Lutherans, Catholics, & Orthodox

We may have solved, with the help of James R. Rogers, our perennial question of why evangelicals tend to be more likely to embrace Calvinism than Lutheranism.  But our other perennial question is why evangelicals, when they want something different–particularly, sacraments and liturgy–go the way of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, rushing right past Lutheranism.  But, applying Prof. Rogers’ approach, I think I am starting to understand.

Again, to follow Prof. Rogers, one could cite external reasons–the difficulty of “finding” Lutheranism, the innate attractiveness of joining the biggest church that extends all over the world, the beauty of Orthodox liturgy, etc.–but, on a deeper level, there is much in Catholicism and Orthodoxy that already resonates with the mindset of many evangelicals. [Read more...]

New controversies in Evangelical theology

Evangelicals today are being torn by some major theological controversies.  The debate between Calvinists and Wesleyans is getting more and more heated.  Then there is a related debate between “Traditionists,” who believe Christians should hold onto the traditions of the historic church (particularly the decisions of the early church councils0 and the “Meliorists,” who reject holding onto traditions and believe the church can get better and better.  The Calvinists tend to be Traditionists (who themselves can be divided between “Biblicists” and “Paleo-Conservatives”) and the Wesleyans tend to be Meliorists.

We confessional Lutherans have our own theology worked out, of course, and in many ways might think of ourselves as above this particular fray.  And none of the debates, as far as I can tell, even bring Luther into the picture at all.  And yet I would suggest to the contending parties of both sides that they study how Lutheranism resolves Wesley and Calvin, the Bible and Tradition, Orthodoxy and Reformation.

After the jump, a sample and a link to a detailed account of what is going on in evangelical theology. [Read more...]

Thoughts on the conversation with my critic

Thanks to  Trevin Wax for arranging that discussion between Ben Witherington and me.  (See the posts over the last three days.)  It’s a good use of technology to have that kind of forum.  Some thoughts:

(1)  An effective argument–that is, one whose purpose is persuasion rather than just hitting the other person over the head with your position–tends to start by finding common ground.   I did that.   (I hope I didn’t concede too much.  Perhaps I should have defended Luther more.  Or gone after Ben’s Arminianism.  But those lines of thought didn’t seem productive in this particular argument.)  In academic debate, it’s especially important to find a way to be civil.  I think we succeeded at that.

(2)  If I were to someday sit down with Dr. Witherington at a pub over a beer as he suggested–and how significant was that offer for a Wesleyan!–I’d want to ask him, What kind of good works do you think play such an important role in your understanding of salvation?  I was astonished that he doesn’t believe in the “imputed righteousness” of Christ, holding instead to an “imparted righteousness” given by the Holy Spirit, which means an actual righteousness that Christians attain.  I know about the Arminian doctrine of perfection and their belief that it is possible to lead a sinless life.   I would like to ask him what that looks like.  Is it doing some heroic and spectacular acts of goodness?  Or is it being able to avoid bad behavior?  I have noticed that the notion that our works contribute to our salvation often manifests itself in a person adopting some code of behavior that is rigid but fairly easy to follow, such as abstaining from drinking or smoking, even though the code has little actual moral content.  It also has nothing to do with what the Bible actually says.  (Another option is to come up with ritualistic observances, as in Roman Catholicism, which believes the same thing.   Repeating the Rosary a hundred times becomes a “good work” that accrues “merit,” even though the action is not particularly “good” in a moral sense.)   I would like to ask, are the godly elderly women in a Wesleyan congregation who believe in the necessity of moral perfection any different, really, in their behavior or demeanor than the godly women in a Lutheran congregation who consider themselves sinners saved only by the blood of Christ?   I’d truly like to know what this moral perfectionism is supposed to look like.  (I’d love to hear from any of you readers who believe that.)

(3)  I want to start a movement that goes by the brand and the slogan GTBL.   Not to be confused with LGBT.   My acronym stands for “Glad To Be Lutheran.”   These kinds of theological discussions and the personal stories that emerge from them always make me feel that way.

Here Dr. Witherington actually attended a Lutheran church.  But what made him indignant is service of confession and absolution in which he had to pray, “I confess that I am by nature sinful and unclean.”  He resented the theology that he characterized as “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”   He thinks he isn’t by nature sinful and unclean, that if he falls he can just get right back up on his own, indeed, that God requires that of him.  How different we are!  I know myself as a sinner by bitter experience.  I think that phrase from the TV commercial shows excellent theology.  I’ve fallen, along with Adam & Eve but by my own fault as well.  I can’t get up.  I need help.  I need someone to raise me up.   And that happens when I hear the words of absolution.  The Gospel is not just for back when a person first became a Christian, but it’s for every moment of the Christian life.

Dr. Witherington also has problems with the presence of God.  He doesn’t want to think that God is in vocation any more than he wants to think that God is actually present in the Sacraments.  He wants space for human beings to be autonomous.  I understand that.  But I consider it so sad!

I do respect him and agree with much of what he said in his book.  I don’t mean to vaunt my Lutheranism over those of you who don’t share my theology.   I can understand someone not believing in Lutheranism for all kinds of good reasons, including that it is too good to be true.  All that I can say personally, though, as I study other theologies, is GTBL.

A conversation with one of my critics #2

More of my debate with Ken Witherington, author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, which takes issue with what I say about vocation in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point):

 WITHERINGTON: Let’s take one of these issues where we really do have a difference. While I am not going to suggest that human beings, Christians in particular, never are co-operating with God in some sense, I am going to insist on is that there are plenty of times where we have been graced and empowered to do things for God. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. Doubtless he could have done it without us, or by using others, but Gene, he’s decided to do it by empowering you and me, for example.

Now what this in turn means is that while I am happy to talk about God empowering or leading or guiding such activities, at the end of the day, they would not happen as my action, unless I decided to do it and acted on the decision. The matter was not fore-ordained, and so I am not merely going along with what God is doing, without God coercing me (and so ‘freely’ in the Edwardsian sense of not compelled to do it), I am actually acting as a free agent of God, and indeed God will hold me responsible for my behavior, accordingly. He will not be holding himself responsible. I bring this all up because it affects the way we look at the notion of vocation and the notion of calling, as we can discuss further in due course.

VEITH: Ben, I think I agree with your first paragraph.

I’m not sure I fully understand your second paragraph. (Do you mean “with God coercing me”?) Is it that you are bringing “free will” into the doctrine of vocation, as with the Arminian doctrine of salvation? As a Lutheran, I can actually agree with much of the former without agreeing with the latter. (Luther wrote “The Bondage of the Will,” but he also wrote “The Freedom of the Christian,” in which he develops his theology of vocation.)

I guess the main difference would be that we Lutherans might have a greater emphasis on sin in the human agency that we do have.

Say a man has the calling to work in a bank. He lends people money and takes care of other financial needs of the community, so that he is indeed loving and serving his neighbors. God is in what he does. But one day he decides to embezzle money. He is stealing from his neighbors. He is certainly free to do that, but God will indeed hold him responsible. Perhaps then he goes to church, hears a sermon from God’s Word, and is convicted of his sin. He repents and puts the money back before anyone notices. From that time on, he works as an honest employee. He has the agency to do that also, though we would say the credit for his repentance goes to the Holy Spirit working through God’s Law. Now that he is doing what he should, does he earn merit for that before God? Well, not really. He is now doing what he was supposed to do all  along.  “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10).   The man, however, assuming he is a Christian, is in the process of being sanctified.   The struggle with sin, finding forgiveness, and doing what is right made him grow in his faith, which bears fruit in good works, and so he has grown in sanctification.   (Vocation is where sanctification happens.  You make that point too, associating our work with our sanctification, but you seem to think Lutherans don’t believe that.  We do!)

WITHERINGTON: Interesting.   I don’t think a banker has a calling to be a banker in the Biblical sense of the term calling, but let’s leave that aside for a moment.  A big part of my objection to what you write about work is the Lutheran understanding of God’s involvement in human work, that He uses human beings as His instruments and is somehow “hidden” in vocation.

Continue reading.

A conversation with one of my critics #1

Someone asks me a few weeks ago if anyone ever disagreed with what I have written about vocation.  I said, not really.  I have presented on that topic to a wide variety of groups who hold to all kinds of different theologies and everyone seems to resonate with what I say.  Luther’s doctrine of vocation is so clearly Biblical and it makes so much sense that it seems like a teaching that just about everyone finds enormously helpful and illuminating. 

But I spoke too soon.  A new book DOES take issue with what I say in God at Work.  Ben Witherington is a professor at Asbery Seminary, a Wesleyan/Arminian school, who is the author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. (You can go to the link on Amazon and use the “Look Inside This Book” feature, searching for “Veith” and most of what he says about me will come up.)

So Baptist blogger Trevin Wax set up an online interview/discussion in which the two of us thrashed out our differences. He is posting the exchange over the next several days, so I will too. (When you hit “continue reading,” you’ll go to Trevin’s blog. Come back here to comment, and if you comment at his site, please copy what you say here also.)

WAX: What role does the church play in relation to a man or woman who is seeking to discern God’s call to a particular vocation?

 VEITH: I think that the church’s main role is, quite simply, to teach the doctrine of vocation, according to its own theological light.

As Dr. Witherington says in his book, this is a topic that has been neglected by churches, despite how much the Bible teaches about the topic and despite the huge role that work plays in people’s lives today.

After that, the man or woman struggling over questions of vocation simply needs to be encouraged to see God’s hand in the normal processes and decision-making that goes into finding a job.  Dissatisfaction with what one is currently doing, particular interests and talents, opportunities that arise, doors that open and doors that slam in your face – all of these are factors in going in one direction or another.  Christians are still subject to all of these “secular” factors, but, through the eyes of faith, they can trust in God’s leading.

WITHERINGTON: I would say from the outset we need to distinguish between being called by God and some particular vocation.   So calling and ‘vocation’ should be distinguished.

I certainly think the church has an obligation to help persons discern the call of God on their lives at this or that point in time in their lives.  But a person can be called to a variety of tasks on a variety of occasions for a variety of ways of serving the Lord and edifying others.  As, you will have deduced from my book entitled Work,  I don’t really agree with either Luther’s two kingdoms approach, nor the subset of that, the notion that we are called to some specific vocation over the long haul  (e.g. one to be a plumber one to be a preacher etc.)

Continue reading


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X