Saturday, December 31, 2005

Standing on the Promises

Standing on the promises of Christ my King,
Through eternal ages let His praises ring,
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing, standing,
Standing on the promises of God my Savior;
Standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.

From R. Kelso Carter's "Standing on the Promises of God" (tune and full text here)

With this post I am beginning some selections from what I feel is Luther's perhaps most central, and certainly his most underrated work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (General introduction, with guide to the posts completed so far here). It was written in Latin in 1520, and is available in English translation most conveniently in the volume Three Treatises, along with his 1520 An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and his 1521 A Treatise on Christian Liberty. (Note, the version I am citing from is Muhlenberg Press's 1943 version; this appears to be out of print at present, but Augsburg Fortress has put a new edition of the three treatises into press here).

Before going on to his specific treatment of the sacraments, I wish to first set out how Luther views God's dealings with man, accentuating above all that all our saving dealings with Him come in the form of Him making a promise and us believing:

For God does not deal, nor has He ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise, as I have said; again, we cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the word of His promise. [Obviously, "deal" here means savingly, for God certainly gives us laws, but such laws do not and cannot establish a saving and loving connection with us.] He does not desire works, nor has He need of them; we deal with men and with ourselves on the basis of works. But He has need of this -- that we deem Him true to His promises, wait patiently for Him, and thus worship Him with faith, hope, and love. Thus He obtains His glory among us, since it is not of ourselves who run, but of Him who showeth mercy, promiseth, and giveth, that we have and hold every blessing. [Note the allusion to Romans 9:16 -- "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" -- and Luther's characteristic use of it, not as a proof text for predestination, but as speaking of faith over works.] That is the true worship and service of God which we must perform in the mass. But if the words of promise are not proclaimed, what exercise of faith can there be? And without faith, who can have hope or love? Without faith, hope, and love, what service can there be? . . .

For anyone can easily see that these two -- the promise and faith -- must go together. For without the promise there is nothing to believe, while without faith the promise remains without effect; for it is established and fulfilled through faith (pp. 150-151).

Earlier he had said,

For where there is the word of God who makes the promise, there must be the faith of man who takes it. It is plain, therefore, that the first step in our salvation is faith, which clings to the word of the promise made by God who without any effort on our part, in free and unmerited mercy, makes a beginning and offers us the word of His promise. For He sent His Word, and by it healed them [i.e. those who met Jesus in Israel]. He did not accept our work and thus heal us. God's work is the beginning of all; on it follows faith, and on faith charity; then charity works every good work for it worketh no ill, nay it is the fulfilling of the law. In no other way can man come to God and deal with Him than through faith; that is, not man, by any work of his, but God, by His promise, is the author of salvation, so that all things depend on the word of His power, and are upheld and preserved by it. with which word He begat us, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures (p. 147).

Note promise and faith is opposed to the other main model proposed of God's dealings with man, that of command and obedience, as well as to the idea of ritual transformation; that is, by simply participating in a ritual, we are transformed in our nature. Whatever the sacraments are, they must be, if they genuinely link God to man, neither a command to be obeyed in hope of reward, or a ritual to be undergone in hope of infused transformation, but rather a promise to be believed.

I have noted before Hermann Sasse's opinion that treating baptism and communion as two sacraments and then attempting to deduce their nature from this general category is a bad business, and the font of many errors. In the format of the Babylonian Captivity, which handles all seven of the sacraments recognized in the Roman Catholic church, one might think that Luther has surrendered to this mistaken methodology -- or perhaps that Sasse is being "more Lutheran than Luther."

But note that with this fundamental principle, sacrament as a category has already disappeared, because all of God's dealings with men are thus the same as a sacrament: being a promise received by faith. Luther starts off not asking "what is a sacrament?" and then trying to find how sacraments differ from preaching or the Bible; but rather starts off by considering first that baptism, the Lord's Supper, preaching, and the Bible, and so on are God's dealings with men. In that case, he asks what is the nature of God's dealings with men, confident that the sacraments, being such, will be found only as a special version of this general nature of God's dealings with man.

It is not often noted that promise vs. law is the fundamental dynamic in Paul's theology (of which faith vs. law is only an outworking). This we see in Romans 4:13-21 (I have bolded promise, faith, and law):

For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect, because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all (as it is written, 'I have made thee a father of many nations') before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, 'So shall thy seed be.' And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.

and in Galatians 3:14-22 (again with the three terms bold; note also that the dynamic here of covenant being by promise is closely parallel to how Luther will argue that the Lord's Supper, being Christ's last will and testament, is a promise that cannot be annulled by any law):

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us -- for it is written, 'Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree' -- that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, 'And to seeds,' as of many; but as of one, 'And to thy seed,' which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

But one could argue that promise vs. law is a dynamic solely within Old Testament Israel, in which salvation in Christ was still to come. Perhaps in the new covenant, the promise being fulfilled, God now deals with us by something other than promise. And indeed in some cases, Paul speaks of the promises being already fulfilled in Christ (e.g. in Romans 9:4 when he speaks of "Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises" or 15:8 where he says "Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers").

But promise is also the fundamental characteristic of the born-again in this covenant as well, as we see in many passages. This is so, both because the Gospel is still being proclaimed, as well as because the promised salvation is still not fully granted even to us who believe in Christ crucified. This can be seen in for example: Galatians 4:28: "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise" [note the tense are]; Acts 2:39 "For the promise [of remission of sins through baptism] is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call"; 2 Corinthians 7:1 "Having therefore these promises [of divine adoption], dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God"; and especially Hebrews where those of both the New and Old covenants live by the promise: compare Hebrews 4:1: "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it" and Hebrews 8:16 "But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises" (note again the link of promise with covenant) and elsewhere to the abundant passages in Hebrews 6, 7, and 11 that speak of the promises of the old covenant. Even the apostle John, who generally does not use the promise language, of course has the concept, as we see in 1 John 2:25 "And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life."

When Luther comes to the meaning of the Mass, it is this issue of "promise" (made in view of a gratuitous covenant or testament God makes with us) vs. "law" which is his fundamental issue. Compared to it transubstantiation, laity receiving the cup, or other issues are all secondary.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

I'm going to be gone until after New Year's. After that, I'll probably blog on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. I've been telling everyone to read it, and they don't, so I guess I need to just give it to them in bite-size pieces.

Is justification by faith alone compatible with the efficacy of the sacraments? This is what that work is all about, and I can't imagine a more central topic for evangelical theology. It is their belief that baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence is contrary to justification by faith alone that is the reason why serious and well-informed Reformed and revivalist Christians reject the Augsburg Evangelical teachings on these topics.

What is the center of Luther's theology? I would contend it is the "promise." What is the center of Scripture? I would contend it is the "promise." What is the center of true sacramental theology in Evangelicalism? I would contend it is the "promise" -- in all cases God promising forgiveness to sinners. That is what The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is all about. For this reason I disagree with those who believe that it "is an historically significant work by Luther; but I don’t really think it’s all that helpful theologically for us today." Similarly I disagree with those who wish to revive ex opere operato as a usable theological concept. And finally I disagree that the mature Luther changed his sacramental theology from that in the Babylonian Captivity at all. Yes, the application changed, but not the basic idea: that baptism, the Lord's Supper, Gospel preaching, and indeed all of God's dealings with sinners are, and always have been, through a promise, an unconditional promise of forgiveness of sins. Believe it and you have it.

Merry Christmas!

Posts in the series so far:
Series on Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
Standing on the Promises,
More Luther on Communion,
How to Approach Holy Communion,
The Promise, Ex Opere Operato, and "Performative Word" in Luther's Thought
Sacrifice and Prayers of the Mass
A Better Way to Define the Sacraments

Luther and Allegorical Interpretation

Back in the Middle Ages, everyone used allegory for interpretation. They used it to avoid the plain meaning of Scripture. Luther realized that allegory was used for that purpose and called on all to avoid allegory. Since then, all good Christians have used the historico-grammatical method of Bible interpretation. Allegory is just bad.

This fairy-tale version of Lutheran Bible interterpretation is wide-spread, like many other fairy-tales of the Reformation. And like many fairy-tales, it does have some grains of truth. Luther's attitude to allegory is best described as ambivalent. The key fact, however, is that his Scriptural interpretation was governed by the rule of faith, not by a reified historico-grammatical method.

After finishing his discussion of the Flood in his Lectures on Genesis, Luther pulls back and discusses allegory:

I have often asserted that I take no delight in allegories. Nevertheless, I was so enchanted by them in my youth that under the influence of the examples of Origen and Jerome, whom I admired as the greater theologians, I thought that everything had to be turned into allegories. Augustine, too, makes frequent use of allegories.

But while I was following their examples, I finally realized that to my own great harm I had followed an empty shadow and had left unconsidered the heart and core of the Scriptures. Later on, therefore, I began to have a dislike for allegories. They do indeed give pleasure, particularly when they have some delightful allusions. Therefore I usually compare them to pretty pictures. But to the same extent that the natural color of bodies surpasses the picture . . . the historical narrative surpasses the allegory (p. 150)

After noting that the Anabaptists also used allegories and preferred the obscure books (the Revelation and the book 4 Esdras found in the Apocrypha), he writes: he who either fabricates allegories without discrimination or follows such as are fabricated by others is not only deceived but also most seriously harmed, as these examples show. Hence allegories either must be avoided entirely or must be attempted with the utmost discrimination and brought into harmony with the rule in use by the apostles . . . (pp. 150-51).

He then adds:

Yet these remarks must not be understood to mean that we condemn all allegories indiscriminately , for we observe that both Christ and the apostles occasionally employ them. But they are such as are conformable to the faith, in accordance with the rule of Paul, who enjoins in Rom. 12:6 that prophecy or doctrine should be conformable to the faith.

When we condemn allegories, we are speaking of those that are fabricated by one's own intellect and ingenuity, without the authority of Scripture. The others, which are made to agree with the analogy of the faith, not only embellish doctrine but also gives comfort to consciences (p. 151).

Luther then notes that what is objectionable about the allegories in Augustine, Origen, and Jerome, is that the meaning of the allegories is not about the faith, but about "philosophical ideas," and are hence useless for faith or morals. For example Augustine compares the creation of man and woman to reason and emotion, with the idea that reason should control emotion. Luther asks "what is the value of this fabrication?" because the idea that sin adheres only in the "lower functions" and not in man's reason was an idea he combatted all his life. The allegory was bad not because it was an allegory, but because it had the wrong point.

Citing the 1198 bull of Pope Innocent III, which in language from Gen. 1:16 compared the sun to the Pope and the moon to all temporal authorities, he exclaims "Oh such audacious insolence and such villainous desire for power!" (p. 151). But after citing the New Testament's allegorical use of the old, he writes:

Thus if someone should state that Christ is the sun and the church the moon, illuminated by the grace of Christ, he might be in error; nevertheless, his error is such that it rests, not on an incorrect basis but on a solid one. But where the pople declares that the sun is the papal office and the moon is the emperor, then not only is the application silly and foolish, but even the basis is evil and wicked. Such allegories are thought out and devised, not by the Holy Spirit but by the devil, the spirit of lies (p. 156).

Note that Luther was similarly contemptuous of bad theology drawn from careful attention to grammatical points. Earlier he noted that the Latin translation of For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21) has "inclined to evil" (in malum prona) not simply evil. The scholastics then built on this a large discussion of how certain faculties remain impaired by the fall. Luther comments: If the sophists [i.e. scholastics] were as friendly toward the sacred teaching handed down through the apostolic and prophetic writings as they are to their own teachers, who maintain the free will and the merit of works, they surely would not have permitted something so slight as one little word to lead them from the truth (p. 122).

And in discussing Hebrew meanings he frequently notes that the letter of the text must be interpreted according to the analogy of faith, not the other way around. After discussing Rabbinical interpretations of "continually judge" in Genesis 6:3, which based on the verb forms treat it as "sheath" (thus "My Spirit will not be confined as in a sheath"), he writes: But the Jews make fools of these modern [Christian] Hebraists by convincing them that Holy Scripture cannot be understood except by means of grammatical rules and their minute system of pointing. Therefore no meaning is so preposterous that they would not defend and garnish it with their fusty rules of grammar.

But tell me, what language has there ever been that men have successfully learned to speak as a result of grammatical rules? Are not rather [even] those language that adhere most closely to rules, such Greek and Latin, nevertheless learned by using them [in speech]? Therefore how great a folly it is in the instance of the sacred language, where theological and spiritual matters are treated, to disregard the particular character of the subject matter and to arrive at the sense on the basis of grammatical rules! (pp. 14-15)

. . . Prime consideration ought to be give to usage, for from it the grammarian derives his knowledge.

I dwell on these matters at such great length in order to warn you not to follow such silly intepreters when you come across them and not to admire their ideas as some sort of extraordinary wisdom. Luther then compares the distortions of the words of institution advanced by Zwinglian grammarians (and today we could undoubtedly advance the distortions of Scripture advanced to defend women's ordination), asking: No one in his right mind would put up with this inclination to distort the meaning in the case of the stories of Terence or the eclogues of Vergil. Are we going to tolerate it in the church? (p. 15)

To understand the meaning of Scripture the Spirit of Christ is needed. But we know that until the end of the world this is the same Spirit who was before all things. Through God's mercy we boast of having this Spirit; and through Him we have faith, a modest understanding of the Scriptures, and a knowledge of other things that are necessary for godliness. And so we do not invent any new understanding, but we adhere to the analogy both of the Holy Scriptures and of the faith (pp. 15-16).

Back to allegory:

Luther accepts the allegory, first advanced by Philo, that compares the proportions of the ark (300x50x30) in Gen. 6:15 to the human body lying on the ground:

These facts are later applied to the body of Christ, that is, to the church, which has an entrance, namely Baptism, through which the clean and the unclean enter without distinction. Even though the church is small, it is nevertheless the ruler of the world; and the world is preseved on its account, in the same way as the unclean animals were preserved in the ark. Others have applied [the dimensions] also to the body of Christ, which had a wound in its side, just as the ark had a window. These allegories, if not actually scholarly, are nevertheless harmless, inasmuch as they contain no error; and one may use them -- except in debates -- for the sake of embellishment (p. 68).

Elsewhere he writes of this allegory:

This thought is not unscholarly. Nor is it unattractive. I am most pleased that it is conformable to the faith . . . If one devises allegories in this manner, therefore, they are nevertheless not ungodly or offensive, even though they may be somewhat inappropriate (p. 156).

What about the raven and the dove which Noah releases? Luther first notes that scholars have allegorized the raven as a carrion eating bird who thus symbolizes fleshly, Epicurean characters who indulge in carnal sins. He then comments: The thought is indeed good, but it is not fully satisfactory; for the allegory is merely moral and philosophical, the sort that Erasmus has been accustomed to fabricate, somewhat after the pattern of Origen.

We for our part should look for a theological allegory (p. 158).

He then proposes at great length (pp. 157-164) this allegory: the raven is the ministry of the Law. Ravens are black, with an unpleasant voice, and so is the preaching of the Law grim and sad. Nor does it return with anything in its mouth; the Law by itself cannot make Christians. Yet still God sends out the Law to the world, just as Noah sent out the raven. And just as "papists, priests, and monks" feed on purgatory and memorial masses for the dead, so too, Luther argues, do raven feed on corpses.

By contrast the dove is the ministry of the Gospel, which is a clean and harmless bird. The first dove is the prophets of Israel who spoke of the Christ to come. The seven days are the time of the Law, before Christ. The dove being sent out the second time is the New Testament apostles bearing the word of God, symbolized by the olive branch. This dove's returning in the evening shows the Gospel being proclaimed in the last days, with no new doctrine to be expected. The dove being sent the third time, and not returning likewise means that once the Gospel is proclaimed, "there is nothing left to do, and no new doctrine is expected."

Luther closes his section on allegory with this admonition:

I urge you with all possible earnestness to be careful to pay attention to the historical accounts. But wherever you want to make use of allegories, do this: follow closely the analogy of the faith, that is, adapt them to Christ, the church, faith, and the ministry of the Word. In this way it will come to pass that even though the allegories be not altogether fitting, they nevertheless do not depart from the faith. Let this foundation stand firm, but let the stubble perish (1 Cor. 3:12-15).

Not altogether a ringing endorsement, but not a blanket condemnation either.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Luther and the "God of the Gaps"

One of the great issues in Bible interpretation is how to deal with passages where the Bible, at least at first glance, seems to teach or imply things about the natural world that run contrary to our current understanding of it. Some believe that in these cases the Bible must govern our understanding of the natural world; adherents of this position will differ, however, in the degree to which they might allow "phenomenological language" in Biblical interpretation. That is, many, if not most, contend that language such as the "sun rises" or "four corners of the earth" need not be taken to imply a teaching of geocentricity or a flat, square earth, but simply the use of conventional language. Other believe, however, since the message of the Bible is salvation, that the Bible should not be taken as actually teaching doctrine on matters not connected with salvation; holders of this position differ too in how broadly they spread the net of "connected with salvation. Some for example might see the specific names of the genealogy of Christ back to Adam as connected with salvation (since they attest to His being the fulfillment of prophecy) while others might not make that connection.

A related set of issues is the question of what proponents call the "functional integrity of the universe", by which they mean the idea that all things regularly observed in the universe should be produced by secondary (i.e. natural) causes, as part of God's design of the universe. Miracles, when they occur, do not leave lasting "fingerprints" in the natural history of the universe. To argue anything else would impugn the perfection of God's craftsmanship, as if he had not the skill to create a world that could run without constant tinkering. Others, however, are willing to see direct divine intervention as playing a significant role in the specific operations of the natural world, thus implying that some currently observable natural phenomena might forever resist any natural explanation. This belief is the basis of the "intelligent design" issue now making headlines, but the opponents mock it as the "God of the gaps" theory, in which the "gaps" or scientifically unexplained aspects of the universe are explained by God's immediate intervention.

As a rule, the idea that the Bible should govern our understanding of natural science goes together with the idea that the limits of natural philosophy/science in explaining phenomena show specific divine interventions in the natural world (as opposed to His forethought and sustenance of creation as a whole) . Both mean that the Bible will always be necessary for a complete understanding of the operations of the natural world. By contrast, the other point of view asserts that while the Bible may have implications for the interpretation of the natural world, whether in whole or part, it is neither necessary, nor helpful for the specific explanation of contingent natural phenomena.

It is common to put these two views in chronological sequence. The usual way is to say the first idea (Bible is necessary for science) is old, and the second (the Bible is separate from science) came in with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. A more esoteric way to do this is to say the second was the patristic, or scholastic, or spiritual interpretation, while the first is a eighteenth/nineteenth century innovation reflecting the prestige of science and the influence of Scottish common sense philosophy.

I don't think either such chronological placement works. In fact, throughout the history of Biblical interpretation the two ways of relating Scripture to natural science have both had strong advocates. Augustine in his Confessions famously supported the second idea, dissociating Scripture from specific explanations of natural events. Yet it is not often enough remembered that he specifically did so in response to Christians who taught that the Bible teaches about natural science in ways that prove the Greco-Roman science of the time wrong. I've touched on this theme earlier here and in line with my promise, I'd like to cite passages from Luther's Lectures on Genesis that place him firmly in the first ("fundamentalist," "Baptistic" etc.) camp.

In discussing the rainbow in Genesis 9:12-16, Luther wrote:

There is a further discussion at this point whether there are natural causes in the rainbow that convey this meaning [i.e. that a universal flooe will not occur in the future]. And the discussion of the philosophers [a word which in this context has a meaning identical to "scientist" today] is familiar, especially that of Aristotle in his Meteorologica, about the color of the rainbow, about the nature of the cloud in which it originates, and about its curvature. Rather appropriately, they include a comparison with mirrors, in which an image is reflected in the same way the rays of the sun are reflected, and produce a rainbow when they fall upon a moist and concave cloud. In such matters reason sees what is most likely to be the case, even though it is incapable of determining the truth in every instance; for this is the prerogative, not of the creature but of the Creator. Yet I for my part have never given less credence to any book that to the Meteorologica, because it is based on the principle that all things have their origin in natural causes (p. 146)

. . .

I do not despise human thoughts and surmises about such thing; but because the proofs are not substantial, I do not place too much confidence in them. Furthermore, the surmises of Aristotle about a moist and concave cloud are not reliable, because such clouds can exist even when no rainbow develops. Indeed, from either a denser or a more tenuous medium there can develop a rainbow that either is larger or forms a greater arc. Here in Wittenberg I personally observed a rainbow round like a circle and closed on all sides, not cut off on the surface of the earth. the way it ordinarily appears. Why, then, do rainbows develop sometimes in one way, sometimes in another? [Luther's objections here are, of course, valid as criticisms of Aristotle's totally erroneous theory. Roger Bacon had guessed at the formation of the rainbow by diffraction of sunlight in water droplets in the 13th century, but it was not until Newton's prism experiments of 1665 that the origin -- not, be it noted, the theological meaning -- of the rainbow was solved.] A philosopher, I am sure, will figure out something, for he will regard it as a disgrace not to be able to give reasons for everything. But he certainly will never persuade me to believe that he is speaking the truth.

There is one reliable and sure explanation, namely, that all these phenomena [Latin impressiones], as they are called, are works of God or of the demons. . . The heathen thought that the flames that appeared on their ships were Castor and Pollux, and sometimes a moon appears above the ears of horses It is certain that all theses phenomena are antics of the demons in the air, although Aristotle is of the opinion that they are air that has been set on fire, just as he also argues that a comet is vapor that has been set on fire. [Again Aristotle and Luther were both wrong; the glow on ship masts or other high objects is the phenomenon known as St. Elmo's fire, which was correctly identified by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 as connected with electricity].

To me it seems to be far safer and surer for us to explain these matters on the basis of a general law, namely that when god wills it, a comet glows as a sign of terror, just as when He wills it, the rainbow in the heaven flashes back His sign of grace. For who would be able to comprehend all the reasons why the rainbow appears in so beautiful a combination of colors and so perfectly semicircular in shape? The arrangement of the clouds surely does not produce this so accurately. Hence this bow stands there by divine pleasure, because of the will and promise of God, to give assurance to both man and beast that no flood will ever take place at any future time (pp. 147-48).

. . .

Here another discussion arises: whether the [rain]bow was in existence even before the Flood. And much effort is expended on the matter. Since it is written above that God created the heaven and the earth in six days and then rested from all His work, they reach conclusion that the rainbow was in existence from the beginning; otherwise it would follow that God created something new outside these six days. But what happened at the time of Noah [they argue,] was that God took the rainbow, which He had created in the beginning, and by means of a new Word appointed it as a special sign; it had indeed existed previously, but it had meant nothing. In support of this opinion they make use also of Solomon's statement (Eccl. 1:9) that there is nothing new under the sun. Consequently, they maintain that after the six days no creature was created anew. [Note that these theologians, not identified by the editors, are arguing on a Biblical basis for the functional intergrity of the post-Friday creation -- God by that day had everything he would need to fulfill his purposes and communicate with man.]

I am of the opposite opinion, namely, that the rainbow was never in existence before and was created now. Similarly, the garments of skins with which God clothed the first human beings certainly wre not created in those six days, but after the fall of the first human beings; therefore they were a new creature. The statement that God rested is not to be understood to mean that He created nothing thereafter. For Christ says (John 5:17): "My Father is working still, and I work."

As for Solomon's statement that there is nothing new under the sun, it has troubled theologicans in various ways [the editors here cited Augustine on Genesis]. Nevertheless, who does not see that it is speaking not of the works of God but of original sin, namely that the same reason that was in Adam after the fall and the same debates about morals, vices, virtues, the nourishment of the body, and the management of human affairs still go on among human beings (pp. 148-49). [Note how Luther characteristically identifies reason and prudence in civil affairs as the very substance of original sin.]

Finally Luther concludes this discussion with a (traditional) allegory:

There is also a discussion about the colors, which some consider to be four: fiery, yellow, green, and watery or blue. But I myself think there are only two, a fiery one and a watery one. . . . When the fiery and the watery color come together or are mixed, the result is a yellow color.

The nature of the colors was so decreed by God with the definite purpose not only that the watery color might be a reminder of the bygone wrath, but also that the fiery one might depict the future judgment for us. The inner surface, which has the color of water, is finite; but the outside, which has the color of fire, is infinite. Thus the first world perished by the Flood, but the wrath had limits. For some remnants were saved; and afterwards another world came into being, yet one that was still finite. But when God destroys the world with fire, this physical life will not be restored; but the wicked will bear the eternal judgment of death in fire, while the godly will be raised into a new and everlasting life -- not a physical one, even though it is in bodies, but a spiritual one (p. 149).

Those Lutherans wishing to preserve the Bible's value and authority in explaining scientific matters can draw comfort from the fact that Luther himself was unquestionably of their party in this age-old dispute. Yet the fact that on each particular case examined here, things he confidently proclaimed could never be explained by science in fact have been, should give them pause before too easily saying, "How can science explain . . .?" But in the meantime, both sides can agree to follow Luther's example in finding the meaning, allegory if you will, of the natural world in the word of God.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Environmentalism is a Way to Slow Down Change

George Will has a new column on the debate over drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. In it, he makes the important point that environmentalism, as an -ism, is not really about the environment, its about us, people. (For the record, I'd rather we didn't drill in ANWR; but not for the usual reasons.)

Will defines the point of environmentalism as collectivism -- the equality side of the old liberty vs. equality trade off. Will isn't the first to say/imply that "environmentalism is socialism" (and not all those who say that mean it negatively). Close, I'd say, but not on the money. Now, I've seen it happen in family and friends: vaguely enthusiastic about left wing, anti-American movements in the Reagan years, disillusioned by the failure of the revolution to materialize (El Salvador and Guatemala), or be really revolutionary (South Africa) and never really part of the hard left anyway, and then taking up environmentalism in the Clinton years as a way of "keeping hope alive" in a way that isn't too bitterly alienated from society. So, yes, environmentalism does win a large part of its support from depressed socialists. (Here's another interesting example.)

But I don't think equality is really the issue. Instead I think it is the pace of change. The real appeal of environmentalism is that it slows change. Like almost any system of regulation, it prevents land being used for one purpose from being turned to another, which is a major brake on any alterations in our environment. In Bloomington, this is a big issue; the Democrats and the Republicans are divided principally on the idea of growth (meaning the transformation of farmland into subdivisions): one party's anti, and the other's for; one party's linked to the university, the other's in the tank for the realtors. (Can you guess which one's which? I knew you could!)

And why is the pace of change an issue? Why do some people like change and others dislike it? Setting aside the obvious material interests (which in local politics is probably a very stupid thing to do) I think it's a matter of risk-aversion. Risk-averse people don't like change. Gamblers love it. Women are (on average) risk averse, men are (on average) gamblers.

Let's go back to ANWR: why am I opposed to drilling there? (This sounds like a digression, but I'll come back to the topic.) Because its our oil, and any sensible person knows you ought to burn all of their oil, before you start off on your own. To put it another way, ANWR is one big collossal strategic reserve of petroleum -- it would be foolish to burn it all now, we might need it later. So I support the environmental position there, simply because its an irrational taboo that prevents us from spending now what we might need later. In this way it reminds me of the old temple states of the ancient Near East (you know, Athens, Israel, etc.; they were all temple states). Whenever you get a big windfall, you sock a lot of it away in the temple in the form of gold plates, gold shields, gold votives statues, etc., etc. (see 2 Samuel 8:7; 1 Kings 10:17). Why? Well, because in the politics of the day, it was impossible to save money in the treasury. Once you got money, the impulse was to distribute it among the citizens as an annuity. Themistocles had a hard time stopping the Athenians from doing that with profits from the silver mines at Laurium, and getting them to build a fleet instead -- which came in handy during the Persian wars. So if you imagine a community with little self-control the only way you're going to be able to save money for a rainy day is to put a supernatural bar on its spending. And that's what happened: when Judah was really in a jam, she took all the gold in the temple and used it to buy her way out of trouble (1 Kings 14:16, 2 Kings 16:8). Today, with natural resources, environmentalism plays the same role: an spiritual taboo that supplies the defect of our lack of self-control, and forces us to set aside resources for a rainy day.

So if enviromentalism is a religion and environmentalism is socialism, is religion socialism? I think the three have a link in one sense: all three generally inculcate a sense of caution, a sense of "don't touch!", "don't change!", "leave well enough alone!" "learn to live with limits!" And all three are more popular among women, and less popular among the gambler type. Now we all know that all socialism and religion can be found in less "risk-averse" "feminine" forms: violent, revolutionary socialism, for example, or Covenanter-style Presbyterianism or "earthy" Lutheranism. But overall, I think the link holds.

And that is why environmentalism will never go away -- and never win. I am not at all sure that humans are wired to be eager for change -- and I am not at all sure that we should regret that we are not. Perhaps its because I am myself about in the middle of the risk-averse continuum, I see both sides. For example, any one who reads this blog a lot knows I am big on preserving the past: whether it's ruins, traditions, or ancient taboos (like on sexual immorality or blasphemy) -- that's the risk-averse/environmentalist side. But communities that always avoid risk eventually go under in this ruthlessly competitive world, and if you read this blog often you also know that I hate to see my country lose at anything. That's the gambler side. Like yin and yang, like the trembling fear of God and the exultant assurance of salvation, the two will always be in conflict, and always a part of the true Way.

Monday, December 12, 2005

These Guys Need to Get Out More

There's an interesting article by Jonathan Last on Christian blogs in this months issue of First Things. Every month they put one article on the web, and this month, naturally enough, they put the article on blogs up here.

It's OK, except that Catholic blogs get rather over played. After listing the "most important" blogs, Jonathan Last notes:

All these blogs share two distinguishing characteristics: They’re Catholic, and they’re conservative.

Rather than admitting the obvious, harmless fact -- he's a Catholic himself and his "research" for this article consisted of running down his "Favorites" file and typing up notes -- he prefers to offer this "explanation":

As the GodblogCon organizer John Mark Reynolds explains, “Most Godblogs in the United States are going to end up being Roman Catholic because most people who are Christian in the United States, in the Nicene Christian sense, are Roman Catholic. . . . And taken as a whole in our culture, it has been harder for traditional theists to get a microphone than for secularists—at least in print. So blogging has been, by and large, better for the right religiously than for the left.” Or, as Father Sibley puts it, “Orthodox blogs get more readership just as Rush Limbaugh gets more listeners than Air America does.” [Emphasis added.]

Now it depends on how you define "Nicene" here; if you define the One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church in a specifically Roman enough sense I suppose that might be true. But if Nicene is being used as a synonym for "traditional theists" this is a bit of egregious (but not uncommon) Metroliner Corridor parochialism.

For those of you who haven't ventured into that very small, provincial world that exists along the Amtrak line from Washington DC to Boston, let me explain that Catholics are about half the population. The rest is maybe about a third Jewish, a third Protestant, and a third other. People who live in that area rarely get out and see the rest of the country, and are frequently subject to the delusion that these percentages pertain from sea to shining sea. And since the Protestants there are generally of the liberal sort (as are the Catholics too, but let's not mention that), they get the feeling that Newman was right and all non-Catholics are automatically liberals, and all conservatives automatically Catholic.

The reality in the big, wide country out here is a bit different: Protestants outnumber Catholics by about 2.5 to one, and Catholics are at best statistically indistinguishable from mainline Protestants in their belief in major tenets of "traditional theism", such as that God is the all-powerful creator or that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth. (Documentation on those last ones here; scroll down to the tables at the very bottom.)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Hard Teachings from Genesis

More passages from Luther's Lectures on Genesis (pp. 41-43):

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen. 6:5)

But the very words of Moses should be noted carefully. In this passage he has emplyed an unusual expression with a definite design. He does not simply state that the thoughts of the human being are evil, but the very imagination of His thoughts. He applies this term to every capacity of human thought or of human reason and free will, even though it may be of the highest quality. He calls it imagination because man devises it with the utmost efforts, selects, and fashions it as a potter does, and regards it as something very beautiful.

But this, says Moses, is evil, and not just once, but continually and at all times; for without the Holy Spirit reason is entirely devoid of any knowledge of God. Furthermore, to be devoid of any knowledge of God means to be completely ungodly; it means to live in darkness and to regard as best those things that are worst. I am speaking in a theological sense about things that are good, for in this instance a difference must be made between civil affairs and theology. God gives His approval to the government of the ungodly; He honors and rewards excellence even in the ungodly. Yet He does this so far as this present life comes into consideration, not the future life. And reason does have an understanding of what things are good as far as the state is concerned.

But when we discuss free will, we ask what its powers arre from the theological point of view, not in civil affairs or in matters within the realm of reason. We maintain, however, that man without the Holy Spirit is completely ungodly before God, even if he were adorned with all the virtues of the heather. In the historical accounts of the heathen there are certainly outstanding instances of self-control; of generosity; of love toward fatherland, parents, and children; of bravery; and of philanthropy. Yet we maintain that the loftiest thoughts about God, about the worship of God, and about the will of God are a darkness more than Cimmerian. The light of reason, which has been granted to man alone, has insight only into what benefits the body. This is the perverted love of carnal desire.

Therefore this statement is not to be understood in a trivial sense, the way the Jews and the sophists [i.e. scholastic philosophers] understand it; they suppose that it is speaking only of the lower part of man, which is brutish, but that "reason strives toward the highest good" [Editor's note: Luther is citing the scholastic axiom rationem deprecari ad optima]. Accordingly, they confine the "imaginations of his thoughts" to the Second Table, as did the Pharisee who disapproved of the tax-collector and declared that he was not like the others (Luke 18:11). He spoke fine words, for it is not something evil to thank God for His gifts. But we declare that even this very act is something evil and ungodly, because it has its origin in the utmost lack of knowledge about God and is truly a prayer turned into sin; for it serves neither the glory of God nor the welfare of man.

You may likewsie be aware that in some of their writings the philosophers have clever discussions about God and about the providence by which God controls everything. Some people find these statements that they make all but prophets out of Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato. [Editor's note: This may be aimed at Zwingli, whose statements about the possible salvation of Socrates had aroused Luther's ire. My note: Or also at Erasmus, who famously and seriously wrote: "Saint Socrates, pray for us!"] But because such discussions do not realize that God sent His Son Christ for the salvation of sinners, these superb discussions themselves represent the utmost lack of knowledge of God and are nothing but blasphemies, according to the statement in this passage, which declares directly that all the imagination, every endeavor of the human heart, is only evil.

This applies, therefore, not only to sins before the Flood but to man's entire nature -- to his heart, his reason, and his intellect, even when man feigns righteousness and wants to be most holy. This the Anabaptists do today when they get the idea into their heads that they can live without sin, and when they are intent on attaining what appear to be outstanding virtues. The rule is: When hearts are without the Holy Spirit, they do not only have no knowledge of God but even hate Him by nature. How can something that has its origin in a lack of knowledge of God and in a hatred of God be anything else than evil?

This certainly seems relevant to the issue here and to the questions about sanctification here? But is it relevant to the teaching about the "imagination" (there's that word!) here?

The Hoosier Constitution on Freedom of Religion

Since it has come up in the post below, I thought I would post here some of the initial articles in the Constitution of the State of Indiana. It has a lot of interesting features, being in many ways much more explicit than the US Constitution. I hope I may be forgiven some local pride in saying that I think the drafters, perhaps just as pygmies on the shoulders of giants, learned something from the Founding Fathers.

Constitution of the State of Indiana

Approved in Convention at Indianapolis,
February 10, 1851
Adopted by the Electorate, effective November 1, 1851
As Amended through June 6, 2001


TO THE END, that justice be established, public order maintained, and liberty perpetuated; WE, the People of the State of Indiana, grateful to ALMIGHTY GOD for the free exercise of the right to choose our own form of government, do ordain this Constitution.

ARTICLE 1. Bill of Rights

Section 1. Inherent Rights

Section 1. WE DECLARE, That all people are created equal; that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that all power is inherent in the People; and that all free governments are, and of right ought to be, founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and well-being. For the advancement of these ends, the People have, at all times, an indefeasible right to alter and reform their government.
(History: As Amended November 6, 1984).

Section 2. Right to worship

Section 2. All people shall be secured in the natural right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD, according to the dictates of their own consciences.
(History: As Amended November 6, 1984).

Section 3. Freedom of religious opinions

Section 3. No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.

Section 4. Freedom of religion

Section 4. No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.
(History: As Amended November 6, 1984).

Section 5. No religious test for office

Section 5. No religious test shall be required, as a qualification for any office of trust or profit.

Section 6. No state money for religious institutions

Section 6. No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.

Section 7. Religion no bar to competency of witnesses

Section 7. No person shall be rendered incompetent as a witness, in consequence of his opinions on matters of religion.

Section 8. Mode of oath administration

Section 8. The mode of administering an oath or affirmation, shall be such as may be most consistent with, and binding upon, the conscience of the person, to whom such oath or affirmation may be administered.

If we really believe in federalism, we all ought to be as familiar with our state constitutions as we are with our federal constitition. I would encourage other bloggers with local pride (Theresa in Minnesota, and Rick in California spring to mind) to dig out and post what their constitutions say about these and other interesting matters.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Doubts About Josh Strodtbeck's Posts on Scripture

Josh Strodtbeck at Here We Stand has recently posted two posts on the Bible and inerrancy (here and here). Positing an opposition between "Fundamentalism" and "Modernism," he hopes to find a Third Way between them.

His posts show his usual sharp intellect, fortunately minus what my high school teacher once called the "arrows of acrimony." They are openly exploratory and deliberately provocative. And so far they have garnered mostly favorable comment.

But . . . . since everyone else's at Here We Stand's being agreeable, I guess I'll have to be critical. And like a good wolf surveying a herd of fleeing caribou, I avoid the main body and pick off stragglers.

The most visible weakness I see is this statement that the type of Bible reading Josh is criticizing ("fundamentalism") is historically linked to "modernism" and both are fairly recent (say, post-Descartes, historically). This is another version of Thomas Hall's genealogical story, and like most such stories, I don't think it holds up.

Read Luther on Genesis. He is a fundamentalist there, doing all the creation science-ID-"God of the gaps" things fundamentalists do. (I'll post up some nice examples in the coming days.) Whether he's right or he's wrong, he's not some Kantian or Cartesian several centuries before his time; he's typical of Bible readers.

Now what about Philo, Origen, Bernard, allegory, and all that? What about it? Such a school of interpretation existed alongside the historical-grammatical one for centuries, indeed for almost the entire history of scripture reading (and the almost here is simply the academic habit of CYA). What I don't accept is that either one is the fruit of some great shift in consciousness, such that we can accept or reject it without dealing with the text itself.

In fact, most Christians, most of the time, have completely ignored issues of genre in their reading of history -- check out Irenaeus's Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, where the fall, Babel, King David, and the Babylonian exile are all on a single ontological level. Evidently he didn't get the memo that Genesis 1-11 is "Ancient Near Eastern creation myth" in genre and hence not to be put on the same level as history.

Better yet, read Kugel's The Bible As It Was. This is a brilliant exposition of how commentators established much of what we know read into the Bible in the intertestamental period. The results are shared in much of the Talmud and the New Testament, as well as in the intertestamental literature (Book of Enoch, etc.)

Kugel finds these very first Bible commentators shared four main assumptions:

1) The Bible is cryptic: a good interpretation will often (indeed should) show that the details give a reading quite contrary to to the surface picture.

All interpreters are fond of maintaining that although Scripture may appear to be saying X, what it really means is Y, or that while Y is not openly said by Scripture, it is somehow implied or hinted at in X (p. 18).

2) The Bible is relevant: it is all speaking to us today. Kugel points out that the genre of relating Amos or Isaiah to current events in Rome, for example, was immensely popular in the intertestamental period. (I am not exaggerating when I say that Hal Lindsey has a very respectable intertestamental pedigree as a Biblical interpreter.) He also explicitly contrasts this with our tendency to see culture as placing a gap between us and the text we are interpreting, such that we cannot simply directly apply it.

3) The Bible is perfect and perfectly harmonious. Factual errors or inconsistencies were only apparent; in fact they were reinterpreted (along the lines of assumption 1) as pointing to some hidden truth. Eventually, this assumption leads to the doctrine of "omnisignificance": that ever single letter and even point (in Hebrew) of the Scripture has deep significance.

Thus the fact that Jacob is said to dwell "in tents" (Gen. 25:27) was used to support the notion that he, unlike his brother Esau, had had some sort of schooling -- that is, the plural "tents" here is interpreted to imply at least two tents, one for school and one for home. . . . In similar fashion, all sorts of other, apparently insignificant details in the Bible -- an unusual word or grammatical form, any repetition, the juxtaposition of one law to another or one story to another -- all were read as potentially significant, a manifestation of Scripture's perfection (p. 21).

4) All Scripture is somehow divinely sanctioned or inspired. Intertestamental writers sometime express the idea that this or that book of the Bible existed on "heavenly tablets" before the human transmitters thereof had ever been born. Curiously, though, this assumption was rather less stressed than the cryptic, immediately relevant, and perfect character of the Bible.

In the same way, all of the Biblical heroes were seen as models of perfection, despite what the text might imply. The review here gives a good example of how the application of these interpretive principles governed the reading of Jacob and Esau. Someone reading Genesis for the first time might think Esau rather the better character. But Kugel shows how Esau was turned into a bad character by a reading of every jot and tittle.

What's the relevance of these points to Josh's post? Like Josh, I'm just throwing out stuff here. But the following points strike me as important:

1) While fundamentalists and modernists (like Luther) do agree that the Bible is not cryptic, the idea of necessary factual accuracy, perfection down to the very words, and immediate relevance: all of these worst features of "fundamentalist" hermeneutics have a long pedigree. They may be wrong, but dismissing them as "late" is simply not convincing.

2) Genre is not a pre-modern concept, it's part of the same historicism that makes us smile to see Roman soldiers painted at the crucifixion with medieval lances and plate armor. Such "historicism" that distances the texts of the past from us is not unknown in the past, but it is ragingly popular today. That's not to say it's wrong -- but its validity will have to stand on its own merits.

3) The

a) "historicist" (the text speaks primarily to its own time, and only secondarily to us),
b) non-cryptic (the passage's point should be easily accessible to a reader with the right cultural background),
c) big idea (it is the main thrust of the passages, not the jots and tittles that matter)
d) complex character (characters that mix light and shade are more interesting and worthy than those exclusively good or evil)

lodestars of the best contemporary exegesis that Josh is here advocating may well produce powerful exposition. But they have not been dominant for a long time. And their recent dominance within exegesis has certain troubling features. And as newly dominant ideas, we don't really have much of a track record to judging their effectiveness in building up the church.

The kind of exegesis done with these assumptions in conservative and God-fearing but highly literate and non-fundamentalist church circles is very attractive to me. I too find arguments about mustard seeds being or not being the smallest seed to be insufferable. But, we have to recognize that doing this kind of exegesis is a choice, one that has no more respectable in pedigree than the various alteratives (the intertestamental style Kugel describes, the kind of exoteric jot and tittle reading we call fundamentalist, and so on.) Certainly the fact that New Testament exegesis of the Old Testament is based on the school described should give us pause before we anathemize nit-picking and verbal inerrancy.

Also posted at Here We Stand

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Thanks for the appreciation!

Here's the post that won an Aardy and here's a run-down on the other award-winning Lutheran blog posts.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What I Want to Hear on My Car Radio for Christmas

When Advent rolls, I have to keep my fingers ready -- to change the channel when some "snow flakes falling" country Christman ditty comes on my car radio, the kind diabetics have to watch out for lest they go into insulin shock and cause an accident.

But last night, on my way home from the office, I heard a steel guitar and the word "Christmas" and -- my reflexes were too slow. Which was a good thing this time, since I got to hear this tune (sorry I can't find the actual audio), which really put a smile on my face!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Origin of Government

Here is another notable passage from Luther's Lectures on Genesis (pp. 140-42):

Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (Gen. 9:6)

Here we have the source from which stem all civil law and the law of nations. If God grants to man power over life and death, surely He also grants power over what is less, such as property, the home, wife, children, servants, and fields. All these God wants to be subject to the power of certain human beings, in order that they may punish the guilty.

In this connection the following difference must be maintained between the authority of God and that of human beings: even if the world should be unable to bring a charge against us and we should be guiltless before the world, God still has the power to kill us. For sin, with which we were born, makes us all guilty before God. But human beings have the power to kill only when we are guilty before the world and when the crime has been established. For this reason courts have been established and a definite method of procedure has been prescribed. Thus a crime may be investigated and proved before the death sentence is imposed. [Comment: This difference is too often ignored: the fact that all are sinners and guilty before God does not mean that the demand for justice from fellow men is ungodly, unjust, or arrogant.]

Therefore we must take careful note of this passage, in which God establishes government, to render judgment not only about matters involving life but also about matters far less important than life. Thus a government should punish the disobedience of children, theft, adultery, and perjury. In short it should punish all sins forbidden in the Second Table. For He who allows judgment in matters involving life also permits judgment in less important matters. [Comment: It is interesting, and certain a support for those who would say only secular government is legitimately Lutheran, that here he limits the government to the Second Table. Elsewhere Luther at least implies the First Table can be enforced as well. In any case, the commandment(s) on coveting cannot possibly be enforced by civil authority.
UPDATE: Jim in the comment box has provoked some re-thinking of this. In the way Luther describes coveting -- in the words of the Small Catechism ""We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor's inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it" -- coveting, as it results in legal chicanery or dishonest trade, might well be actionable by the state.]

This text is outstanding and worthy of note; for here God establishes government and gives it the sword, to hold wantonness in check, lest violence and other sins proceed without limit. If God had not conferred this divine power on men, what sort of life do you suppose we would be living? Because He foresaw that there would always be a great abundance of evil men, He established this outward remedy, which the world had not had thus far, in order that this wantonness might not increase beyond measure. With this hedge, these walls, God has given protection for our life and possessions.

Hence this, too, is a proof of the supreme love of God toward man, no less than is His promise that the Flood would no longer rage and His permission to use meat for sustenance.

For God made man in His own image.

This is the outstanding reason why He does not want a human being killed on the strength of individual discretion: man is the noblest creature, not created like the rest of the animals, but according to God's image. Even though man has lost this image through sin, as we stated above, his condition is nevertheless such that it can be restored through the Word and the Holy Spirit. [Note well: for Luther, the image of God is not the remnants of the old creation, but the fitness and ability to be recreated in Christ.] God wants us to show respect for this image in one another; He does not want us to shed blood in a tyrannical manner.

But the life of one who does not want to show respect for the image of God in man . . . this life God turns over to the government, in order that his blood, too, may be shed.

Thus this passage establishes civil government in the world, something that did not exist before the Flood, as the examples of Cain and Lamech show. They were not put to death, even though the holy fathers [before the Flood] were the arbiters or judges of public deeds. But in the passage before us those who have the sword are commanded to use it against those who have shed blood.

This passage, therefore, solves the problem that engaged the attention of Plato and all the sages. They came to the conclusion that it is impossible to carry on government without injustice. Their reason for this is that among themselves human beings are of the same rank and station. Why does the emperor rule the world? Why do others obey him, when he is a human being just like the others, no better, no braver, and no more permanent? He is subject to all human circumstances, just as others are. Hence it seems to be despotism when he usurps the rule over men, even though he is like other men. For if he is like other men, it is the height of wrong and injustice for him not to want to be like others but to place himself at the head of others through despotism.

This is how reason argues. It is incapable of coming up with a counterargument. But we who have the Word are aware that the counterargument must be the command of God, who regulates and establishes affairs in this manner. Hence it is our duty to obey the divine regulation and to submit to it. Otherwise, in addition to the rest of our sins, we shall become guilty of disobeying God's will, which is, as we can see, so beneficial to this life of ours.

Accordingly this passage [Gen. 9:1-6] gives permission to slaughter animals for religious and private purposes but utterly forbids the killing of human beings, because man was created according to the image of God. Those who do not obey this will He turns over to the government to be put to death.

One could even make this a proof of God; since there is no reasonable argument why someone should have life and death authority over me (even if I elected him, surely my implicit consent stops the moment he wants to kill me!), and since the universal experience of humanity is that such power is necessary (even governments that rightly or wrongly renounce the death penalty still maintain the right to use deadly force), the conclusion is that some authority above man, able to legitimate sovereignty, is necessary for a fit human existence.


What It Means When God Changes His Mind

I have been reading Luther's Lectures on Genesis: highly recommended! So far, I've come across lots of topics I'd like to blog: what it means when the Scriptures speaking of God changing his mind, total depravity, the establishment of civil government in Genesis 9 and how this solves the puzzle of how a magistrate can be created out of men born equal, and Luther's own essay in allegory, and his guidelines on when allegory is good in Bible interpretation and when it is bad. (The idea that Luther is always against allegorical interpretation is false -- he's cautious about them, and prefers they be theological, not moral, but he is not categorically against allegories.)

I'll take the first one now:

And the Lord was sorry that He made man on the earth (Gen. 6:6)

"But here another question is raised . . . If God is wise, how can it happen that He repent of something He did? Why did He not see this sin or this corrupt nature of man from the beginning of the world? Why does the Scripture attribute to God a temporal will, vision, and counsel in this manner? Are not God's counsels eternal and ametanoeta (Rom. 2:5), so that he cannot reprent of them? Similar statements occur in the prophets, where God threatens punishments, as in the case of the Ninevites. Nevertheless he pardons those who repent [cf. Jonah 1:2 and 3:10].

To this question the scholastics have nothing else to reply than that Scripture is speaking in human fashion, and therefore such actions are attributed to God by some figure of speech. They carry on discussions about a twofold will of God: "the will of His sign" and the "will of His good pleasure." They maintain that "the will of His good pleasure" is uniform and unchangeable, but that "the will of His sign" is changeable; for He changes the signs when He wishes. Thus He did away with circumcision, instituted Baptism, etc., although the same "will of good pleasure" which had been predetermined from eternity, continued in force. [The editors cite this distinction from Aquinas, Summa theologica, I, Q.19, art. 11.]

I do not condemn this opinion; but it seems to me that there is a less complicated explanation, namely, that Holy Scripture is describing the thinking of those men who are in ministry. When Moses says that God sees and repents, those actions really occur in the hearts of the men who carry on the ministry of the Word. Similarly when He said above: "My Spirit will not judge among men" [Gen. 6:3], he is not speaking directly of the Holy Spirit as He is in His own essential nature or of the Divine Majesty, but of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Noah, Methuselah, and Lamech, that is, of the Spirit of God as He is carrying on His office and administering the Word through His saints.

It is in this manner that God saw human wickedness and repented. That is, Noah, who had the Holy Spirit and was a minister of the Word, saw the wickedness of men and through the Holy Spirit was moved to grief when he observed the situation. Paul also similarly declares (Eph. 4:30) that the Holy Spirit is grieved in the godly by the ungodliness and wickedness of the ungodly. Because Noah is a faithful minister of the Word and the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, Moses correctly states that the Holy Spirit is grieving when Noah grieves and wishes that man would rather not be in existence than be so evil.

Therefore the meaning is not that God from eternity had not seen these conditions; He sees everything from eternity. But since this wickedness of man now manifests itself with the utmost violence, God now discloses this wickedness in the hearts of His ministers and prophets.

Thus God is immutable and unchanging in His counsel from eternity. He sees and knows all things; but he does not reveal them to the godly except at His own fixed time, so that they themselves may see them too. This seems to me to be the simplest meaning of this passage, and Augustine's interpretation differs little from it [the editors direct us to Augustine, De catechizandis rudibus, ch. 19].

I follow this general rule: to avoid as much as possible any questions that carry us to the throne of the Supreme Majesty. It is better and safer to stay at the manger of Christ the Man. For there is great danger in involving oneself in the mazes of the Divine Being.

From Luther's Works, volume 2, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14, pp. 43-45

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Honoring Soldiers is a Gospel Value

Anthony Esolen notes this curious and little noticed fact here, and explicates it with his customary intelligence and freedom from conventional cant. (Good stuff in the comment box too.)

To which I'd add that "Lord of Hosts" appears to mean "Lord of Armies." If that's the case why don't contemporary Bible translations ever translate it that way?

And that leads me to the famous Representative Murtha's comments about the US Army being "broken" by the war in Iraq. A major in the National Guard gives his reply here (Nod to the Corner).

What emerges from his account above all is that an army lives by honor. Not by calculations, not by goods or ammo (although they help), not by ease or convenience, and most certainly not by high odds of never seeing combat or facing death. What was the nadir of the US Army? 1975-1983, not during Vietnam, but after Vietnam. Fighting a tough war was bad, but losing was much worse. And what brought the Army out of its funk? The feeling that "we were told we mattered, we were the shield of liberty against Soviet totalitarianism."

Just as importantly: The honor of an army is nourished by victory and destroyed by defeat -- and especially by defeat that the soldiers believe is undeserved.

The US military feels honor now -- but a retreat in the face, not of overwhelming odds, or terrible casualties, but simply a public back home tired of not getting immediate progress will destroy that honor.

The US military has not lost a significant engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not a single one. Like the guys in "Black Hawk Down" they go into every encounter knowing that one of them is worth twenty -- no, make that fifty -- of the enemy, in training, shooting, endurance, courage, and decency. If we are run out of these countries by death squadders with IED's, don't expect America's warriors to say "Thank God my life was saved by Cindy Sheehan." Expect them to be filled with shame that they lost to unlawful combatants inferior to them in every soldierly virtue. Expect rage against the people who made them undergo the ultimate humiliation of losing. Expect the mother of all funks, and a military bitterness against civilian leadership that will corrode American political life for decades.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Public Prayer Again

Once again, prayer in the name of Jesus is being prohibited in public addresses on secular occasions. This time it's in the Indiana House of Representatives.

For the facts (which hardly matter as they're always the same) here's the Indianapolis Star, here's the Baptist take (HT to Bunnie Diehl), and here's a secular Hoosier blogger (old post, newer post, newest post).

Why are we stuck on stupid?

This point of constitutional interpretation is settled, people -- prayer in the name of Jesus is considered sectarian and hence is disallowed on government-sponsored occasions. If a city hall or a state legislature still allows prayers in the name of Jesus, it's just because the ACLU hasn't had time to sue them yet. If a daring pastor "steps out in faith" to "challenge the powers and principalities" with a "Spirit-filled witness," as the Rev. Clarence Brown proudly did, then he'll just give the ACLU that much better a chance to squeeze a little more of Christianity out of the public square.

Live with that fact or else think of ways to change the constitutional interpretation. And that involves having thinking through the issues before hand.

Living with this interpretation, simply accepting that in a religiously plural society we can't open public meetings with prayer -- well that has the benefit of simplicity, and I can live with that, if I have to. But it is of course a further force of secularization, of the "separation of church and life" as Mark Shea puts it.

Now let's think: if prayer in the name of Jesus was banned, and all Christians believed prayer in the name of Jesus is an essential component of Christian prayer (as they should -- John 16:24), then this decision would essentially mean, only Christian clergy are prohibited from opening government sessions with prayer. Rabbis can, imams can, sadhus can, and lamas can, but pastors can't. This result is clearly discriminatory (not to mention ridiculous -- since the number of Indiana legislators who regularly use the spiritual services of clergy on the above list could probably be numbered on the fingers of one hand). So clearly there must be a problem built into the "non-sectarian" test.

So what's the problem?

The problem is in mis-identifying what is simply a context-marker of where the clergyman's prayer is coming from as somehow designating some kind of proselytization.

Let's compare two things: a Christian pastor praying in the name of Jesus and a Jewish rabbi praying with a yarmulka on. The pastor's verbal formula and the rabbi's yarmulka are both context-markers that the customs of their respective religions impose on the practice of prayer. A pastor ending a prayer in the name of Jesus is not "imposing" Christianity on the hearers any more than a rabbi wearing a yarmulke in a prayer or benediction is imposing Judaism on me. When a Jew hears a man praying in the name of Jesus, by that simple fact he knows this prayer is predicated on Jesus being the Son of God and to that extent it "excludes" him. But when I see a rabbi praying with a yarmulka, by that simple fact I know his prayer is predicated on the Trinity and the Incarnation being false. To that extent it "excludes" me. But of course, both are simply praying to the God prescribed by their traditions and beliefs.

Thus, the formal problem is that the "non-sectarian" test is ignorantly applied only to words (and only certain selected ones at that), not to gestures, clothing, etc. (The real reason is of course that many people in America fear Christianity in a way that no one fears Judaism, or Buddhism, or even Islam, so they want to find seemingly neutral rules that disadvantage only Christians, or only conservative Christians.)

In other words: if non-sectarian is interpreted to mean "you can't tell what religion the clergyman offering the benedicition/prayer belongs to" it is manifestly absurd and ridiculous, dictating a kind of prayer Esperanto that no one speaks in real life. But if it is interpreted to mean, "you can tell, of course, but the prayer is not being used for the purpose of calling or summoning members of other religions to the clergyman's religion" then concluding by "in the name of Jesus" is freed from the charge of being sectarian in the sense of marking the government's endorsement of one or another church or religion.

Now, the Rev. Clarence Brown did use the occasion for proselytization, leading the whole assembly into a chorus of "Just a Little Walk with Jesus." I think he misused the occasion, and would have no problem with the legislature itself or the courts prohibiting the use of benedictions/prayers before government tasks for such evagelistic activities as both a bad idea (certainly) and (perhaps) unconstitutional.* So throw the book at him. But simply praying in the name of Jesus cannot possibly be seen as harmfully sectarian, unless one wishes to see a constitutional interpretation that disadvantages only Christians as somehow neutral and fair.

UPDATE: The local paper (available on-line only by subscription) had an article this morning making basically the same point. IU law professors were quoted as saying this decision is simply applying a 1983 Supreme Court precedent which said that invocations on government time are government speech and thus must be nonsectarian and not be seen as endorsing any particular religion. "In the name of Jesus" is seen as making prayer sectarian (and hence endorsing Christianity), while apparently yarmulkes, saffron robes, turbans, Arabic or Hebrew sacred phrases, etc. do not make a prayer sectarian. [Commentary]: So we're back to the three possibilities:
1) accept that only confessional Christians cannot open government sessions with prayer;
2) prayer should not open any government sessions; or
3) the Supreme Court is confused about what "sectarian" could possibly mean, and needs to be helped to sort out its confusion.

1) is unacceptable,
2) I can live with, but
3) is certainly true in any case.

(The consitutionality of the fourth possibility, that clergy may in fact use prayer on public occasions to proselytize or engage in genuinely sectarian religious activity, I will leave someone else to debate, since if I were running the legislature, I wouldn't allow it in any case.)

*One can add that the whole idea of prayer as evangelism is unpardonably bad theology. Prayer is man talking to God. The only reason to pray is to communicate to God. Prayer should be done as if no one else is in the room, and as if if no one else but Him heard the prayer, its aim would still be achieved. The purpose of benediction at a government function is so that God will help, guide, and improve the workings of the government -- and it will do that according to His pleasure, regardless of whether the legislators or city council members can hear it at all.

Legal Abortion Cuts Crime

Just in case you swallowed that bogus meme, Steve Sailer has a full-scale take down, here.

Some money quotes:

Their key assumption about how humans behave was that legalizing abortion increased the "wantedness" of babies who were actually born, yet one obvious test was whether Roe v. Wade had driven down the illegitimacy rate. As it turns out, it definitely had not.

So for every six fetuses aborted in the 1970s, five would never have been conceived except for Roe! This ratio makes a sick joke out of Levitt’s assumption that legalization made a significant difference in how "wanted" children were.

(I remember when welfare reform was on the table, even Christian conservatives worrying that cutting off AFDC with its "no man in the house" rule would lead to more abortions, evidently assuming that, as long as she's poor and colored [see below], "the girl can't help it." Well, they were proven embarrassingly wrong.)

The reason that in Levitt's theory of American crime trends, Levitt cites only foreign studies claiming that women who have abortions would make less organized and effective mothers than the ones who went ahead and had their children is because the American studies of who gets an abortion came to the opposite conclusion.

As for why the crack crime wave eventually dropped:

A lot of the next cohort of urban youths, those born more than a half decade after abortion was legalized in their state, figured out that dealing crack was a stupid career choice. Seeing how their older brothers and cousins were winding up in prisons, wheelchairs, and cemeteries, they became less likely to commit murder. Participating in the crack wars turned out to be, for the vast majority of the gangstas, extremely bad life choices, and it's hardly surprising that the later cohort born in the early 1980s did a better job of figuring this out.

And best of all this:

In contrast, he's combined statistical incomprehensibility with the most simple-minded behavioral models -- he has repeatedly assumed, despite all the evidence from American studies cited above, that ghetto women decide whether or not to engage in unprotected sex and whether or not get an abortion or have an illegitimate child for the same reasons that would appeal to highly educated women of his own class. While Levitt's style of thinking about how women respond to legalized abortion has proven highly persuasive to the nonfiction book-purchasing class, it doesn't explain much at all about the behavior of the classes in which potential criminals are typically raised. A reader of mine who was an inner city social worker wrote:

Middle class types see poor unwed teenage mothers as Scum of the Earth and a Terrible Social Problem. But poor women don’t see themselves that way. Instead, they think of themselves as human beings facing the age-old challenge of getting along in the world -- and, if they're lucky, passing their genes on to the next generation.

HT to John Derbyshire, who adds this also sage comment:

This instructive little saga illustrates all sorts of things, from the usefulness of the tireless and diligent blogger to the self-congratulatory dishonesty of too many of our public intellectuals.

It also illustrates the importance to the political Right of having some competent datanauts on our side. Steve is amazingly good at this (he likes to describe himself as "the only Republican who knows Microsoft Excel"), and it is astonishing that some conservative think tank hasn't got him on a big fat permanent retainer by now.