Friday, April 17, 2015

Personhood

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you (Psalm 139: 13-18).

I recently had a conversation with a friend regarding a woman’s right to choose which, for those who may not know, is the euphemism for abortion in American politics. My friend made two points which have become standard in the argument of those on the left who advocate for unrestricted access to abortion. He told me that, regardless of the validity of my argument, I have no right to tell any woman how to manage her body; those decisions are between her and her doctor. He also said, after hearing my views on the subject, that it was simply my opinion and he respected it, but my opinion is no more certain or valid than the one of a person who supports “a woman’s right to choose.”

This argument is not uncommon. Anyone who follows the news regularly has certainly seen Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul sparring with Democrat National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman-Schultz over this very issue. Reporters asked Senator Paul, who is pro-life, whether or not he supported making exceptions to his anti-abortion stance for cases where the mother 1) had been raped, 2) had been the victim of incest, or 3) was in danger of death if she carried the baby to term. Senator Paul did something that most pro-life Republicans are too spineless to do. He told the media to ask Debbie Wasserman-Schultz if she was ok with aborting a seven pound baby that was just about to be born. “Ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life,” Senator Paul replied. “When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me” (Bradner 2015).
In an emailed statement Debbie did respond:

Here's an answer. I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul (Bradner 2015).

Of course, what Debbie is actually saying in her response, is that, yes, she is ok with aborting a seven pound baby that’s just ready to be born. So, if a woman and her doctor decide to abort the woman’s baby 10 seconds before it’s delivered, Debbie is fine with that because it’s a woman’s right to choose. Evidentially, the baby is not a person and has no rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Senator Paul, however, in his statement gets to the real point of the entire debate. When are you willing to protect life? Unlike the “right” to abortion discovered by the Supreme Court in the penumbra of the U.S. Constitution, the duty of the government to protect the life and property of its citizens is explicitly enumerated. It is actually the duty of the government to protect the civil rights of its citizens. When we stop setting up straw man arguments about rape babies and coat hanger abortions we begin to see what the real issue is in the debate regarding “reproductive rights.” When does life begin?

If that thing inside a woman is not a human being, from a legal standpoint, it doesn’t matter what you do with it. Abort it, carry it to term, what is the difference? The People, through their elected representatives should be free to make any law they like if this is the case. If, however, that thing is a human being, it has civil rights given to it by God and protected by the U.S. Constitution. There is no third option.

The post-modern mind does not deal in terms of absolutes, however. There is no black and white, Right vs. Wrong or, God forbid, Good vs. Evil. There is only opinion, experience, and emotion. No one person can say that any other person’s opinion, based on their personal experience and guided by their emotions, is wrong. To do so would be intolerant and unloving…unless, of course, you are dealing with a conservative Christian. Those people are just racist, sexist, bigoted homophobes.

My objections to abortion begin in my gut. Before any religious, moral, or ethical questions are taken into account, the practice is disturbing. It is disturbing to me because it is, like a lot of other disturbing things are - destructive. Forget about when the baby becomes a human being for just a moment. You cannot deny that abortion destroys something, and that “something” is alive, and is meant by God, or nature, or evolution to, at the very least, become like me and you. To destroy that "thing" is, right off the bat, distasteful to me.

It isn't like a tumor that is destructive to the body and is removed. Destroying the tumor, in that case would be a constructive act. Also, that tumor isn’t going to grow up and eventually want me to send it to college. Being what it is, the idea of abortion is also contrary to how I have prepared myself for my own life in this world. I have spent my young adulthood getting myself ready to do constructive things. Being a teacher builds up society by passing knowledge along to another generation. Music, among other things, enriches the cultural landscape. Even being a policeman is constructive, in that we enforce the laws that give defined borders to our society, and help keep it from breaking down. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m predisposed to revulsion of things destructive, and abortion is, to me, the ultimate destructiveness – destroying life before it even has a chance. War, killing, even capital punishment, are all distasteful, though can sometimes be justified. I have a difficult time with the destruction of what my conscience tells me is life, using what seems to me to be selfish or false justifications. Anyway, that is where my opposition to abortion begins.

Most importantly, however, God’s Word calls what is created in the womb life.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Moses wrote in Leviticus 17:11, "For the life of a creature is in the blood..." Taken literally, that would mean that a fetus isn't "alive" until about 21 days after conception, when it develops a rudimentary cardiovascular system and, for all intents and purposes, its own blood supply (Delp n.d.). If this is the case, something like the morning after pill cannot be objected to from the standpoint that it is destroying life, though it is still distasteful to me. However, to paraphrase Martin Luther, it is never safe act against your conscience[1]. Right now, my own personal Jiminy Cricket is still screaming the words to Psalm 139 in my head:

"Your [God's] eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16).

So, for the time being, I will err on the side of safety - life begins at conception. 

To maintain, as is suggested by some in the abortion rights movement, that a baby’s personhood is contingent upon whether or not the mother wishes to have a baby, is absurd and threatens the rights of all Americans. The fact that one’s personhood is not contingent upon how one is viewed by another should be self-explanatory.

A woman who walks into an abortion clinic to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is exercising her right to privacy in making decisions about her reproductive health with her doctor. However, if that same woman is attacked while on her way to the clinic, is robbed and beaten and miscarries as a result, the attacker can – and most likely will – be charged with homicide of an unborn child. Surely, even to the obtuse progressive mind, this must cause some cognitive dissonance.

In the two scenarios given above, there is no difference in either the baby’s status before death, or its ultimate end; only the means of arriving at that end – the termination of the pregnancy – is different. In one case the state allows for the “termination” without restriction, or sanction against the mother or doctor simply because she wishes for the pregnancy to end. In the other, the state prosecutes in order seek justice for the unlawful killing of one human being by another – the definition of homicide. If people can fall in and out of the category of “person,” then no one’s rights are guaranteed. That means that there is some arbitrary, man-made standard of what constitutes personhood. If that is the case, that also means that whatever group happens to be in authority at any given time can redefine what it means to be a person to fit their goals.

Peter Singer, attempting to take the words of the Athanasian Creed and twist them to aid his anti-Christian argument, cites the early Christian fathers by calling a person a being with a rational substance[2]. In an MSNBC interview Dr. Singer said the following:

It’s never been the meaning of a person that it was simply biologically a living member of the species Homo sapiens. If you look at the origin of the term it comes from a Latin persona, meaning a mask worn by actors in a play; and then it became a role, and it was used in early Christian theology, actually, in the doctrine of the Trinity. Three persons in one, right? So, God the Father, the Holy Ghost, and then Jesus, right? So obviously you don’t have to be human to be a person, in that sense. And the early Christian theologians thought that a person is a being with a rational substance. So the idea of rationality, in some way, comes into it [personhood]. And I would say, therefore, that the best sense of a person is a being with some awareness, some rational awareness of who they are existing beyond simply the physical organism (Singer 2011).

When the host pointed out to Dr. Singer that this definition would likely exclude four month-old-babies from being people, he agreed.

Well, possibly. I don’t think it’s problematic to say that a four-month-old baby is not actually a person; I think that’s simply true. Now, that doesn’t determine what the law ought to be. You might say that the law should say from birth on, everybody counts legally as if they were a person…that’s distinct from the question of which beings are persons (Singer 2011).

I just don’t understand where he gets that “ought” from. Sure you might say that. Others, however, might say that the law should say you only count legally as a person from age five years and up, or that you cease to be a person when you are no longer a productive member of society…or if you are a Jew…or a homosexual…or who knows? They might say this unless, of course, there is some objective standard. Either people have rights, or they don’t. Either personhood exists, or it doesn’t. Either an unborn baby is a person, or it isn’t; how we answer these questions will determine what kind of society we will have.

Abortion takes the life of another person. Being sinful human beings we do not like the mirror of God’s Law being held to our faces to show us our sin. We are self-centered and seek to justify our selfish actions any way we can that does not involve acknowledging our sin, and repenting of that sin. We will even try to talk ourselves out of what we know – that the living but unborn are persons in the sight of God from the time of conception. Thanks be to God Almighty, who by the death of His Son Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord and Savior, has overcome sin and death, and graciously offers us all forgiveness for all our sins through faith in Him.

Works Cited

Bradner, Eric. "Rand Paul: Grill Dems about abortion, too." CNN. April 9, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/08/politics/rand-paul-abortion-democrats/ (accessed April 17, 2015).

Delp, Valorie. "Empryonic Stage of Fetal Development." Love To Know. http://pregnancy.lovetoknow.com/wiki/Embryo_Fetal_Development. (accessed April 17, 2015).

"Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms 1521." A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Martin Luther. March 3, 2003. http://www.luther.de/en/worms.html (accessed April 17, 2015).

Singer, Dr. Peter, interview by Chris Hayes. The Battle Over Women's Bodies (November 6, 2011).

"The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church." The Three Ecumenical or Universal Creeds. September 2008. http://bookofconcord.org/creeds.php (accessed April 17, 2015).






[1] Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen (Luther's Conscience Quote 2003).

[2] Excerpt from the Athanasian Creed regarding Christ: Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ (BOC: Ecumenical Creeds 2008).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Because I Live...

Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important aspect of Christianity. This fundamental of the Christian faith is what distinguishes Christians and Christianity from every other religion on the planet. The resurrection of Christ is so important and comforting because it confirms four important things: 1) Christ is the Son of God, 2) What He taught is true, 3) God the Father accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the reconciliation of the world, and 4) all those who believe in Christ will rise to eternal life. This is how John begins his resurrection account:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes (John 20: 1-10).

What a dark Sunday morning it must have been indeed, when Mary Magdalene and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb. After having declared the work of redemption finished, Jesus gave up his spirit and died on the cross. Being the great Sabbath day, however, the Jews did not want to leave Jesus’ body, and those of the other condemned men, on the cross[1]. Jesus lifeless corpse was removed from the cross expediently, after the Roman soldiers were assured of his death by a spear thrust into his side[2]. Joseph of Aramathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate for the body and his request was granted. Joseph of Aramathea placed Jesus’ body in his own tomb, one that was brand new and had never held any other remains. Nicodemeus, the member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governing council which had delivered Jesus to Pilate) who had come to Jesus to talk theology by night, and who had called him a teacher sent from God, provided the customary myrrhs and aloes used according to Jewish burial customs[3]. They were, however, in a bit of a hurry.

It was not only the Sabbath, but the great Sabbath. The setting of the sun signaled the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath connected to the Passover, called the day of Preparation. They had to hurry and get Jesus’ body into the tomb, and at least prepare his body enough so that they, or someone else, could come and finish the job after the Sabbath was over. Handling a dead body on the Sabbath would make them ceremonially unclean, and thus unable to participate. And so, Jesus’ body reposed for that Sabbath in a newly hewn tomb, donated by a rich man, waiting to be embalmed by some of Jesus’ loved ones using the spices provided by – at the very least – a man among the Pharisees who was sympathetic to this poor, misguided rabbi, who had gotten into temple politics over his head.

Enter Mary Magdalene and the other women. The task of properly preparing Jesus for burial fell to them. Now, don’t misunderstand what I am about to say. We live in an enlightened and progressive society, and our views of women and their role in family life and society have changed considerably since the time of Christ. That being said, however, we have to understand the significance of Mary Magdalene making the discovery that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb where he was left on Friday afternoon.

By all social conventions of the time, Mary Magdalene’s testimony – or the testimony of any woman for that matter – was, if not meaningless, most certainly less valid than testimony given by a man. Women had weaker legal status in ancient Israel than men (Packer & Tenney, 1980). Women were recognized as little more than servants and certainly could not testify in legal proceedings and the like. According to Jewish tradition as recorded in the Talmud, a valid witness must be an adult free man, not a woman or a slave, and not be related to any of the other witnesses or judges. The witness must be an honest person who can be trusted not to lie (Testimony in Jewish Law, 2012).

Women were lowly; women were despised. They were considered weak and inferior by Jew and Roman alike. Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society; the father or oldest male in the family made the decisions concerning the family, and the women had little to say. A woman, it could be said, was worth only half as much monitarily as a man[4]. A young woman did not think of a career outside her home. Girls were raised to get married and have children. If a woman was childless, she was thought to be cursed (Packer & Tenney, 1980)[5]. It is my guess that Mary Magdalene would have been considered all the more despised and lowly, as she had formerly been demon-possessed and had been healed by Jesus. Many writers conjecture that Mary Magdalene was the adulteress mentioned in Luke 7:36-50, though there is no evidence for that (and I do not subscribe to that idea).

Why would God allow a “foolish” woman, whose testimony would not be considered valid by the conventions of the day, to discover the greatest miracle in human history, the foundation of the Christian faith, the thing that was the culmination of thousands of years of prophecy in Holy Scripture? Would God not want someone “reliable” to be the first person to find Jesus’ empty tomb and make a report to the disciples? St. Paul provides us with some insight into this:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

I am not saying that women are inferior to men, or that they are foolish, or that they are weak, or that they are inherently low and to be despised. That is not what Scripture teaches about women anyway, but that is a discussion for another day. By setting things up so that Mary Magdalene made this incredible discovery, God was mocking the unbelieving world and its governing authorities, which did subscribe to such nonsense.

God was taking what the world held to be of no account – this lowly woman – and using her, elevating her, to “bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” God used Mary Magdalene to bring Peter and John to the empty tomb, and thus, in a manner of speaking, to their true and living faith. They did not yet understand the significance of the empty tomb – that it was the sign of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, not to mention Jesus’ own declarations that he must rise from the dead – but they would, by God’s working. They would all come to understand, by the living faith created in them by God’s Holy Spirit, that because Jesus lives and is no longer in the grave, they too – along with all who believe in Christ – were forgiven, absolved of the guilt of their sin, and would live.

There would be more evidence of Jesus’ resurrection later. Jesus would appear to Mary Magdalene physically, as well as to his disciples. But initially, God used the foolishness of this world to shame the world’s wise. There is evidence of Christ’s resurrection, and St. Paul supplies us with a good summary:

He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor 15:4-8).

The world has generally looked at the followers of Jesus with some kind of mixture of pity and amusement because it counts the message of the cross as foolishness. There is no logic to support this fundamental pillar of the Christian faith, though there is evidence. Then again, that’s why the term faith is used. Martin Luther wrote, “I know that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him” (Luther, 1986) Luther understood that the gift of faith in Christ comes from God by the power of His Holy Spirit, through his means of Word and Sacrament.

There is no logical explanation for the mass conversion of 3,000 people in Jerusalem on Pentecost if what they heard preached was false[6]. There is no logical reason for the apostles who, save John, suffered martyrdom in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, to keep on professing a lie at the cost of their lives, simply to save face. There is, however, an illogical reason, at least by the standards of mankind, for what they did. The Holy Spirit had created faith in them; though it could not be proven by logic or reason, what they – and we – profess is true. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Surely these men would not willingly subject themselves to torture and death for something they knew to be false. The author of Hebrews writes:

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

As Christians we have faith in Jesus, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” We have faith – we can be sure and certain – that because Jesus lives, we also will live. What wonderful news! How could we not help but live the new life that we have been given to God’s glory?




Works Cited

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Packer, J. I., & Tenney, M. C. (Eds.). (1980). Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Testimony in Jewish Law. (2012, March 30). Retrieved March 30, 2012, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testimony_in_Jewish_law



End Notes

[1] John 19:33
[2] John 19:34
[3] John 3: 1-21; 19:39-42
[4] Leviticus 27:1-8
[5] Genesis 30:1-2, 22; 1 Samuel 1:1-8
[6] Acts 2:14-41

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fasting: Ashes and Ash Wednesday

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 fast days before Easter. The name, as you probably figured out, comes from the practice of the ancient church of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents as a physical act of contrition and repentance for their sin. Ashes are a symbolic mark of humiliation, contrition, and mourning (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1990). During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxury as a form of penitence. Many churches strip their altars of candles, flowers, and other devotional offerings, while crucifixes, statues, and other elaborate religious gear may be veiled in violet.

I grew up in a congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod that practiced the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. That is to say, on Ash Wednesday, parishioners would line up during the worship service to have the pastor put ashes on their head. The people would approach the pastor, who was standing in the front of church. In his hand he held a silver vessel containing an unappealing black substance – the burned remnants of the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday mixed with oil. As the people would come to the pastor, he would blacken his thumb with the ashes and make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead. During this process he would tell each parishioner, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I never realized, however, that this was "fasting." Growing up when and where I did, I also didn’t realize that what was to me a natural part of the Ash Wednesday worship service was, in other places, quite a contentious issue.

Later, attending college in what is referred to by some as the “Bible Belt,” I met many people, Christians and non-Christians, who were shocked by the worship practice I shall refer to as the Imposition of Ashes. Lutherans were few in number in Murray, Ky. All my friends were some flavor of evangelical protestant. Knowing that I professed to be a Christian, when the inevitable discussion would arise, many would quote this passage of scripture to me. “Jesus said, ‘…do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.’ This practice is not Biblical.” I had to admit that I had not thought about it in that way before. It certainly seemed logical, when cast in that light. My only allies on campus were the Roman Catholics, who also practiced this tradition. This only made my position worse. Most of the evangelicals thought of Lutherans, if they thought of them at all, as “Catholic light.” They tended to think of Roman Catholics as some kind of non-Christian cult.

Jesus, however, doesn’t forbid fasting. In fact, it seems as if he sort-of expects his followers to fast. Jesus begins by saying, “When you fast…” The issue with fasting is not, “Should it be practiced?” Jesus takes it for granted that his followers would fast. When Jesus was lead by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil, he himself fasted forty days and nights[1]. This issue is, rather, does our fast merely make an outward show of repentance, or do our hearts feel true sorrow and humility. In his commentary, Paul Kretzmann explains Jesus’ words this way:

Again the Lord emphasizes the contrast. A mere outward show of repentance without change of heart does not befit the followers of Jesus. Fasting they may practise [Sic.] indeed; that is a laudable custom and may be productive of good. But in doing so, all ostentation must be avoided. It is the heart that should feel the sorrow and humility, not the body. Therefore the usual daily washing and anointing should not be omitted, in order that men might not even know the conditions (Kretzmann 1921).
Fasting was an integral part of the Jewish religion. The problem Jesus had with “fasting” was not the practice, but rather that the hypocrites turned this profitable practice into a work of self-glorification. It is clear from Matthew’s Gospel that the hypocrites were neglecting their daily washing etc., in order to give the impression that the fast was taking a great toll on them.

They neglected the daily care of the face, to make the effect of the semiweekly fast appear all the more harrowing. It was an empty show in order that they might play a more important figure and get the reputation of greater holiness. They have all the reward they will ever get. They need expect nothing from the Lord (Kretzmann 1921).
Fasting, such as that undertaken by some during the Lenten season, and including the Imposition of Ashes, is neither commanded nor forbidden by Holy Scripture. The decision whether or not to do these things has been left by God to the individual Christian. This issue – what is referred to by theologians as “Adiaphora” – was important to Luther and the reformers. While they wished to see many of the historic practices of the church retained, they objected to Rome’s assertion of its authority in these matters of Adiaphora, and to require them as necessary for salvation. Luther writes the following to the congregation at Esslingen, in a letter responding to his critics when they accused him of requiring works (particularly private confession):

…Likewise I prevent no one from fasting, making a pilgrimage, eating meat, observing days, etc., if only it is done of one’s own accord, and not done as though he had to do it in conscience and as though omitting it would be a mortal sin, as the Pope with his blind leaders raves… (Pieper 1953).
In the Augsburg Confession Philipp Melanchthon writes Article 26 to address complex rules and regulations devised by the Church commanding fasting:

First, the chief part of the Gospel – the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith – has been obscured by this view[2]. The Gospel should stand out as the most prominent teaching in the Church, in order that Christ’s merit may be well known and faith, which believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, be exalted far above works. Therefore, Paul also lays the greatest stress on this article, putting aside the Law and human traditions, in order to show that Christian righteousness is something other than such works (Romans 14:17). Christian righteousness is the faith that believes that sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake. But this doctrine of Paul has been almost completely smothered by traditions, which have produced the opinion that we must merit grace and righteousness by making distinctions in meats and similar services. When repentance was taught, there was no mention made of faith. Only works of satisfaction were set forth. And so repentance seemed to stand entirely on these works (McCain, et al. 2005).
This view of fasting and human tradition presented in the Book of Concord is distilled by Pieper in his work, “Christian Dogmatics”:

Scripture instructs Christians to regard teachers who pretend to know more than Christ’s Word contains as bloated ignoramuses (1 Tim. 6:3 ff.). And those who attempt to impose what the Word of Christ leaves free, e.g., forbidding to marry or commanding to fast and abstain from food and drink, are properly regarded by the Christians as arrogant deceivers and disseminators of doctrines of devils (1 Tim. 4:1-5; Col. 2:20-23). The Pope may impose a fast on himself, but on no one else in the world (Pieper 1953).
Working to curb one’s sinful desires through the application of bodily discipline can, at times, be appropriate and necessary (McCain, et al. 2005). It should never be taught, however, that such outward activities earn God’s favor. Only the Lord can look into people’s hearts and know if their actions stem from penitence, or if they are simply putting on a show for men. Like many other historic practices of the church, the Imposition of Ashes has been retained in the Lutheran Church because it is profitable, and not as a work to merit righteousness. It has been the Lutheran view, from the time of the Reformation until today, that the Church should not do away with good traditions and practices, but only those things that take away from the Gospel.

The Imposition of Ashes is one of those good traditions. It seems to get people’s attention, and not just because of the strange black mark on the forehead. Hearing the pastor’s reminder that you are dust – perishable – is humbling. Hearing him tell every man, woman, and child that they will return to that dust someday is sobering. As a young person I remember looking around at all my friends and neighbors, young and old, rich and poor, thinking that, no matter what our earthly differences might be, we were equal in one aspect – we would all die. We would all die, and there was nothing within our power to change that fact. We were, in fact, dead already, in our sin[3]. We could not ignore our sin.

After leaving church on Ash Wednesday, sometimes people would forget that they had a weird, nasty smear of ashes on their forehead. They would inadvertently scratch their foreheads sometime and be reminded by the residue on their finger that they were dust, and to dust they must one day return. Before going to bed, looking in the mirror, one would once again be reminded they were marked with the black stain of sin, and that they were dust, returning to the dust from whence they came.

Those ashes, however, are drawn on the forehead in the sign of a cross. Not as if the cross is some kind of magic sign to ward off evil, but also as a reminder. The cross reminds us that the guilt of mankind’s sin has been paid for by Christ’s death. The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work at all. It happened, as St. Paul wrote, while we were still powerless:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him (Rom 5: 8-9).
Fasting can be good training for our will, but God does not command particular times, places, or forms of fasting (Luther 1991). There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, no ceremony we can perform, in order to merit God’s forgiveness. God has given us forgiveness as a gift, through Christ Jesus, and he sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts through the means of his Word and Sacraments. He enables us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his grace – but to glorify his most holy name. Fasting, and other traditions like the Imposition of Ashes, can help us to look at our sin, confess it, and acknowledge our need for a savior. These traditions, used properly, and not imposed as a law, focus us on Christ and Him crucified.


Works Cited

Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 1. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

Pieper, D.D., Francis. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.


End Notes


[1] Matthew 4:1-2

[2] Not only the people, but also those teaching in the churches, have generally been persuaded to believe in making distinctions between meats, and similar human traditions. They believe these are useful works for meriting grace and are able to make satisfaction for sins (AC XXVI 1).

[3] Ephesians 2:1

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Sanctity of (Oyster) Life

Disturbing things you find when researching oysters on the Internet:

Dr. Peter Singer, the "philosopher" and noted advocate of infanticide, has "gone back and forth" on whether or not oysters feel pain and, subsequently, whether or not it is ethical to eat them. He wrote, "One cannot with any confidence say that these creatures do feel pain, so one can equally have little confidence in saying that they do not feel pain.”  If the jury is still out on the ethics of killing oysters because they may or may not feel pain, should we not reconsider late-term abortion (indeed, all abortion) on the very same grounds, at least as a starting place for the debate? Oysters, I don't know about. I am confident, however that children have a central nervous system and can feel pain. Perhaps I am the odd man here, and shouldn't be disturbed by this strange classification of the sanctity of oyster life above the sanctity of human life (a concept which Dr. Singer sees as outdated). Then again, I'm not a professor of Bioethics at Princeton University.

Dr. Singer is famous for his ideas about what constitutes Personhood. According to Dr. Singer, personhood, on some level, involves rationality and awareness. This line of thinking opens the door to such horrific nonsense as "after birth" abortions. Thank you, The Left. Lord, have mercy.

You can read other strange things involving the "ethics" of personhood here:

Cox, Christopher. "It’s OK for Vegans to Eat Oysters." Accessed December 30, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2010/04/consider_the_oyster.html.

"FAQ." Princeton University. Accessed December 30, 2014. http://www.princeton.edu/~psinger/faq.html.

Saletan, William. "What’s Wrong With “After-Birth Abortion”?" Accessed December 30, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2012/03/after_birth_abortion_the_pro_choice_case_for_infanticide_.html.




Friday, December 26, 2014

St. Stephen - Martyr

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54-60).

I never particularly understood why St. Stephen’s day was the day after Christmas. Superficially, it seems like there must have been some leftover saints and a need to celebrate their “days” by the end of the year, sort of like getting a last minute tax deductible expenditure in before the new year. I’m sure that’s not how this happened, and there is some perfectly logical explanation of why these saints are remembered on these particular days. I have, however, neither the time nor the inclination to do the research. I am still fat and lethargic with Christmas ham.

Directly after celebrating the Savior’s birth on December 25, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen (Dec. 26), St. John the Apostle (Dec. 27), and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28). December 29 is the feast day of St. Thomas Beckett, who was assassinated on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Saint Anysia of Salonika, a martyr of the 4th century, is remembered on December 30. Anysia’s delightful story begins with her birth to a wealthy and pious Christian family in Salonika (modern day Thessaloniki). The legend of her martyrdom states that in 304 AD, a Roman soldier apprehended her as she was on her way to services. Discovering she was a Christian, he beat her, and intended to drag her to a pagan temple to sacrifice to Roman gods. When he tore off her veil (a reminder of her vow of chastity), she spit in his face, and he murdered her. Rounding out the year we have St. Sylvester on December 31. St. Sylvester was a pope whose claim to fame is being mentioned in the forged Donation of Constantine, according to which Pope Sylvester was offered the imperial Roman crown by a grateful, newly converted Emperor Constantine, which he refused. Sylvester is credited with lots of other actual good things, which you can read about here.

I like celebrating St. Stephen in such close proximity to the birth of Our Lord Jesus though. He reminds us what the point of Jesus’ birth was, and just how hostile an unbelieving world is to the message of the Gospel. When he is taken into custody and brought before the Sanhedrin, he wastes no time arguing with his captors, or pleading for mercy. St. Stephen, when given the opportunity to speak, preaches Law and Gospel, using the condensed story of God’s salvation history given in Holy Scripture. To the stiff-necked, unrepentant people about to murder him, St. Stephen preaches law:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? The even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51-53).

This sermon is reminiscent of St. Peter’s address to the crowd on Pentecost. Both men are addressing Jews who have received God’s Law, but are not believers in Christ. Why does St. Peter’s sermon turn out so much differently than St. Stephen’s? Was he a better preacher? Perhaps he was able to relate to the crowd better by meeting them where they were at and not speaking in terms of antiquated doctrine or outdated worship styles. Maybe he wore hipster glasses.

What the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom illustrates when compared with St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon is the difference between repentance and faith, and sin and unbelief. It shows us that God is responsible for saving us though the gift of faith given through the means of his word, and we are responsible for our damnation by rejecting that gift and resisting the Holy Spirit. Faith comes to us as a gift, through the means of God’s word and sacraments. Unbelief comes from us. God’s Holy Spirit works when and where he will through those means. Man’s sinful mind is hostile to God. Perishing and being dead in transgression, the message of the cross is foolishness to men. Natural man does not, and cannot, submit to God’s Law.

This should take a lot of weight off of us Christians. It is not up to us to convert people. That is God’s job. He does that though the preached word, through the waters of Baptism, and in Christ’s body and blood given to us to eat and to drink in the Lord’s Supper. God will use his means of grace to accomplish his purposes. Therefore, we can be bold like St. Stephen and simply proclaim Law and Gospel, without worrying whether or not we have packaged it effectively.


We celebrate the Christ child’s birth looking forward to his death for our sin on the cross, and his glorious resurrection. Knowing this we can, with the same faith that St. Stephen had, preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus to a fallen, sinful, and hostile world, and God will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, save sinners.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The External Word

Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum
The Word of the Lord Remains Forever
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe (Hebrews 1:1-2).

The author of Hebrews tells us here that, what God wanted to communicate to mankind, he has communicated finally and completely through Jesus Christ. In the past, from the Fall of Man until Christ, God the Father used many different ways to communicate with man. In the Garden of Eden he spoke to man directly. He spoke to the patriarchs by appearing to them as the Angel of the Lord. He spoke to Moses through a burning bush, and through a cloud on a mountain. He spoke to the prophets in dreams and visions. The message was always the same throughout all that time: That he would redeem mankind from their fallen state by His grace through faith in Christ, and restore creation. But in these last days, the writer of Hebrews says, he has spoken to us by His Son.

The message of the entire Bible is God saving mankind from sin, death, and devil by the atoning work of Christ. St. Augustine explained, “The New [Testament] is in the Old [Testament] concealed; The Old is in the New revealed.” This is the message God was communicating to man after the Fall in the Garden, and this is the message He communicates to us now.

Whenever God is speaking to us, however, he speaks to us by his external word. What I mean is this: God comes to man “externally,” through means. He communicates to us though words, using human language that men are capable of understanding. He uses physical elements and uses his word to connect his promises to them, and to deliver those promises to man. He does not work in man through “burnings” in the bosom. He does not work redemption in man apart from His word. St. Paul writes in Romans:

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17).

The burning bush, the visions, all the other means by which God communicated the Gospel to man, were means of delivering to man the external word. And now, in these last days, God has spoken to us through Christ. God’s communication with man has been concentrated down to Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. It is finished, and there is no longer any need to burn bushes or send visions to prophets. God has spoken to us by his Son – the Word incarnate, who bled and died on the cross of Calvary to atone for the sins of the world. This word, the message of Christ, has been collected for us into the volume of Holy Scripture we call the Bible. When you read the Bible, you hear God's voice. It is God who speaks to you through those words on the page. When you hear faithful preaching, it is God who speaks to you, through the voice of that faithful pastor. When you receive the Sacrament of the Altar you hear God's word of promise - given and shed for you, for the remission of sins - and faith takes hold of that promise, connected with those physical elements of bread and wine.

Martin Luther in his day dealt with “enthusiasts,” or people who believed that they received the Spirit and faith without God’s word, i.e., by some mystical divine “inner revelation.” The world is no less full of people today who deny the efficacy of Holy Scripture, yet claim that God has given them some new revelation or inner illumination allowing them to ignore what Scripture teaches. All you have to do is turn on Trinity Broadcasting Network and you will see a parade of preachers preaching, not the Word of God as delivered to us in Holy Scripture, but a word that they have received from some personal revelation. What Luther had to say about enthusiasts is equally appropriate for us today.

He [the devil] led them [Adam and Eve] from God’s outward word to spiritualizing and self-pride. And yet he did this through outward words. In the same way our enthusiasts today condemn the outward word. Yet they themselves are not silent. They fill the world with their babbling and writings, as if the spirit could not come through the Apostle’s writings and spoken word, but has to come through their writings and worlds. Why don’t they leave out their own sermons and writings and let the Spirit himself come to people without their writings before them, as they boast that He has come into them without the preaching of the Scriptures?[1] (Luther).

The Gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit offers us all the blessings of Christ and creates faith in people. The written and spoken (preached) word of the Gospel, as well as the sacraments – God’s word of promise connected to bread and wine, and water – are the means of grace.

Lest I be accused of “putting God in a box,” I must clarify that I am not saying it is impossible for God to impart divine revelations today, or that it is impossible for God to convert men apart from his word. I’m simply saying that he does not wish to. God has always dealt with man through means, and he expressly tells us that it is his will to do so. So, while it is indeed possible for God to send man a “burning in the bosom,” we shouldn’t expect him to do so, because he has told us that he doesn’t operate that way. Many mistakenly take their intense feelings, worked up in a religious frenzy, as a way to assure themselves that they are in the faith. Feelings change, however, and should certainly not be used as a basis for assurance of faith. Furthermore, anyone who claims that he has received a divine revelation should be tested against what we know for certain to be divine revelation – Holy Scripture. Whatever is not in accord with Scripture should be soundly rejected. Luther comments:

In a word, enthusiasm inheres in Adam and his children from the beginning [from the first fall] to the end of the world, [its poison] having been implanted and infused into them by the old dragon, and is the origin, power [life], and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the Papacy and Mahomet. Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments. For God wished to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word; and no prophet neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments [or spoken Word]. Neither was John the Baptist conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother's womb without the voice of Mary. And Peter says: The prophecy came not by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost[2]. Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy, much less would the Holy Ghost have moved them to speak when they still were unholy [or profane]; for they were holy, says he, since the Holy Ghost spake through them (Luther).

We should marvel at how God deals with us. Not only has he redeemed us by His grace, through faith alone in Christ, He has given us his external word, by which we can be certain of God’s promises of forgiveness and eternal life, even when we feel the weight of our sin, and do not feel “saved.” That can sustain and comfort us when our bosoms cease to burn, our inner illumination goes dim, and we remember what kind of rotten sinners we are, undeserving of God’s favor. In those times we can look to God’s external word; whether in Scriptures, in the preaching of a faithful pastor, or in the Lord’s Supper or remembrance of our Baptism, and have assurance that though we are sinners, God has forgiven us for Christ’s sake, and is faithful.

 

 

 

 

 

 



Bibliography


 


Luther, M. (n.d.). The Smalcald Articles. Retrieved December 04, 2014, from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church: http://bookofconcord.org/smalcald.php#confession

 


 




[1] SA III VII 5-6
[2] 2 Peter 1:19-21