Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Are Protestants Heretics"

I saw this post on Cyberbrethren, and I find it fascinating. Martin Luther (I think it was him) said that quite a few people "get" the Gospel on their death bed. And what do we read about St. Therese? Have a look!

"I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, “I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,” I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works. … Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake."

Can you believe it? I suppose death does really focus the mind.

And if you like conspiracy theories, these passages were suppressed for over a century.(Please see update below)

Now, her writing here sounds very, very Lutheran to me. The author of the article, Edward T. Oakes, S.J., agrees.

The overall point of the article is that many RC people throw the "heretic" label around a little too liberally, as to many prots who can never seem to find Christ inside the RCC--even though he is there in the Sacraments.

Anyway, I suggest anyone who reads this blog read the whole article, it is really pretty interesting.


I am revising this post because Fr. Oakes removed the reference to suppression of St. Therese's works; Rusty pointed out this never happened. There was no suppression of St. Therese's works because they sounded too Lutheran, in fact there was no supression at all. Upstate Lutheran regrets the error.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The 97 Theses

I found Luther's 97 theses by accident on the web at Contend Earnestly: Luther's 97 Theses: Disputation Against Scholastic Theology. What I found in this early writing of Luther's (actually, a series of propositions to be debated) were gems like these:

35. It is not true that an invincible ignorance excuses one completely (all scholastics notwithstanding);

"Invincible Ignorance" is one way some RC apologists avoid the necessary conclusion that e.g. Lutherans will all go to hell, because we believe things in direct contradiction to the canons of the Council of Trent. it means that we so sincerely believe our erroneous doctrines that we cannot be turned toward the truth, and so God forgives this error. I was not aware the idea was so old!

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

While I agree with this, some may say "grace" is given before Baptism, a grace by which we seek God because he preserved that ability from the fall. Needless to say, we believe this makes hash out of much of the Holy Scriptures.

84. The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

One thing I love about our catholic heritage is the belief that we are totally helpless before God, and we even depend on his grace for our believing in him. Hence, we cannot really obey the law without God--even if we seem more righteous externally. Think of the pharisee and the tax collector. Our eyes would of course be drawn to the pharisee because of his obedience to the law--and his obedience is to be commended. However, his obedience did not justify him because he exulted in his own obedience instead of in the grace of God; even going so far as to point at another as a foil to show his own righteousness. (This parable is often taken to be against "externals", but it is really for "internals", the indwelling of Christ which we receive through faith, and from that faith all sorts of good works will follow.)

87. Since the law is good, the will, which is hostile to it, cannot be good.
88. And from this it is clear that everyone’s natural will is iniquitous and bad.

If these are true (and I believe they are), it becomes impossible to say we have a little spark in us which seeks God--except perhaps to bend him to our will. As the good Fr. Luther says, if the law is good, and we are opposed to the law, then our will is bad.

90. The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God. In opposition to Gabriel.

This would put "justification" in a category besides solely a "forensic" mode. Now, this is early Luther, but I think that for us "justification" means more than merely a "not guilty" verdict.

Anyway, an interesting read.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Some thoughts on externals

A while back, my wife, who was not Lutheran at the time, was told that she would possibly be struck dead because she did not fast before communion--as St. Paul clearly said in 1 Corinthians, because she had not had sufficient respect for the body and blood of the Lord. Not only that, she should go to the priest and ask for penance to submit herself to the discipline of the Church.

Now, I don't want to beat up on other confessions, but when we concentrate on what some call "externals", they can take the place of the central things in the life of a Christian. This is a good anecdote--what is more important, disciplining the body or receiving new life through the forgiveness offered by Christ himself in the Sacrament of the alter? Of course I believe it is the latter.

If what I am doing in my Christian life starts with the preparations I make instead of what Christ offers to me, the battle is already half lost because I focus on myself. Fortunately for me, even if I focus on myself, Christ still forgives me because he loves me and died for me. In other words, the Sacrament does not become ineffective because my faith is defective. It is certainly true that receiving the Sacrament over time will help my broken faith to mend. Fasting is a fine thing, truly it is--but it is not the object of our faith. Christ is, and we encounter Christ in the Sacraments and in the preaching of his word.

Now to be fair, no one consciously believes he focuses on himself when he prepares for e.g. Holy Communion, it is just another insidious trick of our enemy, a thing we are all too prone to fall for as we wish to be the center of things at all times. So let us thank the Lord for his mercy, that he still saves us when we turn in on ourselves--that even when we rebel we have the comfort of what he gave us in our Baptism, and which he richly gives us when we hear the precious words of the Gospel.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"Private Interpretation" as a rhetorical tool

This is a slightly modified post I made on TWeb, a theology discussion forum. Here are some tactics I see among RC and EO apologists. Not all of them, but I see these as a tend, and I think they are illegitimate:

Just because you believe your church is "the" Church, doesn't mean others agree

You will not get anywhere if you just assume you are correct, that your choice of a church is correct without even acknowledging that others make the same claim about their church, often using exactly the same types of arguments you do--e.g. Apostolic Succession. You are entitled to believe your interpretation of the Scriptures, or that of the church you chose, or that of Charles Taze Russel is the correct one. What you are not entitled to is to expect me to agree with your interpretation based on the fact your church is "the" Church, nor can you expect me to accept your own self description as following "the" Church while everyone else is not. I do not believe the RCC is "the" Church, I do not believe the EO churches are "the" Church, and I am not alone--since those two are not even in communion with each other.

Just because Luther said it, doesn't mean we believe it

We are not bound by everything Luther believed. You are free to find something within the Lutheran dogmatic corpus to refute me on that, but you are not entitled to assume that we are so bound in the face of Lutherans' statements otherwise without some kind of evidence. Luther said a lot of things, as did the Fathers, as has the pope. Are you bound by every single statement by any of the popes, of the Fathers? If not, don't expect me to be bound by every word Luther wrote, and for many of the same reasons you would not want to be bound by every statement by any pope. We are bound to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.

Yes, you are a denomination too

Every church is a denomination, and the way the RC/EO apologists use the term is another example of an attempt to steal a base, so to speak. It is a neat rhetorical trick to put someone else on the defensive by asserting "we are the Church while you are merely a denomination". It just happens not to work very well with me as I am familiar with this stratagem. It is a false argument, and when too many false arguments are advanced it should make one wonder about the truthfulness of the thing being argued.

Mere assertion proves nothing

So, do you have anything besides your choice to follow the teachings of the pope or the "consensus of the Church", or will you merely say our use of Scripture is by definition "private interpretation" because we don't follow your authority--which you privately determined to follow I might add-- so you really don't have to deal with the substance of what we believe?

Words have meaning

What the Scriptures, the Fathers, or any other writings or speeches say has meaning. Words are not play dough to be conformed to what "the" Church says they mean, God did not give us a cipher text, nor does he deal with us in obscure language when he wants us to know something. If God's wrath is really the experience of God's love by the ungodly, he would have said so.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Should women receive Holy Communion? Should infants be baptized?

Quite often, we hear that because there are no examples of infants being baptized in the Scriptures we should not baptize infants. Whole households which are baptized don't matter, because we would be assuming infants are present. This is something which "decision baptizers" will hold to at all costs. We should not follow a custom of men without God's warrant.

Now, for communing women. A while back, I asked a friend who who follows the above principle whether, if we have no examples of women receiving Holy Communion, we should be communing women. After all, there are no explicit examples, and we are not allowed to assume anything or we are not following the reformation principle of "Sola Scriptura"--we may not substitute our judgment for that of the Scriptures.

I thought his head would explode, as he frantically tried to change the subject.

Anyway, my point is not to give debating points to my Lutheran brothers and sisters, but to question whether the "Regulative Principle" has any practical use. How does one decide if we should make Communion a Passover meal or not?. It seems to me that my friend above, if he really followed his principle consistently, should refuse Communion to women. I can't think of a single group who does this, and it makes me wonder of the arguments against infant baptism are not, on some level, really special pleading.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Word of God, and other word problems

Some times the words get in the way.

For a variety of reasons, many people think we Lutherans believe that the Bible is the word of God in the sense of it being Christ himself. Here is an example.

No one I know believes that. But I do think that often our "technical" terms get in the way of communication; after all, don't we also call Jesus Christ the Word of God? The same is true of the reformation slogan "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture Alone), which many take to mean the Scriptures totally divorced from any sense of tradition or continuity with the past.

Now, think about "Sola Fide" (Faith Alone). Some may think that just by trusting in Jesus Christ we are saved--which is true except that some believe this means we must merely have the right opinions about Christ and have a vague idea of the sin for which he paid. We are not saved because we have the correct opinions but because we are reborn when we receive the gift of Christ's work on our behalf. we receive this gift through faith and not because we have certain opinions.

We need not abandon our historic vocabulary, but when we speak of Christ to others we should try and avoid sloganeering, as there is a good chance we will be misunderstood. I don't remember who said it, but he said something like "When we speak of justification by faith, we must say it without using the words justified or faith".

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Church cannot err

I have seen this claim made by both EO and RCC apologists, tough they mean different things by it.

The RCC apologists say that the Church cannot err because the pope has a unique gift--the gift of not making any mistakes when he teaches the whole Church about a matter of faith, i.e. dogma, or morals. This unique gift was bestowed on St. Peter by Christ himself, and St. Peter's succssors possess the same gift. The EO apologists claim that while the Church may be in error here or there, as a whole the Church cannot err. By "as a whole" they mean over a period of time, perhaps centuries.

I believe both of these models are bunk.

Both groups are clever enough to limit the circumstances in which infallibility is operative. No one would dare claim a global infallibility in the Church.

The RC model initially may sound "cleaner", in that the infallibility is vested in a single office in specific circumstances. Not everything a pope says is considered binding on the faithful--only when he teaches the whole Church is he infallible.

The last part is the rub, though. You see, it is not possible to determine which parts of the pope's pronouncements are infallible and which are not by simply determining whether the pope is teaching the whole Church at this point or that one. Sometimes, different parts of a document or pronncement are infallible while others are not. A good example of this is the papal bull Unam Sanctam which one would at first blush assume fits the definition of an infallible statement. But that is not the case. Only parts, determined by RC scholars, are in fallible while others are not. So, I must depend on the fallible pronouncements of the Curia, along with my own fallible reason, to determine what the pope says. In other words, the infallible pronouncements are mediated through fallible people. So how can I have any confidence in what the fallible people say the supposed infallible pope says when he teaches the Church? It seems to me that the pope's infallibility is not useful in a practical way.

A similar thing happens with the Eastern Orthodox. Their claim is a little more nuanced in that for them it is possible for large parts of the Church to be in error, but "as a whole" and "over time" the Church will not err. This means that the Church could indeed be in error for a time, perhaps even a few hundred years, but the whole Church will never be in error; over time most of the Church will not be in error. Now, the EO add another nuance in that the Church consists of those Apostolic sees which are in fellowship with each other--only EO churches are the true Catholic Churches.

The problems with the EO approach are twofold.

First, their whole schema depends on assuming that they are indeed the original, the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. They, and not the Oriental Orthodox, the Copts, the RC, the Lutherans etc. etc. are really the Church, and only within the EO communion can one be assured of God working among his people with the true Sacraments. This is simply assumed to be true by the EO apologists I have encountered. The problem is that the Copts, the RC, the Oriental Orthodox etc. each claim to be the true Apostolic Church--and they make similar appeals to history to "prove" it. This does not make the EO claims false, of course, it just means that unless one buys into the first premise--that they are really the Church--the rest of their claims are in doubt. I have discussed this particular issue several times with several capable EO apologists and I have yet to see them deal with this except to merely reassert the point, erhaps with the addition that I do not "understand" what they say.

The second issue is similar to the RC issue I outlined above. If the Church can take centuries to take care of error what guarantee do I have that what they say is apostolic today is actually apostolic? Also, how does one determine what "the Church as a whole" is? from my experience, it is simply defined as the Eastern Orthodox Churches, never mind any other communions who are not in communion with the EOC.

I enjoy these types of intellectual exercises, and I believe that the RC and EOC are trying to maintain their own "infallibility" by making so many qualifications that the original statement does not have any practical meaning.

We Lutherans, however, have a pretty workable definition of "The Church is infallible". We believe that the Church will never fail where the Gospel is preached. ("Gospel" here means forgiveness and nw life granted to the believer for the sake of Christ). The Gospel does not depend on any institutions of the Church to be without error, but on God's offer of forgiveness and victory over death he offers to us in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Church does not fail when she is faithful to her Lord, when she says what the Apostles said, when she repeats the blessed words of love the Father has toward us in Jesus Christ--not in any abstract notions of "infallibility" which are qualified beyond all recognition because of the manifest fallibility of the Church in history.

So it is true the Church cannot err, just not in the way that re-affirms the institutions of the Church. Someone said the Church is not an institution with sacraments, but a sacrament with institutions. The sacrament, or mystery of God saving us thriugh the Church will not fail, even if te institutions do.

Sunday, January 7, 2007


We are still unpacking from our move to Albany. Unpacking is a royal you-know-what. So blogging will be very light.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Nut allergies

My son is allergic to walnuts and pecans; he is sensitive to other "tree" nuts, as well as peanuts. I am sure others have said this or have written about this phenomenon, but I would really like to know where this came from. When I was growing up in the '70s, I didn't know a single person who had a nut allergy, now I know several kids with nut allergies. How could something go from basically unheard of to common?

Nut allergies wouldn't be a problem if they weren't so dangerous. In my Long Island congregation, we lost a 15 year old girl because she accidentally ate some candy.

Unfortunately, our allergist has no firm answers as to the cause, and the "treatment" is to avoid all nuts, plus carry antihistamine and an epi-pen in case our son eats a nut and has a reaction. There is no explanation for this besides vague theories, and all "sensitivity" levels, except the very lowest, can be deadly.

What gives here?

Just wondering, like the medical professionals do, I think. I hope there are some answers soon.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Thoughts on "Who Deserves the death penalty?"

John H over at Confessing Evangelical wrote a thought provoking post on whether the state ought to use the death penalty--he allowed that the Bible permits the state to execute criminals.

John's point is that though Scripture allows the death penalty, this is mitigated by examples where the one deserving death is spared. The examples he provided are God's promise to Cain that anyone who killed Cain would receive a sevenfold punishment, and the adulterous woman who Jesus forgave even though she was deserving of death. In other words, in these cases those who, like Saddam Hussein, deserved to die were allowed to live. He also concludes that though the Old Testament certainly has a lot of examples of the death penalty for crimes, we should not "order our own societies" according to the OT law.

After reading his post I was intrigued and I began to think about the issues he raised. Here is what I believe:

The examples John chose from Scripture are, in my opinion, examples of God's unmerited mercy toward the sinner, not really examples of how the state should apply the law. We should also keep in mind that in the examples John gave it was God himself who stayed his hand from executing the criminal. Also, we should not use one-off examples to over turn the many clear passages and examples of where God himself ordered the death of people, e.g. the firstborn of Egypt for Pharaoh's stubbornness, King Herod for his blasphemy.

John has an answer for this.

John uses the example of slavery, to show that what the Scriptures permit can later be forbidden by the Church for moral reasons. But the slave argument, if pressed to its logical conclusion, could be made to cause all inconvenient laws to be abrogated. Once we feel we may decide which laws are only principles which we may ignore in practice the flood gates open. What about those who want a divorce for trivial reasons? Didn't the Church relax its stance against slavery over the years because slavery is cruel? What about homosexuality? Didn't the Church relax its stance against slavery over the years because it is cruel? I can't see where this would stop. Unless one can say why the slavery example is really pertinent as a principle, I think arguments against the use of the death penalty based on biblical slavery are beside the point.

Monday, January 1, 2007

More on Confidence in the public square

As I stated in my previous post, the Orthodox (and to a lesser degree the RC apologists) have much more confidence in their claims than we Lutherans do in ours when we discuss contentious issues. This confidence is very useful in contentious debate as in effect the real debate often becomes one over authority when post-modern assumptions--"How can you know what this says?" come into play. When the Lutheran says "St. Paul says we are forgiven for Christ's sake and so God's wrath is turned aside" the Orthodox (or RC) apologist only has to assert, with perhaps some citations froma Church father, that the text does not really mean that because the Church interprets it differently, and if you persist in your interpretation you are against the whole Church throughout history.

As I said, this confidence that the EOC is the Church is very useful. Notice that the discussion will shift from "What does the Holy Spirit say in the Scriptures?" to "How can you even know what the Holy Spirit says if you are not one of us?"--i.e. who has authority to interpret? If one believes one really has authority, one will be more confident--and confidence is attractive.

Now, as a Lutheran I have a problem with this. Do we really want to believe that the Scriptures are basically a cipher without an interpreter? I would like to point out that I believe one can understand what the Scriptures say with reason alone, but one can only believe what they say through the Holy Spirit. I also believe that implicitly stating that the Scriptures have what amounts to an esoteric meaning, only accessible through the good offices of the infallible interpreter--be it the bishop of Rome or the "consensus of the Church throughout history", is a bit gnostic in my opinion. (I hasten to add that this does not make the one advancing these ideas gnostic!)

So, in the future, we should have more confidence the revelation of the prophets, priests, kings and apostles in the Old and New testaments. We should also have confidence that ours is indeed an historic faith, and not something cooked up by Fr. Martin Luther in a tower.

Confidence in the public square

First, a happy and blessed New Year to all.

Second, I am often involved in discussions with Eastern Orthodox lay people on the theology "debate" site

What I would like to point out is that the EO people there are very confident in their beliefs and traditions. This confidence means they have an almost automatic upper hand in discussions. Indeed, they often just baldly state that while they are the Church, Lutherans are a denomination named for a guy named Luther. There have been several conversions of people from various Western communions to Eastern Orthodoxy there, and I think this confidence has something to do with it.

To be honest, we Lutherans are strongest in these types of discussions when we stick to Christ, the Sacraments, and the Scriptures. The last two testify about what God has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ, and isn't that what Christianity is centered upon? So, why not start with what is really important--instead of historical pedigrees. (those are important too, but they are not nearly as important as Christ, the Sacraments and the Scriptures).

More tomorrow.