Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why I Am A Traditionalist Lutheran

There are a few things I would like to make abundantly clear before I press too far into this project. The first is that I am writing primarily in the manner of a personal reflection, and that reflection in the hopes of clarifying some things for myself. I say this forthrightly because I want those who may read this to understand that I am not attempting to convince anyone of the veracity of the Lutheran Confession or even of the value of my own reflection and experience. I will not engage in Confessional or denominational squabbles here, though I will appreciate efforts to correct false assumptions concerning other traditions, should they be offered. I do realize that much of what I write here will be ill appreciated by some. I cannot adequately commit my own understanding of the Lutheran faith to writing without addressing my recent departure from the body of Lutherans that use the acronym E.L.C.A., and so some of what follows may be very much contested or even resented by those people who still belong to that body. At the very least, I hope not to be inflammatory, though I will not shy away from clearly stating my convictions regarding the deficiencies in that body and its vision of the Lutheran faith.

I know from firsthand experience that some of the people whom I have previously served as a Vicar, or lay preacher, within ELCA churches will be puzzled and confused by what I write, or with my past decisions to end the candidacy process and also to leave that body and associate with another. I will say that I still have much fondness for those people and their insuperable graciousness. I learned and grew in many ways during the time I spent in ELCA parishes. Above all, I learned the faith within ELCA parishes and institutions, Communed at its altars, and made lifelong friendships with its members. What is perhaps most difficult for many to understand and what will be one of the primary themes of this work, is that the faith that I learned within ELCA parishes is precisely what convinced me that I could no longer have the degree of fellowship I once enjoyed with that communion as it presently exists.

I offer the following broad outline as a template for what follows:  

Terms Defined
A. Lutheranism
B. Traditionalist
A. History
B. The Personal
A. Dissonance
B. Personal Failings
Toward Resolution
A. Dislocation
B. Relocation temporized
Hopeful Criticism and a New Vision
A. Ongoing Personal Synthesis
B. Placement as Blessing and Curse

There is a key to my current thinking in this arrangement, but as I have conceived of this project in terms of installments which have not yet been written, much revision is likely.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sunday Meditation: Sense of Presence.

Leading up to and after the Communion, I still find my mind drawn to becoming aware of, or of cultivating, a particular type of experience - this usually in the form of some definite sense of the presence of Christ with His people and the awe that it seems this should inspire.

I appreciate the criticisms I have read of this form of piety.  First of which is that it tends to obscure the communio of the saints, hidden saints who are apparent sinners.  Too much concentration upon one's own feelings and perceptions serves to make one less aware that one person communes as a member of a body.  The manifestly social and ecclesial dimension of the Communion should be allowed to have its force.  This is to say that one may inadvertently force the Sacrament into a more individualistic mold, meant only for the satisfaction of personal feelings of piety, and not for the awareness that Christ's Sacramental Body is a Gift not only to me and for my inclinations, but for the entire Mystical Body - the gaggle of folk that are the church militant.  Ultimately, the Holy Communion is both its appearance - that is, bread and wine distributed in a (hopefully) reverent fashion to the motley crew of disciples who come to the table, with all their attendant frailties and foibles, and its underlying reality, Body and Blood, which is only known by faith.  Also, it is truly the appearance of wine and bread, and not the appearance of the True Body and Blood.  Cultivating a sense that it is not in fact what it appears to be is in some manner to attempt to undo what the Lord has graciously done: veil His presence with the species of bread and wine.

And it is indeed a gracious thing that His presence is veiled in this manner.  It safeguards the people from their own absolute contingency and nothingness before the mysterium tremendum.  God is simply too much for us in His naked presence, in this time, and in our manner of being.

Additionally, the sort of practice that regularly seeks an experience other than what the Lord offers, phenomenally, so to speak, may discourage the experience He intends for us - provided the ministers faithfully perform their service as stewards.  It is actually a form of impiety to seek to compliment or augment the gift as it is given with one's own predilections, or at least it could be, if it serves to obscure what is in actuality given and proclaimed.

Perhaps this can be chalked up to a particularly protestant concern over mysticism of a certain variety, but I am not so sure.  I have no problem with experience of the divine per se, the divine as it is given to be experienced, only a concern with inveterately Adamic compulsions to concoct something other than what God in His wisdom knows that I, and the entire Body, need.  It seems that anthropocentric preconditions for what God can or cannot do or what need I believe He should be supplying are sure recipes for theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical disasters.

What God thinks I need is always, first and foremost, Christ Himself and all the things that He brings with Him: forgiveness, life, and salvation.

I have more to think about here.

Do Confessional Churches Need A "Theology of Mission"?

I have a friend who sent this blog entry and asked for my thoughts on it.

It may be that I am unnecessarily sour about these sorts of suggestions due to the fact that so often they seem to lead to the endorsement of the wackiest sorts of "appeal to their sense of entertainment" gimmicks and strategies. I had a hard time being able to endorse much of anything that was argued. It could be the fact that the author is enamored with American Pentecostalism and seems to believe that it may hold some sort of answer to the problem he diagnoses prevents me from giving him my assent.

More than this, I don't know if I accept his diagnosis. I am not at all sure that Confessional churches cannot "do evangelism". And I am sure that the fact that a church is Confessional cannot really deprive it of the capacity to evangelize or do missions. Unless, perhaps if the Confession includes a clause that proscribes evangelizing - how this could remain a Christian Confession in this instance, I do not know.

Then there is his sometimes dubious presentation of the contours and significance of Lutheran history...

As far as I can see, our Lutheran Confessional tradition is definitely enabled to evangelize and perform missions because it:

1. Receives the Gift of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

2. Confesses the Three Ecumenical Creeds and Luther's Catechisms in which and through which are confessed the mission of the Spirit to call, gather, enlighten and sustain the church.

I think that there is a certain reluctance on the part of many Christians (lay and ordained) in given local communities to evangelize, in the sense of articulating their grasp of the faith that is in them, but I do not for a moment believe that this is due to a theological deficiency in our received Confessional tradition.

I think that there are historical, and sociological reasons - broadly, cultural reasons - for this condition, to be sure.

Perhaps most pressing here is an examination of the churchly culture of a given community. What are the means for transmitting and sustaining the education and character that are necessary for creating Christians who love their faith enough to know it and share it? What is catechesis like? What practices are in place to encourage the necessary virtues for this sort of person, beyond the Sunday Eucharist?

And prior to these questions: What do we mean when we speak of a theology of mission? Do we mean a new phrasing of the truths of the faith directed to a particular end (missiology)? Do we mean developing new practices (or reintroducing old ones) that will foster evangelism? Do we merely mean a novel gimmick as stimulant to perceived value, a cosmetic adjustment of image?

I don't think very well in this arena, I admit. I find the concern over numbers and the very scent of evangelism programs to be so much charlatanry in the end. I am not a pastor, and I tend to think that if a church has twenty people, or is declining rapidly then maybe the Spirit is working elsewhere and the building should be sold.

I also tend to think that there is no substitute for love and the excitement it brings with it. If you love being Lutheran you will be excited about it and will share your faith. A challenge to pastors is to communicate your own love and excitement for the faith to the people you serve. I have found that people respond to and are impressed by those who genuinely believe in their cause and visibly devote themselves in an excellent way to their chosen craft, art, or philosophy. This is true also of those who profess our Confession of faith.

And, yes, I suppose there is also a pentecostal dimension to this question, though it may only have a tangential relation to what is called Pentecostalism. I have already anticipated it in the previous paragraph: charisma, that rare and volatile thing. Only the charisma that is a gift and effect of the Spirit given in Christ and by His chosen means and none other. The charismata that include: bold confession, devotion of the intellect and understanding, contrariety in the face of opposition, effective and joyous proclamation of the truth; these are the things which impel evangelism and mission, and for which there can be no real substitute.

What do you fine Lutheran folk think?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The "Pornographic Imagination"

Letihart is reading Paul W. Kahn who isolates what he calls the "pornographic imagination" as a feature of our culture.
I found the description compelling, although it depends to some extent upon a theory of "the sacred" or "religion in general" that is disputable. Whether or not an extra-temporal and extra-cultural space is anywhere close to what I consider to be the substance of "religion" or "the sacred", Kahn's supposition that the pornographic urge is one that is an essential rebellion against time, culture, language, limit, and responsibility, and, more particularly, family, seems hard to refute.
In this respect, the title of the phenomenon under consideration may be too exact, as it is really much broader than pornography per se. I smell the specter of what has been called gnosticism here, and of a fairly degraded form. Indeed, the "pornographic imagination" seems to me but a cubicle within the broader gnostic workplace.
I'd be interested in reading the book. And, what is more pressing for me and should be for all who recognize the force of such a principality, is the question: How does one successfully resist the lure of the deformed imagination? And further, why is it that we yearn to be at once anesthetized and beyond the grip of time, place, culture and constraint?
What true and legitimate desire has gone wrong here, and how is it properly satisfied?
Such a phenomenon cannot but be a parasitism.

Fillips, pips, and pyxes

A few run-ins with the modern medical establishment today.
The first: Our new pediatrician.  Tolerates holism and does not attempt to don the veneer of high-modern certitude.  No tie, no white coat - annoying catch phrase t-shirts in their place.  Not a full-on priest of life-extension and pharmacological control.

He talks with us and looks at us.  This makes some of his other features (california sway-back, beardy, hypnocharlatan) more than tolerable.  And he seems competent.

The second: Binson's medical supply.  A warehouse and supermarket of goods for the ill, the fat, and the old.  If you need a cart, brace, cane, pump, chair, or other device, prophylaxis, appendage, etc., this is the place to be.  We were there to return our "billilights" that we used to cure Ben's jaundice.  Figures my son would have an early problem with jaundice... I must have metaphysically transmitted it to him in utero.

It was a jumping place!  Mostly the aged.  This was itself worth noticing.  America the old and increasingly infirm.  They are secreted away, yet their force is felt everywhere.  There is a fourth commandment meditation in this somewhere...

Two things - 1. They had a department with the neon epithet, "Lady Binson's Boutique".  One may purchase or rent wigs and other vanity items for those more unfortunate effects of illness or of the medicines that purport to treat illness here.  I only mention it because I thought it somehow undignified to display the wares in this manner.  Losing one's hair would be indignity enough, I think.

2. Next to the meat counter style reception and checkout area there were the requisite impulse buy ephemera, but two drew my attention:

A display of pill boxes, or cylinders, to be more precise.  The first said: "Inspirational Pill Containers”. All except one of the containers had standard semi-Christian bromides (“Faith Is Everything”). The exception actually had a line from 1 John, “God Is Love”. A shame that such an epoch shattering Scriptural pearl should be reduced to a vaguely familiar and vaguely affecting sentiment on a container of pharmacology. And to the container itself I now turn: the face was enameled with the aforementioned bromide and it was approximately three inches in diameter, a shiny disc about a half an inch wide.

What immediately struck me is that it resembled a pyx, that is, the container used to transport the reserved Host to those who are ill or otherwise unable to Commune with the assembly. Appropriate, or grotesque? I couldn't really decide. Maybe both. What Luther and the tradition before him thought of as the true "medicine of immortality" would have fit nicely into these little pill cylinders. The blazing irony is easy to read off. Pharmacological life extension in cheaply enameled sentiment laden containers to replace or displace the precious containers of eternal life. Now surely, I do not mean to suggest that one must choose between the relative benefits of modern medicine and the Body of Christ. The Church has (except in small errant factions) encouraged and lovingly nourished the practice of medicine - as the recent birth of my son in a Catholic hospital nicely illustrates. What I am suggesting is that the massive pharmacological experiment of our current medical community and the highly medicated mass that is purports to serve is a truly a culture producing affair. It has accoutrements and vessels. It has near ubiquity of place. And more than this, these artifacts tell a story that can be much different than the one that accompanied the pyxes of old. In place of story a life lived in preparation for death, where temporality and eternity are understood to be categories that cannot overlap (except in One!), and where a man lived the hope that he would enter into an order of imperishability after his utterly perishable body underwent the changes that such bodies inevitably do, we now have containers that rest upon promethean stories of rejected limit. We can slow aging. We can prolong. We can be prolonged. We can make successions of moments increase. And we really don't stretch our longings to the eternal. Or, at least we have alternatives that demand less of us - that do not attempt to shape or limit. We can take a pill. We can trust a technic. And we can get scripts from undemanding sources who "bless" without sacrifice. Who are installed in this current economy (in the broader sense of the word) to make all of this available to us.

There is much that is true and beautiful and noble and good about modern medicine. The alleviation of dumb, raw, undirected suffering in children is one of those. The eradication of poxes and pestilences and the human flourishing that this enables is also one. The overreaching cult of animal vitalism that it can at times become is not. Nor is the proliferation of those medical arts that cater to the vice of vanity and the deeply promethean urge to "remake" ourselves after the impulses of our will.

And, the other thing that drew my attention was, in its way, a thematic bookend to the former: a display of the same devices, only now instead of being fronted by "inspirational" pap, these were devoted to "Fashion". I don't pretend to know how the array of images qualified as "fashion" (one was a neon colored fish head), but I thought that it was indicative of something that the alternative to "inspiration" was "fashion". If fashion is the art of popular aesthetic will and play, then I suppose I can see a connection. Currently, it is easier to bend one's image to the untrammeled irruptions of desire then it is to bend one's body. Though how long this will remain the case is in no way certain.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What may not be said:

Fifth week of Lent begins tomorrow... the weight of the Season is felt and its known climax looms.  It is probably understandable that many people are already speaking of the events that are commemorated in Holy Week.  Today, for example, I saw a Passion play.  The Passion play is a form that could demand an entry all its own: there are merits to the form that I am beginning again to appreciate - the foremost being that everyday folk assume the roles of the principle characters in one incredibly potent chapter in the total divine drama (a drama to which these folk are hoping to saturate their lives).  Watching the play, I was taken by the manner in which these fine amateurs sometimes performed, and could not escape the thought that it communicated a particularly important truth that we were all amateurs when it came to this performance.  Our artistry is not sufficient for the best portrayal of the divine prototype.  History often,  and God above history always, finds our projects vain and clownish - and the audience's nervous giggles sometimes mirrored this too.  And yet there is real appreciation for the performance, and a knowledge that our fitful attempts have their perfectly completed original.  The latter being the only way in which we can have the courage to act mimetically at all.

Or, maybe not.  Maybe that is too labored an interpretation of the form...

Ultimately, the play served to show one essential truth about Fallen Man.  At the heart of it, Man's best efforts crucify an innocent man, and in so doing crucify God.    Lenten hymnody is filled with testimonies to this truth.  It is crucial to know and appropriate it in order to then appropriate the great shock and wonder of the Resurrection.  That Resurrection which renders this truth about man more than mere evidence for resignation in the face of a seemingly intractable nature... for one more species of a pagan total renunciation, or total affirmation, of the world as it is.  Without that Resurrection, we have one more martyr story which may serve, at best, as a source of heroic inspiration.  At worst, it becomes the previous sort of warrant for resignation before the crush of fate.  And this is the great flaw in the Passion play; its usual form excludes the Resurrection.  I was happy to see that the parish violated the purity of the form and concluded with the Resurrection appearances.

But, already too many words about Passion plays, and now I am even running beyond into Easter!  This does serve to  illustrate the manner in which they are integrally connected phenomena that cannot be separated without violence done to both.

But, what I think may not be being said, is this:  The Passion is about more than vicarious substitutionary atonement (that is, about Christ's sacrificial death for the sake of us all)... it is not less than this, but it is about more, and there is much, much more to this total drama.

Christ does not only come for us to be a Sacrifice.  Christ comes to give us "Life and Life abundantly".  It is true to say that Christ as Sacrifice and Christ as bringer of Life are not two mutually exclusive things, that they are in fact intimately connected, but given the propensity for so much of the former and little of the latter to be given center stage (so to speak), at this time anyhow, I think it safe to distinguish them for a time.

I became aware of this necessity recently when I was dining with an older gentlemen who became somewhat interested in my convictions in theological matters:

"You mean you don't think Muslims go to heaven if they don't accept Christ?"

"I think that whoever receives salvation, it is because of Christ and what He has done.  Which makes me a Christian, go figure."

This moved him to dismiss the "acceptance of Christ stuff" and assert that we were judged "by what we have done."

"Surely, good works have a role in things, and we will certainly be judged, but this isn't what saves us."

So, after this, I asked rhetorically, "Are you sure that you want to be judged according to your works, that these works are able to cover you?"

Soon the conversation turned, probably mercifully, to other things, but it left an impression on me.

What I realized was that this particular person, like so many others, lacked a robust sense of the High Life that we were created and redeemed in order to enjoy... so, naturally it was easy for him to tick off a few particularly morally repugnant crimes and misdemeanors, find that he had not done them, and to think that therefore neither he nor God should be all that unhappy with his life performance.

All of this is to say that Christ comes to describe and give over to us a wonderful, beautiful, radiant sort of life that would make all but the reprobate feel the majesty of being created "a little lower than the angels" and redeemed to "partake of the divine nature".  A life that makes one weep for joy to behold.  He comes to invite us to sainthood.

Too often, I believe, we cast all of our absurdity, crime, betrayal, and ugliness onto Christ easily enough (often not even really knowing which of these are the most offensive while clinging to things that God may reckon venial), but do not see how we should rightly be saddened by the simple fact that we are not living the ecstatic, aesthetic adventure of sainthood!

That is a life - a vibrant experience - whose forfeiture shows our sullen, deadened, lack of zest, and should bring the deep repentance which is the opened fist that may now receive what was once so callously forfeited.  It is a life that the Season of Easter should be bursting forth to describe and lay before the faithful,

and it is a life that I truly want for myself and will die trying to obtain.

The Catechism: The Creed

I have decided to keep the rest of the meditation on the Commandments to myself, as it may be prudent to do so considering the confessional nature of that part of the exercise.

Besides, if I dwelt on my sin and its gravity for any  lengthy period of time I would be totally paralyzed and never do much of anything... therefore, I turn my gaze to Christ.

I will continue apace with the First Article of the Creed.

It is probably good to point out from the start that Luther does not divide the Creed into twelve articles as prior tradition had done, but emphasizes the Trinitarian structure of the Creed by delimiting it to three main articles.  On God the Father- the Creator, God the Son - The Redeemer, and God the Spirit - the Sanctifier.

THIS does NOT imply any modalist understanding of the Godhead, contrary to one stream of revisionist tradition within the church.  It does imply that there are particular "missions" associated with one Person of the Trinity - though, it is correct to say that all Persons are intimately involved in any and all of these particular works.

Where God the Father is, so is the Son and the Spirit.  Luther utilizes this economy of speech, as it follows the Roman Creed.  This is an essential point, as there are some clergypersons who would falsify the Divine Name by referring to the particular functions or missions of the Godhead in lieu of actually placing the Name of the Persons Who perform those functions for the sake of the faithful on the faithful or before the faithful for their aknowledgement.  This attempt to assuage a felt guilt over masculine violence does not in reality do justice to the persons who seek grace (as some maintain that masculine nomenclature is exclusive of feminine concern) but robs them of the only true source of grace and pardon for their acknowledgment.  Additionally,  it can be an open invitation to skepticism and an unacceptable theological pluralism - for only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit truly Create, Redeem, and Make Holy - there are no other alternatives, while a mere nomination of functions may suggest otherwise.  There cannot be functions named that we worship and laud (as if Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu could meet the requirements specified), but only the Persons who are responsible for these functions on our behalf can properly be worshiped and lauded.

In support of my earlier contention from the meditation on the First Commandment, i.e. that the proper identity conditions for the True God are given in the Creed (where these identity conditions isolate the proper source for our power to perform the Commandments):

The Creed... is given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandment require of usIf we could by our own strength keep the Ten Commandments as they ought to be kept, we would need neither the Creed nor the Lord's Prayer.

In support of the contention concerning the proper identity of the God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies me, Luther states:

Hence the Creed may be briefly comprised in these few words; I believe in God the Father, who created me; I believe in God the Son, who redeemed me; I believe in The Holy Spirit who sanctifies me."  One God and one faith, but three persons, and therefore three articles or confessions...

Continuing to the Creed proper, this is the First Article:

"I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth."

What is the import of this article?  Succinctly, that we have nothing, and even more, that we are nothing apart from the source of our contingent existence.  We did not create ourselves.  We did not will ourselves into being.  It is a gift - We are a gift!  And we Christians know Who to thank for that gift.  We were thrown, yes, into being, but not without purpose; as the Commandments have told us.  We are Nothing apart from the One Who has allowed us to be, indeed, Who loved us into being!  All this wonderful panoply of creation, all the wonderful human culture that has ensued, all is a gift.  Acknowledge the Giver.

There is One source of all that is, and we are not it.  The Creed declares, and pronounces, the identity of that Giver.  And this pronouncement is in perfect consonance with the Scriptures which testify to the self-revealing of this Giver.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Catechism: The First Commandment

Writing on the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the First Commandment, it is easy for me to see how Mary's response and Luther's description of the proper Christian response to the Commandment may illuminate one another.  This is probably not incidental.

1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”

1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
1:36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age – although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

1:38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.  [NET]

I post this in a segmented fashion in order to highlight the bold divine disclosure, "You are favored, and you will bear a special son" [paraphrased], the puzzled response to it, "How can this be?" and the paradigmatic response of faith, "Let it be according to your Word".

I will return to this as I move into the body of my meditation, for now it is important to note that there is a formal quality to the event:

1. Initial event of revelation.

2. Reality check.

3. Repetition and intensification of the disclosure.

4. Reality check.

5. Repetition and intensification of the disclosure.

6. Faithful ascent to the Author of reality.

Returning to my original purpose:


"You shall have no other gods."

That is, you shall regard me alone as your God... What is it to have a god?  What is God?

Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.  To have a god is nothing else that to trust and believe him with our whole heart.  As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then you God is the true God.

I am surely not the first to point out that the immediate impression of this brief "answer" to the question "what is [a] God?" seems hopelessly subjective and arbitrarily dependent on a host of prior assumptions that Luther must be assuming he shares with his readers.  A word or two on this observation is necessary.  First, Luther is most certainly assuming a set of tacit beliefs concerning the general subject, and it would have been a safe assumption for him to make in his historical moment.  The people he addressed still lived in "Christendom" where the church was the primary cultural engine.  They may have had errant beliefs on certain points of doctrine, or fuzzy beliefs that were the result of any number of popular pieties, but they had tacit understandings that were undoubtedly determined by the church.  The liturgies, festivals, and domestic piety they displayed had a common primary origin in the church of the medieval West, not the sole origin, surely, but the primary one.  We late moderns can no longer assume this about any public audience.  [An interesting aside: as a sort of culturally inductive evidence for my argument, the word "pieties", which I made use of earlier in this paragraph, is not recognized by my browser's spellchecker - it is underlined in red as a mistake.]

That God was a possibility, foremost, and that God possessed certain metaphysical "attributes", would have been tacitly recognized by his audience.  He is in no way here concerned to give a list of these attributes, or a phenomenological description of [a] god, but assumes a cultural stockpile of classical and Christian traditional religious thinking on divinity.  So, Luther moves to the heart of the matter - what does it matter to you if there is a god, and what does this god look like when we investigate the object of your longing?  He isolates desire as the best evidence of the nature of one's god, the assumption being that what desire tends to regularly as the highest object is god to that desiring entity.  But this is not entirely correct.  Luther is not saying that what one desires is god, but what one turns to as the ultimate source of desire's fulfillment - this is the best indication of one's god.

Do you believe that you [the desiring subject] are the only, and therefore the best, source for satisfying your needs and desires?  If so, then you are your own god, according to Luther.

This method for determining one's god could be reduced to this:

1. Locate the source from which all good relative to one's own desire originates, there at that origin is one's god.

I have indicated that the desired good and the bestower of desired good are necessary themes for Luther in his explication of the First Commandment.  We can see this clearly from this passage:

It is God alone, I have often repeated, from whom we receive all that is good... This is, I think, why we Germans from ancient times have called God by a name more elegant and worthy than any found in other languages, a name derived from the word "good" because he is an eternal fountain which overflows with sheer goodness and pours forth all that is good in name and in fact.

Yes, Luther is incorrect as to his etymology for the word "Gott", but his theological insight is necessary and sound.  He shares in and affirms the vast Christian/Platonic insistence that a proper name for God is "[The] Good", and the imagery of God as the inexhaustible fount that spills forth blessing is as necessary to his Evangelical theology as it is to the perennial philosophy.  As I have said, it is clear that Luther is not, in the Catechism, concerned to dwell on theo-metaphysical issues, yet to interpret his theology as a refusal of metaphysics, or as a decisive break with that tradition seems unwarranted.  One can, I think, without too much trouble, find any number of traditional metaphysical assertions concerning God implicit and explicit in the Catechism.

Such as:

1. God as the source of all being.

2. God as utterly simple substance.

3. God as the author of secondary causes.

These, among others, surely.

Indeed, the fuss over the nominalism of Luther and other Reformers is to me overly dramatized.  How nominalist can an author be if he can write things like "[God] is an eternal fountain which... pours forth all that is good in name and in fact"? [Emphasis is my own.]

Further, following the passage I cited above is this: "Although much that is good comes to us from men, we receive it all from God through his command and ordinance."  Luther may describe this reality of creation in a manner that makes it much more transparent to God's impetus than do others, but he does not insist on a slavish account that makes God the only true and effective cause in creation.

Returning to Luther's "method" for ascertaining one's "god", a possible moral objection can be made; is this method not ultimately concerned only with the self?  Isn't it selfish to allow a god to be determined, or highlighted, by the relative good it brings to an individual subject?

In reply, I would only say that Luther's method does not formally rule out the common good as also a personal good for any subject.  But, given the nature of Luther's concern in the Catechism, that is, who or what is your god, and not just what god may be in the abstract, the method is the only one suited to its task.  In this sense, there is a certain manner in which the method is a phenomenology.

It should also be clear that Luther is not determining God in Himself by reference to a desiring or thinking human subject, as is done in some forms of modern theology (with Schleiermacher at the head), but, again, is concerned to show what this god is for you the created human.

If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.

Moreover, it should be clear that Luther cannot mean that human desire actually creates gods in any real sense, for this would clash with the Creed [to which we will eventually turn].  Nor can he really be concerned with erecting some category for determining a general sort of "divinity" or "godhood" - Luther cannot, by the force of the faith that is in him, believe there is any set for godhood that could be filled by other pretenders, it is exhaustively filled by Father, Son, and Spirit.

So, perhaps the dictum quoted above can only be a condition only for the true God of specifically Christian faith; the quality of bestowing all good upon creation and acknowledging this source as "God", that is, as Father, Son and Spirit [but we haven't learned much about Father, Son, and Spirit!], is a necessary condition for Christian faith and a necessary condition for being true God... if that sounds circular, it probably is.

So, the dictum in the First Commandment cannot be a guide given over to the "generally religious" in order to show them that they do not know the true God, for they may justly reply, "But I look to Artemis, or the GDP, or the spark of 'godhood' within me, for all good, therefore, I possess the true God..."

For the dictum to be true it necessarily requires instruction in the Creed, and the Commandments must be interpreted in their light.  The First Commandment requires the Creed for its proper observance.

All of this taken together, we find that true faith obtains when one allows God to be the God who is the source of all Good for the created human being - A God whose definite identity conditions are set forth in the Creed.  When we acknowledge that God is who He says He is, the One who would bless us and defend us, and the source of all Good, then we are having faith in the true God.

It is important here to point out that this ascent to God in faith can be, and many times can be expected to be, in direct opposition to the normative manner of viewing daily reality conditions.  How it is that God is the source of all blessings in a particular instance and how He is the author of the truly real is not always immediately transparent to reason and experience.  This is one of the challenges of faith and of obedience to the First Commandment.

Illustrative of this sort of challenge met in faith is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin which I placed at the beginning of this meditation.  Mary allows God to be the true source and author of reality for her... despite the apparent contradictory reality conditions.  She expects good from God and ascents to His disclosure of Himself to her. She trusts God, and ascents to Who He, in fact, is.

There is much, much, more to comment on in this connection, but I will allow it to stand as is for the moment.

What has not been dealt with as of yet is the question of how one is able to have such faith.  How can a human being, plagued by sin and distorted and deranged in the best of its faculties, ever manage to have this sort of faith?

How can a perverse human heart, desiring a panoply of created things inordinately, ever turn to God as the Source and provider of all blessings?

The Catechism: The Ten Commandments, intro.

The Law has been ended for Christians, right?  It came to an end as both finis and telos in Christ, and so can play no positive role in the lives of Christians...

That is a story told by many Christians and many Lutheran Christians among them, and it is so tempting because it is, in some specific ways, true, but it is also dangerous because it is a partial truth.  A partial truth that can be dangerously misappropriated.

There are many problems with this notion, not the least of which is that its aggressive Paulinism can't seem to reckon with the data of the other Gospels and Epistles in a manner that is satisfactory for me at least...

Matthew 5:17, among other important texts, should make one leery of discounting the Law in a thorough manner that would totally abrogate its ongoing role and value, or so I am convinced.

Luther's Catechism is innocent of at least a strong form of this argument.  The Commandments are, after all, the first segment of the Catechism and such a constituent element of it that ignorance of the Law would preclude one from "being reckoned among Christians" and admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar.  That much is undeniable.

If I were pressed, I would say that Luther's entire Catechism is primarily concerned with the satisfaction of the First Commandment, and that he believes that this is exactly what Evangelical faith does (that is, satisfy the First Commandment).  Following this assertion I would have to point out that the other commandments are viewed as ways and means for satisfying the First Commandment; the First split into a spectrum according to the manner in which it touches human life with God and human life with neighbor.  It is hard to see how one could begin to understand Luther's own teaching about Evangelical faith without a thorough knowledge of the Commandments, their function and purpose.

I have recently seen the term "pedagogical use of the Law" used to describe the manner in which Luther understands the role of the Law in the Christian life.  The Law teaches concrete ways in which a Christian may show forth his status as one who is redeemed by Christ and living out the saving faith that is in him.  It teaches the shape of the Life in Christ by prescribing works (yes! Works!), which are truly God pleasing and God given works, that accord with it.  There are some necessary assumptions at work here:

That the Commandments of the Law, though almost entirely stated as negative command, with important exceptions, each suggest a positive correlate.  You shall not bear false witness necessary implies that you shall speak well of your neighbor and protect his reputation, etc.

That the Law can and should be utilized as a means for living a Christlike life because it is necessarily related to Christ.  The Law not only has a single divine origin, but has also been perfected and fulfilled in Christ.

That human beings, under the influence of grace, can perform works of the Law that are truly God-pleasing, because they formally are so to God (their capacity to be pleasing is not determined by the one who undertakes them, but by their form as God given - except when one considers Christ as the primary actor who undertakes the Law, in this case, He overdetermines their capacity).

Luther is concerned to concentrate on this use of the Law for three reasons, one historical/theological, one more directly theological, and one of civil concern:

He is concerned to illustrate an alternative to the "works" generated by the medieval penitential system.  These works have no direct support (if any support whatsoever) in the written Word of God, and therefore no sure foundation and therefore are ineffective means for pleasing God, and for comforting conscience.  They are of a formally dubious value.  The works prescribed by the Law, on the contrary, have both a secure foundation in the Truthful Word, thereby being formally sufficient, and therefore able to truly please God and comfort conscience.

He knows that the Law has a divine origin and is therefore integrally related to its origin.  Because God is the author of all Good, The Law is Good and describes the conditions for a Good life.

That civil peace is necessary for the Good of mankind, and the spread of the Gospel, and the Law is related in some fashion to the natural Law that provides conditions for securing that peace.  Further, that this Law must be known and inculcated in people.

Within Lutheranism, the teaching focus of the Law has been disputed among its various internal traditions.  Some of those traditions make upholding some understanding of the positive ongoing value of the Law a matter of Confession (those that hold to the so-called "Third Use"), while others have denied any manner in which the Law can be viewed and utilized in such a fashion.  This fact, I believe,  has enormous consequences for the sort of theology that has been and is being done in these traditions.  It is hard for me to see how those Lutheran schools that reject a "third use" do not inevitably end in one sort of antinomianism or another.

Why do I begin by discussing the "pedagogical use" or the "third use" of the Law?  Because I think that this usage of the Law is the one that most naturally and organically appears in the Catechism, and, as the preceding has partially shown, the other uses are related to it.  Foremost, it is the one that makes the most sense within the Catechism's own aims and goals.  It is a practical work, concerned to show Christians the "what" and "how to" of the faith, and not primarily the "why".  What do I need to know and do as a married man who is a Christian? Know the Commandments and practice chastity within the married estate, as the Sixth Commandment clearly teaches you!

Surely Luther emphasizes the so-called "second use" of the Law in many of his other works, and its importance cannot be overestimated, but I do not think that this use can so relativize and trivialize the "third use" as it appears in the Catechism.

So, now, finally, I think I am ready to turn to the First Commandment.

The Catechism: Introduction

A few disclaimers and provisos before I begin: This effort is primarily meant to be a personal Lenten discipline, I do not claim any ecclesiatical warrant, blessing, or other official endorsement for the exercise.  I can only claim the authority of a Baptized member of the Body of Christ - and therefore all of the pitfalls and distortions that may follow are solely of my own making.  If I inadvertently teach in a manner that is problematic or erroneous, I ask the pardon of those stronger members of the Body and seek their forbearance.

As this is a personal meditation, I will not be engaged in much criticism of the source material, historical investigations, or in issues regarding translation.  This is primarily due to my innocence of German and Latin, as well as to the additional burden that these concerns would place upon both the reader and author.  Any offerings along these lines will be appreciated, though I hope that there will be merit enough in the effort for the "general" Christian reader.  I will be utilizing the Tappert version as well as Concordia's (Second) Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord; Paul McCain, general editor.  Any direct quotations from these works will be italicized.  The bulk of the work will be my own meditation.   I will begin with the so-called Longer Preface and work through to end at Brief Exhortation to Confession.  This should supply ample material for the forty days of Lent.

I publish this for the sake of personal edification, discussion, witness, and hopefully for the "mutual consolation of the saints" (Third Article of the Creed), and, the likelihood that this latter goal may be reached can only be increased when the saints enter into this process by way of discussion.

I have chosen to base my meditations on the Large Catechism for a number of reasons, some of which are not entirely clear to me and definitely reflect my own initial formative experiences of the text.  I suppose I have always enjoyed Luther's use of rhetoric in this work and his palpable concern for the content he is dealing with as well as for the good of the intended audience; it just shines in through in the Large Catechism, which, to me, has more of a devotional and homiletic cast than does the Small Catechism with its concise and didactic formulas (meant, of course, for memorization and tacit and explicit recall).  The decidedly polemical posture, especially in regard to the papal church, may strike some as unnecessary and even harmful to the cause of Christian unity - but this is a reaction that may come too unreflectively as a prevailing prejudice of our post-denominational and doctrinally indifferent age.  We do well to listen to the harsher sentiments, at least as evidence of the consuming conviction of the author that the issues being contended over mattered!   That these issues had eternal ramifications, and not just abstractly, but for living people.  This was not armchair theology.  It was not a pastime for a comfortable priestly caste; it was Confession!  A declaration of what was the case, of what was the nature of reality itself and what our response to reality as given by the Gospel ought to be.  Luther may lack the theological precision of a scholastic disputant (although he can utilize this mode of articulation if he deems it necessary), but he is nearly unparalleled in his insistence upon the immediacy and involving reality of the matter that he seeks to present to his readers in an equally involving way.

Perhaps this is the main reason I have found for pursuing this discipline, to allow Luther's words to remind me that I had better care that the Christian faith describes things as they are, and that the Church (especially that church that, rightly or wrongly, bears his name) better care too.  Everything depends on the veracity of the claims being made - and equally too - the faith that acknowledges them to be true; a faith that receives the communicated truth of God in Christ and stakes its life and its all upon it.


The Longer Preface

It is not for trivial reasons that we constantly treat the Catechism and strongly urge others to do the same...

a shameful and insidious plague of security and boredom has overtaken us.

I love reading the longer preface because it immediately challenges me and attempts to inculcate a wholesome mood of receptivity and humility.  Don't be too smart for your own good, and don't neglect the rudiments of the faith.  If you don't know these, and you can't ever know them well enough, then you don't really know much about the faith.

The early lines of the Preface reveal that there were pressing problems among the Evangelical churches of Luther's day: laziness and presumption.  I confess that I have found the people who think there is little to be gleaned from reading the old teachers and sages and saints to be rather silly as a matter of course, but here the notion that Luther's concerns are somehow foreign to our age, that they are (to use the strongest modern disparagement possible) irrelevant, seems especially ludicrous.  We modern church people certainly know nothing of laziness and false security, heavens no.  Anyhow,  Luther never tires of chiding the lazy fat good for nothing preachers for this cast of character which he finds to be inimical to genuine Evangelical faith.  They become a sort of stock image, a negative character, a supreme counterexample for pious readers to understand and deliberately avoid imitating.  There are numerous colorful expressions of pique and varied unflattering epithets that make it into the Preface, nearly all of which are reserved for the lazy and overconfident priests and teachers of the church.

This seems to me to follow naturally from Luther's understanding of genuine Evangelical faith.  One could even take the virtues that oppose the aforementioned vices as primary descriptors of that faith; where presumption or false confidence would be opposed by true security and gratitude, and active works of love and thanksgiving oppose laziness and indifference.  If one is proud, unconcerned with and uninvolved in the things of Christian living and being, then there is a good chance that one is on the road to damnation.

Luther makes it clear in the Preface that the lazy, presumptuous Christian who takes his newly found Evangelical freedom as an excuse for whatever license and fancy he pleases, ignoring the Commandments, the Creed, etc., is not worthy of that freedom, nor truly inhabiting it!  So too, the pastor or preacher who either finds these rudiments to be "an easy thing" and fancies himself too learned for such childish matters, or is simply more concerned to pursue his own (natural) inclinations now that he no longer has to "babble the seven hours".  These two varieties of Christian bear the name in an illegitimate fashion, and both need to become like grateful children again and study the Catechism daily.  When they do this they will then truly return to proper comportment in the Gospel and truly inhabit genuine Evangelical freedom, whereby they will receive positive blessings and be able to withstand the daily assaults of the devil.  Without a strong and secure base founded upon the Word of God as it is expounded in the Catechism, one topples over at the slightest pressure.  To daily enter into the Catechism is to consciously recall and dwell in the Christian faith and to be held by the Living God.

If one will not enter into the discipline of learning the Catechism, and, indeed, know its contents, one should not "be reckoned among Christians nor admitted to the Sacrament", according to Luther.

When I think on all of the preceding, I come to two immediate conclusions:  I lapse into a form of false security and presumption that is not in keeping with the aims of the Catechism quite regularly, and, the church as I have known it does not typically hold to the requirements for reckoning one a Christian and admitting people to the Sacrament of the Altar.  What does this reality imply for my own spiritual health?  How can I gain ground in the struggle against spiritual presumption?   What does this imply for the health of the church, or, at the very least, for the identity status of those churches who hold the Catechism to be binding teaching for its communicants?

Further, what is the connection between having knowledge of the faith in terms of its content and assent to its assertions concerning reality and one's status as Communing member of the Body of Christ?  It is hard to read Luther's statements in the Preface and deny that there must be a necessary and close relationship between knowledge of and assent to the content of faith of the Catechism and Communicant status in the church...

These are things to consider as we begin to consider that necessary content, the first division of which is the Ten Commandments (which may come as a shock to some Lutherans).