Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jesus, the Metaphorical Theologian

I’ve been reading a lot of Kenneth Bailey the past year or so. I find him a particularly valuable exegete because (1.) he knows the culture of the Middle East and is therefore attuned to cultural aspects that get overlooked by Western eyes, (2.) he is attentive to the literary structures of the parables and even the seemingly “disorganized” material of 1 Corinthians, and (3.) he understands Jesus as a metaphorical theologian. It is the last point that I want to explore a little further. As Bailey outlines in his introduction to Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 and chapter 21 of Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, there are two ways to do theology: conceptually or metaphorically. We in the West tend to choose the former. We think in ideas—often abstract ideas—and then (if necessary) occasionally use a story or simile as an illustration. This is how the Apostle Paul seems to operate, and thus most Westerners find him a more sophisticated theologian than the story-telling Jesus. (I know, I know. Jesus is the Son of God who has all the intelligence of the Divine, but He seems to be too simplistic a thinker. He can’t even write a sentence that stretches out to half a chapter as Paul does!) But a metaphorical theologian finds the metaphor or parable as the primary thought and any conceptual interpretation around it as secondary. The hearer is to step inside the world of the metaphor and view the metaphor as the firmest reality; if need be, the concepts can be explained.

Bailey refers to Jesus’ parable as houses where one can look around and see a wide variety of truths. Eschewing the allegorical method and the quick “make one point of comparison and exit” method, he argues that the parables present a worldview that bears detailed examination—but not the kind that ignores the cultural roots from which they stem. Bailey also is quick to point out the intertextuality of our Lord’s parables. Our Lord’s Good Shepherd motif of Luke 15 and John 10 build on Old Testament passages such as Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23, and Ezekiel 34 (Finding the Lost, p. 68). The metaphor of the relationship between God and His people is the same throughout these passages, but there are subtle differences. The Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John, and (as Bailey argues) Luke passages speak of bad shepherds, while that is not the concern of Psalm 23. Ezekiel and our Lord (in John) distinguish between bad and good sheep, but none of the others do. All the passages speak of sheep being returned to the fold, but in Psalm 23 and Luke 15, it is a return to God, in Jeremiah it is a return to the land, and in Ezekiel it is both. Thus, a metaphorical theologian such as our Lord (and for that matter, most if not all of the Old Testament prophets) are not content to tell a story, but to craft and re-craft old stories, adding here and trimming there and altering elsewhere to cast a new emphasis on a familiar story. And thus Isaiah’s story of Israel as the bad vineyard becomes our Lord’s story of the Sanhedrin as the bad vineyard workers—a similar overall conceptual frame, but a different emphasis.

If you read the Scriptures carefully, you will find that a phrase or word in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) often provokes an image or metaphor in the mind of one of the prophets, which in turn prompts our Lord to construe a parable in a particular way. Far from being haphazard or merely cute, these parables of our Lord have a theological depth that we wrongly underestimate.

I am too much of a Westerner to be a metaphorical theologian. But reading Bailey on this topic has not only allowed me to understand the parables of our Lord better, but also to explain why I have disliked most of the sermon illustrations I have heard over the years. I have always discerned that such stories were trying to be as profound as our Lord’s parables, but failed somehow or another. Most sermon illustrations have little to do with the text or even the point being made by the preacher, but are simply ear candy to keep the listeners engaged. Bailey’s division between conceptual and metaphorical theology explains why those sermon illustrations fall flat: they are mere illustrations of the “more important” abstract concepts that the preacher is trying to communicate. They are huts or ragged tents compared to the solid houses our Lord built.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Just a Couple Dozen Topics—That’s All

In my last post, I argued that you could reduce the content of the Book of Concord to a couple dozen topics. You can consider this blog entry to be “the footnotes” for that post. I have arranged the content in outline format since some of the topics are clearly subcategories of other topics. You’ll need to know the following abbreviations: AC = Augsburg Confession; Ap. = Apology; SA = Smalcald Articles; Treatise = Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope; SC = Small Catechism; LC = Large Catechism; and FC = Formula of Concord. The numbering system of the Apology is somewhat convoluted and varies by edition, but I have followed the Kolb/Wengert numbering system since it lines up with that of the Augsburg Confession.

Often these articles may touch on some other topics tangentially, such as when Luther’s comments on the mass in SA 2:2 also deal with purgatory, the invocation of saints, and other topics. I have not tried to note every such subtopic because (as I argued in my last post) there is a particular coherence in the worldview that would guarantee that a Lutheran view of the mass would be in line with the Lutheran view of purgatory and vice versa.

By the way, the picture I have chosen to illustrate this blog entry illustrates that I am not the first to think that the various topics of the confessions cohere with one another. This is a sixteenth century woodcut that portrays the various topics of the Augsburg Confession as essentially seven branches of a lampstand illuminated by the Holy Spirit and grounded on the Scriptures and Christ. If you can read German, try to enlarge the picture and give it a closer look. It packs a lot of theology into a brief amount of space. (I downloaded the picture from Wiki Commons, where I get a lot of my free, out-of-copyright-protection pictures that I post here.)

I.                   God/Trinity: AC 1; Ap. 1; SA 1; SC 2; LC 2.
II.                Sin/Anthropology of the Fallen State: AC 19; Ap. 19; SA 3:1.
A.                Original Sin: AC 2; Ap. 2; FC 1.
B.                 Free will: AC 18; Ap. 18; SA 3:1; FC 2.
III.             The Law: SA 3:2; SC 1; LC 1; FC 5, 6.
IV.             Christ/His two natures/Unity of His person: AC 3; Ap. 3; SA 1; SC 2; LC 2; FC 3, 8, 9, 12.
V.                Justification: AC 4; Ap. 4; SA 2:1; 3:13; FC 3.
VI.             Repentance: AC 12; Ap. 12; SA 3:3.
VII.          Predestination/Election: FC 11.
VIII.       Ministry/Preaching office: AC 5, AC 14; Ap. 14; SA 3:4, 10.
A.                Clerical marriage: AC 23; Ap. 23; SA 3:11.
B.                 Power of bishops and of the pope: AC 28; Ap. 28; SA 2:4; Treatise.
IX.             Sanctification/good works: AC 6, AC 20; Ap. 4, Ap. 20; SA 3:13; FC 4.
X.                The church: AC 7, AC 8; Ap. 7-8; SA 3:12.
A.                Church regulations and ceremonies: AC 15, AC 24, AC 26; Ap. 15, Ap. 24; SA 2:2; 3:15; FC 10.
B.                 Invocation of the saints: AC 21; Ap. 21; SA 2:2.
C.                 Monasticism: AC 27; Ap. 27; SA 2:3; 3:14.
XI.             The sacraments: AC 13; Ap. 13.
A.                Baptism: AC 9; Ap. 9; SC 4; LC 4; SA 3:5.
B.                 The Lord’s Supper: AC 10; Ap. 10; SA 3:6; SC 6; LC 6; FC 7.
C.                 Two kinds in the sacrament: AC 22; Ap. 22.
D.                (Private) confession and absolution: AC 11, AC 25; Ap. 11; SA 3:7-9; SC 5; LC 5.
XII.          Government and secular life: AC 16; Ap. 16; FC 12.
XIII.       The return of Christ: AC 17; Ap. 17.

Why We Need the Longer Creeds

The reader of my last two posts is probably aware that I am dwelling on a particular theme: what value is there in the oft derided “institutional church”? So far we have seen that the church will invariably develop an institutional side to it. I have also argued that creeds and confessions are an integral part of the Christian church, for believers in Christ and their teachers alike. Those who believe in a “creedless Christianity” often end up with a formula that often reads like a creed. People may try to escape creeds and confessions, but cannot.

Perhaps, though, the problem isn’t with having creeds and confessions, but rather insisting on particular creeds. Why cannot we all just accept something like the Apostles’ Creed and be done with it? Why do we Lutherans insist on our pastors confessing all the confessions that make up the Book of Concord rather than a much shorter creed? After all, if creeds are meant to be brief summaries of the Christian faith, the Book of Concord does not have economy of words. And even if one acknowledges the right of Lutherans to confess something like the confessions in the Book of Concord, cannot we acknowledge various other confessions used by other churches—such as the Second Helvetic Confession or the Westminster Confession or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the New Hampshire Baptist Confession—as equally orthodox, thereby meriting their adherents a right to the pulpits and altars of Lutheran churches?

First of all, we should not be intimidated by the size of the Book of Concord. At first glance, it looks as if it must have hundreds of doctrines for people to believe in. But there are only 21 doctrinal topics (and 7 matters of practice) that are addressed in the Augsburg Confession. These same topics are repeated in the Apology. Much of what the Smalcald Articles has to say can be found in the Augsburg Confession, and the Formula of Concord (the most detailed of the confessions) addressed a dozen topics that had been handled at least in a cursory fashion in earlier confessions. Thus, the number of topics to be found in the Lutheran confessions is not that large. Furthermore, if you were to print only the doctrinal statements and not the arguments for them (whether exegesis of biblical passages or appeals to history and the church fathers or refutations of opponents’ arguments), you would end up with something the size of a smallish monograph. (Of course, even though Lutherans pledge themselves only to the doctrinal content of the Book of Concord, we find it helpful to read the exegesis and argumentation for particular points of doctrine. Serious Lutherans may disagree with the exegesis of a particular passage or two, but no one who thinks that all of the exegesis in the confessions is rot and nonsense is likely to be a serious Lutheran.)

Moreover, you would find that the answers given on one topic cohere with the answers given on another. It is difficult to believe in the pervasive power of original sin, for example, and still insist that a believer can merit their salvation by their own works. It is not surprising, then, to see that Lutherans believe both that original sin retains its power in believers’ lives and that we are justified solely by grace through faith, while Rome believes that original sin is abolished by baptism and that believers can through grace attain perfection—and indeed must do so before entering heaven. Not surprisingly, Rome sees purgatory as a necessary means to get the less than perfect into heaven, while Lutherans see it as a needless idea and one that obscures salvation through faith in Christ. The answers given by each confession on original sin, justification, and purgatory line up. Thus, it would be difficult to adopt a Roman view of purgatory and original sin, but a Lutheran view of justification (or vice versa).

That also explains why we Lutherans do not accept other confessions of faith (such as those I named in the second paragraph) as equally legitimate as our own. To be sure, there are many commonalities, insofar as they all acknowledge the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Some acknowledge a similar position on justification. But one finds a serious disagreement between the Lutheran Confessions on the one hand and those of the Reformed, Arminians, and Baptists on the other hand over several key topics: the nature and use of the sacraments; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; the perfection that can be attained in the Christian life; the scope of free will; eternal predestination and the use of the doctrine of election; and the relationship of the two natures in Christ, to name a few. It isn’t merely that we disagree on a few topics, but that each confessional stance has its own overall point of view that gives rise to the disagreements on individual topics, much as Lutherans and Roman Catholics have different presuppositions that lead to their divergent views on original sin, justification, and purgatory.

We rejoice to the extent that the various major confessions—Roman, Eastern, Lutheran, Reformed, Arminian, Baptist, and Pentecostal—confess the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other core Christian doctrines. But there are still major differences in these confessions over important topics—topics that Lutherans see as part of essential Christian doctrine. For example, we Lutherans wouldn’t like to see anyone discourage Christians by teaching them that they can achieve perfection while still here on earth. But Arminians wouldn’t like to see anyone discourage Christians by teaching them that they cannot achieve perfection while still here on earth. Lutherans find perfectionism to be a most destructive and damnable teaching, while Arminians find it to be a most comforting and encouraging teaching. To hear both messages preached from the same pulpit would confuse the ordinary Christian in the pew, especially since both Lutherans and Arminians insist that this is an important teaching, one that cannot be ignored or swept under the rug.

Our confessions remind us then that we Christians still have unfinished business. We are not yet in agreement even on important and fundamental questions, but must still work to bring about unity in teaching. The Reformation raised several questions on crucial topics, but no one answer was given by all Christians. Thus, our different confessions remind us that we can neither ignore these matters nor find agreement on them as of yet. Our divergent confessions underscore the doctrinal divisions that underlie the ecclesiastical divisions. If we want to heal the latter, we will have to deal seriously with the former. That is why ignoring later confessions and opting for only the Apostles’ Creed won’t work today.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Creeds or Deeds?

As we saw in my last post, institutions (including in some sense the church) are simply formalized sets of relationships. All the phenomena we see happening in institutions, including the church, are to be found in any relationship between human beings. Thus, it is foolish to think that one can avoid problems by eschewing the “institutional church” and creating some freeform church instead. The problems of institutions are simply the problems of interpersonal relationships.

One of the alleged problems of the “institutional church” is that it has put up boundaries called confessions of faith, which determine who is in and who is out. Wouldn’t it be better to be not so exclusive but allow anybody to hold whatever creed they want to? And if we want to draw lines in the sand, wouldn’t it be better to demand a certain set of common behavior rather than a certain set of beliefs?

We ought to begin by acknowledging that all healthy human relationships establish boundaries. Sane people do not stay friends with someone who is continually trying to murder them or burn down their house—or even just trying to make their lives miserable. Of course, we may wish that such people would change their attitudes and be reconciled with us. We need not repay them with the same hatred that they show us, but we still place some distance between them and us in order to keep ourselves safe. Even in good, healthy relationships we try to respect some boundaries. I have great neighbors on either side of me, but there are still fences between their properties and mine. This allows their dogs to have freedom to run around without digging up my garden or yard. The boundaries actually make the experience better for everyone.

It should not be surprising, then, that the Christian church will have to draw certain boundaries. But what should be the basis of those boundaries? Should we ask people to confess a certain set of teachings or should we ask them to behave in a certain way? The second option has become increasingly popular, as people argue that followers of Jesus should imitate His behavior rather than get bogged down in doctrinal disputes. “Deeds, not creeds” has become their motto. But there is a hidden tyranny in drawing the boundaries based on actions. Since no Christian is perfect and each individual struggles with a different set of sins, there is a tendency to draw the lines in such a way that one’s own sinful tendencies are excused while those of others are emphasized. Of course, our Lord established perfection as the only acceptable criterion; we are to be perfectly holy as God is (Matthew 5:48). Drawing the line to favor one set of sins over against another distorts our Lord’s teachings. For this reason, the Christian church has wisely emphasized the habit of repentance rather than the achievement of a certain level of perfection. When it comes to conduct, it is unrepentance (or the concomitant refusal to recognize the difference between right and wrong) that puts one outside the Christian church rather than the committing of any particular sin.

But if repentance is what separates a true Christian from a false one, then a true Christian must possess the sort of knowledge that could lead to repentance. Moreover, those who would teach others what it means to be a Christian must know enough about the truths of God that would lead their flock to repentance. And since Christian repentance also includes faith in Christ as the Savior, Christians (including their pastors) must know who Christ is and what He has done that we might trust in Him. In short, both Christian lay people and their pastors must have some accurate knowledge about Christ’s teachings.

But there is so much to know! The Scriptures are not a small book and it is impossible to plumb their full depths. Moreover, there are often disagreements between Christians as to how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. Who is the hero of the story—the prodigal son or his father? What are we to make of the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-9)? Is Galatians the first epistle of Paul to be written or is it 1 Thessalonians? How are we to understand Paul’s argument in Galatians when compared to the Council in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15? Who are the “superapostles” who opposed Paul in Corinth and what did they teach? What were Luke’s sources that he consulted in writing the gospel? Christians have not come to an agreement on all these questions and many scholars have even changed their minds over the years on these questions. But Christians have understood that disagreement on these and similar questions do not impair fellowship.

That is because creeds and confessions sort out the major questions from the more trivial ones and emphasize the truths that must be held by all Christians and taught by all pastors. The Apostles’ Creed sums up the most important tenets of the Christian faith in a few words. The Nicene Creed adds a more detailed explanation of Christ’s divinity. These creeds, along with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, have been the basis of instruction for the laity for centuries. The commandments give a sound ethical basis for Christians; the creed outlines the faith; and the Lord’s Prayer sets a pattern for all prayer. Of course, a lay person may well know more than these things and indeed ought to grow in knowledge, but these things are a minimum. Those who refuse to learn them or accept them cannot be numbered among our Lord’s disciples, for they do not keep His word (John 14:23-24).

Pastors, on the other hand, must be held to a higher standard, just as teachers in general are expected to know more than their students. Teachers, after all, have to know not only the subject being taught, but also the common confusions students are likely to have and the means to overcome them. They are not only to know the very basic items, but be able to explain the subject in depth to any perceptive student who asks the harder questions. Therefore, pastors have been asked to pledge to a deeper confession of the faith than lay people have. In the West it began with the Athanasian Creed, but more recently it has included confessions such as the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord. Those who familiarize themselves with them soon realize that they have as their intention how to teach people to know God rightly, to repent and trust in Christ for their salvation, and to grow in godly living. They answer important questions and help pastors to read the Scriptures with an understanding of what matters. But they do not answer every last ethical or exegetical question.

These confessions, then, serve as an appropriate boundary. Those who refuse to repent of their sins and to trust in Christ as the creeds proclaim separate themselves from Christ and His church. Those who refuse to preach Christ as proclaimed in our confessions cannot be permitted to preach in our pulpits or else there could be some real damage done to our souls. To be sure, a person can live and die as a good Christian without having heard of the Apostles’ Creed, just as a pastor may be a genuine Christian without having embraced the Augsburg Confession. But to make sure that future generations know the truth and can preach the truth, creeds and confessions are a real blessing.