Archive for August, 2010

ABC Extra – Filioque: Funny Word, Serious Debate

It’s called the filioque. It is a Latin word meaning, “and the Son.”  As it turns out, this one little word actually split the Christian Church.

The year was 381.  The Church was meeting together in an ecumenical council at Constantinople to finish a job they had begun some years earlier in 325 in Nicaea.  At Nicaea, the Church had formulated a Creed to refute Arianism, which claimed that though Jesus was divine in some sense, He was not the one, true God.  In response, the Council of Nicaea formulated the Nicene Creed, confessing Christ to be “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”  In other words, the Council of Nicaea confessed Jesus to be the true God along with the Father!

But now in Constantinople, it was time to confess the same about the third person of the Godhead:  the Holy Spirit.  And so the Council confessed:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified.”

Now, if you’ve ever said the Nicene Creed in any church that is not Eastern Orthodox, then you perhaps noticed that a phrase went missing:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Or, in Latin, filioque.  But this word was not part of the original Creed as it was drafted as Constantinople.  Instead, it was added later in 589 at the Third Council of Toledo.  And when it was added, those in the Eastern Church and those in the Western Church began down a path of controversy and schism that remains to this day.

According to the Eastern Church, the filioque distorts Eastern Orthodox triadology by making the Spirit a subordinate member of the Trinity. Traditional triadology insists that any trait of the Godhead must be either common to all the Persons of the Trinity or unique to one of them. Thus, Fatherhood is unique to the Father, while begottenness is unique to the Son, and procession is unique to the Spirit.  Thus, the Spirit cannot proceed from the Father and the Son, for that would mean that the Father and Son would share a trait not also shared by the Spirit.

The addition of the filioque so upset the East that the great Eastern Patriarch Photius I declared the filioque heresy and excommunicated the pope at this time, Pope Nicholas I.   Indeed, this debate was one of the precipitating causes of the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Church and the Western Church mutually excommunicated each other.  For the first time in history, the Christian Church had split in two.

For the most part, the posturing and lofty rhetoric over the filioque has faded, yet the fissure between the East and the West remains.  Eastern Christians still do not include “and the Son” in their recitation of the Nicene Creed.

Finally, one must ask, “What does Scripture say about the filioque?”  Our reading in both worship and ABC this past weekend from John 21 recounted two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – the first being on Easter evening to ten of His apostles minus the now late Judas and the absent Thomas with the second being a week later to all of the living apostles including Thomas.  In His first appearance, Jesus recommissions His disciples to carry out the Office of the Keys, which I discussed at length in my ABC.  Jesus explains the Office thusly: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).  Such is a weighty responsibility – to proclaim forgiveness to the repentant and warn the unrepentant of impending Divine judgment!  But Jesus does not leave the exercise of this Office ad hominem.  Instead, right before He commissions His apostles to the Office of the Keys, He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to His disciples as they go about ministry in His name.  The Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father.  The filioque is correct.

It is a shame that such an acerbic debate over the filioque had to split the Church, especially in light of Jesus’ clarion call to unity (cf. John 17:11).  And yet, the Church is called always to Holy Scripture, listening carefully to its voice and deriving – and in some cases correcting –doctrine according to its pages.  The Church can do no less than this.  Thus, the filioque was a debate worth debating and it is a word worth keeping.  For it is a word which describes a promise and the power of our Savior:  “I tell you the truth…Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:6).  Jesus has sent us His Spirit!  May we praise the Father for His precious gift to us ex Filius – from the Son.

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August 30, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – Christ’s Hidden Presence

It was my first night at college.  I was sitting in my dorm room with my roommate, the only other person on campus who I knew, when I heard a knock at my door.  Outside stood another student, a sophomore, who asked my roommate and I, “Hey, you wanna come outside and play Capture the Flag?”

Capture the Flag.  As best as I can tell, it’s kind of like Hide-n-Go-Seek for grown-ups.  Your team hides a flag while the other team seeks it.  And along the way, the other team not only seeks your flag, they seek you.  And they try to tag you out.  And so, you not only try to hide your flag, you try to hide yourself.

That night, I almost managed to capture the flag.  In fact, I made it all the way to the other team’s flag and was about to snatch it up and win the game for my Capture the Flag comrades when I felt a tap on my shoulder.  “Tag, you’re out,” the voice gleefully exclaimed.  It was the same guy who, just moments earlier, was standing outside my dorm room inviting me to come and join in the fun.  “What?” I asked in exasperation.  “Where did you come from?  I didn’t see anybody anywhere.”  “I was hiding behind that bush the whole time,” he responded.  “And you didn’t even know it.”

“And you didn’t even know it.”  This phrase has often come to my mind as and appropriate way to describe what Jesus’ return will be like.  In our text from this weekend, Paul describes the return of our Lord thusly:

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. The Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)

Notably, when Paul speaks of “the coming of the Lord” in verse 16, the Greek word for “come” is parousia, meaning, “presence.”  In other words, it’s not just that the Lord will arrive from some distant cloud to the earth on the Last Day, it’s that the Lord will reveal that He’s been present with us the whole time.  And, a lot of times, we didn’t even know it.

In Matthew 25, Jesus explains the hidden nature of His presence to His followers thusly:

“I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?  When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?” The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Jesus was there the whole time as we were feeding the hungry, carrying water for the thirsty, extending hospitality to the lonely, clothing the naked, and visiting the infirmed…and we didn’t even know it.  But the promise is, on the Last Day, we will know it.  Because we will see Jesus.  As Paul explains it: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  With the Last Day, Jesus’ hidden presence will be hidden no longer.

Often, this world looks anything but sacred, holy, and blessed.  It looks sinful, depraved, and broken.  And indeed it is.  But that’s not all it is.  Because Jesus is here with us the whole time – even if we see Him only dimly.  Jesus is here with us the whole time – even if we don’t know it.  And so, as we wait for our Lord’s final revelation, may His presence give us comfort and hope.

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August 23, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Sermon Extra – The Heart of the Gospel

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

More magnificent words have nary been written. Paul’s words in these verses constitute the heart and soul of the gospel. Because Paul’s words are so foundational to everything we believe, teach, and confess as Christians, I thought for this week’s “Extra,” I would simply take some time to briefly unpack some key phrases, specifically in verse 22.

From God…

This phrase describes the source of righteousness. A Christian’s righteousness is not of his own making or doing. Rather, it is “from God.” A Christian knows that, apart from God, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thus, in order for someone to be declared “righteous,” that righteousness must come from somewhere else, or, more accurately, from someone else. Paul declares that this “someone else” is God.

Through faith…

This phrase describes the application of righteousness, that is, how God’s righteousness gets from God to us. Some people try to apply God’s righteousness to themselves by ascending to God via nebulous mysticism or good works or deep knowledge. But Paul’s answer of how God’s righteousness gets applied to us involves no steep ascent to the Divine through various contortions of the soul, body, or mind. Rather, the way that God’s righteousness gets applied to us is through faith. And for Paul, faith is simple trust – trust that God is indeed righteous and trust that God indeed wants to share His righteousness with us as a completely free gift, apart from any merit or worthiness on our parts.

In Christ…

This phrase describes the object of righteousness. The object of righteousness – the One to whom we look to see God’s righteousness on display – is Jesus Christ. He is the epitome and the embodiment of God’s righteousness. Indeed, He is God’s righteousness come to earth. Thus, if we do not trust in Christ, we cannot receive God’s righteousness. Much debate has swirled around this phrase as it appears in Greek: dia pisteos Iesou Christou. Grammatically, this phrase can be translated in one of two different ways. One the one hand, it can be translated as above: “through faith in Jesus Christ.” This takes the phrase Iesou Christou as an objective genitive. In other words, Jesus Christ is the object of our faith. But this phrase can also be translated as a subjective genitive: “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Here, Jesus becomes the subject of the faith. Although grammatically, the former is probably to be preferred, theologically, both are important. For we must have faith in Christ for God’s righteousness to be applied to us. But God’s righteousness cannot be applied to us through Christ unless Christ is righteous, that is, faithful (cf. Hebrews 3:6)! Thus, we have faith in the faithful Christ.

To all who believe…

This phrase describes the destination of righteousness. That is, God desires that His righteousness find its destination in every person. It is important to understand that God’s righteousness is undiscriminating. He does not desire to give it to one person while desiring to withhold it from another. Thus, anyone can receive God’s righteousness, no matter how wicked, debase, or depraved they might be. No one need remain outside the grasp of God’s righteousness. This is why we share the gospel of God’s righteousness.

This, then, is the gospel: that God gives to us His righteousness through faith because of the faithfulness of Jesus to anyone who believes that His righteousness is for them. This is the gospel that the Christian church has stewarded for some 2,000 years. And who knows? We may be stewarding it for some 2,000 more. By God’s grace, may we steward it well. For it is the most precious treasure to humankind. For it is the message of our forgiveness, life, and salvation. And there can be no greater treasure than that.

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August 16, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – Deep Anxiety

It’s called hematidrosis.  Dr. Frederick Zugibe, the Chief Medical Examiner of Rockland County, New York, explains the disease:  “Around the sweat glands, there are multiple blood vessels in a net-like form.  Under the pressure of great stress the vessels constrict.  Then as the anxiety passes the blood vessels dilate to the point of rupture.  The blood goes into the sweat glands.  As the sweat glands are producing a lot of sweat, it pushes the blood to the surface – coming out as droplets of blood mixed with sweat.”  What a gruesome picture Dr. Zugibe paints of someone so stressed and so anxious that he actually sweats blood!

The evangelist Luke recounts Jesus’ final hours:

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and His disciples followed Him. On reaching the place, He said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him.  And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:39-44)

Jesus’ final hours before His crucifixion were so anxiety inducing that He developed a case of hematidrosis.  Indeed, when Luke relays that Jesus was “in anguish” in verse 44, the Greek word is agonia.  I’ll let you guess to what English word this is related.  But needless to say, it’s not related to a word for peace and serenity.

One of the things that never ceases to impress me about Jesus’ life and ministry is how Jesus not only experiences all that we experience, but He experiences it in a deeper and fuller way that we experience it.  We experience anxiety.  Jesus experiences anxiety to such a level that He develops the extremely rare condition of hematidrosis.  It is not surprising, then, that the preacher of Hebrews would say of Christ, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  Being tempted in every way means that a mammoth amount of temptation was leveled at Jesus, greater temptation than any of us know, for who of us can say, “I have been tempted in every way?”  But Jesus was.  Jesus experienced it all – literally.  Thus, it behooves us to take Jesus at His word when He says things like:

Do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:31-34)

If Jesus warns us against anxiety, then perhaps we ought to listen.  Because if there’s one person who knows anxiety, it’s Jesus.  After all, He experienced tremendously – indeed, He experienced it infinitely – in the Garden.

So then, how are we to combat anxiety, for anxiety is something which we all experience?  Jesus says that pagans try to combat anxiety by running.  They run after food and drink and clothes, thinking that if they could just acquire the right things or the right knowledge or the right securities, then their anxieties would be alleviated.  But such a run is futile.  It only results in more anxiety.  Instead, we are to seek.  We are to seek the things of God, even as Jesus Himself seeks the will of God as He experiences anxiety in the Garden.  Jesus prays, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  May we, like Jesus, seek God in our anxieties.  For He alone can give us strength to confront them and walk through them.

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August 9, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

An Atheist Confronts Death

I recently learned that Christopher Hitchens, noted atheist and author of God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything, has been stricken by cancer.  In an article for Vanity Fair, Hitchens makes what I consider to be some astonishing statements.  First, he is so bold as to personify death: “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”  Death has a face in Hitchens’ mind – and a grim face at that.  Death is a Reaper.  Actually, death is the Reaper with a capital “R.”  No longer is death merely a force of nature.  It is a sinister character.  I, hopefully not surprisingly, would agree.  Death is sinister because death is sinful – the result of a fallen and broken creation.  Of course, Hitchens continues by calling this character “predictable and banal,” which I suppose it is, for we all die, but it doesn’t make it any less grim.

Hitchens’ second astonishing statement comes at the end of his article:

I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups.

This statement did more than astonished me, it blew me away.  First, as far as I can tell, the “blind, emotionless alien” to which Hitchens refers is the cycle of life and death, standardized and ruled, according to many atheists, by evolutionary theory and natural selection.  It is what another atheist luminary Richard Dawkins called, “the blind watchmaker.”  And yes, if true, this cycle is blind and emotionless.  Indeed, it is more than emotionless, it is merciless.  It cares not about our lives and our fears and our hopes and our dreams.  But curiously, Hitchens continues by noting that this “blind, emotionless alien” is “cheered on by some who have wished me ill.”  How something “emotionless” can be moved by “cheers” of encouragement, I do not know.  But I do know that it is morally base to cheer on the death of another.  Theologically, death is a result of sin.  To cheer on death, then, is to cheer on sin.  Death may be inevitable and sometimes, as in cases of war or capital punishment, sanctioned and permitted according to the governing authorities and the concerns of justice, but it is not cheer-worthy.  Blessedly, however, Hitchens continues by noting that on the side of his life “is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups.”  It almost sounds as if Hitchens is admitting that “selfless physicians,” “selfless” being a moral designation foreign to committed evolutionary atheism, and “prayer groups” have some sort of power to cheat death.  Is Hitchens admitting that prayer works?  If so, how does he think it works?  And why does he think it works?

I myself believe that prayer does work, but only because of the One to whom we pray.  For the One to whom we pray has power over death.  As the apostle Paul writes, “‘Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).  Jesus conquers death and brings life.  There’s an empty grave to prove it.  And it is in that spirit that I pray that Christopher Hitchens’ grave stays empty for a good time longer in this present age – and on the Last Day.  Christ has the power to make it so.  I pray that Hitchens learns to trust that.

August 5, 2010 at 9:36 am 2 comments

ABC Extra – Omnipresence and the Sacramental Union

Every time I teach on a text which sets forth the Lord’s Supper, I am always amazed by the “theological heavy lifting” that needs to be done.  The debates over the Supper have raged so hot for so long that I always find it necessary to address these debates, all the while, trying to proclaim the clear words of Christ.  Such was the case in the Adult Bible Class that I taught this weekend on Mark 14:22-24: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ He said to them.”  The crux of the debate over Jesus’ words rests on His statements, “This is My body…This is My blood.”

In Adult Bible Class, I outlined three main positions that have been taken concerning Jesus’ words, “This is My body…This is My blood.”  The first is the position of Transubstantiation which contends that the bread and the wine turn into the literal, real body and blood of Jesus and, thus, the bread and the wine are no longer present in the Sacrament.  The second is the position of Symbolism which asserts that the bread and the wine are only symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ body and blood are not literally, really present.  The third is the position of the Sacramental Union which explains that when Jesus declares, “This is My body…This is My blood,” His body and blood becomes really, literally present along with the bread and the wine.  The Lutheran position is that of the Sacramental Union.

While I spent a fair amount of time addressing the position of Transubstantiation in Adult Bible Class, I wanted to spend some time addressing the position of Symbolism in this blog.  Interestingly, the main objection of those who hold to a Symbolic view of the Sacrament is that Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven and so His body and blood cannot be on earth on church altars worldwide.

Lutheran theologians have traditionally responded to this objection by asserting a Christological tenet known as Genus Majestaticum, which states that since there are two natures in Christ – a human nature and a divine nature – the divine nature can affect the human nature in such a way that the human nature can do things which it would not otherwise be able to do. For example, a mere human could not walk on water, but because Jesus was both divine and human, He could.  Or, a mere human could not rise from death, but Jesus, as both God and man, did!  Luther used this understanding of the two natures in Christ to argue that even though Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, His body and blood can still be on Christian altars because He, as God, is omnipresent, even if other humans are not, and indeed cannot be, omnipresent.

Luther’s primary antagonist in this debate, the great Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, responded to Luther’s use of the Genus Majestaticum by saying that Christ’s body would then be in every piece of bread and even every corner of nature.  This, of course, is pantheism and is a pagan, not a Christian, conception of God.  Thus, according to Zwingli, Christ’s body and blood could not be with the bread and the wine.  Luther’s response to Zwingli’s accusation of pantheism remains one of the finest defenses ever of the doctrine of the Sacramental Union in the Lord’s Supper:

It is one thing if God is present, and another if He is present for you. He is there for you when He adds his Word and binds Himself, saying, “Here you are to find Me.” Now when you have the Word, you can grasp and have Him with certainty and say, “Here I have Thee, according to Thy Word.” Just as I say of the right hand of God: although this is everywhere, as we may not deny, still because it is also nowhere, as has been said, you can actually grasp it nowhere, unless for your benefit it binds itself to you and summons you to a definite place. This God’s right hand does, however, when it enters into the humanity of Christ and dwells there. There you surely find it, otherwise you will run back and forth throughout all creation, groping here and groping there yet never finding, even though it is actually there; for it is not there for you. So too, since Christ’s humanity is at the right hand of God, and also is in all and above all things according to the nature of the divine right hand, you will not eat or drink Him like the cabbage and soup on your table, unless He wills it. He also now exceeds any grasp, and you will not catch Him by groping about, even though He is in your bread, unless He binds himself to you and summons you to a particular table by His Word, and He Himself gives meaning to the bread for you, by His Word, bidding you to eat Him. This He does in the Supper, saying, “This is My body,” as if to say, “At home you may eat bread also, where I am indeed sufficiently near at hand too; but…when you eat this, you eat My body, and nowhere else. Why? Because I wish to attach Myself here with My Word, in order that you may not have to buzz about, trying to seek Me in all the places where I am; this would be too much for you, and you would also be too puny to apprehend Me in these places without the help of my Word.” (AE 37:68)

Luther does not deny that Christ’s omnipresence allows Him to be everywhere at once, even, in my favorite line, in “the cabbage and soup on your table.”  But this matters not to Luther.  What matters to Luther is not just that Christ is present, but that Christ is present “for you.”  For when Christ is present “for you,” He is present with His promise of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  And He is present in such a way in Communion, even as He promises:  “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  Christ has promised to be present with the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of our sins.

The point of all of the above “heavy theological lifting” is finally very simple:  We can be comforted by Communion because Christ’s body and blood are as close as the bread and the wine.  And as I mentioned in Adult Bible Class, that closeness is precious.  Because whereas our sins against God and our betrayals of God separate us from God, He promises to come close by means of His holy meal.  And I would have Communion no other way.  For when I receive Communion, this is what I desire – to actually commune with God.  To have Him close.  And I know He is.  For He has promised it.

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August 2, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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