A Church of Mercy

(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)

Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural.  Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.

Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.

read: A Church of Mercy

photo courtesy of stock.xchng
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Witherington on Piper…

Last Wednesday, Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) posting a very fine, interesting response to a John Piper interview about the perceived arrogance and negativity of Calvinists.  Having been raised in, studied in, and served in Calvinistic circles for many years before coming to Lutheranism, I found some of Dr. Witherington’s comments both striking and brilliantly perceptive.  He writes:

For whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

As an engineer, Air Force officer, and otherwise pretty anal-retentive and over-analytical person, the “intellectual certainty” was a very big draw of Calvinistic theology for a very long time.  I wanted answers.  I wanted precise answers.  I wanted a black-and-white, crystal clear understanding of not only the Bible but of God too.  Reformed theology offers just this sort of approach in many areas and really fit me quite well.  The trouble is, as Dr. Witherington continues:

But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.

As much as it hurts to admit it…I think Dr. Witherington is spot on.  Yes, the Reformed world does a marvelous job forming a precise, logically coherent, systematic theology, but it draws “the circle much too small” and leaves out “all the inconvenient contrary evidence.”  It doesn’t take much looking over the prooftexts of the Westminster Confession (for one) to see that many inconvenient passages of Scripture speaking to a certain tenet are conveniently left out.  I discovered this truth primarily while working on my ordination paper and personal confession of faith required for my Ordination Vicinage Board.  As I poured over the great Reformed confessions in order to style my own in a fashion similar to the WCF, the Three Forms of Unity, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and others, I found that all too often, they simply failed to acknowledge passages that failed to fit into “the system.”

Does the Book of Concord provide a wonderful explanation of what it means to be Lutheran?  Yes.  Is it always tidy, neat, and logically coherent?  Not really.  That said, I’d rather hold to a confession that holds closely to the testimony of Scripture, even at the expense of 100% logical coherence.  As Dr. Witherington also writes:

While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on.

The best professors I had in seminary, Calvinists many of them, were humble enough to recognize this great truth and cling more tightly to their copy of Scripture than to their Confessions.  We would do well to be of the same mindset as these!

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Luther on Hard Questions

One of the areas I wrestled with most over my years in Reformed theology was its insistence on not only asking but attempting to answer some very ‘hard questions’ about God, his will, and his ways.  As much as the hidden will of God was discussed, there was always lots and lots of speculation about the hidden things of God, especially among contemporary Reformed types.  For example, these often unanswerable questions are invariably raised in discussions about the Fall (Gen 3).  As usual, Luther brings his wise counsel to the table:

This passage (Gen 3) raises a lot of questions.  Some people become curious and ask, “Well, why did God permit Satan to lute Eve into sin?  Why did Satan appear to Eve in the form of a serpent instead of some other animal?”

No one can explain why God permits things to happen.  No one understands what he does or why he does it.  So we should remember the lesson that Job learned: no one can summon God into court to account for what he does or allows to happen.  We might as well argue with him about why the grass and trees aren’t green all year long.  It’s enough for us to know that all these things are under God’s power.  He can do as he pleases.  Idle curiosity causes guessing and questioning…

As much as there is still a part of me that wants to answer these sorts of difficult “Why?” questions to vainly prove my mastery of theology and philosophy (read with a great dose of sarcasm), I’m reminded by my son that “Why?” is often an immature response to situations we dislike.  Very rarely, even (or perhaps especially) in the area of theology, do we attempt to ask and answer “Why?” questions out of a spirit of humility and childlike wonder.  Instead, we concoct great speculations which often serve only to puff up.

Added to this, in times of great personal tragedy, there really is no good pastoral answer to the question of “Why?”  Then is not the time to speculate on the mysteries of Providence.  Instead, it is the time to grieve and pray with our hurting brothers and sisters in Christ.  “No one can explain why God permits things to happen,” Luther writes.  We can, however, surely know how God feels about us, his children–one glance at the cross yields the unmistakable answer!  Amen.

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Interesting Thoughts on Ascension Day

With respect to Reformed and Lutheran differences in understanding, Dr. Gene Veith has made some interesting observations about the significance of Christ’s ascension into heaven.  He writes:

It’s odd that the significance of Christ’s ascension is taken in two opposite ways: The Reformed say that it means Christ is ABSENT, no longer on earth, so that His real presence in the sacrament is impossible. Lutherans say that it means Christ, at the right hand of Power, His human nature assumed into the Holy Trinity, can now be omnipresent, so that He CAN be on every altar.

Much of this tracks directly to Calvin and Zwingli’s philosophical understanding (and presuppositions), which creates marked theological differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology.  Dr. Veith, without a doubt, has succinctly captured the essence of these differences and their consequences in his practical and easily understood words.

Theology…Knowing God

Yesterday at Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen posted marvelous words about placing emphasis in our lives on those things that are important to God.  In his post, he discussed both the necessity and the aim of theology…to know God:

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

These words ring especially true coming from a Reformed background and having attended a staunchly Calvinistic seminary.  Especially among the students in seminary, all too often our theological ‘studies’ tended to become little more than cataloging of facts about God rather than an effort to truly know him.  Whether formal students of theology or not, we are all guilty at times of the same offense.  We forget that God is not an object of study to be observed and researched–the depth of his will is not a divine ‘problem’ to be solved, the wonder of the incarnation not a mundane occurrence that is easily explained, the mystery of grace and sacraments not ‘parlor tricks’ to be explained away.

As analytical and logic-driven as our minds might be, and as Westerners we deceive ourselves if we claim not to be bound tenaciously by reason and logic, we must focus not on our speculations about theology but on truly knowing our Triune God through his gracious revelation to us–centering, of course, on the incarnation and revelation in Christ Jesus. We must be reminded of Jesus’ words, as Fr. Stephen as done beautifully, that to know God is life eternal.

Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for you timely yet gentle words.