Does Capacity Define Dignity? A Response to Norman Metzler

The January 2019 issue of The Day Star Journal carried an article by the Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler, a professor of theology (emeritus) at Concordia University, Portland, under the title “Sanctity of Life: the Complexities of the Abortion Issue.” In this article, Prof. Metzler moves rather quickly from “problem pregnancies” to an argument to keep abortions “legal and therefore medically safe and responsible” (p. 1). While there is much in Metzler’s article that needs to be critiqued, I wish to dwell on a single assumption rooted in a deeply flawed anthropology.

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2017 Bjarne W. Teigen Reformation Lectures

The annual Bjarne W. Teigen Reformation Lectures will be held October 26–27, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. This year the theme will be Luther’s Three Treatises: The Reformation Platform. These lectures delve into the Reformation heritage with presentations on the history and theology of the Lutheran Reformation with application to the teaching and practice in the Lutheran church today.

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Confirmation: When? Early? Later, or not at all?

Abstract: This essay sets forth the Reformation pattern for admission to the Lord’s Supper – baptism, instruction, admission to the Lord’s Table. Age was not a factor in this historic practice. Modern changes have moved toward early communion before full instruction and confirmation. All three major Lutheran hymnals in the US have orders for the rite of first communion before full instruction and confirmation. Early communion was followed by a strong push for infant communion since the Eucharist is the birthright of the baptized.

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A Response to Woodford

Last week LOGIA Online posted an article by Pastor Lucas Woodford entitled “Third Use of the Law and Sanctification.” He offered a descriptive analysis of a “debate going among conservative confessional Lutheran circles regarding the nature and use of the Law, particularly its Third Use, as well as the issue of antinomianism and the sanctified life under the Gospel.”

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Reformation Reading by Pless

A number of pastors have asked me for suggestions for recent books on Luther as we are now into the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What follows are my suggestions for books that would be valuable in a congregational library and for reading by interested laity. Several of these books would serve well as the basis for an adult Christian education class. Those marked with an * fit that category.

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SYNODICAL TREASURES

During the January 2017 Symposia week at the Fort Wayne seminary, I had the opportunity to not only hear many excellent lectures, but also to renew many friendships with people in my synod—The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS)—and in other Lutheran synods here in North America and around the world.

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A Word about the Cover

The anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 is a big year for Luther and Lutherans. All kinds of Reformation celebrations are being planned, and many are already underway. Perhaps what will be lost in the celebrations is Luther's own emphasis on humility. Some of the last words from his pen said that "we are all beggars," a final reiteration of his point that it is God who works good in his church through his word. Man is merely the instrument through whom God works, and Luther would remind us that this calls for a healthy dose of humility.

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Not the Same

EXCERPT: In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court, its allied judges, and its like-minded politicians are engendering the American republican-democratic state into establishing or into becoming the state Church of Neopaganism in the USA with the Supreme Court Justices in majority ruling as its self-ordained high priests.

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Three Principles of Ecclesiastical Art Production from the Writings of Luther

— by Ted Giese

Art is something that must be perceived. Of course many things in the daily life of the individual are perceivable, but a great deal of things go unnoticed both actively and inactively by the casual observer. There are two kinds of perceivable things in the world: those things touched by human hands and those things that are not. In the case of those things that are touched by human hands, intentionality becomes an essential clue as to the purpose behind their formation, just as Gene Edward Veith suggests in his book Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, when he states that art “brings abstract philosophies down to earth.” H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson in their classic art history textbook History of Art assert that art is the most intentional of humankind's activities, or at least it is the most intentional form of expressing ideas and concepts in nonverbal non-traditional linguistic forms. What has been defined as art has fluctuated over time, and the artisans of one time become the artists of another and vice versa. This is largely due to shifts in social attitudes and tastes.

At the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, art was becoming what people generally understand it to be today: drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. This Renaissance period that coincided with the Reformation period was a great time of upheaval within Western culture, and some scholars like Erik Erikson believed that Martin Luther had little interest in art at all. This is not true. Luther commented and wrote about art many times, yet he did not give a single list of parameters that one could use in the proper production of ecclesiastical art. For this, one must look more broadly at the writings of Luther and deduce from them useful principles.

When Luther was writing about art, he was writing about architecture, drawings, paintings, and sculptures as they could be found in the secular and religious culture of his time. What is measured as art in our current time has widened considerably to include a vast and varied set of interrelated fields and disciplines far exceeding the confines of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Conceptual art, performance art, text-based art, textile art, installation art, earth art, photographic art, cinematic art, time-based art, kinetic art, sound-based art, digital art, printmaking, and assemblage all comprise the current definition, along with drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture. These fields will at times intersect with one another, creating complex relationships and systems.

Luther's writings in no way encompass all of these current fields, yet three essential principles can be taken from Luther's writings when it comes to the production of ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

  1. Christian ecclesiastical art must respect the inerrancy of Scripture, that is the Old and New Testaments contained in the Christian canon, and them alone;
  2. Christian ecclesiastical art is to act as secondary instructional materials in the form of memorials and reminders for the Christian, which is to say it must serve a pedagogical purpose;
  3. Contextual matters are to be taken into consideration when producing ecclesiastical art for the divine service.

These principles will all be examined briefly to give a better understanding of how Luther looked at ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

First, scriptural inerrancy is a key building block of confessional Lutheran thought, second only to Christ himself, for scripture is the infallible word of God and must be respected as such. A great deal of the assurance of the Christian is based on the fact that the scriptures are true and contain no falsehoods or errors. Scriptural inerrancy then becomes the first rule by which Luther discerns art of any kind. If it is in adherence to Scripture, it is good and useful; if it is not, then it is dangerous to faith. Producing ecclesiastical art that is good and faithful can only be accomplished through respect for scriptural inerrancy.

An example of this approach by Luther can be found in his 1539 Lectures on Genesis where Luther notes, concerning contemporary images of the patriarch Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac on mountain of the Lord, that "it was not a sword, and the picture commonly painted of Abraham about to kill his son is incorrect. It was a knife, such as butchers and priests were accustomed to use." (LW 4:110–11). Two very different things are conveyed when the sword of a king is compared and contrasted with the knife of a butcher or an Old Testament priest. The first is a symbol of government and the vocation of the sword, the other is a symbol of the sacrifice, particularly in the case of an Old Testament priest. With the cross of Christ and Jesus' death upon that cross as the center of Scripture and with the account of Abraham and Isaac typologically pointing to the sacrifice of God's only Son, the question can be asked: Which better conveys visually what the text of Scripture teaches? The sword or the knife? Artistic licence in this case can introduce error at worst and theological dissonance at best.

Earlier in 1522 Luther likewise pointed out, in his sermon for the festival of Epiphany, that the common misconception promulgated by artists that there were three Wise Men from the east just because there were three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) was in fact incorrect, because Scripture never numbered the wise men (LW 52:160). These examples may seem nitpicky to some, but they show the serious attitude Luther had concerning the inerrancy of Scripture and the potential pitfalls of bearing false witness in ecclesiastical art production. There is also an element of common sense in Luther's statements: if the text of Scripture does not say it, do not make it so in art. To do anything else would be a lie, as well as subversive. If the intent is to produce faithful ecclesiastical art, then hyperbole becomes a dangerous ground upon which to build, even if it is well intentioned or has become traditional. It should be noted that Luther does not specifically insist on scriptural inerrancy, while at the same time it is important to note that Luther singles out as "incorrect" works of ecclesiastical art that do not adhere to scriptural inerrancy.

Second, ecclesiastical art contains a pedagogical purpose in the form of memorials and reminders. While discussing the use and production of personal prayer books (LW 43:43), Luther advocates the daily remembrance of Scripture through imagery in a similar fashion as he advocates the daily remembrance of baptism in his Small Catechism. Scripturally, Luther accepts the use of images, even including crucifixes and images of saints, based on Joshua 24:26 and 1 Samuel 7:12, because examples of ecclesiastical art such as these serve the same function of memorial and witness as is sanctioned in the Old Testament with the proper use of witness stones (LW 40:87).

For Luther, ecclesiastical art was permissible only when it was not the object of worship. Consider the bronze serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:8–9 under the specific direction of God. It began as a useful object and had a specific pedagogical purpose. It was there to teach the people to trust in God and his promise. When it was being misused later in the time of Hezekiah, Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Ki 18:4) because it was being worshiped (LW 40:87). Between the time of Moses and Hezekiah there was no problem with the bronze serpent because its only function during that time was to serve as a reminder of the grace of God for his afflicted people.

Because of the value of ecclesiastical art as pedagogical, it is necessary at this point to take a short detour into Luther's response to iconoclasm in his time. Luther preferred to avoid the destruction of ecclesiastical art if it did not have to be physically destroyed, or rather he preferred teaching as opposed to hammer, chisel, and torch (LW 40:58). Luther's approach in this regard was much more pastoral. On the one side, the Roman church taught falsely concerning images, claiming that just seeing, and/or praying to, or being in the presences of certain material objects could forgive sin (SA II.23), produce miracles, and be counted as meritorious. On the other side, Luther had the iconoclasts and enthusiasts who wished to strip the world bare of all ecclesiastical art, seeing it as inherently idolatrous. Luther stuck with Scripture and promoted an alternative approach. His main concern was the worship of images, and in his treatise of 1525 "Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments," Luther provides the above discussion concerning the bronze serpent, as well as his philosophy for avoiding idolatry, as he debated the iconoclasm of Karlstadt. He states:

“[I] approach the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God's Word and making them worthless and despised. This indeed took place before Dr. Karlstadt ever dreamed of destroying images. For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from the sight and leaving them in the heart. For he does not preach faith, nor can he preach it; unfortunately, only now do I see that. Which of these two forms destroy images best, I will let each man judge for himself (LW 40:84).”

On the one hand having ecclesiastical art and keeping it present within the worship and devotional life of the Christian provides opportunity for pedagogy. Conversely, on the other hand, the absence of such art will hamper and/or shift pedagogy away from visual learning. The latter was not the intention of Luther. He certainly understood such visual learning as valuable, and made a case that it would be beneficial if images like those printed in his translation of the Bible would find greater uses.

Before leaving this second principle, consider how Luther suggests that such prints as found in books should be painted on walls because, as he puts it, they "do no more harm on walls than in books." He continues saying, “It is better to paint pictures on walls of how God created the world, how Noah built the ark, and whatever other good stories there may be, than to paint shameless worldly things. Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it” (LW, 40:99).

Third, ecclesiastical art best serves the church when context is considered. This might best be thought of as a natural refinement coming out of the first two principles. These principles being a deep and careful regard for scriptural inerrancy and the desire to produce works of art which focus themselves as pedagogical reminder and witness.

The question of context for Luther utilizes the most basic form of common sense flowing from the first two principles. Luther gives a very strong opinion concerning this as he writes about the Sacrament of the Altar on the basis of Psalm 111 in 1530:

Whoever is inclined to put pictures on an altar ought to have the Lord's Supper of Christ painted, with these two verses written around in golden letters: ‘The gracious and merciful Lord has instituted a remembrance of His wonderful works.’ Then they would stand before our eyes for our heart to contemplate them, and even our eyes, in reading, would have to thank and praise God. Since the altar is designated for the administration of the sacrament, one could not find a better painting for it. Other pictures of God or Christ can be painted somewhere else. (LW 13:375)

Luther wishes to reinforce the fact that "the Lord is gracious and merciful" (LW 13:373). The trouble comes when individuals approach the Sacrament of the Altar in confusion, when the recipient of the body and blood of Christ is afraid of Jesus, afraid of God the Father because Jesus has been "painted" either with words or presumably with paint, to varying degrees, as angry or displeased in the institution of his sacrament. Luther assures the Christian that "[Jesus] will not devour you or stand over you with a club when you go to the Sacrament" (LW 13:374).

Here we can see how Luther is making the distinction between what is appropriate and what is not, and how an individual piece of art in the wrong place can bear false witness concerning the true teachings of the church. The preceding block quote provides a positive example of how art can be employed to get the right message across to the troubled soul, becoming that proper reminder and witness. When applied, this third principle would suggest quite strongly that there is a proper place for ecclesiastical art.

For example, one would be encouraged to put ecclesiastical art concerning baptism around a baptismal font. In contemporary art theory, this is called site-specific; the fabrication or production of aesthetic elements that interact with the pre-existing environment. This is most common in the field of installation art where a change in the environment is attempted; the success of such a change is largely determined by how seamless the integration of the preexistent merges with the aesthetic additions. The desire is generally one of two things: either to create unease or inquiry by the use of juxtaposition, or to create harmony by the use of common homogeny or winsomely developed homogeny. Luther appears to desire the latter. Juxtaposition is not generally useful in ecclesiastical art unless it serves the first two principles and is contextually appropriate.

To put a finer point on the necessity of context, consider this example. King David is a prominent individual recorded in holy Scripture. It is entirely possible to produce a painting or sculpture of David that would be faithful to the text of Scripture, an image that contained no spurious errors. Such a work of ecclesiastical art could rightly be understood as serving as a witness to the personage of David and his life lived in the grace of God's promise of salvation, yet it would be contextually inappropriate to place such a work of ecclesiastical art predominantly at the altar. Doing so would be an elevation of David over Christ and would then retroactively break the first two principles. The work of art would, because of its placement, teach falsely and if it taught falsely it would subsequently no longer be respectful of Scripture and scriptural inerrancy.

These three principles for the production of ecclesiastical art give the artist and patron/congregation valuable insight into what best constitutes ecclesiastical art how it can be faithfully utilized by the Christian. In the current milieu, the field of art encompasses virtually all elements of Christian worship. As a result, these three principles may be applied more broadly especially when the entirety of the divine service and its physical setting is deemed to be art. Movement, color, gesture, body language, duration of time, fabric, construction materials, tone, structure, sound, music and all the non-verbal elements are perceivable as art. The principles of respect for scriptural inerrancy, pedagogical reminder and witness, and appropriate context can therefore be applied to an individual element or to the whole of the divine service.

Lastly, because of the common sense nature of these three principles, they have been generally applied by Lutherans, but because they have not been presented as principles formally, their use has been subject to variability due in part to shifts in social attitudes and tastes. As a result the Lutheran church in North America, on the congregational level, has often been influenced more by the artistic principles of other denominations and/or by secular artistic movements than it has been by Luther and its own writers and thinkers. Careful consideration of these three principles from the solid footing of Scripture could provide a way forward toward a comprehensive understanding of ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

 

Rev. Ted Giese serves as associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina Saskatchewan Canada.


As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

Standing Bold Upon Firm Ground

— By Gunnar Andersson

Translated by Bror Erickson

At the beginning of this month (June) the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia in synod decided to update the church order to say that only men can be ordained as pastors. The decision reinforced what was already the practice since 1993 when Janis Vanags became archbishop. Seventy-seven percent of the delegation voted for it; only seventy-five perfect was needed for such a change to be made.

The 2016 Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia meets in the Cathedral of Riga.  Photo via the ELCL .

The 2016 Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia meets in the Cathedral of Riga. Photo via the ELCL.

It is very encouraging that the church in Latvia has integrity and stands up to pressure from different directions to follow along with the modern agenda. To see that a church dares to go against the stream, towards the word of God and not away, is a sign of hope in our time.

During the same synod a Swede (!), Hans Jönsson, was elected bishop for the Diocese of Liepaja. Because of his faithfulness to the Bible and confession even in the question of holy ministry, Hans could not be a pastor in the Church of Sweden, and this finally led him to Latvia where he was ordained in 2003. Since then he has garnered more and more confidence as dean, as overseer of the Church’s economy, and as chairman of the board of regents for the church’s seminary. His consecration as Bishop takes place on the sixth of August in Riga’s Cathedral.

No church is free of challenges and worries, not even in Latvia. But there is a decisive difference between striving against God’s word and serving with God’s word. The latter has the Lord’s promise with it. For a long time, the Church of Sweden has been on a collision course with the Bible and the confessions and has said no to people the Lord has called to ministry precisely because they are not able to compromise with their consciences that are bound to the word of God. Instead of faithful pastors, many communities have received those that would lead them away from their Savior.

Against this background of the church and congregations in Sweden depriving themselves of the call and gifts of the Lord, it is a joy to note that the church in Latvia values and receives the ministry of those who want to remain faithful to the Lord’s will. Let us pray for the Lord’s blessing and protection for the church in Latvia and her future bishop.

The need in Sweden for genuine evangelical divine service and congregational life is acute. The remaining functional congregations in Sweden are being disposed of at an alarming rate. Many have been anesthetized by continuing to sit under pulpits where God’s word was first diluted before moving on to pure heresy. Congregations and priests, bound to the confessions of the Church of Sweden but independent of the presently politically bound organization are needed in many places, both so that the Christians can be built up and strengthened in faith and trust in Jesus, and so that new converts could be won for him.

Unfortunately, there have been very different opinions both concerning the need and the way forward among groups and individuals within the confessional movement. To judge from the growing number of converts to the Roman Catholic Church many seem to have subsequently given up hope for evangelical Lutheran Church life in Sweden. Perhaps there is reason to question how much the evangelical Lutheran faith really meant for them. Or perhaps the discord within the Church of Sweden become an excuse for them to do what they have always wanted?

Another worry that can be sensed is that we in different areas have been eager to defend our specific spiritual traditions and are not capable or willing to see and affirm that which is good and in other places. Faithfulness to the Bible and confessions is a must, but freedom of expression needs to prevail as it fits.

The most significant initiative to bring forth the great heritage of the Swedish Church is the Missions Province, the college of pastors of which Hans Jönsson is a member. The Province is not big, and it isn’t growing very fast. At the same time, numbers and greatness are not anything the Bible emphasizes as a sign of whether or not we have the Lord’s blessing. However, the Lord asks for faithfulness.

There is every reason for the Mission Province to work boldly, both to nurture the already established congregations, and to establish new congregations. This is especially true in areas where there are few alternatives, organizationally independent of the Swedish Church. The newly established congregations in Borås and Karlskrona are examples of this.

No matter which country one lives in, or how the congregation’s circumstances look, there is great reason for boldness if one stays on the God given firm ground. The Lord remains seated on the throne!


This article was originally published in Kyrka och Folk Nr. 25-26 23 Juni 2016 93 Årg.


As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

An Update to Martin R. Noland's Article

From the Editor:  

Martin R. Noland posted an update to his article here. I felt it was worth including as a separate post:

 

"I know this blog post is now below the blog-surfers' radar, but I wanted to add a postscript item that should have been in my footnotes. Ed Stetzer wrote a blog post in November 2014 that I had seen but lost track of, that agrees with the essence of my argument. It was re-cited this week at Christianity Today, so is making the rounds. Point your browser here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/channel/utilities/print.html?type=article&id=125804"

A Word from Our Chinese Brethren

Editor's Note: This letter was originally written for Luther Academy.

A Letter from our Chinese Brethren

—by Pastor Jason Li

We, Chinese Lutherans, need solid, genuine, and orthodox Lutheran teaching as much as possible. Luther rediscovered the Gospel, and that is the only reason why we were baptized and became Christians. We believe that Lutheran theology is the faithful interpretation of the Gospel. 

Lutheran writings in Chinese are extremely scarce, almost next to none in Chinese circles, compared to Reformed and Catholic books that are flooding the market. If Luther felt frustrated when he saw the deplorable conditions of the German churches and then wrote the Small Catechism, I believe Luther would be deeply depressed to see the even more deplorable conditions of the gospel among Chinese churches. We Lutheran pastors don't even have orthodox Lutheran books in Chinese to read, let alone the Christians in our churches.

As bad a situation as this is, Luther Academy supports us by donating many confessional books (see below). These books will be a huge blessing to our Chinese Lutheran pastors in over 30 Chinese Lutheran Churches in North America, including Canada.

As for one example, the theological teachings on the Lord's Supper is the distinguishable point between Reformed churches and Lutheran churches. Every Lutheran should pay more attention to this point and not allow the Devil to take away our dear Lord from the Lord's Supper.

Another example, I am reading the article "The Decline of Biblical Preaching in the Past Century" from the book The Word They Still Shall Let Remain. I realized that I need to pay more attention to preaching biblically. The article shows that "there is nothing that keeps people at church more than good preaching. The true adornment of the churches is godly, useful, and clear doctrine, the devout use of the Sacraments, fervent prayer, and the like" (Ap. XXIV.50-51). 

We pastors always want to know how to attract people to come and worship. The Apology already tells us that a good sermon is a must. After all, the most important reason that people come to church is to be fed by the Word and the body and blood of Christ. Just like the flower without water will wither, without good biblical preaching, the hungry faithful Christian will fade away sooner than we think. And the Apology already gives me the criteria for good sermons: godly, useful, and clear doctrine. When we pray, we pray fervently. When we receive the Sacrament, we receive devoutly.

We greatly appreciate Luther Academy's support of the Chinese Lutheran Ministry. May the Lord bless your ministry and bring to us more books with solid, genuine, and orthodox Lutheran doctrines. If these books could be in Chinese, that would be the best blessing for us all.


To support the work of Luther Academy, go here

To purchase your own copy of The Word They Still Shall Let Remain, go here

Why The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Its Kin Have Declined in Membership and What to Do About It

By Martin R. Noland


Lutheran church leaders have been trying to explain the slow-but-sure decline in Lutheran church membership in America since the 1980s. Explanation for the decline in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)[1] is straight-forward and obvious. A constant focus by the ELCA on “social justice,” church fellowship with non-Lutherans, and adoption of the gay-lesbian agenda at its 2009 convention has led many of its former members to drop out, join other denominations, or start new synods, such as the North American Lutheran Church (NALC)[2] and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC)[3].

Explanation for the much slower decline in membership of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS)[4] and its kin—the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)[5] and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS)[6]—is less obvious and is, in fact, puzzling. From about 1973 to the present time, church-going Evangelical Protestants have consistently out-numbered church-going mainline Protestants in the United States. Today the church-going Evangelicals outnumber church-going mainline Protestants nearly four to one.[7] In the four key beliefs that define Evangelicalism, the LCMS and its kin are aligned with Evangelicals, not mainline Protestants.[8] So in this period, why haven’t the “confessional Lutherans,” i.e., the LCMS and its kin, enjoyed the same, or similar, membership growth that Evangelicals have seen?

In my opinion, the “confessional Lutherans” have not seen growth primarily because of four factors. These four factors are things that the Evangelicals have done, and we confessional Lutherans have refused to do. The confessional Lutheran refusal to follow Evangelical practices in these matters is commendable. I would not have these synods do otherwise. The LCMS, WELS, and ELS have been faithful to their beliefs, their confessions, and the Scriptures by refusing to do these four things.

The first factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to participate in unionistic worship services, revivals, and other unionistic religious work. American Evangelicalism really began with the Second Great Awakening, which was led by Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist ministers as a self-consciously unionistic enterprise.[9] Evangelicalism has been unionistic ever since. Unionism, or religious cooperation between people of contrary beliefs, is a key component of Evangelicalism’s popularity and its great “success.” The LCMS and its kin, on the other hand, have been strictly anti-unionistic, as were their orthodox Lutheran predecessors going back to the sixteenth century.

The second factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to accept the theology and practices of the charismatic movement. Although the early leaders of modern Evangelicalism in the post-war period were not Pentecostal or charismatic, the tide has changed. Charismatics, who are usually classified as Evangelicals, now are a majority among “born again” Evangelicals in America.[10] Charismatics are also a key component in Evangelicalism’s growth. This has led to some conflict with non-charismatic Evangelical leaders.[11] The LCMS and its kin, on the other hand, though buffeted by charismatics for a time, have resisted the siren song of tongues-speech, bogus healings, speculative prophecies, and related manic practices. 

The third factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to “sheep-steal.” The twenty-second paragraph of the Preface to the Book of Concord elaborates the Lutheran belief that there are many pious Christians “who err ingenuously and who do not blaspheme the truth of the divine Word” (Tappert, 11) in non-Lutheran Christian churches. This belief is the reason that, as a rule, Lutherans do not consider members of other Christian churches to be a focus of their evangelism efforts. Evangelism is properly directed to the non-churched, the unbeliever, and to people of other religions. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have grown in numbers in large part due to their willingness to proselytize their fellow church-going Christians. Although some Evangelicals have criticized this practice,[12] it is a common practice defended by “church growth” gurus.[13] Since confessional Lutherans hold to the same key beliefs as Evangelicals, our youth and young people have been “easy pickings” for Evangelicals.

The fourth factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to identify with American Evangelical politics and political organizations. A recent pastoral letter by President Matthew Harrison reminds pastors of the LCMS that, though we have a few issues of concern for the body politic like abortion and same-sex marriage, neither the pastors nor the synod should tell people how to vote or whom to vote for.[14] 

This is in stark contrast to the Evangelical common practice of making political statements, persuading public officials, and telling the Evangelical flock how to vote and for whom to vote. Of modern Evangelicals, 62% believe that religious organizations should persuade senators and elected officials on legislative matters, which compares to 40% of Liberal Protestants, 47% of Roman Catholics, 37% of non-Christian religious people, and 28% of secularists.[15] This is a big change from the conservative Protestants in the 1950s and 1960s who believed that they should not be political involved.[16] The heavy involvement of modern Evangelicals in politics since the 1970s has been well-documented and analyzed.[17] One might conclude that many people joined the Evangelical churches since the 1970s out of political convictions, instead of spiritual ones. In the present political season (i.e., early 2016), the political convictions of Evangelicals seem to be “Trumping” their spiritual convictions.[18]

What should the “confessional Lutherans” do about this? Imitating Evangelical worship practices, sheep-stealing, accepting charismatic or unionistic practices, or any other Evangelical practices or theology will only further erode the membership of “confessional Lutheran” churches. These are not options for us.

In my opinion, in the present climate, we “confessional Lutherans” should concentrate on our strengths, not on our weaknesses. We should tell people that in regard to the four key beliefs of Evangelicals, we are Evangelicals—Dr. Gene Edward Veith has been saying this since 1999, if not before[19]—and we have so much more to offer than what is found in Evangelicalism. 

Our preaching is permeated with the constant grace and love of God, because we believe that the Gospel should predominate in preaching and teaching, not the Law. We have a doctrine of sanctification that allows for failure, because it recognizes we are always sinners and saints, and that Jesus forgives anyone who repents. We have a solid hermeneutic for interpreting the Bible that has been tested by five hundred years of theological debate. We have a time-tested theology in the Book of Concord, which our pastors are expected to follow and which keeps them from idiosyncratic teaching and church-fights over doctrine. 

We have a congregational polity, which keeps our pastors “in check,” prevents abuse of power by “bishops,” avoids problems of pastoral succession, and which recognizes the ecclesial role of the laymen in exercising their own “priesthood.” We have a liturgy and hymnody that sings the praises of God, not of ourselves. We have sacraments in Baptism and Absolution that actually give the Holy Spirit, faith, and forgiveness to those who receive them. We recognize that reason and the arts are a gift of God, unlike many Evangelicals who are anti-intellectual or who despise science and the arts. As a rule, we avoid political involvements, since we recognize the left-hand of God at work in rulers, and we have learned by historical experience that political engagement corrupts the church, and vice versa. 

  Finally, we confess that “Christ . . . in His Supper, engages with us in a blessed exchange whereby he unites himself with us through his holy flesh and blood so that, by his power, he may continually crucify and kill the old Adam more and more. And thus we all become one body in Christ, where each member is to love, honor, and support the other. . . He who finds that he is weak in faith has in the Lord’s Supper a blessed, powerful antidote to strengthen faith.”[20] 

These are just some of our strengths, which we should be happy to confess before the world in the coming 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation.



[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_in_America#Statistics ; also see http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/06/elca-has-lost-half-a-million-members ; accessed March 4, 2016, as were all other web pages in this article.

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Lutheran_Church.

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_Congregations_in_Mission_for_Christ.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_Church%E2%80%93Missouri_Synod#Membership_and_demographics.

[5] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Evangelical_Lutheran_Synod#Membership.

[6] For current statistics, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Synod#Membership. Statistics for 1991 indicate 21,347 baptized members in the ELS; in John F. Brug, et.al., WELS and Other Lutherans (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1995), 104.

[7] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/14/in-a-dramatic-shift-the-american-church-is-more-evangelical-than-ever.

[8] The four key beliefs of Evangelicals are explained here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/defining-evangelicals-in-election-year.html. The beliefs are defined by the authors with the following statements used in surveys: 1) “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe”; 2) “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”; 3) “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin”; and 4) “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

[9] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Great_Awakening ; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_Ridge,_Kentucky.

[10] See https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-charismatic#.Vtnw-Ob3yzM.

[11] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._MacArthur#Cessationism ; and http://www.christianpost.com/news/strange-fire-conference-john-macarthur-calls-out-charismatic-movement-as-unfaithful.

[12] For example, see: William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Church’s Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).

[13] See Donald McGavran, “Sheep Stealing and Church Growth,” in Win Arn, ed., The Pastor’s Church Growth Handbook (Pasadena, CA: Church Growth Press, 1979), 15–18.

[14] See http://blogs.lcms.org/2016/president-harrison-provides-a-lutheran-view-of-church-and-state.

[15] See James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 115–16.

[16] See Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 116.

[17] See Robert Zwier, Born-Again Politics: The New Christian Right in America (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (New York: Harper One, 2008); Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012); and Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[18] See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/02/the-demise-of-conservative-christian-political-prominence/471093

[19] See Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, 2nd ed. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010). The first edition of this book was in 1999.

[20] See Martin Chemnitz and Jacob Andreae, Church Order for Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel , 1569 edition, tr. Jacob Corzine, Matthew Harrison, and Andrew Smith, ed. Jacob Corzine and Matthew Carver (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 63.

Preaching Not to Kill God

—by Joel P. Meyer

When Stanley Hauerwas writes in his memoir that, “I live most of my life as if God does not exist,”[1] he makes more than a personal confession. He captures the cultural mood that frames Christian belief and practice in much of North America. Most of us can live perfectly coherent lives without ever once thinking about God. This does not mean that we have stopped believing in God or even that we have stopped going to church. It only means that Christians often do not take God very seriously in their own belief and practice. One way of expressing this mood is to say that God is dead. God no longer has constructive force and authority in our lives. In this paper, I will argue that God will have no constructive force and authority as long as the central form of Christian discourse about God, apostolic preaching, is eclipsed. In order to make this argument I will first demonstrate that our mood reflects an inversion of authority. Human beings assume the authority to give life and meaning to God. Then, I will argue that failing to distinguish between what Gerhard Forde calls explanation and proclamation reinforces this condition. Finally, I will suggest that a recovery of the Triune God’s authority will require that Christian preaching be apostolic in nature.


Whatever Happened to God?

Already in the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche realized that an epochal change had taken place, even though it had gone unnoticed by most. He saw that the basic structure of Western life and thought had turned upside down. God was no longer the source and ground of everything that exists. Instead, human beings had taken the place of God by assigning themselves the authority to give meaning and to determine truth.[2] In the Middle Ages, for example, the unquestioned assumption about the world was that the God of the Bible created it.[3] Everything that happened was explained in reference to his will and purposes, which seemed to permeate all things. But that clear and shining presence had darkened. And in God’s place, we human beings now stand as the source and ground of existence, even the existence of God.

One way Nietzsche expressed this change was to say that God is dead, and probably his most famous expression of God’s death can be found in a short tale he calls, “The Madman.” The story begins with a deranged man yelling out in the market place that God is dead and we are his killers. The man, in this case, is not an atheist but a reporter, telling us that the God who was once alive and well is now a decomposing corpse. Nietzsche’s sharp prose captures the magnitude of the event. The madman asks in amazement, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?” The point is straightforward. If God is God, then God alone is necessary. Everything else is contingent on God. So without God, we have no orientation; nothing on which to base our judgments about what is good and evil or true and false except our own will to choose. But that is just the problem. Contingent creatures have killed God by making themselves the highest authority. The madman puts it this way: “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”[4]

The problem Nietzsche identifies is not that we Westerners no longer believe in God. Rather, the way we believe in God no longer assumes that God is the ultimate authority.  One example of our condition can be found in a book by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called Soul Searching.[5] The book summarizes the results of a large scale survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion. Surprisingly, they report that American teenagers are fairly active and conventional participants in religious practices. Teens follow closely the habits of their parents, they have a generally positive attitude toward religion, and they participate in formal religious practices quite regularly on average. But at the same time, these same teenagers are extremely inarticulate about what they believe, they have great difficulty noticing what difference their beliefs make in their own lives, and they have a negative attitude to those who would pattern their life according to a set standard of beliefs. So while American teens are religious, “religion actually appears to operate much more as a taken-for-granted aspect of life, mostly situated in the background of everyday living, which becomes salient only under very specific conditions.”[6] 

This does not mean religion is unimportant, but only that it is important in a particular way. Religion still draws American teens insofar as it makes them happy and helps them get what they want out of life. “What legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable.”[7] This attitude is so pervasive among American teenagers that Smith and Denton summarizes their findings by suggesting that teens share one dominant kind of religion. Smith and Denton call it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”[8] This form of religion has three major components. First, it has a moralistic element: religion provides the impetus for being good, which naturally leads to happy and successful lives. Second, it has a strictly therapeutic element: religion helps teens feel better about themselves. And third, this religion believes in a certain type of God, one who is not demanding or an active part of their lives, but one who shows up when they need him to resolve a problem or give them help. 

The implications for the way American teens treat God are enormous. Rather than providing the beliefs and practices that make the world shine forth with God’s will and order, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism operates as a salve for teenage life. God is not important because he is the way, the truth, and the life. God is important insofar as he helps teens cope, insofar as they find him valuable or useful. If Smith’s findings are accurate, the madman is exactly right. God is dead. American teens have not stopped believing in God, but the form of their belief treats God as little more than a therapist. God is merely someone who helps teens make their way through life rather than the One who works life, death, and all in all. Put another way, human beings have the authority to assign meaning and life to God. But a God whose meaning and importance depends on the value humans find in him is a dead God.

The way American teens treat God is not unique, however. It only reflects the small place God has within the larger patterns of American culture. Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah, theologian John Wright identifies two poles of typical American life—the managerial and the therapeutic. “The public, managerial realm seeks efficiency in a competitive economic marketplace.”[9] In this realm, the most important concern is the bottom line. The goal of this realm is productivity. Managers, whose sole purpose is to match means to ends in order to achieve maximum efficiency, dominate this realm. Humans, along with other materials, are resources for the maintenance and growth of organizations. The managerial realm is impersonal and competitive, and often physically and emotionally draining. So the therapeutic realm exists to compensate for the toll of the managerial realm. “The private, therapeutic realm provides personal affirmation, meaning, self-fulfillment and expression—what has come recently to be called ‘spirituality.’”[10] This realm consists of all kinds of therapists, who help us cope with the impersonal managerial realm by giving us personal support and encouragement that heals or reenergizes us to go back to work. 

By marking out these two poles, Wright is not suggesting anything profound. The give and take between the managerial and therapeutic is as basic to American life as the pursuit of a job that pays us enough to enjoy life apart from work. What’s disturbing, though, is the place the church has within this cycle. Wright observes that typically, “Churches exist as therapeutic safe houses in an impersonal world,”[11] and pastoral care aims to mend exhausted and broken lives with psychological support couched in terms of divine love. Within this cycle, God only fits within the therapeutic realm. God does not help us make managerial decisions, for instance. God, in this case, only helps us get by as he gives us personal encouragement and individual purpose. God is nothing more than something in which we find personal value. 

These examples demonstrate what it means to say that God is dead. In typical American life, God is significant only insofar as we find personal value in him. Therefore, we stand over-against God as the authorities who give God meaning and significance. So in the remainder of the paper I want to ask this question: How does Christian speech about God reinforce or overcome this condition? In order to answer this question, I will turn from cultural reflection to systematic theology, and from Nietzsche to Gerhard Forde.


Explaining God to Death

Throughout much of his work, Forde worries that Christians have stopped observing Luther’s distinction between God preached and God not preached.[12] According to Forde, the distinction works this way: Apart from the preaching of the gospel we cannot get a grasp on God. God does many things for which we have no explanation. If God is a living God, he controls and effects all things. But that means God cannot be easily excused from tornadoes, car accidents, tumors, and viruses. God works life, death, and all in all. God as such presents a problem for us because he cannot be handled, contained, or explained. When a loved-one dies unexpectedly in a car accident, for example, we can say some nice and pious things about God. We might say something like “God did it because he wants something good to come out of it in the long run.” But explanations like this do not hold water. It does not take long before we realize that our explanations of God just make God all that more imposing. If God wanted something good to come out of a death, could not God have done it without killing the person? We might try to say the opposite: God had nothing to do with it all. But then God lacks either the will or power to stop it. 

 The point is that God refuses our explanations. God simply is who he is and does what he does and nothing we say about it all will ever change or resolve that. God is much too great and abstract for us to handle. But that is just the point Forde wants to make. Since God is God, the only thing we can do about it is be silent and listen to God when he speaks for himself. The only way to deal with the abstractness of God is to let God break through it all and talk to us. God does exactly that in the preaching of the gospel. God breaks through the abstractness and actually speaks. “In and through Jesus, the crucified and risen one, a peculiar band has been unleashed on the world, commissioned and authorized to speak, not merely about, but for God.”[13] 

Forde calls this speech on behalf of God “proclamation.” “The proclamation is…the divine address, speaking not my words but the word God has commissioned me to speak, not what I think, but what God has ordered me to say.”[14] The preacher who proclaims stands in God’s place as God’s commissioned representative to speak on God’s behalf. Absolution is the paradigmatic example: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you.” Because God has authorized someone to speak on God’s behalf, this person’s word to you is God’s word, as if God were standing here right now speaking to you face to face. The opposite of proclamation, however, is explanation. Rather than speaking words from God, explanation speaks words about God. Explanation says something in general. Rather than actual absolution, explanation says something like “God is a forgiving God.” Or, “God’s eternal disposition is merciful.”

Now Forde does not want to say that explanation is bad, but only that it has its place; namely, to prepare us for proclamation. We start running into trouble when explanations take the place of proclamation. For example, it is one thing to say about God that his eternal disposition is merciful. But just what does that mean when my brother dies in a car accident. Has God in his mercy decided to kill my brother? When explanations take the place of proclamation, the concrete reality of God more or less drops out of the picture. Rather than letting God be God in both his unsearchable majesty and his own spoken word, God becomes an idea that we can either assent to or not. Forde puts it this way: “Lectures about God are substituted for preaching God. Our personal difficulties with God are assuaged with a little theological tinkering—perhaps a new name, a new image, a new theology more to our liking.”[15] 

We should not miss the therapeutic undertones of Forde’s point. When an idea about God takes the place of God himself, whether in his absolute majesty or in his proclaimed word, God begins to bend to our demands and desires. Take again the example of a tragedy. If we start with the explanation that God in general is merciful, it doesn’t take long for us to start questioning that generalization. Is this how God’s displays his mercy? Well, once we have taken a step down the road of explanation, it is hard to turn back. Now, it seems, we have to give a reason why this tragedy happened that coheres with God being merciful in general. Maybe we say next that it happened because God wants something good to come out of it in the long run. Maybe that will satisfy us. 

In reality, though, our explanations rarely get that far. Usually we are satisfied to hear something nice about God in general on Sunday mornings and go on our way. “God loves sinners.” “God’s Son has paid the price for our sin.” “God forgives.” Speech like that is often enough to help us feel better about the one who does all in all. Once we have God in the grips of an explanation, God doesn’t seem as threatening. Explanations seem to secure us from God’s unpredictability. God is confined, predictable, and even rational, someone we can feel safe about. And that is just the problem. Wrapped in an explanation, God poses no serious interruption to our lives. We can go on just as we did before, but now with the comforting thought that God isn’t really the threat he seems to be. Explanation turns out to be good therapy. 


Preaching that Kills God and the Preaching of the Living God

There are lots of ways that explanation takes the place of proclamation, but none does more harm than in preaching. Christian preaching is supposed to be the place where proclamation happens, where God’s ordained servant speaks on God’s behalf just as he has been authorized and sent to do. But often, preaching tries to convey an idea about God. There are many ways that either explanation takes over the pulpit or proclamation happens there, but I want to focus on one fundamental instance: the preacher’s disposition toward the scriptural text.

When a sermon aims for explanation, the preacher will approach the text of scripture as a resource for information about God, as if there exists within it a kernel of truth that needs to be excavated and conveyed. The preaching task then consists of two stages. First, the preacher uses interpretive skills to locate that kernel of truth, which is thought to be the real meaning of the text. Depending on one’s religious preference, this kernel can be doctrinal in nature (the text reveals a doctrinal truth), or exegetical (the text reveals the author’s intent), or even moral/religious (the text reveals a truth about life). Second, once the preacher locates the central truth within a passage, the preacher then finds a rhetorically skillful way to convey that truth to his hearers. Such rhetorical skill aims to bridge the gap between the truth within the text and the hearer. Usually, the preacher bridges the gap by starting with an illustration that is attention grabbing and easy to grasp. Once that basic connection has been made with the hearer, the sermon goes on to show how the passage of scriptural text fits with the illustration. In the end, the preacher stands in the pulpit as a conveyor of information about God derived from the text.[16] 

Forde comments that,

The basic presupposition for such oral communication tends to be the freedom of choice. The words provide information about God and Christ which one is expected to appropriate or accept by an act of will. One may, of course, insist that such choosing is aided by grace or the workings of the Spirit…But even so the presupposition remains the same, that of the continually existing subject making its choice over against a battery of facts.[17] 

So rather than confronting us with God’s own present speech, the preacher associates God with an idea that we have to be enticed to believe on the grounds of the rhetorical persuasiveness of the sermon. If the sermon succeeds and we happen to find the idea persuasive, then that is exactly the problem: we find the idea persuasive. God fits into what we already know about the world and we remain the authorities on God.

If preachers want to maintain God’s authority over-against us, if they want their speech to honor God as a living God, then they must ask the question, “What does the text of scripture authorize me to say on God’s behalf?” When preachers proclaim from the pulpit, they have the authority and the obligation to speak in the stead and by the command of God himself. 

Speaking on behalf of God is doing something different than conveying information about God. In his book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks,[18] Nicholas Wolterstorff makes a helpful distinction between divine revelation and divine speech. According to Wolterstorff, the claim that God reveals something is different than the claim that God speaks. Divine revelation is an act by which God discloses some item of knowledge about himself that was hidden or previously unknown. That is to say, divine revelation is the act of conveying information. This might occur when God uses a written text in order to deliver a message. Or this might occur indirectly through God’s actions in history. In either case, divine revelation is characterized by the communication or transference of some item of knowledge. 

Divine speech, on the other hand, is something quite different. When talking about divine speech, Wolterstorff has in mind here what J. L. Austin calls illocutionary acts, such as asserting, commanding, promising, or asking. According to Wolterstorff’s account of speech, God does not simply convey information to us. God enters into a moral relationship with a person by assuming a normative standing. He explains,

Imagine, for example, a field worker uttering in the hearing of his fellow worker the words, “would you hand me a drink of water,” thereby requesting the other to hand him a drink of water. The standing of having issued that request is now normatively ascribed to him. And part of what thus having that standing entails is that if the addressee understands what was said, and the speaker’s request is not undercut for him, then the addressee is (prima facie) obligated to hand the speaker a drink of water…By uttering that sentence, the speaker has altered the moral relationship between himself and his fellow worker.[19]

One condition that would undercut the speaker’s request would be that the speaker does not have the authority to take such a normative stance. For example, an observer in the stands of a baseball game might declare that the runner was out at first. But the game will go on regardless of what the fan said because only the umpire has the authority to take up such a normative standing.

Divine speech, then, happens when God uses words to enter into an obligating relationship with someone. A principle instance of divine speech is when God makes a promise. Oswald Bayer, commenting on Austin’s work in reference to Luther, helpfully describes what takes place when God makes a promise. “What happens when this is said or heard? I place myself under an obligation. An activity is described, but it is not what is asserted by an uninvolved observer who says, ‘He is making a promise,’ but is rather an activity that actually constitutes a certain state of affairs. A relationship is created thereby that did not exist previously.”[20] So when God speaks, he does not merely use words to transmit knowledge about himself. God uses words to act in the present upon another. God takes a stand over-against us as a living and contemporary person that we have to deal with—a person who addresses us, and by his address obligates himself to us, and us to him.

When preaching aims at proclamation, the preacher will approach the text of scripture as directions on how to speak to his congregation on God’s behalf. Rather than serving as a resource for information, the scriptures authorize the preacher to stand in the pulpit as God’s own spokesperson. The task of the preacher, then, is to discern how God speaks through the scriptures. So the preacher must not simply ask what information about God lies at hand, but how God uses the scriptural text to speak.

How does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ use the scriptures to speak? I can only sketch an answer to this question, and my basic description will try to follow the account given in the synoptic Gospels and especially Luke and Acts. The God of Israel sent Jesus to bring about God’s eschatological reign. Anointed by the Spirit, Jesus acted and spoke in the stead and by the command of this God. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead and he absolved sinners of their sins. But Jesus’ own authority to speak and act on God’s behalf was challenged by the leaders of Israel. When Jesus would not back down from his claims to authority, they crucified him with the help of the Romans as a blasphemer: one who did not have the authority to speak and act on behalf of God. But God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Jesus then commissioned his disciples to go into the whole world with Jesus’ own authority to act and speak on his behalf—to forgive sins, to baptize, and to be witnesses to the things that had taken place concerning him so that all who believe in Jesus will be saved from the wrath of God’s final judgment. God sent Jesus to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus sent the apostles to speak on his behalf by bearing witness to the things God had done through Jesus. They considered their own words to be God’s words because just as God had commissioned Jesus, Jesus had commissioned them. The New Testament scriptures, then, are authoritative apostolic divine speech. God uses them to speak to us about his Son, so that we might trust in him and in his words.

Therefore, preaching will be proclamation when the preacher steps into the pulpit as part of the apostolic mission, speaking the apostolic word as he is commissioned by the scriptural text. Forde describes the mechanics of proclamation when he says, “the proclaimer should attempt to do once again in the living present what the text once did and so authorizes doing again.”[21] Exactly what that deed is will be determined by the individual text and the place it has within God’s purposes of speaking through the apostles to create a people for himself. That speech might be to make a promise concerning Christ. For instance, when Jesus promises in John 6:35 that, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst,” the preacher should aim to make the same promise about Jesus to his hearers. Or, the text might move to elect its hearers on God’s behalf, or to warn them of complacency, or both. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13, Paul elects the Corinthians by typologically placing them within the story of Israel. Then he warns them not to put God’s election to the test. Then he promises that despite their unfaithfulness, God will be faithful. A preacher should aim to do the same to his hearers and speak in the present just as Paul spoke as an apostle of Jesus on behalf of God. 

In any case, when the preacher lets the scriptural text place him within the apostolic mission as God’s own spokesperson, God gets the final word. Rather than conforming to our own best ideas, God stands over-against us and speaks his own mind. If the Christian God is to be a living God, then, preachers need to fully embrace the apostolic mission for which they are ordained.



Rev. Joel P. Meyer is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Kingsland, Georgia


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), x.

[2] Both my account of Nietzsche and my expression of the problem owe much to Martin Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead,’” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977), 53–112.

[3] See Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelley, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011), 118–142, in their discussion of Dante.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974),181–182.

[5] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University, 2005).

[6] Smith, Soul Searching, 130.

[7] Smith, Soul Searching, 154.

[8] Smith, Soul Searching, 162–170.

[9] John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2007), 129.

[10] Wright, Telling God’s Story, 130.

[11] Wright, Telling God’s Story, 133.

[12] For Luther’s use of the distinction, see Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in Luther’s Works, vol. 33, ed. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 138–140.

[13] Gerhard O. Forde, “Whatever Happened to God? God Not Preached,” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 44.

[14] Forde, “Whatever Happened to God,” 46.

[15] Forde, “Whatever Happened to God,” 38.

[16] See Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 152–55, as well as Wright, Telling God’s Story, 24.

[17] Forde, Theology, 147.

[18] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[19] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 84.

[20] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 51.

[21] Forde, Theology, 155.


As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy

A Bold Church in an Age of Terrorism—Part III

—By Fredrik Sidenvall 

Translated by Bror Erickson 

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a three article series. Find part one here and part two here

Martin Chemnitz, like Martin Luther, has at the heart of his doctrine the discovery of the certainty of salvation. Torbjörn Johannsson explains in his insightful and inspiring doctoral dissertation how Martin Chemnitz in his great work “Examen concilii tridentinii” criticizes the Council of Trent for its decision that says that no one, “with the certainty of faith that cannot be mistaken is able to know that he receives the Grace of God.” The decision of Council of Trent will have the effect that “when men hear that even he who holds to Christ’s promise must remain in uncertainty they will begin to gather together all their works. Not content with the deeds that God orders in his commandments, they will instead turn to others like the invocation of the saints, supererogation, trading in indulgences, masses and merits. When these works still don’t give comfort during temptation, one has purgatory. Chemnitz calls the uncertainty taught by Trent a ‘horrible slaughter of conscience.’”

If we then turn to what Chemnitz expressly writes about the sacrament in his theological handbook, “enchiridion,” we see plainly where he puts the emphasis. This book is formatted like a catechism with questions and answers. Question 215 asks, “What is the essential thing that must be shared for it to be a sacrament of the New Testament?” Chemnitz’s response reads “Two things. First an external visible element or sign in a certain external ceremony or act, established and instituted by Christ through a special word and express command and which is bestowed upon the whole church with the purpose that it should be used to the end of the age. The second thing needed is a word or promise of grace united with the element in this act, namely (the word which says) that the sacrament was instituted by Christ with the purpose and benefit that through them with exterior means and visible witnesses he will hold forth, apply, bestow, confirm and personally seals to those using them in faith the promise of grace that is otherwise proclaimed and offered in the gospel to everyone in general.” Then he continues to describe the sacraments as weapons against spiritual terror in his answer to the question, “For what reason does Christ establish the sacrament of the word?” Answer: “So that our weak faith would be maintained and preserved in this manner, because our senses cannot so easily hold to the bare and naked word and firmly trust in it. For even if one does not mistrust the gospel’s universal promise when one listens to them, so it is yet so with a conscience that is disturbed plagued by temptations, that it usually falls into doubt as to whether the general promises also belong to and encompass him, and if he can and ought to apply them to himself. Therefore Christ who is rich in mercy has instituted external and visible sacraments to help our damage in this area; through these sacraments as such open and conspicuous testimony, he would deal with us and in this way as through such a highly secure seal and declaration testify that he certainly applies, confirms, and seals the gospel promises individually for those who use the sacrament in true faith.”

To this I will add that Christ has given us the sacraments even as weapons against the type of spiritual terror that is exerted by the spirit of lawlessness, he who wants to lull a man into a false security. At the entrance into God’s kingdom and to the Sacrament Christ’s word remains clear: repent and believe in the gospel, Mark 1:15. In Baptism the bubble of false security is burst when a sinner is crucified with Christ and the old man is killed and buried. To be dead is really a very good reason to not work in the service of sin. When our old employer calls us to work, a Christian can calmly answer: I am sorry I can’t work today, you understand I am dead, so I have to stay home with my Savior. In connection with the Sacrament of the Altar the apostles admonish us: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world”(1 Corinthians 11:28-32 ESV). Through self-examination and confession the enemies first strategy is fought, and the conditions of false security are broken in repentance. 

Naturally, this should not be understood and applied in such a way that souls believe that degrees of their repentance are a prerequisite for the effect of the Sacraments or for the right to apply the gospel to themselves. It should destroy all. The mere desire to flee God’s wrath and receive God’s blessing instead, the desire receive life instead of death, is indeed sufficient incentive to accept the gospel. Tom Hardt helps us understand this when he writes: 

“When the fathers of the Lutheran Confessions want to summarize the difference in the faith that had arisen, they said,  ‘Leo X’s bull had condemned a very important teaching that all Christians ought to hold fast to and believe, namely that we shall trust that we have been released, not on the basis of our repentance, but upon the basis of Christ’s word:’ “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). Here in this bull, which in fact is the Roman Institution’s condemnation of the Lutheran congregations as heretical, a chasm opens that separates faith from unbelief according to the Lutheran Confessions. Here the Roman teaching lays emphasis on human effectiveness in confession, namely the good works (penance) while for the Lutheran all emphasis is laid upon faith in the sacrament being instituted by Christ, he who gave the authority of the keys to the apostles . . . This Roman instruction that points to preparation must consequently also teach that because no one knows his own position, all forgiveness is also uncertain . . . What Rome never understood, and still doesn’t understand, is that the gospel (in all its forms) is God’s power of salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). In the perfect sacrifice that the gospel proclaims there is an eternal righteousness won once and for all, and when the Gospel comes to us in the Sacrament or in any other means of grace it requires faith and nothing but faith . . . This directs attention to the word that the pastor takes in his mouth and the sacrifice that he holds in his hand, and frees a person from all thoughts of effective preparation, the depth of repentance and a successful communion. The thought of successful communion, successful confession that always leave the individual floating between hope and despair, is replaced by the rock solid word, a sure release and the superabundant atoning sacrifice.” (Reference)

Here we see plainly that the point with the means of grace is certainty of salvation and victory over the monster of uncertainty, the worst of all terrorists. Against this background we can see the importance of first understanding communion in a sacramental manner as God’s perfect gift to us and not primarily in a sacrificial manner as our imperfect gift to God. It also stands clear that truth of Christ’s body and blood actually present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper can never be emphasized enough, because it has a direct existential impact on the souls, namely this blessed certainty of participation in Christ’s eternal and perfect sacrifice. 

The basis for Luther’s boldness in the area of conscience through faith in grace and the means of grace is his boldness in the area of truth. The boldness in the area of truth has its basis in that scriptures are true and clear. Luther writes: “All the points of Christian doctrine must be such that they are not only fully certain in and of themselves but also confirmed by such clear scriptures that they stop the mouths of all.”

Contrary to many who have argued that Luther was estranged from dogmatic teaching and the authority of scripture, Luther says: I will hold fast for all eternity to what I have taught up to now, and say that whoever teaches otherwise or condemns me, he condemns God himself and must remain a child of hell. For I know that my teaching is not my teaching.” When Martin Luther stepped before the Diet of Worms with the whole world against him and spoke the powerful words “Here I stand, and I can do no other so help me God,” that was the church speaking with boldness.   

This boldness is grounded in the clarity of Scripture, in a pure and clear gospel and objectively effective means of grace.


As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy

How Do We Understand Suffering Through a Theology of the Cross?

—By Adam Welton


The theology of the cross

How do we understand suffering through a theology of the cross? There are two reason to use a question here. First, the question allows for an open dialogue with the subject allowing for a fuller exploration of the topic at hand. Second, in the question points to the answer. The question that most people are really asking is how to understand suffering. The answer to this question can only rightly be understood through a theology of the cross. 

Gerhard Forde said, “How can the cross be a theology? The cross is an event. Theology is reflection on and explanation of the event. Theology is about the event, is it not?”[1] All of Christian theology is about one single event: the cross. Without the cross at the center of all theology we simply get anthropology. Scripture gives the history of the plan of salvation from sin by God. There is motion in Scripture which leads us from the fall to the cross and then out from the cross to the church where the benefits of the cross are received. The center of the church is nothing other than the event of the cross. 

Before we tackle the hard question of suffering let us explore the theology of the cross. This term, while not found in the Bible, presents a basic hermeneutic. The way we understand Scripture will change the way we see our world. The lens Christians see the world through is Scripture, because it gives God's view of the world. Only in Scriptures do we find the true condition of the world. Knowing this, how we understand Scripture affects how we view the world and finally understand suffering. 

The terms “theology of the cross” and “theology of glory” both come from Dr. Martin Luther. Luther presented the Theses of the Heidelberg Disputation on 25 April 1518 at the Augustinian convent for public disputation.[2] John Staupitz invited Luther and Beier to acquaint the Augustianian order with Wittenberg's new theology.[3] Vicar Staupitz wanted Luther's new theology to be known and well received by these educated men. In writing for this purpose, Luther first introduced the language of the theology of the cross in his Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation. 

The Heidelberg Disputation opposes the theology of the cross to the theology of glory. These two theologies are set as diametrically opposed to each other. Their opposition becomes visible when the core components of each is mapped out:


THEOLOGY OF GLORY[4]

THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS

God is visible

God is hidden

Sight

Faith

Acceptable to human reason

Offensive to human reason

God works in power

God works in weakness

Human will is free

Human will is enslaved to sin

Righteousness is achieved doing the works of the law

Righteousness is a gift through faith in Christ alone

Characterized by either despair or arrogance

Characterized by the humility of confidence in Christ 


The first item in the chart opposes a visible God to a hidden God. Theses 19 and 20 of the Heidelberg Disputation give an unclear understanding of this: “Thesis 19 That a person does not deserve to be called a theologian who claims to see into the invisible things of God by seeing through earthly things (events, works). Thesis 20 But [that person deserves to be called a theologian] who comprehends what is visible of God (visibilia et posteriora Dei) through suffering and the cross.”[5] The theologian of glory sees God in the events and works of the world. Many will look at sickness and suffering as God's wrath and punishment or at a person’s success as a mark of God's favor on the person. The theologian of the cross sees God only in the suffering of Christ on the cross.[6] This is a radically different way to see God. It means for the theologian of the cross the only place to know God is in Scripture. The only way to see God is not with our eyes but with our ears. 

The second point opposes “the eyes” to “faith,” or “the eyes” to “the ears.” The theologian of glory will not believe unless he has visible signs. For the theologian of the cross all faith comes from hearing. Steven Paulson states this quite well in his book Lutheran Theology: “What Luther discovered next was that faith is created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by words. God's own justice becomes passive because God wants to be justified in his words. … “That Thou mayest be justified in thy words” (Psalm 51:5 and Romans 3:4 translation altered).”[7] This faith, created by the word of God, allows us to see God. But what we see of God is only the homo factus est (God who has been made man): God taking on flesh and blood, and dying on the cross. Here in the lowliness, in the suffering, do we finally see God. 

The third point considers whether theology is acceptable or offensive to human reason. To be plausible to the wisdom of the world, theology must be reasonable. If what is said is not reasonable and is offensive to human reason, then it will be discarded. St. Paul points us to this in 1 Corinthians 1:18 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Clearly when speaking of the cross the world sees it as foolishness. To have a savior who dies and does not lead men in victorious battle is foolishness to them. The theologian of glory accepts this way of thinking. He considers it and says that there must be something more. There has to be something behind the cross. The theologian of the cross sees the true wisdom and power in the cross, in the very event of Christ's death on the cross itself. While this does not make sense to human reason, the theologian of the cross simply takes God's word for it. 

The fourth point opposes a God who works in power to a God who works in weakness. This is the chief point. This one point changes expectations of God. A theologian of glory looks for God to show himself in power. He sees God coming to people not in their suffering but only in their success. Gene Veith writes about how the theology of glory appears in Christian bookstores: 

Today their shelves too are stocked with ways of using God for one's own health, happiness, and prosperity. . . . Their covers make vast and excited claims, as if by following certain steps family problems will disappear, our bodies will do what we want, our financial problems will evaporate, we will solve our nation's problems, grow the church, and live happily ever after.[8]


Veith notes how people create methods out of God's word in order to make better lives. These books do not give the promises found in Scripture but use God's word to create methods to reach perfection in this life. Follow these methods, as Veith observes, and one will “live happily ever after.” God will be present in power and success. Life will become a fairy tale ending.[9] 

The theologian of the cross knows that God reveals himself in weakness and helps mankind in the same weakness. Isaiah 53:2 says that there is no appearance of greatness in the one who comes to save the world. Isaiah describes not only how Christ had nothing which appeared to be great but also how he will be rejected and be acquainted not with power and might but with grief (Isa 53:3). Christ, who is true God, sets aside his power and might to become man in order to win salvation for man. Isaiah speaks of this savior: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:4–5). In the stripes of Christ we are healed. Here the chastisement of Christ brings us peace in times of suffering. Here the theologian of the cross has to see God, for here God made himself manifest to mankind in his son Jesus Christ. It was not in power, but in this lowliness described by Isaiah that Christ came. Man would not have chosen for God to work this way. However, God chose to work this way for man. 

The fifth point could have its own paper; we consider it only briefly here. The theologian of glory assumes man's will is free while the theologian of the cross knows man's will is enslaved to sin. St. Paul tells us we are in the condition of being enslaved to sin (Rom 7). The theologian of glory, holding that the will is free and one is able to keep the law of God, contradicts what St. Paul says. Free will leaves the question of why we need Christ open. If the will is free, if people can choose not to sin, no longer do we need Christ. It could be said that Christ only begins to forgive sins and then enables a person to grow as a Christian to the point of sinlessness. Why then would Christians still suffer? If sin is gone, because the will of man does the will of God, then the person should not be suffering. The reason for suffering then must be insufficient faith or morality.

The sixth point opposes righteousness achieved by doing the works of the law to righteousness as a gift through faith in Christ alone. In the end the theology of glory comes down to righteousness no longer being a free gift of Christ given to man, but a work of the law. This point lumps all theologies of glory together, irrespective of whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Mormon theology. The theologian of glory is no different than the world. The theologian of the cross sees the only hope we have in righteousness which is given to man through faith by Christ. It is justification through faith by grace alone. Melanchthon summed this up in Augsburg Confession IV. This gift is given by the Holy Spirit through the gospel to create and sustain saving faith in the hearer. Luther says of justification: “For if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.”[10] 

Finally, the theology of glory is characterized by either despair or arrogance while the theology of the cross is characterized by the humility of confidence in Christ. Theologians of glory have abandoned hope in Christ for despair or arrogance in the self. The theology of glory finds only despair in suffering, for suffering brings the weakness and helplessness of man to the surface and strips away all illusions of power. Those who succumb to suffering must have had inadequate faith. God has abandoned them. God then ends up in one of two categories. God is either the creator of the world who does not break into time and space to help man,[11] or there is no God. The theologian of glory finally has nothing to offer the one suffering. 

The theologian of the cross sees God in weakness. St. Paul speaks comfort to all who are suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. St. Paul speaks the comfort which can only come from seeing God in the weakness of the cross, from knowing that God has suffered that we may be restored. A theologian of the cross finds confidence in the cross of Christ. 

The world will never agree with the theologian of the cross who finds comfort in a man who has died on a cross. But those who are being saved by the cross finally find all of their comfort and confidence in the cross. It is here, in the theology of the cross, where the theologian has something to offer to those who are suffering. 

Understanding suffering 

“Dear friends, you know that it is customary in this season to preach on the Passion, so I have no doubt that you have heard many times what kind of passion and suffering it was. You have also heard why it was that God the Father ordained it, namely, that through it he wanted to help, not the person for Christ, for Christ had no need at all for this suffering; but we and the whole human race needed this suffering.”[12] Luther points to our need of Christ's suffering to relieve our suffering. This is the starting point for understanding suffering from the cross of Christ. 

We must be clear from the outset that “every Christian must be aware that suffering will not fail to come.”[13] This is the first point in which the theology of the cross differs from the theology of glory. The theology of glory seeks to avoid suffering. “Modern culture would tell us that pain and suffering are just a part of life, and that we need to do everything we can to avoid both.”[14] This idea seeps into the theology of many Christians. Richard C. Eyer writes: “If a person holds to a tragic view of life that pursues happiness now at any cost, a view that devalues the sufferings of this life, he will inevitably hold to a theology of glory, seeking to avoid suffering—perhaps even to the point of despair and self-destruction in suicide.”[15] Eyer observes the thinking of the secular world working its way into the church. 

A short survey of some of the largest churches in America confirms Eyer’s observation. Joel Osteen writes: “Living your best life now means being excited about the life God has given you. It means believing for more good things in the days ahead, while living in the moment and enjoying it to the hilt. … God's people should be the happiest people on earth. So happy, in fact, that other people notice. Why? Because we not only have a fabulous future, we can enjoy life today!”[16] For Osteen hope is not just in the future for the life to come but is right now. God wants people to have a great life and nothing can limit God from giving you that life except you: “God is limited only by our lack of faith.”[17] Osteen goes on to address a question which gets to the heart of suffering: “Yes, but Joel, it's been a rough year. I've gone through so many disappointments. I've lost a lot of good things.”[18] Osteen answers, “Maybe so, but have you considered this: If it were not for the goodness of God, you might have lost it all. Why not be grateful for what you have? Quit looking at what's wrong and start thanking God for what's right. Get up each day expecting God's favor.”[19] Joel Osteen sees suffering as the result of a lack of faith. In the midst of suffering we do not see a gracious God who cares for us but one who is angry and wrathful at insufficient faith.

The theology of glory deals with suffering by trying to dismiss it or thinking one’s way out of it. Thinking one’s way out of suffering is to glorify the self and seek help from the self and not from God. By turning in on oneself, one cannot possibly turn to God. The theology of glory also denies the fact that we cannot always do something about suffering. We cannot always relieve pain, hurt, loss, or physical problems. Directing a person to the power of positive thinking to resolve suffering does them an injustice and denies the truth of the situation. 

Here we finally see the difference between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross in suffering. “A theology [Forde points out that the Latin literally says “theologian” rather than “theology”] of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology [theologian] of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”[20] The theologian of the cross just says suffering is suffering and there is not much we can do about it. Take the example of a man who is dying of cancer. The doctors have done everything they can do and there is nothing left to do. The theologian of glory smiles and tells the person and the family that things will be okay. The theologian of the cross says the man is dying. There is recognition the man is dying and we can do nothing. The theologian of the cross does not deny that God can and does work in miracles at times, but knows this is not the normal way God works. He does not look for a miracle where God has not promised one. When death is at hand the theologian of glory offers false hope in miracles while the theologian of the cross gives true hope in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for the sake of Christ. 

Knowing suffering comes and there is nothing we can do to avoid it does not really help us to understand suffering. It does not help to answer the questions which come up when we suffer or our loved ones suffer. It does not answer the question of why some who are evil do not suffer while those who are good suffer. To address this question, we must first consider the cause of suffering.

Suffering was not part of the world created by God and declared by him to be good. Suffering came into the world at the same time as sin:

Through Adam and Eve, and through their sin, pain, suffering, and death were brought into God's good and perfect creation. When God created this world, including Adam and Eve, He did not create pain and suffering as part of His creation. Rather, the pain and suffering that is experienced in the world is a result of the sin that has been brought into the world.[21] 


Genesis 3 portrays suffering as a result of original sin. “[T]his inherited defect is guilt, which causes us all to stand in God's disfavor and to be ‘children of wrath by nature’ because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as the Apostle testifies in Romans 5[:12].”[22] All people are affected by original sin and are under its punishment: “The punishment and penalty for original sin, which God laid upon Adam's children and upon original sin, is death, eternal damnation, and also ‘other corporal’ and spiritual, temporal, and eternal miseries, ‘the tyranny and domination of the devil.’”[23] The reformers knew with sin came not only eternal punishment but also temporal miseries. We confess this each Sunday: “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”[24] We know that there is both temporal and eternal punishment, but we often do not think of these punishments as suffering. We connect punishment with imprisonment and other civic penalties. Pain and suffering are part of the punishment which comes for sin. We may wish that there were no pain in the world, but it is clear from the curse in Genesis 3:16–19 that pain is part of the punishment for sin. But does that mean all pain and suffering can be linked to a specific sin?

The answer to the question is yes and no. Some suffering can be linked to a specific sin. This is easiest to know when God tells us through a prophet. When the Israelites are taken into captivity by the Babylonians, God tells us through Isaiah, Daniel, and Jeremiah that this was the result of Israel's sin. Through Amos God lays out in great detail the sins the Northern Kingdom committed that led God to punish them. Linking suffering to a specific sin becomes harder and very dangerous when we do not have a direct word of God. It is safe to say that an alcoholic suffering from liver disease suffers because of sin. A link can be made between leading a promiscuous life style and contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Yet caution should be used in these cases. While it may be true in some cases, it is not necessarily true in all cases. To jump to this conclusion falsely can cause a great amount of pain and suffering. We do need to speak God's law, but this needs to be spoken carefully and in love for the person. The law already works on them in their suffering. We risk driving the person into complete despair if we continue to hit him with the law.[25] With that said, when sin and suffering go together we cannot deny it. In most cases, however, people suffer without a specific sin as the cause of their suffering. Suffering is just part of living in this fallen creation. 

Evil does cause suffering—but not always. Indeed, the usual complaint is that the evil don't seem to suffer. However, the causes of suffering may not always be evil—perhaps not even most of the time. Love can cause suffering. Beauty can be the occasion for suffering. Children with their demands and impetuous cries can cause suffering. Just toil and trouble of daily life can cause suffering, and so on. Yet these are surely not to be termed evil. The problem of suffering should not just be rolled up with the problem of evil. Only false speaking lures us into doing that.[26]


We should not be drawn into the idea of a specific sin leading to specific suffering. While all suffering is caused by sin not all sin lead directly to suffering. 

How then is suffering dealt with? Is suffering something which is simply to be avoided? Or is suffering to be expected and dealt with when it comes? The first is the way of the world and the way of the theologian of glory. The second is the way of the theologian of the cross and of Scriptures. Suffering is part of this life and this world because of the fall into sin. 

Knowing suffering is in the world is only part of understanding suffering. The other part is seeing suffering in light of the cross. A theologian of the cross sees and knows suffering as part of the world and does not simply try to rid the person of suffering. What does the theologian of the cross do? “Pastoral care consists in helping suffering people learn to relate the cross to their suffering here and now as well as to their hope for hereafter.”[27] The theologian of the cross helps the person who is suffering interpret suffering by the light of the cross. 

In Scripture there are connections between suffering and sin, and forgiveness and healing. Jesus is always moving among the people and doing the work of restoring the fallen creation. This work is ultimately carried out in his death on the cross. Here God does the work of paying for sin and restoring creation to himself. This reveals that “the connection between sickness and the forgiveness of sins is the connection between our helplessness before God and the cross of Jesus on which Jesus became our help.”[28]

In the weakness of suffering we finally come to see our need for forgiveness. When faced with the loss of control in our life we come to understand that we are not able to take care of the problems in our life. We need help to deal with our sin and with our suffering. Here in suffering, in weakness God reveals himself. Through the suffering of Christ we finally understand God is the one who deals with our suffering. 

Under the cross we also know God has not left us alone in suffering. God forgives sins and cares for the body. At times God grants healing to those who are suffering. We do not know why some are granted healing and some are not. Truthfully, we should not try to answer this question. This is the hidden knowledge of God that has not been revealed to us. As theologians of the cross we do not try to search out this knowledge. We accept that this is the way of the Lord. We can know God does give healing and he ordinarily does it through regular means. 

Most of the time suffering is a response to pain.[29] While not all pain is accompanied by suffering, often pain and suffering go together. With this in mind we can consider how pain relief alleviates suffering. God accomplishes this through doctors and nurses. Sometimes pain cannot be completely cured but can only be managed. This is also God's way of taking care of our bodies. But this underscores that it is not our job as Christians, who are not necessarily medical professionals, to relieve pain and suffering. Our job is to point the person to the foot of the cross. There at the foot of the cross God is seen. There the true hope for the sufferer is found. 

The question of why we must suffer comes up often. Eyer writes, “Why God chose to make himself known in the midst of suffering on a cross, God only knows. Perhaps, if speculation is allowed, it is because it is there that we need him most. Or perhaps it is there that we least expect to see God, yet God does come—on his own terms, by grace.”[30] Nowhere else should we look for God than in suffering and especially the suffering of Christ on the cross. We cannot help but come back to Christ’s suffering again and again for it becomes the only hope we have. Luther answers this question as well in a sermon he writes on the cross and suffering during Lent:

In the third place we want also to consider why it is that our Lord God sends us such suffering. And the reason is that in this way he wants to make us conformed to the image of his dear Son, Christ, so that we may become like him here in suffering and there in that life to come in honor and glory [cf. Rom. 8:29; 8:17; II Tim. 2:11–12], … The second reason is this, that even though God does not want to assault and torment us, the devil does, and he cannot abide the Word. … Thirdly, it is also highly necessary that we suffer not only that God may prove his honor, power, and strength against the devil, but also in order that when we are not in trouble and suffering this excellent treasure which we have may not merely make us sleepy and secure. … Lastly, Christian suffering is nobler and precious above all other human suffering because, since Christ himself suffered, he also hallowed the suffering of all Christians.[31]


Luther points us to a fourfold reason for suffering. These reasons are not the cause of the suffering but the good which comes from the suffering. Luther's answer to why God allows suffering is finally the good it brings to us. Luther points us to how suffering forms us to Christ (in Christ's suffering on the cross), how suffering is brought by the devil (because we believe in God), suffering helps to keep us from becoming secure in our sin (in the good times) and finally how Christian suffering is holy because it is suffering in Christ. Luther finally leads us to understand suffering not as evil but as necessary and good. Luther later preaches in the same sermon: “Since we know then that it is God's good pleasure that we should suffer, and that God's glory is manifested in our suffering, better than in any other way.”[32] God's glory is made manifest in our suffering. God is shown first and chiefly to us and then second to those around us. The Christian faces suffering very differently because of Christ's suffering on the cross. We do not suffer as those who have no hope but instead as those who have hope of the relief of our sufferings. 

Suffering and weakness are where God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity. In our own weakness and suffering God leads us to find that we are not able to provide for our needs. We are shown our true nature in original sin and our helplessness in the face of original sin. Finally, in Christ’s suffering and death we find how God has dealt with all human suffering. 

To those who suffer

Christians have a lot to offer to those who are suffering. The greatest thing we have to offer is Christ. To understand suffering though the theology of the cross is to understand suffering in light of the hope which we have in the forgiveness of sins. When we speak to those suffering we cannot let this be forgotten. 

We speak of the hope of God granting healing here but this does not become our focus. The comfort we bring is the future hope we have in Christ. This limits how we talk about healing. Healing is no longer the ultimate end, but only a gracious gift that points us to something greater.[33] St. Matthew in the fourth chapter of his Gospel makes it clear that Jesus heals bodies and not just souls. A note in The Lutheran Study Bible explains this passage: “healing. The various diseases and afflictions cataloged in v. 24 are evidence of how sin has spoiled God's creation. Jesus' healing miracles showed the nearness of God's reign and gave a foretaste of our final deliverance from disease and death.”[34] Earthly healing only goes to show us a little of what eternal life will be like. “For even if they are reborn and ‘renewed in the spirit of their minds’ [Eph. 4:23], this rebirth and renewal is not perfect in this world. Instead, it has only begun.”[35] Where the Formula of Concord speaks about the sanctification of a person it refers not only to our keeping the law but also has to the restoration of the body. 

As we speak to people about healing we can tell them God may grant them healing as a foretaste of what is to come in paradise. We can also tell the person who has no hope of physical or mental healing that God has not abandoned them, but in the life to come they will be restored completely and no longer suffer. For St. John tells us in Revelation: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). We see here a complete reversal of the curse placed on Adam and Eve and all their descendants. We can now point those who seem to have no hope in this life to the hope which is to come. 

We certainly can pray for healing[36] but we do not think our prayer gives some kind of healing power. “It is important to see prayer, not as taking charge of life or death but as a way of putting all things into the hands of God and finding peace in doing so.”[37] We do not then depend on how well we pray to bring healing. We pray for healing the whole time knowing God is good and gracious and always does what is best for us. 

We pray in faith, trusting God and fearing him at the same time. We are often uncomfortable with the fear of God. The fear of God is not to be in terror of God. The fear of God is a filial fear, a fear that understands the person, or God, as always having your best interest in mind. This differs greatly from servile fear. Servile fear is the fear which only sees the person as having their best interest in mind. It could be said the father always has the son’s best interest in mind while the master only has his best interest in mind. Filial fear is the fear of God. We fear God in the way dear children fear their dear father. We know God always has our best interest in mind. 

We pray trusting that God will do what is best for us. Even if we do not ask for what is good God will only give to us what is good for us. This truth we know because God is our heavenly Father who cares for us and takes care of our every need. Eyer says, “To pray rightly, ‘Thy will be done’ is to trust that God's intentions toward us are good and gracious.”[38] Finally, “Prayer is not a tool of faith by which we control his control over our lives. Rather it is the conversation God began with us when he established a relationship with us in Baptism. As his children we can ask anything.”[39]

Pastors bring certain things that laity cannot. Pastors bring Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper to those who are suffering. It has not been given to all people to bring these means of grace to people in suffering. What laity bring, which many pastors cannot, is the comfort of Christian fellowship. While the pastor can be there and speak the truth of God's Word, he often does not bring the same comfort as a friend brings. We do not need to deny this truth. God gathers his people together into fellowship for the purpose of strengthening and upholding each other. This is not just to be done in the church or at pot lucks. It is while suffering that people need to be surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This is one of the regular means by which God brings earthly comfort to those who are suffering. This happens in ordinary ways, such as a simple visit to a hospitalized or home-bound person. We do this out of our identity as sons and daughters of God who go and do works of mercy. 

Conclusion

This, you see, is the way we teach concerning suffering, and you should also accustom yourself to distinguish carefully between the suffering of Christ and all other suffering and know that his is a heavenly suffering and ours is worldly, that his suffering accomplishes everything, while ours does nothing except that we become conformed to Christ, and that therefore the suffering of Christ is the suffering of a lord, whereas ours is the suffering of a servant.[40]

Understanding suffering comes from understanding the suffering of Christ on the cross. By our suffering we do not become more qualified for heaven. By Christ's suffering we are given forgiveness and eternal life. As we face suffering in this world we understand that we cannot avoid all suffering. When it comes, we know that in our suffering and weakness we see Christ. There we are lead to the foot of the cross to be forgiven and receive healing of this body which is a foretaste of what is to come in the next life. Finally, our hope is never in this life but in the life to come. As we suffer and we go to those who are suffering we bring the comfort of the life to come. We hear the words of Joy F. Patterson in the hymn “When Aimless Violence Takes Those We Love”:


Our faith may flicker low, and hope grow dim,

Yet You, O God, are with us in our pain;

You grieve with us and for us day by day,

And with us, sharing sorrow, will remain. 


Because Your Son knew agony and loss, 

Felt desolation, grief and scorn and shame,

We know You will be with us, come what may,

Your loving presence near, always the same. 


Through long grief-darkened days help us, dear Lord,

To trust Your grace for courage to endure,

To rest our souls in Your supporting love,

And find our hope within Your mercy sure.

(“When Aimless Violence Take Those We Love,” LSB 764, stanzas 3–5)


Rev. Adam Welton is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Presho, SD, and Trinity Lutheran Church, Reliance, SD.


As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.


[1] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations, 1518 (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 3.

[2] Ernest G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective, (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950), 327.

[3] Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, 327–8.

[4] John T. Pless, Study Guide for: On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde, distributed in PMM 150, 2–3.

[5] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 71.

[6] “Theologians of the cross are therefore those whose eyes have been turned away from the quest for glory by the cross, who have eyes only for what is visible, what is actually there to be seen of God, the suffering and despised crucified Jesus.” Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 79.

[7] Steven D. Paulson, Lutheran theology (London: T & T Clark International, 2011), 54.

[8] Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals (St. Louis: Concordia, 1999), 57–8.

[9] “Luther called this kind of self-aggrandizing, success-centered, power spirituality ‘the theology of glory.’ Of course its attraction is understandable. Naturally we want success, victories, and happiness. We will be attracted to any religion that can promise us such things.” Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross, 58.

[10] LW 27:9.

[11] For a discussion of the implications of cold deism, see James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 52.

[12] LW 51:197.

[13] LW 51:198.

[14] Making Sense out of Suffering (Saint Louis: Concordia, 2006), 2.

[15] Richard C. Eyer, Pastoral Care Under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering (St. Louis: Concordia, 1994), 28.

[16] Joel Osteen, "Don't Be Limited by the Lack of Faith” https://www.joelosteen.com/pages/article.aspx?h4tid=80 (accessed 15 March 2014).

[17] Osteen, "Don't Be Limited by the Lack of Faith.”

[18] Osteen, "Don't Be Limited by the Lack of Faith.”

[19] Osteen, "Don't Be Limited by the Lack of Faith.”

[20] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 81.

[21] Making Sense of Suffering, 1.

[22] FC SD I:9

[23] FC SD I:13

[24] Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006), 184.

[25] “Seldom can sickness be traced back to a specific sin in an individual's life, and, if there is one, the pastoral counselor is advised to support the parishioner's voluntary discovery of this sin for himself rather than pointing it out to him.” Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 46.

[26] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 84.

[27] Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 25.

[28] Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 58.

[29] “Pain can be defined as a greater or lesser degree of physical discomfort. … Suffering, on the other hand, can be defined as the existential anxiety, fear, worry, or hopelessness that may or may not accompany pain. Suffering is a reaction to pain.” Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 44.

[30] Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 48.

[31] LW 51:206.

[32] LW 51:208.

[33] “Healing is a sign of hope for things greater than physical welfare” Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 62).

[34] Edward Engelbrecht and Paul E. Deterding, ed., The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version (Saint Louis: Concordia, 2009), 1585. Note on Matthew 4:23.

[35] FC EP VI, 4.

[36] “However, we are invited to pray against all odds of illness” Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 61.

[37] Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 62.

[38] Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 59.

[39] Eyer, Pastoral Care under the Cross, 62.

[40] LW 51:208.