Luther’s cross-cultural appeal

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkSarah Hinlicky Wilson, the editor of Lutheran Forum, has been co-teaching a seminar in Wittenberg on Luther to students from all over the world.  She writes in Christian Century about the continuing impact of Luther 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation.

She gives an ELCA perspective, full of ecumenical yearnings for union with Rome, and there will be other points that Missouri Synod Lutherans will disagree with.  Though they find it  worth reading.  For example, notice how she deals with Luther’s anti-Judaism.  I was interested in how she demonstrates that the message of “inclusion”–which is very big in theologically liberal circles–has anti-Judaism problems of its own.

What most struck me was what she had to say about Luther’s cross-cultural appeal, how his theology is being seized upon by Africans, Indonesians, Brazilians, and other people of non-European cultures, who are finding his teachings helpful in dealing with the problems in their churches and societies.  I quote this section after the jump. [Read more…]

We Lutherans as others see us

480px-Lutherrose.svgI stumbled upon a tab at the Patheos site that is called “Religion Library.”  It includes information about a host of religions and Christian denominations and traditions.  So I checked out the information for “Lutheran.”  For each church category, you can click on topics such as “Sacred Narratives,” “Sacred Time,” “Sacred Space,” “Rites and Ceremonies.”  Reading them feels like being the object of an anthropological study.

The author, Ted Vial, is a professor at Illiff School of Theology, a Methodist seminary, that also serves other mainline Protestant churches.  He is a true scholar and he gets much of Lutheranism right, considering that he is writing about the whole gamut of this tradition.  He does distinguish between the confessionalism of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod from the more liberal branches.  But I didn’t notice mention of the other conservative branches, such as the Wisconsin synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Free Lutherans, etc.

Prof. Vial is good on vocation, Luther’s neighbor-centered ethic, the Two Kingdoms, and justification.  He mentions the distinction between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory but doesn’t do too much with it, and readers don’t get a sense of the distinctly Lutheran Christology that allows our confessions to talk about “God suffering” and “God dying,” which, in turn would give him more to say about the Lutheran take on “Suffering and the Problem of Evil.”

Also, you can see the lens through which Prof. Vial is seeing.  He uses the Reformed numbering in the uses of the Law–he calls the use that convicts us of sin the “First Use,” whereas that is the “Second Use” for Lutherans, the first being the use that constrains outward behavior.  And he is clearly Methodist in saying that Lutherans “don’t expect to be sanctified.”  We do, only not in the Methodist sense of achieving moral perfection.

Part of Lutheranism he “gets” very well, other parts he misses, but in other places he is just “off” a little, as is probably always going to be the case when someone tries to understand religious beliefs from the outside, rather than as someone who believes them.

Check out what he says about Lutheranism from the live links given after the jump.  Those of you who aren’t Lutheran, go to the Religion Library and read about your church and how it measures up to those anthropological categories of “sacred time,” “sacred space,” etc.

Did you learn anything about your church that you didn’t realize before?  What is the author missing about your theology and your religious identity?

[Read more…]

Why conservatives need Edmund Burke 

Edmund_Burke_by_James_NorthcoteIn another in our series of my-former-students-who-are-making-me-proud-by-their-writing, Gracy Olmstead explains why today’s conservatives need to pay attention to Sir Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism.

Burke, in criticizing the French Revolution, showed why social reform must “conserve” what is good in the society.  Rather than raze the society to the ground and start over from ground zero.   Interestingly, Burke supported the American Revolution, which–compared to what the Jacobins did–was actually conservative in its respect for God, insistence on English common law, and retention of traditional morality.

Some of today’s conservative activists are more like right wing Jacobins, opposing everything that represents the “establishment,” than Burkean conservatives, who, by definition, want to “conserve” something.

But my application isn’t to today’s political controversies.  I have been studying the Reformation lately.  The Lutherans really were advocating, in C. P. Krauth’s terms, a “conservative Reformation.”  The medieval church was in bad need of reform, but the Lutherans “conserved” what was good in it:  sacramental spirituality; the liturgy; the creeds; church art; the Christian intellectual tradition.  Later Protestants rejected everything that could remotely be considered “Catholic,” trying instead, in a succession of ways, to start the church all over from scratch.

Thus, in Burkean terms,  we had both a conservative Reformation and a Jacobin Reformation. [Read more…]

Justification and contemporary culture

15692653361_7e7cf1101b_zLuther-influenced Anglican David Zahl has a brilliant article in the latest Christianity Today about Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel and his understanding of justification by faith.  These teachings, Zahl shows, go to the very heart of what people are most struggling with today in contemporary culture:  perfectionism, the need for approval, and the futility of self-justification.

These are all symptoms of living under the law–if not God’s law, the other laws that we try to replace it with–and the new high-tech information environment only makes the symptoms worse.  (Zahl quotes a friend saying, “The internet is like the real world, only with all the forgiveness vacuumed out.”)

Luther’s breakthrough, that we do not have to justify ourselves–that is, attain perfection, or try to convince ourselves and other people that we are right and good–but that Christ justifies us, is as liberating today as it was 500 years ago.

[Read more…]

Grappling with Bach’s theology

bach-787703_640Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker has written a fascinating piece on Bach’s theology.  He says that while much research of the past tried to look at Bach in purely secular terms, today’s scholarship is attempting to unpack the musical impact of his Lutheranism.

Ross reviews several recent books on the subject, including one that tries to read into Bach’s music elements of anti-semitism, as if that is what Lutheranism is all about.  (Despite Luther’s senile ravings at the end of his life, Lutheran theology at the very least removed the stigma that Jews are to be blamed as Christ-killers–what the book in question is looking for in Bach’s Passions–since Lutheran theology sees Christ’s death as the result of all human sin, making possible their redemption.)  In reading the review of the books, which touches on the struggles and spiritual dynamism reflected in Bach’s music, I was struck by how little outsiders know about the distinctive, unique  elements of Lutheran spirituality, such as the contrast between Cross and Glory, and the spiritual desolation known as Anfechtung.  These would be highly relevant to Bach’s music, accounting for some of what these scholars otherwise struggle to explain.

But I love Ross’s close readings of Bach’s music, particularly, St. John’s Passion, in which he shows the Biblical and theological meaning of the musical structures the composer employs.  I love this quotation of one the authors:  “Marissen identifies himself as an agnostic, but adds that in the vicinity of Bach’s music he will never be a “comfortable agnostic.”  I love that so much of this research draws on the copy of Bach’s annotated Bible held by Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, which Ross discusses.  And I love the overall question asked by this article and by the books themselves:  How is it that music based on such archaic theological ideas can connect so profoundly with people in our time?  (I would answer that Bach is evidence that Lutheranism itself, properly understood, can connect profoundly with people in our time.)

[Read more…]

The Two Cities vs. the Two Kingdoms

It’s common to associate Augustine’s Two Cities with Luther’s Two Kingdoms.  But they are really quite different.  In The City of God, Augustine defines the two in terms of two different loves:  The City of God has to do with the love of God; the City of Man has to do with love of self.

Thus the two cities are in opposition to each other.  This is a scheme for dualism, for ascetic rejection of the world, giving rise to monasticism.

Luther’s Two Kingdoms is a paradigm for embracing the world.  The Kingdom of the Left, for Luther, is about neither love of God nor love of self, but love of neighbor.

[Read more…]