Ascent theology

Useful and broadly applicable paradigms from Pastor Matt Richard:

During the time of Martin Luther there were theological presuppositions that had been ingrained in the lives, thoughts and actions of the people. For the sake of simplicity, two things summarized the theological culture and attitudes of the day: ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness.

It was commonly held from medieval teachings that mankind needed to ascend to God. It was taught that one needed to climb a metaphoric ladder towards a Holy and Righteous God through: pious good works, devotion to God, accomplishments, indulgences, holy living, penance, religious duties, etc… Eugene Klug comments on this saying,

“Ascetics (i.e. those trying to climb to God) desired to achieve more and greater conformity with the will of the holy God, climbing rung by rung the ladder of God-pleasing acceptance before the throne of the loving Lord and Savior.” (Note: Parentheses added)

People during the time of Luther saw themselves in a spiritual journey that required strenuous effort and endurance to elevate ‘self’ to the same level of God.

In ascent theology the emphasis is placed on mankind and the strategic goal becomes mankind’s climbing pursuit of God. As a result, man does not need a descending Christ; which means that Jesus becomes a simple model of holiness that needs to be emulated in the ascending journey. Consequently, how does one know if he/she has ascended enough? What are the best methods to ascend to God? What methods get the best bang for the buck?

The other presupposition that was commonly held during the time of Luther was the theology of active righteousness. Active righteousness simply taught that if one were to be considered righteous that he/she needed to achieve righteousness by the way of the Law and effort. For example: the Law says, “Do” and the person actively “Does it” which results in a presumed “Righteousness.”

The teaching of active righteousness goes right in line and is in harmony with ascent theology. Both put the emphasis on mankind’s efforts. Both have a starting point of mankind. Both appeal to the flesh. Both undercut the centrality of the work of God in Christ. . . .

According to some historians, the Heidelberg Disputation is considered as more important to the 16th century reformation than the 95 theses of 1517. The reason being, the teachings of the Heidelberg Theses adamantly argue against ascent theology and active righteousness and shows forth from scripture a completely contrary and opposite way of seeing the Christian life: descent theology and passive righteousness.

The theology of descent puts the emphasis on Christ and His strategic goal of drawing close to and pursuing mankind. As a result, man does not (and cannot) ascend to God; which means that Jesus is the one who descends to mankind as to rescues and bring sinners home to God. Consequently, one is granted confident assurance as scripture continually reveals the glory of the descending Christ to a bloody cross to completely atone for mankind, us!

The teaching of passive righteousness taught by Luther and the scriptures puts the focus on what Christ has accomplished on behalf of mankind. Passive righteousness simply teaches that if one is to be considered righteous that he/she needs to receive this righteousness by the way of the Gospel and Gift. The Gospel says, “Believe This And Receive It As Gift” because “Everything Is Already Done For You.” (Note Theses 26 of the Heidelberg Disputation)

via Steadfast Lutherans » The Laying Of Our Foundation: The Theological Framework Of The Reformation For The Church Today.

Lucas Cranach, cover story

The cover of Books & Culture, the Christian culture journal, features Lucas Cranach, and the cover story by Daniel Siedell is a review of a new book on the artist and patron of this blog.  The book is called The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation by the important Reformation scholar Stephen Ozment.  It breaks new ground in asserting the importance of Cranach and his art for Luther and for the Reformation.  A major emphasis is how Cranach embodied and communicated Luther’s doctrine of vocation.  I’m not quite finished reading Ozment’s book, but I plan to post on it for its own sake.   Here is an excerpt from the Books & Culture piece:

Far from being compromised or constricted, Cranach flourished in and through his relationship with Luther, in large part because both the artist and the theologian shared converging interests and concerns, which, upon their meeting, made their relationship especially rich and productive, both personally and professionally.

This relationship developed only after Cranach decided to move his workshop into Wittenberg. Growing weary of the tedious demands of the court and a lack of challenging painting commissions (not to mention inconsistent remuneration), Cranach moved into the bustling university town, renovating several buildings for his home and workshop. He soon became a leading figure in city politics and one of the largest owners of real estate in town. A savvy businessman and entrepreneur, Cranach owned Wittenberg’s only pharmacy and operated the most powerful printing press in the region, a press which would publish Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, completed while he was in exile in Wartburg, and would generate the pamphlets and other printed materials that spread the ideas of the Reformation. Cranach was also a skilled statesman, traveling to the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Frederick the Wise. Far from being seduced by Luther, then, it was Cranach’s robust and expansive public life and his wisdom in statecraft that served the younger, less politically astute Luther, ultimately winning him the protection and patronage he needed from Frederick.

Although Cranach shared Luther’s anti-humanist and anti-Renaissance “Augustinian” view of the sinfulness and weakness of humanity, the convergence between the two men was less doctrinal than it was social, in what Ozment calls the “second phase” of the Reformation. This social phase focused on the recovery of the spiritual integrity of all aspects of domestic family life, from rearing children to marital sexuality. The home had been subjected to excessive and burdensome interference from Rome, creating legalistic burdens for laity and the clergy that were impossible to follow, the crushing nature of which resulted in licentious behavior that undermined the integrity of the family. Luther’s emphasis on justification as a “passive righteousness,” which he would develop in his lectures on Galatians in 1531, was already worked out socially and culturally, liberating the laity and the clergy to enjoy a robust family life, including an intimate sexual relationship within the institution of marriage. Ozment shows how Cranach and Luther both were fulfilled by their families, embracing fully and boldly the creational blessings of marital and familial life. Luther’s famously earthy language about marital sexuality is echoed in Cranach’s beautifully seductive women, whose enchantment was part of the created order and whose sexuality could be celebrated as a divine blessing. “By excising the external girth of the High Renaissance woman,” Ozment writes, “he set free her inner mirth. The result was more engrossing than the direct touching of skin and flesh.” Cranach and Luther’s relationship was further deepened through their families, as they served as godparents to each other’s children. . . .

Ozment’s Cranach embodies a proto-Lutheran approach to culture and vocation. Apparently unconcerned with the burden of demonstrating or achieving his salvation through his work, Cranach was freed to use and enjoy his God-given talents as a painter, politician, businessman, and advisor. He is also a historical example of what James Davison Hunter has called, in To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), “faithful presence.” The Serpent and the Lamb makes the convincing case that without Cranach’s faithful presence, the Lutheran Reformation would not have possessed the scope that it had.

I might just add that this vocational view of family life, including the affirmation of sexuality in marriage, is what we explore in our own latest book Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood.

Institutionalism vs. Constitutionalism

As I keep saying, there are different kinds of conservatism.  Michael Gerson makes that point in his discussion of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’ ruling on Obamacare:

His health-care ruling did expose a division between two varieties of judicial conservatism — institutionalism and constitutionalism — that can lead to very different outcomes.

Roberts has emerged as the great institutionalist, concerned primarily about the place of the Supreme Court in American political life. In this view, the court maintains its power by exercising it sparingly — deferring whenever possible to the legislative branch. Institutionalism embodies a temperamental conservatism — a commitment to continuity, humility and prudence.

The main constitutionalists on the court are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, focused on the rigorous application of the words of the founding document. In this view, the meaning of the text is primary, whatever the political consequences of applying it. Constitutionalism is often accompanied by an understandable complaint: If the conservative response following every period of liberal activism is humility and continuity, then the ideological ratchet turns only leftward.

My natural sympathies are with institutionalism as an antidote to judicial arrogance. Donning a black robe does not assume or create a superior knowledge of public policy. Roberts’s desire to defer, particularly on a divisive issue in the middle of a presidential election, is the right tendency, the correct Burkean instinct.

But judges are also not hired as political philosophers, Burkean or otherwise. Their legitimacy comes from a credible application of the law. And the outcome of the health care case came down to one point of law: Roberts’s interpretation of the statute as a constitutional tax rather than an unconstitutional mandate. In his ruling, Roberts admits this view is hardly the most obvious one: “The question is not whether that is the most natural interpretation of the mandate, but only whether it is a ‘fairly possible’ one.”

The problem is that Roberts’s interpretation is not fairly, or even remotely, possible. If the law had been written in the Roberts version — as a regressive federal tax on the uninsured — there is no chance it would have passed Congress. More to the point, the law that Roberts describes would have covered a different number of the uninsured. Academic studies indicate that people respond differently to tax penalties than they do the legal mandates. “When the imperative to buy insurance,” notes Yuval Levin, “is instead presented as a choice between two options, more people will likely choose the cheaper option (which, for almost everyone, will be paying the tax rather than buying the coverage).”

Why did Roberts not account for this policy distinction? The most natural interpretation is that he didn’t know anything about it. Which is precisely the point. Roberts is not a health policy expert. His clever reinterpretation of the health law would actually change its outcome. This is not an alternate reading but an alternate universe.

Even in a short time, Roberts’s decision has not worn well. What initially seemed wise now smacks of mere cleverness — less a judge’s prudence than a lawyer’s trick. To find the health-care law constitutional, Roberts reimagined it. It was outcome-based jurisprudence, even if the intended outcome was institutional harmony. It was an act of judicial arrogance, even in the cause of judicial deference. And it raises deeper concerns. Unmoored from a reasonable interpretation of the law, institutionalism easily becomes the creed of the philosopher-king — hovering above the balance of powers, tinkering benevolently here and there, instead of living within the constraints of the system.

via Michael Gerson: John Roberts’s alternate universe – The Washington Post.

Lots of good lines here:  Outcome-based jurisprudence.  Obamacare as a tax on the uninsured.  Fairly-possible interpretations.

I don’t know that a Burkean kind of conservative–one who is protective of traditions, institutions, and culture–would really defer to such a recent decision that has not yet become a tradition.

Still, what do you think of this philosophical dichotomy?  Where else do you see it?

Parade politics

We went to the 4th of July parade here in our small northern Virginia town.  I love the way such institutions usually include politicians marching down the parade route, waving and smiling to voters no matter how hot it gets.  It is a sign of American liberties that we don’t have to kiss up to our rulers–our rulers have to kiss up to us!

Anyway, Virginia is one of those battleground states, a toss-up that will help determine who wins the presidential election.  There are many polls, which are inconclusive.  I will offer political observers a bit of evidence from the parade.  When the Democratic Party contingent came by with their cool cars, pro-Obama signs, and supporters handing out Obama tracts, NO ONE CLAPPED.  The crowd was pretty boisterous otherwise, with everybody applauding each float and firetruck and antique car.  But when the Obama people marched by, an ominous silence accompanied them up and down the parade route.  I felt embarrassed for them.  I at least waved.

Now when the corresponding group of Republicans with their pro-Romney signs marched by, there was some applause, though it seemed notably unenthusiastic.

My impression is that, based on the parade sampling, Virginia voters a aren’t wild about Romney, but they like him better than Obama.

We’ll see how that stands up on election day.

Andy Griffith, Moravian

Andy Griffith died at age 86.  It turns out, he was Moravian, a church with Reformation roots going back to John Hus, with a big influence of Lutheran Pietists.  From journalist Andrew Herrmann:

Griffith’s story was rooted in the Moravian Church, a Christian sect started in Eastern Europe that sent missionaries to the U.S. in the 1700s — one group founded Winston-Salem, N.C. As a teenager, Griffith was attracted to Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, N.C. because the minister gave music lessons. Grace had a brass band and Griffith wanted to play the trombone.

Griffith studied to become a Moravian clergyman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, after a semester or two, he asked his bishop if he could prepare for the ministry by majoring in music. The bishop said no.

Griffith dropped the idea of becoming a pastor, but he eventually took his brand of preaching to a different venue: “The Andy Griffith Show,” a weekly, half-hour morality play about life in a small town.

There were winks and nods to his faith: The local All Souls Church was led by the Rev. Hobart M. Tucker — he of the unforgettable sermon: “Dice Are Loaded Against the Evil Doer.” Another episode featured American and Russian diplomats meeting in the basement of Mayberry’s Moravian Church.

On Tuesday, hours after the news of Griffith’s death, Tony Haywarth, Grace Moravian Church’s current pastor, put out a statement thanking God “for the place Andy has in our hearts, for his wonderful Christian ministry, and for the joy he continues to bring into this world.”

via ‘Do the right thing’ — Andy Griffith left lessons for the greater good – Chicago Sun-Times.

I would argue that The Andy Griffith Show–with Sheriff Taylor, Barney Fife, Aunt Bee, Opie, Gomer, and even more brilliant comic characters–was NOT mere cornpone nostalgia, as it is often portrayed, but one of the greatest comedies in the history of television.

An explication of “The Star Spangled Banner”

David P. Goldman offers a close reading of our national anthem, which is not just a hard-to-sing-song but a striking and meaningful poem, one that connects the survival of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 to the survival of the nation in every generation:

. . .It behooves us to sing a national anthem that begins and ends with questions. In this respect, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an unusual poem. To begin a poem with a rhetorical question is a common enough device (“Why! Who makes much of a miracle?,” “What is so rare as a day in June?” or “Who rides in the night through wind and wild?”). Key’s opening question, though, is not rhetorical, but existential. The hearer from whom the poet demands a response has kept the poet’s company in an anxious vigil. The question itself thus places the hearer alongside the poet in that vigil.

The poet withholds the name of the object we are trying to espy in the first light: It is “what so proudly we hailed,” “whose broad stripes and bright stars” streamed valiantly over the rampart as the poet and his interlocutor watched through the perilous night. And this precious thing could be glimpsed intermittently only by the light of the enemy’s munitions, through the glare of rockets and the flash of exploding bombs: these, the missiles of the foe, gave proof through the night that the our flag — at last the object is named — was still there.

But now the first light of the dawn has come. The bombardment has ceased. The poet asks that the listener say whether, in the dim sunrise, he still can see the flag above the ramparts. It is an anxious moment; the hearer has watched through the night to see if the US position has held or fallen; in a few moments he will see in the first light of day whether the flag is still there. All the fears of the nightly vigil are bound up in this moments of anticipation. Even more: the hopes and fears of generations hang upon what the hearer will see as day breaks..

And then the poet repeats the injunction “Say!” and changes the question. The opening question — can you still see our flag? — is a synecdoche of sorts for a bigger question — does that flag “yet wave/O’er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”? The second question refers not only to the battle at hand, but to the destiny of the country. The question is not only whether the flag of freedom still flies over America but also whether America itself is still brave and free.

The fearful vigil through the nocturnal bombardment, the fleeting glimpse of the national colors, the moment of truth in the gathering light of dawn — these are a metaphor for the national condition. The flag enduring the enemy bombardment is only a symbol for the true subject of the poem, namely the reaction of the hearer himself. The opening “Say!” placed us at the poet’s side at dawn; the second “Say!” makes this a metaphor for the national condition. Key addresses the second “Say!” to all generations of Americans: Are you still brave enough to be free? Your national existence, implies the poet, will be a long vigil, in which America’s true character will be glimpsed sporadically in the reflection of enemy attacks.

Again, Key’s question is not rhetorical, but existential: the answer to the question depends on the response of we who hear it. There are few instances of the second person in poetry with which to compare this, although the device is very ancient. A few come to mind. One is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:2. Another is Simonides’ epitaph for the three hundred Spartans who held the pass against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC. “O passer-by: tell the men of Lacedaemon that we died doing our duty.” The poignancy of the epitaph is that these dead men must ask a passer-by to bring the news to their homeland. The reader of the epitaph figuratively becomes the messenger. In John Donne’s familiar “Ask not for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee,” the subject becomes not death in general, but the very personal death of the hearer. And the second-person address in Francis Scott Key’s anthem asks each of us: “Are you good enough to be an American?” It is a question we should ask ourselves every day.

via Spengler » A National Anthem that Begins and Ends with a Question.


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