Church constitutions trumping creeds

D. E. Hinkle passed along an obituary for Prof. Wynn Kenyon, who sparked a controversy  in the Presbyterian Church back in 1974 for not going along with the ordination of women.  For our purposes here, consider the last paragraph in this excerpt:

Mr. Kenyon, who belonged to a forerunner of what is now the Presbyterian Church (USA), was an honors graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his ordination trial he was questioned about women and said that because he believed the Bible forbade women to hold authority in the church he could not participate in an ordination ritual. But he said he would work with ordained women and wouldn’t stop his own congregation from ordaining a female elder.

Pittsburgh Presbytery voted 147-133 to ordain him, but that decision was appealed to the highest court in the denomination. It ruled that “refusal to ordain women on the basis of their sex is contrary to the [church] constitution.”

Coupled with a decision allowing a Maryland presbytery to install a minister who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, at least eight churches and some prominent theologians in Pittsburgh and Beaver-Butler presbyteries left for the new Presbyterian Church in America.

The case still reverberates, said Charles Partee, emeritus professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. It marked a shift from creeds to constitution for defining the church’s beliefs, he said.

“You didn’t have to believe everything in the creed. Of course, the constitution cannot be scrupled. It must be obeyed,” he said.

via Obituary: Wynn Kenyon / Became beloved philosophy professor after ordination ordeal – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In this mindset, which one sees quite a bit in church politics, the church constitution is not only supremely authoritative, it is clear in what it says and admits no wiggle-room in its interpretation.  Creeds, Confessions, and the Bible itself, though, are flexible, obscure in their meaning, and can be interpreted away.

The Law in the life of Christians

As promised yesterday, here is Jono Linebaugh discussing the role of the Law in the life of someone who has faith in the Gospel of Christ.  I know the Third Use of the Law is a big controversy in Lutheranism.  Paul McCain, for example, has been warning Lutherans–including some theologians  in the ELCA–of forgetting that Christians are, indeed, obliged to follow God’s Law.  Dr. Linebaugh, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary (a Reformed institution)  here seems to be downplaying the Third Use as it is often understood in Luther, but I think he is mainly fighting the Calvinist understanding and that he is restoring a properly Lutheran understanding of the Law in the life of Christians.  But, hey, I’m no pastor or theologian.  Let me ask those of you who are:  Does this account properly explain the use of the Law in the life of the Christian? What is the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran understanding of this issue?  When they both use the same term (“Third Use of the Law”) are they meaning the same thing?

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). . . .

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” (i.e. a use of the Law after the gospel and thus unique to Christians) is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses [ordering creation and accusing sinners] still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell

God’s conditional and His unconditional Words

More in our continuing series on non-Lutherans discovering Lutheran theology (while  many Lutherans throw it away).

Jono Linebaugh, New Testament Professor at Knox Theological Seminary, is working in the same orbit as Tullian Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson and pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, in their discovery, via Luther,  of the distinction between Law & Gospel.

Dr. Linebaugh has written a very helpful piece on that subject entitled “Luther on the Law.”  He underscores some aspects that we often miss:  how it’s God who uses the Law; how the Law is conditional and the Gospel is not conditional.

His discussion of the controversial “Third Use of the Law” is interesting too.  He is NOT denying that Christians must live a life according to God’s commands.  He is trying to work his way out of the Reformed position that puts so much stress on the Third Use that the Gospel can be forgotten.  His point is that God’s commands in light of the Gospel are not conditional either.

I’ll post excerpts to give you the flavor, but you should read the whole thing.  Tomorrow I post some of what he says on the Third Use of the Law, so hold that thought:

 The distinction between Law and Gospel is ultimately – that is, in reality – not a distinction between what is said; it is a distinction between what is heard. In other words, the difference between Law and Gospel is the difference between faith and unbelief. Thus, for Luther, the same words can encounter the human as either Law or Gospel. For example, the 10 Commandments are both the “hammer of God” that terrifies sinners with the “thunder of Mt. Sinai” and the pure promise that “I am the Lord your God.” Conversely, the beautiful and basic words of the Gospel – “Christ died for your sins” – can be, to the ears of unbelief, nothing but an announcement of the “enormity of God’s wrath” (Against the Antinomians 1539). . . .

Two important implications follow from this theological definition of Law. First, because Law is a way of identifying God’s action with words, talk about “uses” of the Law cannot be human uses of the Law but God’s use of his Law. In other words, God is the acting subject; he wields the words of death and life and the theological term Law is a way of pointing to God’s accusing, condemning, and killing speech. Second, because Law is defined in terms of its function and effect rather than simply its content, it is not, as noted above, reducible to a moral codex or a grammatical pattern.  . . .

God’s words that accuse and kill typically do their work of condemnation in the form of a commandment attached to a condition. So, for example, when Paul sums up the salvation-logic of the Law he quotes Leviticus 18.5b: “the one who does [the commandments] will live by them” (Gal 3.12). Here, there is a promise of life linked to the condition of doing the commandments and a corresponding threat: “cursed is everyone who does not abide in all the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” (Gal 3.10 citing Deut 27.26). When this conditional word encounters the sinful human, the outcome is inevitable: “the whole world is guilty before God” (Rom 3.19). It is thus the condition that does the work of condemnation. “Ifs” kill!

Compare this to a couple examples of New Testament imperatives. First, consider Galatians 5.1. After four chapters of passionate insistence that justification is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul issues a couple of strong imperatives: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore stand firm (imperative) and do not be subject (imperative) again to the yoke of slavery.” Here the repeated imperatives are emphatically not commandments with conditions. The exhortation here is precisely to not return to the Law; it is an imperative to stand firm in freedom from the Law. Or take another example, John 8.11. Once the accusers of the adulterous women left, Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Depart. From now on, sin no more.” Does this final imperative disqualify the words of mercy? Is this a commandment with a condition? Is this Law following the Gospel? No! This would be a conditional command: “If you go and sin no more, then neither will I condemn you.”  But Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The command is not a condition. “Neither do I condemn you” is categorical and unconditional, it comes with no strings attached. “Neither do I condemn you” creates an unconditional context within which “go and sin no more” is not an “if.” The only “if” the Gospel knows is this: “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2.1).

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell

Maccabees and the insurance mandate

Good stuff from the Book of Maccabees, as applied by John Garvey, president of Catholic University on why he is suing the federal government over the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate:

A wonderful story in the second book of Maccabees describes the martyrdom of the old scribe Eleazar. It occurred during the Hellenizing campaign of Antiochus Epiphanes. He forced the Jews “to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God.” Eleazar was ordered on pain of death to eat pork. He refused.

The men in charge of the sacrifice, who had known him for a long time, took him aside and offered to spare him if he would just eat something that looked like pork. “Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” he said, “lest many of the young should suppose that Eleazar in his 90th year has gone over to an alien religion[.]” And so they killed him.

This is a story about religious freedom, and it has two points. The first is that we should put our duty to obey God’s laws above our obligation to the state. (And it is cruel on the state’s part to force people to commit sinful acts.) The second is that, quite apart from our own failure in forsaking God’s laws, we do an additional wrong in leading the young to believe that this is acceptable.

I have found myself thinking a lot about Eleazar in the past few months, as we have looked for a way to escape the dilemma the Department of Health and Human Services has posed for The Catholic University of America with its mandated-services regulation. The regulation orders the university, in its student and employee health-insurance plans, to cover surgical sterilization, prescription contraceptives, and drugs that cause early-stage abortions at no added cost to the subscribers. If we fail to do this, we will have to pay a fine of $2,000 per full-time employee, or roughly $2.6-million per year.

The Catholic Church believes that married couples should be open to the possibility of new life, and that artificial interventions to prevent or terminate pregnancy are wrong. News coverage of the dispute has observed that many members of the church dissent from this teaching. Many of the Hellenized Jews in Judea went along with Antiochus’s decrees, too. That division of opinion did not make the treatment of Eleazar any more liberal.

Like Eleazar, our university has been ordered by the government to do something it views as morally wrong. America, unlike the Seleucid Empire, has traditionally taken a tolerant view toward folks in that predicament. When West Virginia ordered the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag (an act they viewed as sinful), the Supreme Court said, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official … can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Like Eleazar, we are not concerned only about the uprightness of our own behavior. We are worried that we will do an additional wrong by leading our students to believe that the actions the Department of Health and Human Services seeks to promote are acceptable. Our mission, as a Catholic university, is to see that our students grow in wisdom, age, and grace during their time here. We teach that virtues like chastity, fidelity, and respect for life are not just ideas worth debating in philosophy class, but also ideals worth living. Compliance with the government’s mandated-services regulation would make that a lesson in hypocrisy.

via A Matter of Faith and Freedom – Commentary – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By the way, though most Protestants don’t consider the Apocrypha, those histories of the Jews between the Testaments written in Greek, to be canonical (Catholics do), all of the old theologians say they are profitable to read.  Luther included them with his translation and the Confessions sometimes quote them.  So you might be interested in The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition With Notes, a new offering from Concordia Publishing House.

 

Paul’s rebuke of Peter as argument for open communion

Reformed writer Peter Leithhart argues against the closed communion practices of Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutherans on the basis of Galatians 2:

The battle between Paul and the Judaizers focused on table fellowship. Initially, Peter didn’t require Gentiles to “judaize” but ate openly with uncircumcised Gentiles. Pressured by believers from the Jerusalem church, though, he withdrew and refused to share meals with Gentiles anymore. Whether these were common or sacred meals, the same logic would apply to both: If Peter wouldn’t eat common meals with unclean Gentiles, he certainly would have avoided the contagion of Gentiles at sacred meals. For Paul, this wasn’t a small or marginal issue. In Paul’s judgment, Peter was “not straightforward about the gospel” and his actions undermined justification by faith. Unless Jews and Gentiles share a common table, Paul insisted, the Gospel is compromised. . .

For Paul, Christians should share meals with any and all who confess faith in Jesus, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, and this unity should be especially evident in the Eucharistic meal that is the high point of Christian liturgy. One Lord must have one people sitting at one table. Any additional requirement beyond faith in Jesus betrays the Gospel.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Some profess Jesus but betray him with their lives. Jesus and Paul both teach that impenitent sinners and heretics should be excluded from the Church and from the table of communion. As Reformed Protestants say, the table must be fenced.

Even with that crucial qualification, Paul’s assault on Peter poses a bracing challenge to today’s church. It is common in every branch of the church for some believers to exclude other believers from the Lord’s table. Some Lutherans will commune only with Christians who hold to a Lutheran view of the real presence. Some Reformed churches require communicants to adhere to their Confessional standards. The Catholic Mass and the Orthodox Eucharist are reserved, with a few exceptions, for Catholics and Orthodox.

I cannot see how these exclusions pass the Pauline test. Catholics will say that they don’t add anything to Paul’s requirements. They exclude Protestants from the Mass because Protestantism is (at best) an inadequate expression of the apostolic faith; for Catholics, a credible confession of Jesus must include a confession of certain truths about the Church. Lutherans and some Reformed Christians will point to Paul’s warnings about “discerning the body” and ask Amos’s question: “Do men walk together unless they are in agreement?” All this avoids the central question: Do Catholics and Orthodox consider their Protestant friends Christians? Do Lutherans consider Reformed believers to be disciples of Jesus? If so, why aren’t they eating at the same table? Shouldn’t the one Lord have one people at one table?

via One Lord, One Table | First Things.

This strikes me as missing the point on many levels, but I’ll let you do the analysis:  What is wrong with this argument?

The two trees

Pastor Douthwaite, preaching from John 15:9-17 and 1 John 5:1-8:

And speaking of Adam, he’s another one God gave but a single command to, remember? Just: don’t eat from this one tree. Just this one! You can eat from all the others: apples, oranges, pears, pomagranites, figs, cherries, you name it – they’re all yours to eat and enjoy. Just not this one, please. Reserve this one for me.

Now, the scriptures don’t say what kind of fruit was on that tree. Was it a different fruit than all the others? Unique and special and one-of-a-kind, that God was holding back from Adam? I don’t think so. I think it was just one of many, let’s say, fig trees. So by not eating it, Adam isn’t missing out on anything. He’s not deprived of anything. He’s simply loving God by keeping, by honoring, this one request.

But he couldn’t do it. Eve was deceived; Adam did it willfully. Because he couldn’t have it, it was the tree he desired most of all. And the more time goes on, the harder it gets. For that’s the way of it with sin. We want what we can’t, or shouldn’t, have, or what has not been given to us. And taking it, going after it, or desiring it hurts our love for one another. Because we’re thinking of me, not them. Helping me, not them. Loving me, not them. And then Jesus’ command, His request: Love one another, which sounds so simple, becomes: what about me? And then it’s all about me, which is tyranny of the worst kind. It’s what Luther wrote of in the hymn we sang today (LSB #556, v. 2): Fast bound in satan’s chains I lay. When it’s all about me, what’s all about me, are chains. The chains of sin and death.

But Jesus said: These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Jesus is not imposing on us. He wants us to have joy. But when we love only ourselves there is not this joy, not a joy that lasts anyway. But one that caves to the insatiable desire for more. For that one tree of which God said: please, no.

So what’s a God to do? Give us more rules, more laws, more commandments? That’s what some think, but that’s doesn’t work. For how you doing with that one: Love one another? If we can’t even keep one, how we gonna keep more? No, more rules, more laws, more commandments is the way of servants and slaves. But do you remember what Jesus said today instead? No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

Friends, not slaves. Friends, not servants. Friends, to whom Jesus has revealed a better way, telling us not more that we have to do, but what He has come to do. That that one tree that Adam and all of us cannot resist, is now a one tree that Jesus cannot resist. But for Jesus it is not in sin, but in love. For that one tree that He cannot resist is the tree of the cross. For greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus is that someone, who has come to lay down His life for you. For what comes welling up from within His heart is not sin, but love. And so He comes to not only show us, but give us, the love we need. Calling us friends – not because we deserve it, ‘cuz we most certainly don’t! And calling us friends not because He’s describing us, but because that’s what He’s naming us; that’s what He’s making us, that’s what He’s doing in us. For what God calls something, that’s what it is. God’s Word does what it says. We did not choose Him, He chose us. Or in other words, we’re not His friends because of what we do – we’re His friends because of what He did. Because of His tree. Because of the cross.

That just as one tree made us all sinners, so one tree would make us all righteous again. As one tree made us slaves to sin, so one tree would set us free. As one tree brought death into the world, so one tree would bring life to the world.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Easter 6 Sermon.

Read it all.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X