Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maundy Thursday


For the great three days of Holy Week, I want to leave aside my usual theme to share three great works of art which depict the final events of Jesus' life. For Maundy Thursday, I offer Salvador Dali's painting of the Last Supper. I have seen this painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The canvas is huge and its effect stunning.

I am not enamored of Dali's beardless, blonde, blue-eyed Christ, though I recognize that it has a precedent in very early Christian art. In this painting Dali's Christ is clearly not intended to be the Jesus of history. It is an idealized and spiritualized semi-corporeal figure. Christ's gesture says, "This is my body" pointing to himself with his left hand, and with his right, to the equally insubstantial heavenly body overhead. On the table in front of him is a broken loaf of bread rendered as a solid and weighty object. Here, then, the heavenly Christ is bodily present.

In the perfectly symmetrical composition of the disciples kneeling at the table, the viewer's attention is drawn to the cup of wine which is placed slightly off-center. Dali was an extraordinary draftsman. He has rendered this cup, and the play of the sunlight (shining through the Christ figure) with precise realism. This glass of wine is the earthly presence of Christ's blood.

The golden geometric framework is, I believe, a dodecahedron, a form that Dali admired for its alleged perfection. I take it to be the canopy of heaven. The landscape in the background is Port Lligat, Dali's hometown. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, heaven comes to us on earth. In the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ are present and made real to us.

Blessed Maundy Thursday!

I found the image of Dali's painting here. Clicking the image will enlarge it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Read This

Over at Susan Hogan has published the Columbia Declaration, a statement by some of the faculty of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary supporting the ELCA decisions regarding same-sex partnered clergy .

Click here to read it for yourself.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

False Dichotomy


On March 26, 2010, the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune ran a story under the headline "Speaker addresses possible shift for Faith Lutheran." It tells of yet another congregation deserting the ELCA and joining the LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ). I cannot imagine that even in Great Falls, Montana a local congregation changing the church body with which it affiliates is considered very newsworthy. This, and the fact that the story includes a link to the LCMC website, but not the ELCA website, makes me think that Tribune was called in by the LCMC as part of a publicity strategy. I could be wrong, of course.

The most interesting part of the article to me was a statement by Wayne Arnst, "a member of and spokesperson for Faith Lutheran Church."

Arnst said that over time, ELCA has moved from a "Gospel of Redemption" as a longstanding Lutheran tradition, to a "Gospel of Inclusion."

Like the words "New and Improved" on a cereal box, this distinction between redemption and inclusion sounds meaningful, but is it? Surely redemption and inclusion are not mutually exclusive categories.

As I read the Scriptures, Jesus was very much about inclusion. He persistently associated with the marginalized, outcast and unclean. He shared table fellowship with "tax-collectors and sinners." He was found in company with Samaritans. Under the Apostle Paul, the religion of Jesus began even to include Gentiles.

I am not entirely clear as to what Arnst might mean by the "Gospel of Redemption." I understand redemption to be God's radical reordering of fallen creation into the Kingdom of God, a kingdom marked by peace, justice and love.

I suspect that Arnst's vision of redemption is somewhat different than mine. I suspect, though I cannot say with certainty, that Arnst's vision of redemption involves a kind of moral purity that excludes homosexual love. I suspect that Arnst's idea of redemption includes either conversion of homosexuals into heterosexuals, or a requirement of celibacy for homosexuals. If it is the former, then the best empirical evidence tells us that conversion does not happen. If the latter, then it is tied up in a subtle form of works righteousness. Either way this kind of redemption can hardly be called "Gospel." It is Law.

For further reading, Justin Johnson (DarthJedi) has written a good piece about whether Jesus required repentance when he forgave sins. Read it here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010



The ELCA has departed from the "catholic consensus" of the Church concerning the morality of gay sex. While I believe that tradition should not be abandoned lightly, I also believe that tradition for its own sake is of no value.

A sardonic old joke says that the Seven Last Words of the Church are, "We've never done it that way before."

The "catholic consensus" concerning homosexuality and marriage is based in old notions that are now demonstrably false. Notions such as "homosexuality is a willful perversion" and "the purpose of sex is procreation." When tradition is no longer useful, when it is found to be based in false premises, when it is even found to be hurtful, it should be abandoned.

Old dogs do not learn new tricks easily. Departing from tradition is difficult. The ELCA has done the right thing in adopting its social statement on human sexuality and accordingly revising its requirements for ministry. By making the compromise of allowing "local option" the ELCA has tried to bring everyone along. Of course, that is not possible, and now the ELCA is paying the price for doing right.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague in which we entertained the hypothetical question "What would it take for you to leave the ELCA?" After I got the obligatory joke out of the way ("I'll leave the ELCA when they pry my Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal from my cold dead fingers!") I gave the question some serious consideration.

I would consider the ELCA to be heterodox if it abandoned the true catholic consensus as stated in the creeds of the Church. I would leave the ELCA if it strayed from the Lutheran consensus on the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith, apart from works of the Law. Justification, not an outdated view of homosexuality, is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.

The picture attached to this post is of Maurice Schwartz, the first actor to play Tevye the Dairyman in a movie. The film, which Schwartz also directed, was the 1939 Yiddish language production titled, simply, Tevye. Now that's tradition! I found the photograph here.

The plural of "consensus" is "consensuses." Really.

Monday, March 22, 2010



The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has departed from the "catholic consensus" on the morality of homosexuality. This is a criticism leveled against the ELCA by those who disagree with its decisions to recognize "publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous" same-sex relationships, and to permit the ordination of pastors living in such relationships. The criticism is right. The ELCA has, in fact, departed from the church's millenia-long tradition of condemning homosexuality.

Tradition is important. In the Church, tradition keeps us grounded, keeps us in line with the historic faith, and assures that we remain a part of the "holy, catholic Church" which we confess in the Creed.

Perhaps you know the story about the young bride who cut the end off of a beef roast before she put it in the oven. Her husband asked her "Why do you do that?" She answered, "I don't know. My mother always did it. Let's ask her."

So they called the mother. "Mom, why do you cut the end off of a beef roast before you put it in the oven?" She answered, "I don't know. That's the way my mother always prepared a roast. Let's ask her."

So they called the grandmother. "Why do you cut the end off of a roast beef before you put it in the oven?" "Don't you know?" the grandmother replied. "My roasting pan is too small. That's the only way to make it fit."

Tradition is important, but a slavish and unexamined devotion to tradition is silly.

Lutherans have departed from the "catholic consensus" on a number of issues in the past. If we had not, we would still have seven Sacraments instead of two. We would have only male clergy, and arguably they would be celibate. We would recognize the power, and perhaps the primacy of the Pope. We would believe that the sun revolves around the earth. All of these things have been a part of the "catholic consensus." So, while tradition is important, it can, and sometimes should, be changed.

The ELCA did not depart from the "catholic consensus" on homosexuality willy-nilly. The 2009 ChurchWide Assembly decisions were made only after a long period of study, discussion, prayer, reflection and debate. The ELCA has found that our roasting pan is longer than our grandparents'. We no longer need to cut the end off of the roast.

The picture for this post is Topol in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof. It was a wonderful film and Topol gave a sound performance. Traditionalists, however, might prefer Zero Mostel's portrayal of Tevye. I found the picture here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Worth Reading

Mark Christianson has a good post on the way in which the critics of the ELCA use the Law. It requires a little theological acumen, but is well worth reading. Check it out here.

I love his expression "law reductionism."



The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at its 2009 Churchwide Assembly, voted to recognize "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous" same-sex relationships. The ELCA also voted to allow persons living in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous" same-sex relationships to serve as ordained clergy. These decisions have been controversial to say the least.

That "publicly accountable, etc." thing is a cumbersome phrase. Please allow me to use the less precise but more concise term "gay marriage." I know it is not the correct term. I use it only for the sake of simplicity.

Many arguments have been marshaled against gay marriage and the ordination of same-sex partnered clergy. Among them, the argument from tradition is the most significant and hardest to refute. Before I turn to the argument from tradition, here is a quick review of some of the other arguments.

Arguments from Scripture are strong. Five passages in the Bible apparently condemn gay sex. However, when those passages are read in their historical and canonical contexts, it becomes clear that they do not address homosexuality as we now understand it. They do not speak of gay sex within a covenanted and faithful relationship. They do not add up to a universal condemnation of all homosexual acts. There are also biblical arguments about the nature of marriage. The force of these arguments is blunted when we realize that there is no single biblical definition of marriage.

There are moral arguments against gay marriage. These boil down to "gay sex is morally wrong." Moral arguments are answered with ethical arguments: "Gay sex can be practiced ethically in the context of a committed and loving relationship."

There is also the argument from nature. It goes "boy parts are supposed to go with girl parts." This argument is refuted by research which indicates that sexual nature is defined more by hormones and psychology than by anatomy. Homosexuality occurs naturally.

And now we come to the argument from tradition. One of my old seminary profs, Dr. Robert Benne, provides a good example of the argument here. Stated in brief the argument from tradition says that the ELCA, in approving gay marriage and same-sex partnered clergy, has departed from the "catholic consensus" of the church on the morality of gay sex. As I said, this argument is difficult to refute.

That's because it is true. The ELCA has done something new.

The Church, in its nearly two millennia of existence, has no history of approving of gay marriage or same-sex partnered clergy. As I typed that last sentence, I could almost hear the voice of one of my colleagues saying "So what?" Maybe you, my reader, feel the same way. Personally, I think that we should be circumspect about departing from the "catholic consensus" of the Church.

More in my next post.

Illustrating this post is the late Zero Mostel as Tevye the Milkman in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. I found the picture here.

Friday, March 12, 2010


There has been a lot going on in the Northeastern Iowa Synod lately. Most recently a conference of the Synod has passed a resolution which, if accepted by the Synod Assembly, would bar those holding membership in Lutheran CORE from Synod office. Lutherans Concerned/North America has issued a statement opposing the resolution.

Read about it at Pretty Good Lutherans. The links following the story provide valuable background information. Obie Holmen's post on the story includes a poll that you can vote in.

My editorial comment: Well done, LC/NA. You have shown true commitment to your principles.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Would You Lie for God?

The late Morris J. Niedenthal, professor of homiletics (preaching) at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, used to ask his students, "Would you lie for God?" The question is paraphrased from the Book of Job, but I can never find the exact reference. It is a question to haunt a preacher or anyone who would dare to speak on God's behalf.

The question "Would you lie for God?" is open-ended. It can be understood in many different ways. I think Dr. Niedenthal intended it to be so. Let me explain how I understand what it means to lie for God.

I think that we lie for God when we misrepresent what the Bible says. For example, I would be lying for God if I were to say that the Bible does not condemn homosexual behavior. The five biblical passages that speak of homosexual behavior are all negative. This is a fact that every exegete concerned with homosexuality must deal with.

We also lie for God when we misapply the Scriptures. I would be lying for God if I said that those five biblical passages add up to a universal condemnation of homosexuality or gay sex. As I have written in earlier posts, the Old Testament condemns homosexual sex for the men of Israel. The New Testament texts probably condemn pagan temple orgies and pederasty. None of those five passages condemns homosexuality as we now understand it.

Yet another way to lie for God is to deny plain fact in defense of the Bible. I am not churlish enough to suggest that every Young Earth Creationist is a deliberate liar. In fact, I believe most Young Earth Creationists to be quite sincere. They are also mistaken. The physcial evidence indicates that the world is much older than the 6000 years that the biblical texts suggest. So while I do not believe that Young Earth Creationists are lying, I know that I would be lying for God if I were to endorse a literal understanding of the Bible's creation accounts.

By the same token, I would be lying for God if I were to deny what research, science and experience tell us about homosexuality. Homosexuality is a normally occuring subset of human sexuality. The Bible's condemnations of gay sex do not apply in light of our current knowledge.

There are people of good faith who disagree with my stance on homosexuality. I do not believe that they are deliberate liars, but neither will I lie for God by misrepresenting or misapplying Scripture. I will not lie for God by denying plain fact. I do not believe that the God of truth would want me to lie for God.

How about you?

On the news front, the ELCA Conference of Bishops have proposed a process for the seventeen pastors who were ordained by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries to be rostered in the ELCA. ELM has agreed! Read about it here.

The picture accompanying this post is one of William Blake's illustrations for the Book of Job. I found it here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Office of the Keys


Do other Christians have a doctrine of the Office of the Keys or is it just a Lutheran thing?

Luther's explanation of the doctrine appears in some editions of his Small Catechism. The 1979 edition published by Augsburg and Fortress (they were separate concerns back then) translated it this way:

What is the "Office of the Keys"?

It is that authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven.

Luther cited John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18 as supporting texts for the Office of the Keys. In Luther's day, this doctrine had a polemical function. It denied that the Pope alone held the keys to the kingdom.

As I understand it, the authority to forgive or retain sins belongs to the Church, but is entrusted by the Church to its pastors. The Office of the Keys is exercised in the declaration of forgiveness in private and corporate acts of Confession.

In my last post I began to address some of the concerns raised by Dr. James Arne Nestingen's article in the latest issue of the WordAlone Network News. Elsewhere in that article, Dr. Nestingen claims that the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly decisions undermine the Office of the Keys. Nestingen writes:

Married people can and do sin against one another sexually, even while remaining in the bonds of fidelity. For this reason, in the pastoral care of those caught in marital difficulties, pastors must be free to use the power of the keys to bind and loose—to challenge inappropriate behaviors and forgive the penitent.

In other words, the Office of the Keys may be exercised in a case where a pastor is counseling a married couple when one spouse has hurt another. If the offender is penitent, they are to be forgiven. If they are not penitent, their sins can be retained. Nestingen continues:

The churchwide assembly action and the policies following, protecting the class of behaviors, does not make any similar realistic assessment. Instead, by prohibiting judgment, it places homosexual behavior beyond assessment, undercutting the office of the keys. Where there is no sin, there is no need for forgiveness; similarly, where there is no sin, there is no need for repentance.

Nestingen's assertion here seems to flow out of his assumption that non-procreative sex acts are intrinsically sinful. He would like to apply the Office of the Keys moralistically by wagging a finger at anyone who engages in gay sex. I have already argued that gay sex is no more intrinsically sinful than straight sex.

The ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding sexuality do not undermine the Office of the Keys. They have not placed "homosexual behavior beyond assessment." They simply require a more discerning assessment than the naive formula "boy/girl = good. Boy/boy or girl/girl = bad." Pastors are free to bind and loose the sins by which same-sex partners damage their relationships to one another or to God, just as they are in cases involving heterosexual couples.

Christianity, especially in its Lutheran expression, is not a religion of Law. The Office of the Keys is not about a moralistic application of "shalts" and "shalt nots" concerning sexual acts. It is about the care of souls in their relationship to God and one another.

Obie Holmen has a good post about Nestingen's article at Concerning the Scriptural basis for the Office of the Keys, I like the way Eugene Peterson deals with John 20:23 in his paraphrastic Bible translation The Message: "If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?"

The detail from Perugino's painting of Christ handing the keys of the kingdom to Peter came from this website.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Ethics of Sex and Sabotage


The latest issue of the WordAlone Network News showed up in my mailbox this week. Its centerpiece was a lengthy article titled "The Necessity of Resistance in 2009" by James Arne Nestingen, professor emeritus of church history, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

Dr. Nestingen's arguments are a bit convoluted, but he seems to be counseling his readers to perform a sort of economic sabotage against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Objecting to the Churchwide Assembly (CWA) decisions allowing for the ordination of same-sex partnered clergy, he suggests that withholding benevolence in ways that target "people, programs and ... specific missions" is an appropriate strategy.

In a pull quote from the article Nestingen says, "In fact, the passive-aggressives--those who withhold themselves, backing off from participation--are generally, as pastors commonly know, the most dangerous." Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder was once a diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM) used by mental health professionals. Like homosexuality, it has been dropped in recent editions. Still, I question whether passive-aggression and deliberate sabotage are ever appropriate ways for Christians to express disagreement.

Predictably, Nestingen refers to the first chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans:

In Romans 1 Paul moves beyond the sexual hunting to address the grounding offense evident in homosexual behavior. The sexual relationship that embodies the love of husband and wife, and that God generally blesses with children, is taken out of that context and made an end in itself for purposes of self-gratification.

This self-seeking, which can take over hetero- just as well as it does homosexual relationships, involves a covetousness that turns into idolatry.

I have addressed Romans 1 in previous posts here, here and here. It seems to me that Dr. Nestingen has reversed the flow of Paul's argument. Paul states quite clearly that idolatry causes homosexuality. Here, Nestingen argues that homosexuality causes idolatry.

He also suggests that procreation is the sole purpose of sexual relations. This is a disservice to heterosexual couples living in childless marriages. Yes, procreation is one function of sex, but sex is also an expression of loving intimacy.

Dr. Nestingen also does a disservice to homosexuals whom he characterizes as "self-seeking." Ethical gay sex, like ethical straight sex, gives consideration to the other partner.

Perhaps Dr. Nestingen does not realize that homosexuality, in the end, is about whom one loves and desires intimacy with. It is not all about sex acts.

There are other flaws in Nestingen's arguments. In my next post, I will take up his discussion of the Office of the Keys.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Universalist Heresy


One of the criticisms being leveled against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by the disaffected and dissidents who are storming the exits is that it has embraced the heresy of universal salvation. “Evidence” for the charge typically cites two sources, a page on the ELCA website dealing with salvation and a footnote on Matthew 28:16-20 in Lutheran Study Bible published by Augsburg Fortress.

An example of the charge can be found here. (Warning: Click that link at your own risk. Viewing the site requires a high tolerance for tiresome alarmism and shoddy theology).

The ELCA web page quotes extensively from Dr. Carl Braaten, who has written very critically of the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly decisions on homosexuality. As I understand Dr. Braaten’s statement, it is a declaration of the universal scope of Christ’s saving act, not an endorsement of a doctrine of universalism. That's a fine distinction. Let me see if I can make it clearer:

You who charge the ELCA with universalism, tell me, did Jesus die for all people or not?

As for the Lutheran Study Bible footnote, it was written by Dr. Duane Priebe of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Dr. Priebe himself gave a lengthy explanation of that footnote on Erik Ullestad’s blog. It is thoughtful and well-worth reading. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Christians have never assumed that only those who know and believe in Jesus in this life will participate in salvation in the next. On the most obvious level, that would exclude everyone in the Old Testament.

For myself, I have a strong commitment to the theology of God’s grace. I believe that Jesus died for all people. All means all, but there is one thing that keeps me from being a universalist. I believe just as strongly in God's sovereignty. I believe that salvation is God’s business, not mine. God can, and will, save whom God desires. I am no more a universalist than the man who wrote:

God forbid that I should limit the time for acquiring faith to the present life. In the depths of the divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future state.
Martin Luther, Letter to Hansen von Rechenberg, 1523

I understand that the rhetorical flourish of charging the ELCA with heresy is useful to those who wish to leave the church and take others with them. The charge of universalism, however, is plainly false. It’s time for the disaffected and dissident to adopt a new tactic. Spouting nonsense will not help your cause.

I'm still a big fan of the Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible. I still don't like Concordia's similarly named The Lutheran Study Bible. Don't be confused by the two. Look for the baby blue Bible.