Friday, January 24, 2003

Article 4: On Justification

Likewise, they teach that human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ (Latin: propter Christum) through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. God reckons this faith as righteousness (Rom. 3 and 4)

Here it is. This article has been lauded as the one on which the church stands or falls. Such a claim of course raises eyebrows and ignites serious arguments. Is this the way in which evangelicals part ways from other views of soteriology? Is this the great and wide gulf that forever will define Protestantism as different from and opposed to Catholicism? Is this the limit, fons and radix of all Christian doctrine? Does the Augsburg Confession even attempt to make that sort of claim? Or is such a position fiction invented by 19th century Protestants? Is it a sort of mass hysteria on the part of Lutherans, that they all have the same feelings of inferiority or helplessness? Should they just get real?

Today, there is a grand call that theology should not find a center in any particular doctrine. This comes from both ecumenical corners (saying that there are mulitple centers or norms) and from contemporary academic theology that finds the doctrine of justification antiquated or even oppressive. How can we justly say to those who have not that they are to be treated as nothing before God, that nothing of theirs counts? Does not the righteousness by which God makes us righteous involve endorsement of crucifixion and child abuse?

But here it is. Justification by faith alone. Today it raises more questions then answers. There is consensus, says the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that the condemnations of this article no longer apply to Catholics and vice versa. There will never be a grand old day of the doctrine so long as it remains isolated from preaching, so long as it is not seen in its seriousness as the task of proclamation rather than an invitiation to speculate or describe the steps or order of salvation. The righteousness of God that is given to us in faith is Christ's alone. Perhaps before thinking about justification as a doctrine today, we need again most of all to simply here that Christ is our righteousness, that he is our hope and salvation, that he is the one who comes to us and gives and shares with us the sort of life he has: that life that is lived out of Holy Saturday and Good Friday, that life lived out of death and forgiven out of sin. Then we could begin to step back and start to think and confront the myriad of questions before the doctrine of justification.

The law of prayer is said to be the law of faith. Here in Article 4 we have something like the law of proclamation is the law of doctrine.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Son of God, Eternal Savior

Churches that engage in ecumenical conversation have assumed throughout the many decades thus far that they rest on two common pieces of ancient dogma: the dogma of the Trinity and of Christ. These were settled, so understood, in 325 (Nicea) and in 425 (Chalcedon). But, as Clint writes, little has actually been settled.

Little has been settled so witness the churches' continuing difficulty in confessing Christ in the face of the concerns of modernity and now emerging post-modernity, whatever that may be. How can we answer the questions that historical investigation raises? How can labor be invested to consider not only the shared assumptions of the churches but the shared flaws? This article speaks not only about the Jesus who suffered and died but also the Eternal Son, a birth from a virgin, a person who is of two natures. It is hard not to see on the face of this article a number of myths, lsegends, and speculation run wild. These questions are those things labor requires in today's church, not so much to make intelligible this article or massage out the bad and find the concept at the root of it that we can hook up with our view of the world.

In the immediate confrontation between the evangelical parties and the Roman Catholic members of the Confutation, in the meeting between Melanchthon and others at Regensburg, in the close conversation between Thomas Cardinal Cajetan and Martin Luther, are there shared flaws? To claim that this Jesus Christ is of the same being as the eternal Father is a challenge to both parties. The concern for the evangel, the speaking of the gospel, has the potential for exploding both Melanchthon's statement here in Article III as well as much as it challenges other forms of salvation. That we are saved by another human's speaking and faith in that finds its origin in God's own speaking to us, the very Word of God, Jesus. That God speaks means that what we mean by the "two natures, divine and the human" must be considered in terms of that speaking, if we retain even the so-called "Chalcedonian settlement."

What we have inherited or what we think we know about divinity or humanity or what a nature is must be formed rather by this strange fact that human speaking, human communication is the way in which God's justice makes it advent in our lives. That this human one, Jesus of Nazareth, confronted us with the coming reign of his Father, and all that then happened, gives us pause to reconsider a new fidelity to both this article and to the ancient dogmas. Our task is to continue their work and to take seriously their authority as we throw ourselves into the job of confessing. This is why Karl Rahner entitled his analysis of Chalcedon as "Chalcedon: End or Beginning." He did so because though dogmas have authority, they do so only as they are received, developed, and given their "Amen" by the body of Chirst. Teachers, preachers, catechists, and all the baptized need to search through these important dogmas for the task of their confessing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Concerning the Son of God

Likewise, it is taught ath God the Son became a human being, born of the pure Virgin Mary, and that the two natures, the divine and the human, are so inseparably united in one person that there is one Christ. He is true God and true human being who truly 'was born, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried' in order both to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but also for all other sins and to conciliate God's wrath. Moreover, the same Christ 'descended into hell, truly rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, is sitting at the right hand of God' in order to rule and reign forever over all creatures, so that through the Holy Spirit he may make holy, purify, strengthen, and comfort all who blieve in him, also distribute to them life and various gifts and benefits, and shield and protect them against the devil and sin. Finally, the same
Lord Jesus Christ 'will come' in full view of all 'to judge the living and the dead...,' accordin to the Apostle's Creed. Rejected are all heresies that are opposed to this article."

So that's what the AC says. And we needn't defend it, since the opponents of the AC in the Council of Trent don't oppose this article. They say, "In the third article there is nothing to offend, since the entire Confession agress with the Apostle's Creed and the right rule of faith."

Which is great, until we realize that there is a null curriculum here, and a not so subtle one at that. Very simply, it means that although we agree on the doctrine of Christ, we don't. Very simply, we don't. We teach that there is no contradiction, and yet, all the other doctrines of the AC provide contradiction, they indicate a disparity, so it seems incredibly disingenuous to say there is no difference. It's as if the church were saying, "There is one Christ, and that we know, but everything that proceeds from this premise is faulty." Yet this contradicts the knowledge of Paul, who realizes there are multiple Christs (and yet only one Christ) because the proclamation includes all those things that are and relate to this Christ.

Probably there isn't much more to say. Just look in context, and you learn that unity in teaching of the doctrine of Christ per se does not guarantee unity of teaching in the church, and this because unity in one article does not mean "united in Christ". Christ will guarantee our unity indeed, but not because of this artiicle per se. Which is to say, Christ is a person with effects and a history, not just a category among others.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Anti-Moral Solidarity in Sin

Clint issues a great challenge.

Sin has everything to do with morality and doing "bad things" but neither exhaust sin to the least. Modern theology has had great difficulties swallowing the idea that sin is passed on from generation to generation, inherited. Modern persons, especially North Americans, have little with something that seems so patently false as being punishable for crimes commited by someone else. None of us conspired with Adam, right? How to bring sin to the radar screen?

God-talk and grace-talk is enervated by the idea that things aren't so bad or that God is nice--how could God condemn in eternity eating apples? God's too nice, right? One way through that armor is not the nice/grace/goodness is the angle of solidarity.

"All have been consigned to disobedience." We talk much of solidarity with each other in the gospel in the lines of Galatians 3. How about solidarity a la Romans 11? That kind of solidarity could be one way to wake up to the importance of God in Christ. Not that we're all going to burn but the fact that we are given this life by others, we are equal to all sorts of baddies, mediocre folk, charlatans, and heros. Sin has an anti-moral effect. We can not so easily think ourselves better because we're guilty just the same.

Look, look at the great things that Adam had done for us! Paved the way for us to be like God! And, praise be to Pontius Pilatus, under whose command the Son of God was murdered. These things were done for us and on our behalf by Adam and Pilate. The anti-moral effect of sin's solidarity can clear the space for us being equal to the greatest baddies in the world. Sin means that I am no different before God than Hitler and he and I are no different than any hero.
A case in point. Confirmation students come to our church to learn what it is Christians believe. They are preparing for an affirmation of their own baptisms. When they arrive, pastors and small group leaders all wax eloquent about the love and grace of God, how wonderful it is to be forgiven, how blessed we are to be saved not by our own works but by Christ's work, and so forth. To this the confirmands yawn and regard the leaders quizzically. Who cares? Why does this matter to me? These become the questions. They are largely in a state of unbelief and disinterest. As is the rest of the world the majority of the time, to be fair. The message is somewhat boring and vacuous not because it is intrinsically so, but because existentially the forgiveness of sins announced as part of the teaching of confirmation carries no dialectical weight. What sins? I'm not so bad, really. At least that's what everybody keeps telling me. And even if I am bad, it's only in a temporal, worldly way, right? Like I might need to be grounded or do detention or lose some priveliges, for a short while. God wouldn't regard my various indiscretions as worthy of eternal condemnation, would He? Worse yet, how can God hold me accountable for a lack of belief, regard me as a sinner because of my unbelief when God gives faith in the first place? I can't believe that!

So, jettison the whole project, stop thinking about such inanities, and get on with living. Buy things, study, goof around, watch TV, play video games, buy more things, sleep and eat and shit, bathe yourself sometimes, but do anything to not get yourself into the mess of realizing the mirror truth of this, that God announces the forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ. What's the mirror show, when held up? That you really are a sinner, through and through, sinful to the very core, and you don't and won't believe it. You refuse to believe it, you steal away the glory ascribable to Christ; worse yet, you smash the very mirror held up in front of your eyes announcing your sin, you crucify Him rather than listen to Him.

But we can't present such thoughts to young people, can we? Are we really supposed to preach law & gospel to teenagers? To anybody? Why not talk about God and how great God is and try to cover up the fact that, apart from Christ, God sees us as sinners indeed. Oh no, but we're lost, because the church is supposed to be nice, and confirmation is supposed to be fun, and crisis of any sort, reality of any sort, is supposed to be gilded and softened, like the food that mother birds feed to their infants. Regurgitated truth.

Friday, January 03, 2003

Concerning Original Sin:

In Melanchthon's consideration of sin, from which he later turned away, is the definition that sin is fundamentally unbelief. And this unbelief not only is not the lack of faith of the individual, but it is the defining character of the common life of humanity. It is very dangerous to start to describe sin or the fruit of sin in terms of how it appears, in terms of its phenonema. Such attempts, however painstaking, run the risk of allowing us to define sin, and to continue the dominance of one group, class, nation, or race over the others. Sin may lurk behind all sorts of injustices but this article argues that sin is unbelief at its core. Just as God's righteousness is formed by Christ's cross, so is the unrighteousness rejected by that cross.

The sin-community into which we are born then is not a state where one attribute or part of the human being or humanity has failed or that there is a spiritual capacity that is weakened, light eyesight dimmed. Unbelief in the Confession's eyes is not a broken heart that needs to be fixed up or a longing that needs to be redirected. This is very strongly stressed in the Confession. The "Pelagians and others" are those late medieval Franciscans whose phrase "do what is in you" and "God does not require of any person more than that person can do" are singers who have not lost a voice in the choir of the world today. Sin is not a failing on our parts that we can remedy through our own attempts. As we will see in the article on Free Will in the Confession, there is no help for us in us.

As the later articles on Justification and The Office of Ministry state, "to obtain such a faith [i.e., justifying faith] God has ordained the office of preaching." Preachers have an important job here, not because they are the one's who get to point the finger at other people's dirty laundry or rile up the troops, but because they are the ones who are charged with the task of announcing the forgiveness of sin.

I am aware that my assignment is only to comment on Article II, but it is hard to do so when the article on sin already points to the forgiveness of that sin.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

A note on method: Entries on the Lutheran confessional documents are interpretive pieces, sometimes informed by historical or other theological works, but more likely simple reflections. We will begin by working through the Augsburg Confession and Melanchthon's Apology. Quotes are from the Kolb/Wengert translation of the German text. It is sometimes important to compare the Latin and German texts.

"II. Concerning Original Sin

Furthermore, it is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this same innate disease and original sin (Erbsunde) is truly sin and condems to God's eternal wrath all who are not in turn born anew through baptism and the Holy Spirit. Rejected, then,, are the Pelagians and others who do not regard original sin as sin in order to make human nature righteous through natural powers, thus insulting the suffering and merit of Christ."

The second Lutheran confession in the AC regards original sin. The first article is actually on God. Thus article I argues who God is, and article II argues who we are. We are born in sin. Note that this statement is made in and of itself, it is an article of faith, but what interests even more is the final argument, that by not confessing original sin, or through the belief that human nature can be righteous through it's own power, the greatest offense is this- "insulting the suffering and merit of Christ." That is to say, Christ suffered and died for sinners. If we are righteous by our own powers, Christ died in vain. An important dialectic to keep in mind as a matter of faith and preaching. We proclaim and confess ourselves as sinners not because it is great that we are so, but because Christ died specifically for sinners, and we should give thanks for this and hold to this belief tightly specifically because it is our Savior who died for our sins. As Melanchthon comments, "We cannot know the magnitude of Christ's grace unless we first recognize our malady." Or later, "the benefits of Christ cannot be recognized unless we understand our evil" (120). When you hear preaching that emphasizes the importance of grace, how wonderful it is, how beautiful, but that preaching doesn't at the same time remind and convict of sin, then half of the preaching has not been done, and in fact, there has been no preaching at all, for what can grace mean for us unless it is saving us from something, healing us of something, and how can we rejoice in how great Christ's grace is if we don't know what dire straits we were in prior to that grace?

It is essential that we hold onto this doctrine, and teach and preach it. If we do not, if we fail to preach the condemnation of sin and our life as sinners, we will not and cannot know the benefits of Christ, nor will we rejoice in the magnitude of these benefits. Flowery words about God's grace and blessings will be very simply, hot air.

Melanchthon provides an enlightening list of those things that are clearly sin. "Doubting the wrath of God, the grace of God, and the Word of God; being angry with the judgment of God; being indignant that God does not rescue us immediately from afflictions; grumbling that the ungodly experience more good fortune than the upright" (118). These are parts of original sin, and they are so original that most of the time I forget that these are some of the deepest of sins, because they are violations of the first commandment.

Are we hearing and teaching this doctrine in our church?