Posts tagged ‘Orthodoxy’

Faith and Authority

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Credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

I find people’s faith stories fascinating.  Take, for instance, Rachel Meyer, who, in an article for the Huffington Post, chronicles her struggle of how she might be able to pass down her faith to her son.

She opens her piece by talking about a man she dated when she was in her early 20s.  When she asked him whether or not he believed in God, he responded, “I believe in ME.”  “I knew in that instant,” she writes, “it would never work between us.”  Why?  Well, she continues:

I am a person of deep faith: a preacher’s kid, a yoga teacher, and a meditation geek with a master’s degree in systematic theology.  I’ve spent my whole life belly-deep in the spiritual world.

Her spiritual world, however, is not what many would expect.  She sums up her creedal commitments by rattling off a litany of things she does not believe:

I don’t believe in original sin, or the pathological shame and guilt that comes with it.  I don’t believe in hell, or that bodily desire gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered, or in the kind of sexist and homophobic theology that shuts out LGBTQIA+ folks.  I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or white supremacy.  I don’t believe that nationalism should have anything to do with religion.

For the record, as a confessional Christian, I don’t believe in many of those things, either.  I do believe in original sin.  But I’m not big on pathological shame.  I do believe in hell.  But I don’t believe that bodily desire gets us there.  I believe that rejecting God’s resurrected Son gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered per se, for He is spirit.  But I do believe that He became incarnate as a man and invites us to approach Him as our Father.  I don’t believe in shutting out LGBTQIA+ people – or anyone else, for that matter – but I do believe we must take seriously the sexual contours outlined in Scripture and consider that perhaps they are there for the sake of our safety and thriving.  I most certainly do believe in the substitutionary atonement.  And I most certainly loathe white supremacy.  It is inimical to the very nature of who the Church is to be – the redeemed “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).  A good portion of the fun of figuring out what you think about nationalism is figuring out how to define it, as this podcast from Arthur Brooks reminds us.  But regardless of how you define nationalism and what you think of it, I most certainly believe that I am a member of God’s household before I am a citizen of any nation.

But behind our individual instances of agreement and disagreement lies some bigger questions:  How does one decide what to believe?  To what authority does one turn to shape one’s beliefs?

There is a canon of beliefs that Rachel Meyer wants to hand down to her son:

I still want my kid to grow up with an appreciation for high-church liturgy, for the holy space of grace that is a cathedral.  I want him to know the selfless service of church ladies setting out homemade casseroles and Jell-O salads in the fellowship hall after baptisms and funerals.  I want him to learn that Jesus – like Buddha and Muhammad – was a radical prophet who taught us how to live gently, wholeheartedly, out of love above all else, and to let that understanding cultivate a passion for social justice.

Okay.  I agree that selflessness is critical – even to the Gospel itself.  Gentleness is a member of the Spirit’s fruit.  And concerning ourselves with justice in society is beautifully prophetic.  But why are selflessness, gentleness, and social justice in while the substitutionary atonement is out?  Rachel never quite answers these questions.

In the end, Rachel seems to have cobbled together a faith that is not based on much of anything besides her own affections and aversions.  What she likes in faith, she keeps.  What she doesn’t like, she trashes.

The humorist Anne Lamott once told the story of a priest friend of hers, Tom, who would say, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Tom is right.  To be a person of faith is to be, among other things, a person under divine authority.  Only a fool would believe that their own opinions and preferences would always match up with God’s commands and revelation.  This is why, for millennia now, Christians have turned to the pages of Scripture to discover God’s commands and character, even when His commands and character unsettle us, puzzle us, or even offend us.  We approach the pages of Holy Writ humbly, wondering what we have missed, what we must learn, and how can change.

If your God always agrees with you, then it’s safe to assume that the “god” you believe in is really just a thinly veiled version of you, which means that your god can’t help you, challenge you, stretch you, or save you because he is you.  So why bother with him at all?

Perhaps Rachel has more in common with her old love interest than she lets on.  “I believe in ME,” he said.  It sounds like she could say the same thing, too.

June 24, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Of Quibbles and Quarrels

Boxing Match

Last week, I had the privilege of having dinner with a well-known Christian author.  I talked to him about his career, what inspired him to get into writing, and what he’s thinking about these days.  I also talked to him about his most popular book, which was published several years ago.  In it, he addresses some of the challenging questions the Church needs to answer as our society continues to drift into a morally post-Christian morass.  As we were talking about his book and the challenges he raises in it, he shared that he had received plenty of hate mail when his book was first published, accusing him of everything from heresy to being a tool of the devil himself.  I couldn’t help but grimace.  I myself do not agree with everything this author has written, but I hardly think of him as a heretic or a spawn of Satan.  I simply process some of the challenges the Church is facing a little differently than he does.

Sadly, the ways we address differences in our society have become increasingly polemicized as our ability to have civil, thoughtful, and helpful conversations has become progressively nominalized.  This is especially true in politics, as any comments section on a political article or political Facebook post will indicate.  But it is also true in other areas that span from philosophy to morality to theology.  We are no longer able to respond measuredly to someone with whom we disagree.

It is useful to remember that there is a difference between a quibble and a quarrel.  A quibble is a point of concern that needs to be addressed.  A quarrel is spawned by a dangerous and damaging falsity that demands a repudiation.  People who are willing to quibble, rather than quarrel, with us are important because they serve to sharpen our thinking and hone our worldview.  Solomon explains the value of quibbling with a metaphor: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).  Quibbling can, at times, seem to be little more than nitpicking.  But when it is received graciously, it can be invaluably helpful.

The problem is that too many people are too quick to take quibbles and turn them into quarrels.  Among some Christians, for instance, heresy is no longer defined by teachings that fly in the face of the ecumenical creeds, but by whether a person uses a version of the Bible that is not King James or by whether a person believes that it’s okay for a congregation to be even selectively purpose-driven.  In these instances, we would do well to remember the words the apostle Paul: “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).  In other words, don’t take quibbles and turn them into quarrels.

In the case of the author with whom I had dinner, most of the quarrels about his book centered around his critiques of the Church, in which he can seem to imply, at times, a decrease in the Church’s value.  Frankly, I too am concerned by any argument that would somehow diminish the Church.  The Church is, after all, the Bride of Christ.  I still don’t think, however, that this author is a spawn of Satan.  I also know, if the fruit of his career is any indication, that he loves the Church and seeks to serve the Church with everything in him, even as he critiques it.  Indeed, his love for the Church is probably why he critiques it.  So perhaps a robust discussion of the nuances of his ecclesiology is needed before we launch into accusations of heresy.

Ultimately, making a quarrel out of a quibble robs us of the opportunity sharpen each other because we’re too busy bludgeoning each other.  So if you aspire to serve the Lord, keep these words in mind:  “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Timothy 2:24).

The next time you disagree with someone, there’s a verse to remember – and practice.

May 16, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Thoughts on Christianity and Secularism

Old ChurchIt’s hard to deny that secularism is on the ascendency in America. Indeed, even if one points to the fact that roughly the same number of adults believe in God now as did in 1947, secularism’s intellectual and cultural capital in broader society has steadily increased. As James Davison Hunter deftly notes, the raw numbers of a thing don’t always indicate the influence of a thing. He explains:

With cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that matters most. It is the status of cultural credentials and accomplishment and status is organized between the “center” and the “periphery.” The individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture operate in the “center” where prestige is the highest, not on the periphery, where status is low.

And so, USA Today may sell more copies of newspapers than the New York Times, but it is the New York Times that is the newspaper of record in America because it is at the center of cultural production, not the periphery, and its symbolic capital is much higher.[1]

Secularism’s proponents may not be large in number, but a great number of them are certainly at the center of our cultural production. And they are working hard to move Christians to the periphery. Even more, secularists are working hard to shift the center of Christianity itself to something that is closer to their way of thinking, even if it is not in perfect alignment with it. This is why there are great numbers of what could be called “secular Christians” who, though they may pay certain homage to the artifacts of their faith, are largely either politely mute or openly in disagreement with much of what historic Christianity confesses.

So how are Christians who are more traditionally orthodox in their confessions to respond?

In my sermon two weeks ago, I outlined three ways that Christians have sought to respond to secularism’s inroads over the past few decades. They are worth rehearsing here.

The first is that of capitulating. There are some Christians who, be it happily or reticently, capitulate to many of secularism’s tenets. These are the “secular Christians” of whom I spoke above. So, for example, one of secularism’s primary tenets is tolerance, or, stated more forcefully, relativism. In secularism’s creed, one religion’s claims cannot be truer than another religion’s claims unless, of course, that religion’s claims conflict with the claims of secularism. Christians who capitulate to the secular tenet of tolerance may speak of their personal path to God as through Christ, but will deny that Christ’s claims are exclusively true for everyone. There must be other, equally true, paths available to these people. These Christians thus capitulate to secularism’s tenets of tolerance and relativism.

The second response to secularism’s inroads is that of cloistering. There are some Christians who, horrified at secularism’s ascendency, immerse themselves in a Christian culture that breezily and probably unknowingly separates itself from broader culture with its many secular entailments by creating its own subculture. The Christians listen to Christian music, read Christian books, and frequent Christian businesses while looking with skepticism at what they perceive to be the irreversible corruption of broader cultural trends. They cloister themselves off in hopes of maintaining more “traditional” values.

The third response to secularism’s inroads is that of conquering. Christians who conquer are fully engaged in what is popularly known as “the culture wars,” launching a virulent apologetic against everything from abortion to gay marriage to Hollywood. They hope that if they can just take these institutions – as well as their sympathizers – down, usually by political means, a sanctified sanity will be restored to the culture-at-large.

I must say that I am largely disappointed by all three of these strategies for stemming secularism’s tide. I think each of these strategies, though they may have certain useful elements that should be retained, are largely ineffective and theologically anemic. Indeed, Scripture already outlines a strategy for engaging secularism in all its forms and with all its tentacles – that of converting. Simply stated, Christians are to seek opportunities to present Christ’s claims to as many as possible so that as many as possible – including secularists – may come to faith.

One of my favorite insights concerning secularism and conversion comes from Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote:

The world and Christianity have completely opposite conceptions. The world says of the apostles, of the Apostle Peter as their spokesman, “He is drunk,” and the Apostle Peter admonishes, “Become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness. “Do become reasonable, come to your senses, try to become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness.[2]

Here, Kierkegaard uses Peter’s speech in Acts 2 as a case study in just how far apart secularism and Christianity really are. Somewhat hyperbolically, Kierkegaard says they “have completely opposite conceptions.” So how does Peter counter the “completely opposite conception” of the secularism of his day? In Kierkegaard’s paraphrase, he admonishes the secularists, “Become sober.” In the Bible’s text, he says:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Peter calls for conversion. And “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41).

Peter’s call to conversion, it seems, worked. Perhaps his call still ought to be our strategy – no matter how secular our age.

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[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[2] Cited in Lee C. Barrett & Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard and the Bible: The New Testament (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010), 89, ftn. 62

March 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Finding Our Place: Navigating Unionism and Sectarianism

Marburg ColloquyLast week, I was answering some questions for a friend who is studying to become a pastor. His professor had given him two questions for me to answer as part of assignment. One of the questions really struck me: Where do you think Lutheranism fits within the wider Christian community?

This is an important question. After all, for some, it is not evident that Lutheranism does fit within the wider Christian community – at least in a way that encourages engagement with and learning from that community. Last week, I watched with an aching heart as some of my Lutheran brothers in ministry harshly and sometimes sarcastically criticized some of my other Lutheran brothers for engaging with and learning from people outside of my Lutheran community. These criticisms reminded me of how important questions about where Lutherans fit in the Church with a capital “C” really are.

In order to explore these questions, I think it’s important to note the Lutheran identity at its best is a confessional Lutheran identity. The word “confessional” is rooted in the Greek word homologeo, which means, “to say the same thing.” To be a confessional Lutheran, then, means to say the same thing as Jesus and His Word. It means to be devoted to a clear and accurate declaration and explanation of the gospel and sacred Scripture, which, I should point out, can be found in our community’s confessional documents.

When engaging the Christian community at large, this devotion to the gospel and Scripture means two things. First, it means that Lutherans eschew unionism. Unionists are those who conceal differences between Christian communities and pretend that all – or most all – Christians say the same thing about Jesus and His Word. At the same time confessional Lutheranism guards against unionism, however, it also stands against sectarianism. In other words, though Lutherans do not paper over differences between their confession of faith the confessions of other Christian communities, they also celebrate and affirm areas of agreement. Thus, Lutherans are very much a part of the wider Christian community, for they share many of the same theological commitments.

The most famous historical test case for the kind of confessional Lutheranism that abjures both unionism and sectarianism came in 1529 when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli met at Marburg to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement between their two reforming movements. At Marburg, they discovered they agreed on fourteen articles of faith spanning from the nature of the Trinity to justification by faith to the role of governing authorities. But they could not agree on one point: the character of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The dispute was formally summarized like this:

We all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the mass is not a work with which one can secure grace for someone else, whether he is dead or alive; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.[1]

This is a masterful statement. Luther and Zwingli carefully avoid unionism by clearly, winsomely, concernedly, and lovingly explaining where they disagree, but are also in no way sectarian, for they commit themselves to “show Christian love” and “diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding.” In other words, they unreservedly confess their positions while humbly asking the Lord to show them if and where they could be out of step with His Word. Here is confessional Lutheranism at its finest.

In a culture where truth is often either relegated to relativity or regarded as unimportant, confessional Lutheranism has not only much to say, but a time-tested strategy to offer. The ability to stand up for truth against error while also standing with the truth wherever it can be found is sorely needed not only in the Church, but in our world. So, as a confessional Lutheran, I will continue to be honest about areas of disagreement. But I will also never forget to look for areas of agreement. Finally, I will pray that those areas of agreement would continue to increase among others and myself until we all agree with Jesus. For agreeing with Him is what matters most.

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[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 38, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 88–89.

September 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Wisdom That’s Not So Wise

Credit:  wired.com

Credit: wired.com

It was G.K. Chesterton who said, “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.”[1]  There just seems to be something about one’s own age the dupes those living in it into thinking they are living in the best age – they are living at the pinnacle of human achievement, intelligence, and insight, unsurpassed by anything that has come before it, or, for that matter, anything that will come after it.

Case in point:  Albert Schweitzer, in his seminal work The Quest of the Historical Jesus, opens by touting his credentials:

When, at some future day, our period of civilization shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time.  For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors – of philosophic though, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling – without which no deep philosophy is possible.[2]

At least Schweitzer doesn’t have a confidence problem.

The ironic thing about Schweitzer’s opening paragraph is that on the back of this very book is this review:  “Schweitzer’s … proposals no longer command endorsement.”  In other words, Schweitzer, who thought his age was so wise that the people, and specifically the Germans, in it could in no way be mistaken, were, in fact, mistaken.  Perhaps his German pedigree wasn’t as intellectually impenetrable as he thought it was.

Whether or not we are as unabashedly arrogant as Schweitzer, we all, to one extent or another, use our age as the measuring rod for all ages.  We project the sensibilities of our age back onto the past and even forward into the future.

Greg Miller of Wired Science recently published a pithy little post, “Here’s How People 100 Years Ago Thought We’d Be Living Today.”[3]  Ed Fries, the former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft, shared with Miller a fascinating cache of vintage European postcards that offer a glimpse of how the people of yesteryear thought we would be living in our years.  For instance, there is one postcard featuring a prop plane with a spotlight and luggage attached to the top of the cabin ushering a group of tourists to the moon for “just another weekend trip.”  The year, according to the postcard, is 2012.  Are any rockets needed?  No.  And the people on the aircraft seem to be blissfully unconcerned with the fact that their cabin is not pressurized.  Another postcard features a videophone, projecting its picture onto a wall, just like the movies of the early 1900’s did.  Apparently, those at the turn of the 20th century simply could not envision the hand-held screens we enjoy today.  Perhaps most comically, the people in all of these postcards are decked out in their early 1900’s wears.  As Miller wryly notes, though everything else underwent radical evolutions, “fashion stayed frozen in time.”

For all the fanciful things these postcards envision, they are embarrassingly transparent products of their time.  No one would mistake these as accurate or modern depictions of our age.  The people of the early 1900’s, it seems, were stuck in the early 1900’s.

We would do well to remember that just like the people of the early 1900’s were stuck in the early 1900’s, the people of the early 2000’s are, well, stuck in the early 2000’s.  We too are products of our time.  Not that this is all bad.  Our age has much too offer.  But our age cannot lead us to disparage other ages – especially past ages.  For the wisdom of the past that we discount as foolishness in the present may just be the wisdom of our present that will be discounted as foolishness in the future.  In other words, we should take the wisdom of our age with a grain of salt.

One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it self-consciously bucks the human tendency to jump on the bandwagon of whatever zeitgeist happens to be popular at any given moment.  Indeed, it sees past learning as key to present wisdom.    As the apostle Paul says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  This is why, according to one count, the Old Testament is cited in the New Testament some 263 times.[4]  Wisdom, according to Scripture, cannot be confined to just one age.  It needs many ages.

When you look at your present, then, don’t assume that your day is the greatest day and your generation the greatest generation.  Or, to use the words of Moses, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).  Wisdom is not just when you are.  It was before you.  And it will continue after you.  Wise, therefore, is the person whose memory and vision is long.

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[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908).

[2] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Mineola:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1911), 1.

[3] Greg Miller, “Here’s How People 100 Years Ago Thought We’d Be Living Today,” wired.com (5.28.2014).

[4]New Testament Citations of the Old Testament,” crossway.org (3.17.2006).

June 2, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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