Book Review: Theology is Eminently Practical

Pless
Pless

Theology is Eminently Practical: Essays in Honor of John T. Pless. Edited by Jacob Corzine and Bryan Wolfmueller. Fort Wayne, Indiana: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2012. Paper; 272 pages. Click here.

These fourteen essays by Concordia Theological Seminary (CTS) alumni pay tribute to the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of their teacher, John Pless, who is well known to LOGIA readers and those who uphold confessional Lutheranism. The high academic caliber of these essays testifies to the outstanding education offered at Ft. Wayne—a benchmark due not only to the faculty’s academic stature or to library resources, but also to the quality of the students. The essays are somewhat eclectic, but, in general, focus on issues broadly related to apologetics, the use of reason in Christian theology, aspects of the Christian life, the work of Christ, and Christian theology. While these forays are products of young theologians, it does not mean the essays lack weight. Just the opposite: they are meaty, vigorous, wise, and daring. Several of the papers had been developed originally for CTS’s “Luther Seminar,” a group of faculty and students facilitated by Prof. Pless for presentation and discussion on Luther and Lutheran theology.

Originally raised in The American Lutheran Church, Prof. Pless was persuaded to join The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod due to the efforts of Norman Nagel. Prof. Pless was called as the LCMS campus pastor for University of Minnesota for nearly two decades. Naturally he had a concern for apologetics. Since the summer of 2000, he has taught pastoral theology at CTS. He expresses a passionate commitment to law and gospel preaching and ministry and those who support that view, a voice in right-to-life issues, and a critic of liberal trends in American Lutheranism.

To summarize the essays, we start with Peter Brock who makes a case for apologetics among Lutherans. Apologetics encourages faith and helps with evangelism. For instance, it helps counter hostile objections to faith and can offer arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. Even so, it has its limits. As David Scaer notes, faith is grounded finally in history not logic. Even appealing to evidences from science is limited in its apologetic prospects since science produces knowledge that is ever under constant review. Most importantly our audience, as the late Kurt Marquardt noted, is composed of “condemned criminals searching desperately for escape” but who seldom want the gospel to rescue them (27). For Brock, apologetics is best understood as a secular task of the baptized. Following C. S. Lewis, Brock concludes that the “best apologetics in which Christians can engage will be the best secular work such Christians can produce” (29).

Roy Axel Coats offers an interpretation of Johann Georg Hamann’s political theory, showing how Hamann finds autonomy as a basis for government to be inadequate. Hamann’s work is done in conversation with that of the Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelsohn. Both Mendelsohn and Hamann seek a path to political theory beyond the voluntarism of Hobbes, based on individual’s agreeing to establish a political state, or the essentialist approach of Leibniz, in which government is etched into human nature. What Hamann sees in Mendelsohn, however, is a stance more Hobbesian than what Mendelsohn intends. Mendelsohn’s political theory grounds the basis for society in the individual agent’s will (42). What he ignores, as Hamann points out, is that the basis from which social contracts can be formulated—reason—is mediated through language (43). Mendelsohn’s approach to government is far too simplistic. Ultimately, for Hamann, Jesus Christ is the Word by which all created reality holds together.

Jacob Corzine raises the question: from where have the Reformation “solas” come? He notes that there is no standard list of solas and that there is often a hidden agenda when someone favors one list of solas over another. A thorough list of proposed solas include: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo verbo, solus deus, solus Christus, and (new for me) sola experientia. Corzine shows how contemporary German thinkers such as Jüngel, Beintker, and Beutel situate the solas within preestablished commitments. Interestingly, while sola gratia and sola fide have long histories in the Lutheran tradition, the triad of solas can be traced to the work of Theodore Engelder who, in 1916 advocated three: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura, the latter a likely confessional Lutheran response to modernism’s rejection of scriptural inerrancy (67).

With pastoral sensitivity, Michael Holmen comments on Romans 1–3, focusing especially on the phrase “let God become true and every man a liar.” Given that people tend to be hypocritically pious (self-justifying), if we are to apprehend Christ our savior and thus justify God in his words, it will only happen by agreeing with God against ourselves (79). Thereby our salvation renders all the glory to God.

Jason Lane takes on the critical supposition claiming that since Luther called James as an “epistle of straw” we are not required to maintain the trustworthiness of the Bible. Lane skillfully points out that Luther only seems to reject James. In fact, he preached on James, affirmed that James shows that faith leads to new impulses and good works (93), and finally interpreted Abraham in his Genesis commentary as an example of the working out of such a Jamesian approach to good works within the life of faith (97).

Benjamin T. G. Mayes points out the weakness of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s doctrine of the atonement that is due primarily to Pannenberg’s Hegelian, panentheistic belief that God will not fully be himself until the ultimate fulfillment of all in the eschaton. Given this philosophical commitment, Pannenberg’s view of the gospel does not square with that of historic Christianity.

Finnish pastor Esko Murto situates prayer within the context of battle—the believer as a battlefield between God and the devil. He notes that for Luther the creation is spiritual, a mask (larva) of God, but given the devil’s contention throughout the world, the masks of God are countered with larva diabolic. Christian prayer must pray against such evil powers (137).

Steven Parks examines Johann Gerhard’s classic Loci Theologici as “pastoral care.” Of course, for some, that is a counterintuitive claim. However, Parks makes it clear that the “greatest of dogmaticians” offers pastoral care especially in his polemics (154). He guards the flock from the wolves of false doctrine.

For Mark A. Pierson, Luther’s view of grace is no more compatible with Thomas Aquinas’s than it is with nominalists such as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. Luther’s Against Scholastic Theology is directed as much against Thomas Aquinas as the nominalists (168). In common with the nominalists, Thomas affirms the exercise of free will and cooperation in our pilgrimage toward God. Pierson wants us to understand that for Luther, the problem about reason in our relation to God is not reason per se, but reason under the control of the bound will that wants to take credit for believing in Christ (167).

David R. Preus shows how the Wittenberg theologian Balthasar Meisner (1587–1626), following Luther, was able to show how philosophy can serve theology. “Since one branch of learning operates with a set of principles that is different from another (geometry deals with shapes and sizes, whereas arithmetic involves the study of quantities), the one cannot deprive the other of its unique properties. Likewise, theology, which assumes the grammar of Scripture and teaches salvation and eternal life, may no more rescind the laws of physics than physics may annul the promises of the Bible” (190). Each discipline can honor its unique sphere making a mixture between them unnecessary.

Mark Preus shows that our original righteousness was destroyed by Adam’s sin, and thus no sinful man can propitiate God’s wrath. Christ’s atonement is absolutely necessary if sinners are to be saved and express the truly human vocation of praising our Creator.

David Ramirez presents the phenomenon of evangelical Catholicism as found in recent decades in North America. He highlights a distinction between the Neo-orthodox type found in the Society of the Holy Trinity from that of Concordia Theological Seminary, who appeal to the standards of orthodoxy. Both are to be contrasted to high church liberals found in the ELCA and who support various unscriptural decisions in the ELCA.

Holger Sonntag notes that in opposition to Catholic views of sanctification and antinomian rejection of sanctification, Luther contends that we need to exhort people to good works that constitute Christian love.

In the concluding article, Bryan Wolfmueller accentuates one of Pless’s favorite topics, law and gospel preaching as able to overcome the devil’s hold on the conscience.

The most important book a teacher will ever write is that of his impact on his students’ lives. That alone makes this collection a powerful tribute to John Pless. More importantly, each essay in its own way witnesses to Christ.

Mark Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, IA

Why?

Editor's Note: This article was written about three years ago but speaks to suffering in light of the events in Connecticut last week.  —John T. Pless

“But who can supply the reason for the things that he sees the Divine Majesty has permitted to happen? Why do we not rather learn with Job that God cannot be called to account and cannot be compelled to give us the reason for everything He does or permits to happen?” –Luther on Genesis 3:1 in Luther’s Works, Volume I:144.

 

Preparing to write this article on Easter Monday, 2009, I heard the news of a fire in Prague that claimed over twenty lives as it swept through a shelter for the homeless. Recent memories of 9/11, the tsunami, and Katrina are compounded with countless personal tragedies that press people to ask the ancient question, “Why is there suffering?”

More existentially put, “What did I do to deserve this?”

In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book is an anguish-laden attempt of the rabbi to come to terms with a painful illness that claimed the life of his young son. Struggling with issues of God’s providence and mercy, creation and chaos, the rabbi can finally only conclude that those who suffer must “forgive God.” God’s intentions might be good but His power is limited seems to be a better solution than calling into question His goodness.

If a Lutheran were to do a re-write of Kushner’s book, it would have a different title, When Good Things Happen to Bad People. In the Divine Service, we confess that “we justly deserve” God’s “present and eternal punishment,” but times of calamity call into question whether we really believe it. In defiance or moaning resignation, we cry out “why me?” as though God had to explain himself. In this role reversal, God becomes the defendant and man the judge.

Theodicy is a term coined from two Greek words theos(God) and dike(judgment) literally meaning a judgment of or justification of God. The term became the title of a book by G.W. Leibnitz (1646–1716) in which he argued optimistically that this is the best of all possible worlds. After the destructive All Saints’ Day earthquake of 1755 killed thousands in Lisbon, his argument was ridiculed but the term remained. Its use indicated something of a reversal. Werner Elert writes “We try to ensnare God in our moral categories, and we do it with the best of intentions because we wish to rationalize our assertion that he is just and kind." ((Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos. Trans. Carl J. Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957): 156.))  But as Elert goes on to explain, there is a reversal going on. The Creator who is the judge now becomes the defendant while the creature now becomes judge over the Creator. Rather than God justifying man, man now attempts to justify God.

Recent attempts at theodicy often attempt to excuse God. After the tsunami, one North American clergyman when interviewed on a national television broadcast claimed “that God had nothing to do with it.” In a futile effort to protect the Lord God from anything that might cause human beings to fear him, this cleric tried to extract God from the picture altogether! The attempt falters, leaving a God who is remodeled according to human imagination. This is hardly the God known by Job and Jonah in the Old Testament.

Others would suggest that God is not the cause of suffering, but he merely allows it. If God is almighty then it is of little comfort to assert that this all powerful God allowed evil when he could have stopped it. To this argument, Oswald Bayer responds: “The first attempt is an effort to soften or give up completely on the concept of omnipotence. It is thus often said that God does not cause evil, but simply lets it happen. But such talk about the bland ‘permitting’ (permissio) of evil is too harmless. It assumes the possibility of a power vacuum or even that there is an independent power that is in opposition. At the very least, it assumes that the human being has the power to stand up against God.” ((Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008): 206-207; Also see Oswald Bayer, “God’s Omnipotence” Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2009): 85-102.))  But God is not impotent. He is “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” as we confess in the creed. Attempts to get God off the hook, to defend him by limited or weakening his omnipotence end up with an idol.

Rather than try to construct a philosophical theodicy that assigns human beings the impossible task of justifying God, we do better to listen to Jesus as he responds to the “why” question in Luke 13:1–9. Whether it is Pilate’s slaughter of the pious as he mingles their blood with the blood of sacrificial animals, the engineering failure of the Tower of Siloam, or more contemporary examples of seemingly unjust suffering, such stories prompt us also to inquire of God, “Why?” Yet the words of Jesus preempt the question with a stark warning: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

Jesus does not offer a philosophical explanation for the religious massacre in the temple or the random toppling of Siloam’s tower upon the heads of eighteen innocent bystanders. The Lord wastes no time with theoretical distinctions between the malicious banality of the butchery done by the human will of Pilate and catastrophic collapse of stone and mortar. Jesus’ words will not let us go there. His words call for repentance, not speculation.

Repentance lets go of the silly questions that we would use to hold on to life on our own terms, to try to protect ourselves against the God who kills and makes alive. The theologian Oswald Bayer observes that the world is forensically structured, arranged in such a way as to demand justification. We find evidence of this, Bayer says, in the way we defend our own words and deeds. ((Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003): 1–8)) What happens when you are confronted with wrongdoing? We attempt to justify our behavior. It is a rerun of Eden: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12) Adam blames Eve. But behind his accusation of Eve is the accusation of his Creator. To repent is to die to self-justification and turn to the God who justifies the ungodly by faith alone. He is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead has sent forth his own Son to pour out his blood in atonement for the world’s sin, to be crushed by the weight of God’s wrath that in his righteousness sinners might not perish but have life in his name.

Unexplainable tragedies bring pain and chaos. God leaves the wound open to use the words of Bayer. ((Oswald Bayer, “Poetological Doctrine of the Trinity” Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2001), 56. Also see Oswald Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament” in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg. Edited by David M. Whitford (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002): 211–220.)) We cry out to God in lamentation in the face of events that defy our capacities for understanding. But the anguished lament ascends from the crucible of faith, not unbelief. It is a confession of trust in the God who works all things for the good of those who are called (Romans 8:28). Living in repentance and faith, we are freed from the inward turn of speculation that seeks to investigate the hidden God, and instead we trust in the kindness and mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus. With such a freedom we are liberated to rely on God’s promises and turn our attention to works of mercy to bring compassion and relief to those who suffer in this sinful world.

 

Prof. John T. Pless teaches practical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne, Indiana.

 

That’s Not Very Pastoral . . . or Is It?

A sermon preached by Prof. John T. Pless on 24 October 2012, in Kramer Chapel, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Text: Jeremiah 23:16–17; 23–32

In an essay entitled Union and Confession written just prior to WWII in 1938, Hermann Sasse penned these words: “Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie” (Union and Confession, 1). In this wonderfully lucid little booklet, Sasse goes on to contrast the truth with the lie. He notes that from the beginning the lie and the truth have done battle within the church. So it was in the days of the apostles as Paul said to the congregation at Corinth: “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (I Cor 11:17). The lie, Sasse said, takes on various forms. There is the pious lie, that hypocrisy with which man lies to himself, to others, and even to God. The pious lie easily becomes the edifying lie. This is the lie that takes comfort in untruth. Sasse sees an example of the edifying lie embraced by medieval Christians when they trusted in the power of the saints, relying on the excess of their merit to further them in the struggle toward righteousness. The edifying lie was the lie unmasked and expelled by the Reformation. Then there is the dogmatic lie, the assertion that we have come to greater doctrinal maturity and old teachings are to be changed for a more contemporary, relevant theology. Finally there is, Sasse warned, the institutional lie when the churches embody the lie in their own life, instituting false teaching as normative.

Jeremiah has the lie, in all of the forms Sasse described: pious, edifying, dogmatic, and institutional lie in the crosshairs as he takes aim at Jerusalem’s prophets. With inflated visions of peace and prosperity, they have lulled the people of Israel into a state of spiritual drowsiness. Instead of proclaiming the certainty of the promise, they have peddled the sweet security of the flesh. Thinking themselves to be pastoral they say: “It shall be well with you; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (Jer 23:17). It is a soothing homiletic to be sure; but it is devoid of consolation for it is not true. It is not a message that God has authorized. It is a lie that edifies only by building up a hardened resistance to repentance. No talk here of God’s wrath and judgment on unbelief; no mention at all of a God who both kills and makes alive. Just sweet spiritual nothings whispered into ears plugged to the voice of God.

Instead Jeremiah harangues against prophets whose lips God did not open, whose mouths give exposition to dreams woven out the deceit of their own rogue hearts. With their reckless sermons they lead the Lord’s people astray, so that the Lord is not remembered as the God that He is. Rather than awakening faith which is bold to call upon the name of the Lord, these preachers lull their hearers into complacency with unauthorized promises of well-being: No disaster will come upon you. They cannot preach the invasive God, this wild God of the Old Testament, the Lord who is jealous to have a people exclusively for Himself, so they advertise a domesticated deity who will put his benediction on the desires, the plans, and the programs of the heart whatever they might be.

Jeremiah denounces this as idolatry, no different in substance from the way that Israel’s fathers had been seduced into the worship of Baal. God’s ears are not closed to these lying words. From his sight nothing is concealed and no utterance is so quietly or softly spoken so as to be beyond his ears. Truth and falsehood have no more in common than wheat does with straw. God comes, and his coming is in judgment. The fire of his Word ignites the stubble of unbelief. The hammer of his law pulverizes hearts that have become granite monuments of unrighteousness. The Lord sets his face against these lying prophets. That’s about as far as today’s text takes us. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! Not a very good place for teachers and students at a seminary to be! There is plenty of dire warning in Jeremiah for us who are preachers or aspire to the preaching office lest we be numbered with those lying prophets who preach peace when there is no peace, who proclaim that all is well when disaster is imminent. There is much here to remind us that we are to “afflict the comfortable if we are ever to comfort the afflicted.” But there is not much in our text to give opportunity for the comfort and consolation of the Gospel to predominate. Not much, but something. Listen again to verse 28: “let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.”

We have the promise of the Righteous Branch proclaimed by Jeremiah, the One who for all time will be known as “The Lord is our Righteousness.” We have Jesus’ word and his “words are spirit and life” (John 6:63). His word is truth–the truth of God’s attitude toward sinners for the sake of his Son. The truth that when we confess our sins God “is faithful and just and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We have the word of the cross, the certain truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself through the blood of the cross. We can live without the lie, because we have the truth in Jesus Christ. It is him that we proclaim. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.

Prof. John T. Pless

 

 

Prof. John T. Pless is associate professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The Pastoral Character of Herman Bezzel

Translated and adapted by Matthias G. Hohls

EDITORS’ INTRODUCTION

 

Hermann Bezzel (1861–1917) was an influential Bavarian Lutheran churchman shaped by the confessional awakening associated with Erlangen. Unfortunately he is as yet little known in the English-speaking world. He served as the rector of the deaconess institution at Neuendettelsau from 1891 to 1909, when he became bishop of the Bavarian Church. He held this position until he died of an illness acquired while visiting German troops on the front lines in World War I. Bezzel is often cited positively by Hermann Sasse and J. Michel Reu as an outstanding voice for confessionalism over and against calls for theological diversity in the Lutheran Church. Nine devotional excerpts from Bezzel’s writings appear in John Doberstein’s Minister’s Prayer Book (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986). Bezzel was known as a strong and courageous preacher of repentance who did not fail to deliver the comfort and consolation of the gospel to the broken. He is remembered for his accent on the “condescension of God” by way of the theology of the cross. This 1938 essay by Johannes Rupprecht (1884–1964) takes its place alongside Reu’s “Hermann Bezzel: Aspects of His Life for our Time” as a worthy introduction to the pastoral theology of this significant Lutheran.—John T. Pless

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