Friday, October 29, 2010

Scripture Alone for Doctrine and Practice

Roman Catholics often appeal the the church Fathers over and against Scripture. I have a little essay on our church website about the differences between Catholics and Lutherans. In many of the email responses, my Roman Catholic friends argue that the consensus of the church Fathers must determine the doctrine of the church.

But many of the writings of the church Fathers were destroyed, and we cannot say that what we have left truly represents the consensus of the church. Luther's opinion about this is interesting. He said that many of their writings were destroyed, "so that men would not find the time which they should devote to the reading and scrutiny of Scripture taken up by the study of the wallowing of the Fathers and the councils" (quoted by Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, footnote on p. 205).

This important truth not only applies to the doctrine we teach but also to the practices of the church. How we worship, teach and show the mercy of Christ should primarily be guided by the light of Scripture and not necessarily by the example of those who were ancient. We deeply appreciate the writings of the Fathers as they offer us important insights to Scripture and church practice. But we must be very careful of the temptation to elevate them to a place alongside or above Scripture.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Guns of August

My step-grandfather fought in World War I and was awarded the Purple Heart. I wished I could have heard his story, but I always had the feeling that that was probably not something he wanted to talk about. I can't imagine what it would have been like for this simple man to be involved in the "Great War." All he cared about in life was his faith, his family and his farm. What was is like to be caught up in the horrible casualties of human pride, arrogance, and stubbornness?

World War I was similar to other wars. It involved fear: The Germans worried about encirclement. It involved revenge: France wanted Alsace-Lorraine back. It involved treaty obligations: Sides were quickly drawn after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia due to prior commitments. Most of all it involved militarism: Armies are an unfortunate necessity in a sinful world. But armies can't train indefinitely. Generals get antsy. If a war doesn't start up on it's own every forty years or so, they'll find a way to get one started.

According to Barbara Tuchman in "The Guns of August," this war was different and would create new components to war that would continue into the future. The German generals knew they had to conquer France quickly before they would have to deal with Russia. The plan was to have that done in forty days. Advances in weaponry such as the machine gun and improved artillery would definitely speed up the process by which an army could be destroyed. This war would include huge casualty reports - as many as 50,000 in one day! The plan also included something they called "schrechligkeit," or "terror" to break the spirit of the civilians. In Belgium the Germans methodically selected citizens for execution. Their excuse was that the Belgium people had the audacity to snipe at the invading German soldiers. Perhaps the most unforgivable act was the burning of Louvain and its famous library. Massive destruction and civilian terror would be two unfortunate realities from now on.

As I read this book I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with the record of destruction being described: Men so exhausted and filthy you could smell them before you saw them, Hundreds dying here, Thousands killed there, etc., Pages and pages of this! What could it have been like for the individual soldier in the thick of it? I have the feeling the Grampa knew very little of the causes or the future implications of this war. But he knew enough about these things to know that they should be avoided at all costs. No wonder he and many other former soldiers I've met don't want to talk about it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Biblical Blind Spots

I enjoyed listening to Dr. Jeffery Gibbs recently as he encouraged us to remember the Biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body in all our teaching and preaching. He is right: Too often we jump directly from death to heaven without any reference to Jesus' promises of the resurrection of the body.

Dr. Gibbs was speaking about this with his father-in-law, who replied that he was going to underline all the passages of the Bible that speak to the resurrection of the body. Dr. Gibbs told him that he better get "two pencils." There are many references to the resurrection of the body!

Why do we sometimes overlook such obvious and important teachings of the Bible? There are others teachings that sadly have become "blind spots" for us. I would add to the list the doctrine of election. When was the last time you heard a sermon on that doctrine?

I can think of three possible reasons and remedies for this:

1. We simply do not read the Bible as much as we should, and we often read it in snippets when in fact the authors intended their books to be read as a whole. I have struggled with this my entire ministry. Early on I made a vow that I would spend as much time reading the word of God directly in the original languages and in translations as I do secondary sources.

2. We forget the "Rule of Faith." The "rule of faith" is shorthand for "creeds and doctrinal summaries." The Apostles' Creed and Luther's Small Catechism are good examples. Some might think that these gifts actually foster Biblical illiteracy because people rely on them rather than reading the Scriptures. That can be a temptation. But the creeds and confessions of the church also challenge us to remember the key teachings of the Bible. A simple sermon series on the Apostles' Creed would force a pastor to illuminate potential blind spots.

3. We spend too much time reading secondary sources (commentaries/sermons/Bible studies) FROM OUR CONTEMPORARIES. Secondary sources are helpful as long as we are giving appropriate time to the text itself (see #1 above). But we also need to search through a variety of secondary sources that include interpreters from the past and from other cultural contexts.

Blind spots always need to be avoided. God has given us the appropriate tools to avoid them. I am praying that God will give me and all pastors the wisdom to use these tools properly.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M

This movie will twist your stomach as your eyes well with tears. It is only for those with a strong physical, mental and spiritual constitution.

In 1990 Freidoune Sahebjam, a French journalist, published the story of Soraya in his book La Femme Lapidée. This is the true story of an Iranian woman caught in the nightmare of corrupted Sharia Law.

The Qur'an never mentions the punishment of stoning for the crime of adultery. But stoning is mentioned numerous times in the Hadith (the sayings of Mohamed and his followers). In 1983 the new Islamic Republic reinstated the practice of stoning. However domestic and international protests led to a moratorium on the practice in 2002. The election of Ahmadinejad again brought a revival to the practice. (Information from Wikipedia, "Stoning")

Stoning was commanded in the Bible for a number of crimes under the Law of Moses. Three of the most famous stoning incidents in the Bible are found in John eight when Jesus intervened in the attempted stoning of a woman caught in adultery. In Acts seven Stephen is stoned to death for blasphemy. In Acts 14 Paul was stoned at Lystra and left for dead. Later his friends revived him, and he lived.

My only response after watching a movie like this is, "Amen, Come Lord Jesus."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Eat Pray Love

Ross Douthat wrote a great review of the movie Eat Pray Love in the September 20, 2010 issue of National Review. Here is a brief summary:

Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is a memoir about her travels to Rome, India, and Bali in search of personal fulfillment. The movie version now stars Julia Roberts. Is this just another chick-flick/travelogue? Not at all. This book and film captures what is perhaps the most popular religion in America today, the religion of self. Suffering in an unhappy marriage because her husband is not as successful as he should be and won't accompany her on her journalist travel tours, Elizabeth falls on her knees and prays for deliverance.

What does God want her to do to be happy? First He wants her to divorce her husband. Then God wants her to have an affair that gets messy. Then God wants her to travel around the world eating, meditating and forgiving herself. Then God wants her to fall in love with a handsome, divorced Brazilian.

It is amazing how everything God "wants her to do" is the same thing a spoiled, self-indulgent woman with too much money would want to do. She finally arrives at this astounding theological conclusion: "God dwells within me, as me." One hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton spoke to this kind of religion: "Of all the horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within."