter – more than double what I paid. But if you want something that looks like a novelty item but isn’t, the gift for the person who already has everything, instead of looking at high-end catalogs filled with gadgets, check out Biblioteca. Reading scripture, uninterrupted*, is a pretty good way to spend your time.

*by the book itself

 

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Sermon For Advent 1: Blizzard Edition

Lots of people couldn’t go to church today, and many churches cancelled services because of weather. So here is what was preached in Wheatland, in case you still wanted to meditate on the Word of the Lord this Lord’s day:

For the church, the new year starts today. The year of our Lord Two thousand Twenty. It starts today because we have finished looking at the life of the Christian, and we turn our attention, once again, to the life of Christ. Christmas is almost here. The songs are blasted in stores, the decorations, the parties, the travel – we are preparing for all of it. Are you ready? Oh not yet. But ready or not, here it comes.

In the church, we don’t prepare our floors and countertops and cookie jars. We prepare our hearts. The Lord comes! That’s what Advent means – he comes. Jesus is coming. Not Jesus in the manger – we’ll hear in a few weeks those familiar and precious words about how Jesus came with healing and mercy, and love and sacrifice for you for the forgiveness of your sins. During Advent we prepare for the king – Jesus enthroned at the right hand of the Father – who comes again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

The question arose – when is the right time to put up the trees in the church? Before Advent begins? Midway through? The experts were consulted. The advice was – as close to Christmas as possible. The goal was to make a distinction between Advent and Christmas.

But no tradition can be cited for the timing of the Christmas Tree because the Christmas Tree – especially in church – is a recent thing. Only about 150 years. For an institution that’s been celebrating Christmas for nearly 2000 years, that’s pretty new. 150 years old is still an innovation. We’ll have to see how it goes. But so far, it’s going pretty well. Because the Christmas tree – like all ceremonies in the church – is there to teach us. And it does that quite effectively. (Our trees aren’t up yet – desire for early tree trimming yielded to reality of scheduling a decorating day between Thanksgiving and today. So, after church of Advent 1.)

Ultimately, when the tree goes up is not a tradition so much as a local custom need. The first we really hear of a tree in church is one of our own LCMS pastors – H.C. Schwan. His descendants founded the ice cream company. He was a pastor in Cleveland Ohio, and he brought in the Christmas Tree, explaining how it had been used in Germany as a symbol of life. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas – life. The life of Jesus Christ. At Easter we celebrate that life being given and shed for you, and then raised from the dead. At Christmas we celebrate the life of God being given to the world in Jesus – the Word made flesh to dwell among us.

And this life of God coming into the world comes into a dead world. Which is what we see around us. Flowers, trees, fields, all dead – if they weren’t before the storm already. But one tree stands tall and proud in the midst of death – the evergreen. It does not die, but lives. And so the evergreen praises God even in the midst of wintry death. And so the Evergreen – the Christmas tree – points us to Jesus coming into the this world of death to bring us life.

Back in the day the tree was covered with candles – lit only once on Christmas Eve. The fresher the tree, the better the chance you’d survive the encounter. So fresh cut trees for Christmas Eve. Electric lights, fake trees, they change things. Now we can safely have those lights on day after day as we prepare our hearts. Pointing us to, reminding us of, the king who comes to bring us  life.

And so, early trees it is. As soon as we can arrange to have them set up.

And today, as we prepare our holy places for Christmas with decorations, as we begin to prepare our hearts for the Lord who comes, we hear… Palm Sunday.

The Lord comes! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. No palm branches today. It isn’t Holy Week. But boy does it set the tone for the whole church year. We’re going to be hearing a lot about Jesus. We’re going to be hearing that he came to die. That’s the focus, the center of our year. And so we start with the beginning of Holy Week. Because if we’re talking about dead sinful hearts being made alive in Christ, that’s crucifixion talk. The world was dead when Jesus came. Our hearts are dead to God until Jesus sends his spirit into them to establish in us a living faith. So we start the “Jesus is coming!” talk with talk of Jesus coming to die for us.

Because Jesus did not come into this world to judge. He came to save. And we want to prepare ours hearts to hear and receive that good news of great joy which shall be to all the people – that Jesus came into this world to save sinners.

What a wonderful gift – what a wonderful salvation. And, like presents under the tree, we know where to hear that salvation. God gives his holy church during this time of grace, so that all men might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. So that we can hear the word of the angel.

Because this time of grace will not last. There will still come – even for the Christian – a final breath in this world. A final moment to confess Jesus as the Son of God, to receive forgiveness of sins, before we return to the dust. And there will be a final moment for the church in this world – marked by that last trumpet. We’ll hear more of that next week. But it marks the end of the time of grace. Then it will be a time of judgment. The living and the dead will be judged, and then… eternity.

That’s why there is an urgency to Advent. The time is short. The judgment is coming for all. We prepare our homes for Christmas. So let us prepare our hearts for Christ. The king is coming. And yet, even as we hear of the judgment, we begin with mercy and grace – Jesus coming, the crowds cheering, the multitudes worshipping, and the focus of it all – the death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.

Paul summarizes the entire Advent season in our Epistle reading – We don’t go after the things of this world. We hear the word of God, we come before his throne of mercy asking forgiveness for our sins. We cleans our hearts, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Jesus is coming. The time has come for us to cast off the works of darkness, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. And make no provision for the flesh to fulfill it’s lusts. Don’t trust your heart – it is sinful. Trust only the Word of God. That stands as the immovable rock on which all your hopes and desires must be based. Place your trust in Jesus. Turn away from your self, to the things of God.

And so in the church, even with all the decorations and so on, this is not a time of celebration. It is a time to look at your own conduct in light of the Ten Commandments. To repent. To prepare your heart as surely as you prepare your home, meals, programs, visits, presents.

It’s all because of Jesus birth, and he does not need a gift from you. But you can prepare your hearts be hearing and heeding the Word of God.

The Lord comes. Hosanna!

 

 

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Liturgical Chaos 2

A long-time friend was disappointed with my last post. He was hoping it would be something with wider implications than mocking a miniscule and laughably bad suggestion that is more ignored than kept. I think the two are related inextricably: Use of the Divine Liturgy in the broad sense is not at all saying right thumb over left. “The Liturgy” tells us what to do when we enter the house of the Lord. The specific ceremonies attached to that are, while not entirely optional (you can cross thumbs or not, but the thumbs will be doing something), certainly subservient to the overall grand sweep of salvation history which is recounted and given to us each week in the Divine Service. But, fine cars are praised because of their attention to detail, just as cheap cars are known for having less diligent craftsmanship in the finer points. Certainly, our worship of God is worthy of some thoughts on the finer points.

But those finer points must be drawn from broader principles. The one that the liturgical among us have been pushing for the last few generations is “reverence”. We should not come into the presence of God irreverently. Our confessions say “frivolity”. It’s the same basic idea.

And yet, the church continues to struggle against those who would bring secular and worldly things (eg. rock music, which is secular and worldly, no matter what words you put to it) into the sacred space and time of the Divine Service. In this, we both agree that the church is “asking for it” from God for such irreverence. And I think that is worthy of a few thoughts as well. So here they are:

In Genesis, proper worship is such an important issue that someone was killed over it. I question whether we moderns are willing to give up even our country club membership for such things. When I was in seminary – already a generation ago – the soccer fields there were rented out on Sunday mornings to local clubs. The seminary’s argument was that they needed the money. So, they needed the money from the godless as they were violating the third commandment in order that they could teach us to fear and love God and to gladly hear and learn his word. I’ll be honest, I think God would place such funds in the “Cain and his sacrifice” category. I pray the seminary has seen the light on this one.

In Leviticus, Nadab and Abihu bring unauthorized fire(?) before the Lord, and are consumed by fire for their offense. We don’t know what unauthorized fire means, but we know that God takes seriously the idea of coming into his presence, and we should perhaps come with some fear as we enter into the holy places.

Lest we argue that the Old Testament laws have been abolished, the New Testament record is also instructive.

Jesus poured his own blood into the ground in order to gain us access to our heavenly Father. Perhaps we should consider what that means when we come into his presence. He is not our buddy. He is the Divine Judge of all the earth. He loves us, but our proper worship is to hear and believe that Word, not engage in frivolity.

In Acts, Ananias and Saphira are killed by God. Their offense? Lying on the Stewardship form about the percent they gave. (Oddly, I’ve never seen this passage on the list of “Stewardship Sunday Sermon Ideas” – wonder why?)

Paul tells the Corinthians that their worship is so disorderly and frivolous that they no longer have the Sacrament. Jesus body is not present for them because the worship is disordered. In Addition, their behavior is why many are sick and some have died!!! God sent some sort of sickness among the Corinthians – and it was so severe that some died – because their worship was so frivolous that it was no longer acceptable to the Divine Majesty.

We live in an era that is without the fear of God. People celebrate one of the seven deadly sins with parades. People attempt to enter into the presence of God with electric guitars and snare drums placed front and center so the performers can be seen and applauded. We are asking for the judgment of God to come on us. And, looking at the statistics, it has. Pastors no longer speak against bi-vocational ministry (which Paul says will bring judgment on the church), because it is the reality now for many. District Presidents struggle to find positions for pastors that can actually support the pastor and his family. In the next couple of decades, three, four, and even five point parishes are likely to become the norm. And our members (and even pastors!) begin to wonder if maybe we should try something that is less faithful, but gets people excited. Maybe it really is just about the number of people we can drag across the finish line, not about how faithfully we followed the course to get there. Looking online, few congregations with a web presence do not have a so-called contemporary service. The worship wars are over, and faithful worship of God has lost. It seems, like Elijah, that “I, even I only, am left.”

And yet, God preserves his remnant. Those who abandon the truth of God’s Word, those who go against the scriptural and confessional prescription and description of worship will not long endure, will not long prosper. There will come a day when all is revealed, and those who were faithful will no longer be mocked, but praised by God himself. Think I’m being too persnickety?

Look at the descriptions in Leviticus. There is only one place I know of that has such ordered and liturgical worship. And for those claiming “but that’s the Old Testament!”, here is the bad news: That one place is the book of Revelation. The New Testament worship in the kingdom of God will be more orderly than anything we have seen on this earth. If we wish to mock that true worship of God, to ignore the biblical mandate and prescription, we do so at our own peril.

By way of encouragement to more faithful practice, let me merely note the following:

Jesus is not our fishing buddy, that we come before him in cut offs, with a beer in one hand and worms in another. Consider when Jesus did go fishing. Peter ended up confessing sins and seeking to send Jesus away. He knew that he should have been more inclined to listen to God, and shown more respect for the Divine Majesty.

Paul tells us that every knee shall bow. That’s not drinking-buddy behavior. That is “The king is coming, and he is greater than I” behavior. That’s what we must model in the church, if we are to give an accurate picture of who God is in Jesus Christ, and what he has done for us.

If you wanted to sum it up with one word, you might use the word “Reverence”. Two words, perhaps something like “Divine Service” or “Divine Liturgy”, which don’t really lend themselves to rock ballads or Arminian histrionics and frivolity.

Unfaithfulness will not be rewarded by God. So, when we come together, we must be careful not to be unfaithful. That doesn’t mean that faithfulness will reap many worldly blessings. That’s not what we’re after anyway. But faithfulness does bring us closer to the things of God, and more importantly, it brings the holy things of God to His Holy People. That’s worth doing. And it’s worth doing well.  It means the details matter.

We attend to the Word. We speak it reverently and truthfully to the people. And we let God worry about the results.

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Liturgical Chaos

I haven’t been blogging very much the last year. A few sermons is mostly all I’ve been able to manage with the new tri-point parish – and not even as many of those as I would like. We’re finally moving from vacancy to permanent status for the tri-point, thanks be to God! I am prayerfully considering the call while I wait for the official documents to arrive, and (DV) will soon be installed.

And, as with anything in this world, there have been a few hiccups and challenges along the way. Today, I’ll mention only one – most people would think it’s so minor (given the gravity of the occasion) as to not even merit noticing. But how we behave at solemn moments says a lot about who we are and what we confess. A visit to the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier this summer makes clear to even the hardest of hearts why we jealously guard our ceremonies – especially at solemn moments.

In today’s case, the COP has attempted to institute a new liturgical custom – already that’s bad – with no discussion, no input from the church, and no authority to do so. It’s not the only time in the process that I have gotten the impression that the COP views its authority as papal, but it is the most obvious, and among the most stupid (although that’s a pretty tough competition).

On the bottom of the Call document, it says : 

It did not used to have the note at the bottom. Having been in my current parish for 15 years, I don’t know when it was added. It must have been after 2007, because it was not in the new Agenda. It is not in any of the synod’s three approved Agendas. It has never been in an agenda. The synod has not approved such a change to any of her Agendas. Which means: There is no liturgical warrant for such a thing. No liturgical history that would allow it. No synodical dispensation for it.

It is, by every reasonable definition, disorderly. We do not have a God of disorder, so where does that put this? The only authority for including such a stupid and distracting ceremony in the rite is the raw power of the COP to do as they please. It is papalism, and not even wise or well considered papalism.

To be clear: I don’t expect my own District President to demand or even encourage such a thing. And he has been helpful and easy to work with through the entire process – a true Christian servant. It was when we arrived at the “call documents” portion that things became strange. And these few strokes of a pen are, if not the strangest of all, then the strangest to be set before the people. And that makes this worthy of comment.

 

 

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Living in This Dark Realm

I think the whole Epstein thing, taken in conjunction with the Weinstein thing, the Hastert thing from a few years back, the continuing Vatican scandals, and the total silence from pretty much everyone on both sides of the aisle regarding the rampant and pervasive perversity at all levels, shows why electing the “right” person or the “right” party will not solve the problems our nation and world face. The problem is much deeper. The Prince of This World runs things – regardless of which party is in power. The church fighting for political supremacy is like trying to fight an out of control wildfire – the best you can hope for is not getting surrounded and consumed yourself.

The church spends her time best when she spends it in prayer, centered around the Holy Word of God, preaching, teaching, absolving, showing love to her neighbor, and rejoicing when she is counted worthy of suffering for The Name. The powers of this dark realm will not be converted – they will only be overcome on the last day. The theology of glory tries to win political victories. The theology of the cross seeks to take up the cross daily and follow Jesus in your own calling, living according to the Ten Commandments in faith toward God and love toward your neighbor.

This does not mean we despair – we know who has already won the victory. Nor does it mean we pull the switch on the “Benedict Option” – withdrawing from society and creating our own parallel structure or utopian vision. The Evangelicals tried it in the 80’s with “Christian phone books” and it didn’t work then either. We are to be in the world, without being of the world. This is a high and difficult calling. It is why the church must be in prayer together even as we live and work in the world. It is why the church becomes even more – important as its influence wanes, and as she (almost certainly) enters a period of open persecution. Those who think they and their families can stand against the forces of this world on their own, without the benefit of regular and active church attendance have been deceived. That is why pastors grieve so deeply the loss of even one member: they know what the outcome will be – not only eternally, but even in this world. It ends in pain and regret for those who cast aside the gift of the Gospel, which is only a foreshadow of what is to come.

All of this to say, I think the church needs to get out of the politics business. Entirely. Preach and teach. Let members act as faithful citizens (and officials – including electors), pray for kings and others in authority, and leave it at that. And if you are a member of the church – hold tight to Her. Recognize that hearing the Word is a precious gift, and treat it with the respect and honor it deserves. Those two things are the key to the future. It won’t be easy by any stretch – the church will be picking up the pieces of our broken society for centuries (unless our Lord returns first – may it ever be!) But it is the only way to make it through, and we already know the Rest of the Story – The Serpent is a wounded animal. His time is ending. For now he thrashes about causing destruction. We need to be careful not to get caught up in the death throes.

But the victory has already been won by our Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Christian in Society

Whenever there is a fifth Wednesday in a month, I have an article for the local newspaper. Here is this month’s offering:

For the most part, the church likes to keep a low profile. Jesus said not to parade our good works before men. A sandwich given to a hungry beggar, a little help with a rent check or medical bill, and you can fly under the radar. But the church has been around for a long time now. Those individual acts of charity get gathered together, and become organizations to help those in need.

When the church first spread across the world, the idea of helping others just because they needed it was a new one. Even when the church was persecuted, her enemies had to admit that the church cared for widows and orphans in a way society did not. When the leaders (governors, emperors) would persecute the church, the church responded by praying for the leaders. This was strange behavior indeed!

Over the centuries, the church has founded hospitals to care for the sick and dying, orphanages to care for those who have no parents, food banks to feed the hungry, schools to provide education for all children etc. The idea that every person has a unique value, that every life has an inherent dignity, and that everyone has a responsibility to help his neighbor is a uniquely Christian idea. And while there is a debate today between those who believe it would be better done by private organizations, and those who believe it falls to the government, no one argues that we should abandon the poor and the helpless. Today we debate whether there should be this or that system to educate – some are quite radical reforms – but no one argues that we should stop educating.

What would it look like if the church went away? Would it be a time of glorious scientific progress as many claim? It turns out, science itself is a product of the church. The idea that we live in an ordered universe, that we can figure out how it functions, and then apply that knowledge to make the lives of our fellow man better – it all requires an ordered (not random) universe. There is a reason that the ancient world did not pursue scientific inquiry. The gods were unpredictable. You never knew what they might do. It is in the church that scientific discovery becomes possible. God is a god of order, he cares for us, he created an ordered world to be our home, and gave us the ability to learn more about creation. Newton, Galileo, Pascal, and almost all early scientists were Christian.

The new model says that we will move into a glorious new future once our society puts away childish things like church. But a look at some of our most secular and “environmentally friendly” states shows this to be a lie. California suffers massive droughts and raging fires because the needs of wildlife are placed above human needs. Ironically, the habitat for many animals has been destroyed by these fires.

It turns out that modern secular environmentalism is only a re-branded form of ancient paganism. The world is alive (mother earth). Humans are a parasite – they are the problem. Our local schools have a chart in the biology textbook that calls modern agriculture a “man caused disaster”. Such thoughts do not lead to a glorious new future – they lead to totalitarian nightmares.

The church continues her work, whether she is a guiding light in society, or a hated sect that is out of touch with the spirit of the age. We preach the Gospel of forgiveness through Jesus sacrifice on the cross, and then live out that forgiveness as we help those among us who are most vulnerable. And we pray for our neighbors, and for our leaders. We don’t need to be front and center. We don’t need to be the power-brokers of this era. We are content living quietly in our communities, receiving Christ’s forgiveness in faith, and then quietly showing Christ’s love to those around us.

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