Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Are Lutherans Protestant?


Years ago, a fellow Lutheran told me, “The Catholics think we’re just like the Baptists; the Baptists think we’re just like the Catholics.” That statement is based on some broad generalizations. So it’s not completely true. But it’s not entirely false either.

My mother-in-law told me that she once asked a Lutheran pastor, “Are Lutherans Protestant?” I assume that she must have attended a service at a Lutheran church. Worship in many Lutheran congregations is very Roman Catholic in its style and feel. In fact, our published Communion liturgies are closely based on the Roman rite. I have several times had Roman Catholic visitors to my church remark to the effect that “You worship just like us!”

I’m sure that the pastor, in his reply to my mother-in-law, was well-intended. Unfortunately, his answer was convoluted and unsatisfying. I’m not, however, sure that I can do any better. The fact is the question “Are Lutherans Protestant?” is not so straightforward as it may appear.

On the one hand, Lutherans are the original Protestants. The word might not have been invented for us, but we are the first Christian group to whom it was applied. Only later were other Christians, who were not affiliated with Rome or the Orthodox (capital O) churches, called “Protestants.” In this general sense of “neither Roman Catholic nor Orthodox,” Lutherans are unequivocally Protestant.

On the other hand, some Lutherans pointedly reject the title “Protestant.” Lutheranism, they say, is not a protest movement. It is a reform movement. Luther and his compatriots sought only to correct some abuses within Roman Catholicism and thereby to restore the Church to a pristine state of theology and practice. To the end of his days, they (correctly) point out, Martin Luther considered himself a good Catholic (or was it “catholic?"). Later, more radical reformers, may deserve the title “Protestant,” but not us.

I have to admit that this point of view is appealing. Unfortunately, the idea that Luther’s reforms did not involve protest strikes me as a romantic fiction. In fact, the early Lutherans protested many Roman Catholic practices (e.g. the sale of indulgences) and doctrines (e.g. papal primacy). It also seems to me that there is an essentially, and perhaps dangerously, conservative impulse behind this thinking. If Luther’s reforms were not protests, but an attempt to repristinate Christianity, and if those reforms were successfully enacted in Lutheranism, then further reform, change, and progress are neither necessary nor desirable. Lutheranism then becomes locked in the 16th century, like a prehistoric insect encased in amber.

Still, I don’t want to move too quickly to embrace the term “Protestant.” The reason is that Lutherans are not “just like the Baptists” or any other Protestant group. (And yes, I know, those other Protestants are not all alike either). In theology and practice Lutherans have not really strayed too far from our Roman Catholic roots. Though not Roman, we remain a part of the Church catholic. We affirm the historic creeds and we abandon tradition only when it stands in the way of the proclamation of the Gospel. An old theology prof of mine described Lutheranism as a movement within the catholic Church.

Some Lutherans like to describe themselves as “evangelical catholics.” That’s really not a bad description. We are evangelical because of our commitment to the gospel (the "evangel") of justification by grace through faith. We are catholic because we are a part of the universal Church. Unfortunately the “evangelical catholic” moniker is applied inconsistently. Sometimes it is used in ways that are polemical, divisive, or just plain silly.

So what shall we say? Lutheranism is a movement within the Church catholic. Lutherans have certain distinctive emphases that set us apart from both the Roman Catholics and other Protestants. The Lutheran distinctives are gifts that we bring to the whole Church. We are catholic but not Roman. We are Protestant but with an asterisk.

What do you think? Whether you are Roman Catholic, Orthodox,
Lutheran, or some other kind of Protestant, I'd like to hear your take on the question "Are Lutherans Protestant?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Too Good Not To Share

Over at Huffington Post, Esther Hamori, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Seminary, has a clear and incisive article titled, Biblical Standards for Marriage. Quote:

While the traditional view is that the Bible sets standards, and cultures either follow these standards or don't, the Bible itself shows us that cultural norms and biblical positions shifted in tandem. This does not mean that anything goes; it's simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. It does not mean that there are no standards; there were always incest taboos, for example, but what counts as incest is culturally dictated, and our society does not embrace many biblical perspectives on this (e.g., the ideal of marrying one's first cousin). It does not mean that God is a pushover; it shows, if anything, a God who will engage people in the world in which they live.

Click here to read it all.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gender Language


Gender language is one of the most contentious issues in biblical translation. "Inclusive language" Bibles are welcomed by some and reviled by others. The Today's New International Version (2005) was scuttled by controversy concerning its inclusive language, while the masculinist English Standard Version (2001) has been warmly adopted by "complimentarian" churches.

Unlike English, biblical Greek and Hebrew are gendered languages. In Hebrew every noun and adjective is either masculine or feminine. Greek has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Grammatical gender does not necessarily correlate to any physical reality. For example, a city is not female, but the Greek word πόλις (polis = "city") is feminine.

The Greek word ἀδελφός (adelphos) means "brother," a male sibling. It's (nominative) plural is αδελφοι (adelphoi). The Greek word ἀδελφή (adelphe) means "sister," a female sibling, and has its own plural, αδελφαι (adelphai). When refering to a mixed group of male and female siblings the masculine plural αδελφοι (adelphoi) is used. How, then, should this word be translated?

Context is a key factor in translating αδελφοι (adelphoi). In some instances it clearly means "male siblings" as at Mark 12:20 ff, where the Sadducees tell Jesus a story about a woman who married seven brothers in succession. In other cases, it is not so clear. The Apostle Paul regularly refers to his fellow believers as αδελφοι (adelphoi). Are his words intended only for male believers? In some cases I think it is clear that Paul is addressing both men and woman. I've heard it suggested that the Christian community at Galatia was exclusively male, and I have a pet, though unproven, theory that the community addressed in 1 John was all male. Does that mean that αδελφοι (adelphoi) should be translated as "brothers" in Galatians and 1 John? Or does the message of these works apply also to female readers?

Don't even start me on the word ἄνθρωπος (anthropos), a masculine noun that refers to a  human being without reference to their physcial sex.

The bottom line is: modern English doesn't work the same way that biblical Hebrew and Greek work. Translation always involves compromise. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of inclusion. I recognize. however,  that this reflects my own theological biases, just as masculinist translations reflect someone else's theological biases. There is a lot of sloganeering and vituperation around issues of gender language. Perhaps it is wise simply to note that the issues exist and that they are by no means simple.

When choosing a Bible, be sure to read the translators' preface carefully. It will probably tell you a lot about the translators' approach to gender language. When reading a translation of the Bible, pay attention to footnotes.

Don't take any wooden nickels.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Really Want To Give This Bible Away!


So, if you have any interest at all in the Common English Bible...even if it's just a passing curiosity...reply to this post. Give me your name and mailing info. I'll forward it to the publisher and they will send you a FREE paperback copy of the CEB. FREE.

I promise that I will not publish or in any way misuse your personal information!

The CEB is a good, readable translation of the Bible. So, come on, sport, whaddaya got to lose?

I mean really what do you have to lose? I mean it's free and all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Good Article at Guardian.UK

There is a good article titled "How Biblical Literalism Took Root" by Stephen Tomkins over at the website. A teaser:

One practical problem of this text mania is that the Bible, unlike the church, can't answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments. So those in search of religious certainty have to find it all in the text: if it says the earth was created in six days, or that gay sex is an abomination, them's the facts, end of story. And if it forbids charging interest, well there's always wriggle room.

 Click here to read the rest.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ecumenical Rep Stuff


Yesterday, after a Mothers Day luncheon with my mom and mother-in-law, I had the privilege to attend a service of "Solemn Vespers in anticipation of the Episcopal Ordination of the Reverend Monsignor David J. Malloy, J.C.L., S.T.D. as the Ninth Bishop of Rockford." I was there as a representative of the Northern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. My Bishop, Gary Wollersheim, was not able to attend.

I was running close on time and had to park three blocks away from the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rockford. I hurried along and entered the cathedral just behind a group of four priests. A woman wearing a name badge greeted us. "Fathers this way," she said.

"I'm Lutheran."

"Oh, this way," she said. Taking me by the wrist she hustled me to the very front of the sanctuary and led me to a pew with a sign taped to its end.


I was seated between 2 aldermen.

The service was conducted with a high degree of professionalism. We sang a hymn and intoned three psalms. There was a brief reading followed by a "Welcome by Rector, Father Carl Beckman, to Ecumenical and Civic Leaders." I stood as my name was called. "We are honored by your presence," the rector said to all of the leaders. I'm not used to being treated as a dignitary.

Next came a homily by retiring bishop Doran. Then Bishop-elect Malloy made his profession of faith and oath of loyalty.Bishop Doran blessed Msgr. Malloy's miter, crosier, and ring, the insignia of his new office.  We sang the Magnificat. as the altar was censed, prayed intercessions and recieved a triune benediction.

The Ecumenical and Civic leaders were ushered into a reception hall where we were given a gift, a handsome glass paperweight which I have given to my own Bishop. The Bishop-elect greeted us individually. As I shook his hand, I gave him greetings from Bishop Wollersheim and assured him that we in the Northern Illinois Synod would pray for him.

Later, as I walked the three blocks back to my car, I found a dollar bill in the street. All-in-all it was a good day.

Something I noticed: when Bishop Doran handed his crosier to anyone else, they did not touch it directly, but held it with a cloth. Can anyone tell me whaddup with that? The photo of Bishop Malloy, at his ordination, came from the website of the Rockford Register Star.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Just Realized

I haven't given a Bible away this week. Want it? The first reply to this post gets a paperback edition of the Common English Bible. Give me your name and mailing address. I WILL NOT PUBLISH YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION! I promise.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Reflection on Pastoral Ministry


My sermon yesterday was based on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. I drew on some of the same ideas that I had also used in this post. The main point of my sermon was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ welcomes the outcast and invites into the kingdom of God those whom we might choose to exclude.

Now ours is a small congregation. We really have only one child member, a bright and inquisitive 10 year old girl. Saturday evening, going over my sermon, I decided that I'd better call her mother.

"I don't usually run my sermon past anyone before I preach it, but I thought you should know that tomorrow I'll be talking about the Ethiopian eunuch. I don't want to raise any awkward questions for you. I don't plan to explain what a eunuch is, but I plan to say, 'One form of genital mutilation was required for a man to enter the temple; another form of genital mutilation would keep him out.' I'll find a way around it if you want me to."

She thought about it before she said, "That should be OK. She's at that age where she's curious about sex. We try to give her honest answers. If she asks, I think we can handle it."

"Okay," I said. "As long as your answer isn't 'Let's go ask the pastor.'"

We both laughed.

No one had signed up to serve as lector yesterday. That didn't worry me. I have members I can call on at the last minute and trust that they will do a good job. I drafted a woman to read before the service started. The assigned lection uses the word eunuch about five times. My last-minute lector was doing a great job, but the third time the word came up, she stopped, looked at me, and asked, "How do you pronounce that?"

Did I mention that ours is a small congregation?

I said, "Yew-NICK. You're doing fine."

She finished the readings. The congregation began singing the Alleluia verse as she stepped down from the dais. I stopped her for a second and quietly asked, "Do you know what a eunuch is?"

"No," she admitted.

So, a few minutes later, I found myself in the pulpit, departing from my notes.

"I wasn't planning to do this, but I think I'd better explain about eunuchs. A eunuch is a man who has been fixed the way a cat or dog is fixed."

There is no deep meaning in this blog post, just an acknowledgement of something that my colleagues in pastoral ministry knows: Sometimes being a pastor is a lot of fun, but even when it's not fun, it is always interesting.

Oh, and a request for any laypeople who happen to read this: please pray for your pastors. They, after all, pray for you.

I snagged Rembrandt's painting of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch  from wiki.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birthday Bible Giveaway

Today is my birthday. In celebration, I'm giving away another paperback copy of the Common English Bible. The first person to reply to this post wins it! Give me your name and mailing information, so I can forward it to the publisher. As always, I promise that I will not publish your private information!

That can't be my cake. There aren't enough candles.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch


To begin, this Sunday's first reading:
An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. The Spirit told Philip, “ Approach this carriage and stay with it. ”

Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “ Do you really understand what you are reading? ”

The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. As they went down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea. (Acts 8:26-40)

I’m really not clear on just what the Ethiopian eunuch was doing in Jerusalem. The text says that “he had come to worship” but, as I understand it, he would have been barred from any meaningful participation in Jewish worship. As an Ethiopian he was probably not Jewish. He may have been a God-fearing gentile, but as a eunuch he would not be allowed to become a proselyte, a full convert. And as a eunuch he would not have been allowed to participate in the ritual of the Jerusalem temple.

It’s a curious thing: one form of genital mutilation was required to get into the assembly (Genesis 17:14). Another form of genital mutilation would keep a man out (Deuteronomy 23:1). I guess God’s people have always had an unseemly fascination with genitalia.

At any rate, Philip told the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch, and when they came upon water in the wilderness (resonant as that phrase is with imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures), the eunuch asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer, apparently, was “Nothing.”

That answer was not good enough for some early Christians. By the second century, a verse had been added to this narrative:

Philip said to him, “If you believe with all your heart, you can be.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son.” (Acts 8:37, rightly relegated to a footnote in modern Bibles).

I think I can understand the impulse behind this added verse. We can’t go around baptizing people willy-nilly, can we? But in some ways this is a troubling addition. It undermines one important point of the story. The Ethiopian eunuch was an outsider. Rules and regulations had kept him from participating in worship of the Lord, the God of Israel. In Jesus Christ, God was now reaching out beyond the borders of Israel to include even an Ethiopian eunuch among the people of God. The most marginalized, the most excluded, were now being brought into the fold, and nothing...NOTHING...could prevent them from being baptized.

Someone has said that whenever we draw a line to exclude people, Jesus stands on the other side of the line. Jesus stood on the side of the Ethiopian eunuch. Who does Jesus stand with today?

To state that question another way, whom would you exclude from your fellowship? Whom would you marginalize?

Some Christians exclude women from roles of leadership in their churches. In those churches, Jesus stands with the women. Some churches marginalize lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. (An unseemly fascination with genitalia persists among God's people to this day). In those churches Jesus stands on the LGBTQ side of the line. I am convinced of this.

But here is where it gets tricky for me. Although I am convinced that it is wrong to exclude or marginalize women and LGBTQ individuals, I find that I want to exclude and marginalize the Christians who disagree with me on these issues.


Does this mean that Jesus stands on their side of the line that I have drawn? I’m afraid so. And though I don’t think that Jesus agrees with them, nevertheless, he stands with them, loving them as his sisters and brothers, inviting me to cross the line that I have drawn, to embrace the brothers and sisters with whom I disagree.

Lord, increase my faith! (Luke 17:5)

If you are the kind of person who checks out parenthetical Bible references...(Isaiah 56:1-8). Scripture quotes are from the Common English Bible. I snagged the image of Lambert Sustris' 16th century painting of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch at wiki.