Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Considering Women's Ordination and the ELCA




Across mainline church bodies the advent of woman Pastors has well begun. The idea that the Pastoral office is given for men only is already commonly understood as an old fashioned antiquated idea of times past; back when folks were less enlightened, progressive, and learned. Resistance to women Pastors will continue to decrease into the future and toleration for dissent will eventually be stamped out completely.


There are some key realities about the ordination of women that we must consider. The Scriptures clearly teach that our Lord’s command prohibits the ordination of women. We are conscience bound to uphold this command and this great gift of Christ’s Holy Office. It is well understood that the Lutheran Church Missouri synod steadfastly opposes the ordination of women. It has nothing to do about the capability of women, their gifts and talents. It had only to do with what God has given, in his creation, in his incarnation, and in his mandate and institution to the apostles of the church.


In our Christian faith we cherish this Holy Ministry, this heavenly office which delivers to the church the means of grace. No one should administer the means of grace without being called and ordained, and there are very serious reasons for warning against women’s ordination and the sacramental acts which are carried out in ELCA congregations. Lutheran Christians in church bodies that have established women pastors are living in the midst of dangers that are involved in disobedience to God’s Word. They have serious decisions to make about testifying to the truth.


There are some who hold that a baptism performed by a woman is not a valid sacrament – and that it ought to be performed again under more sanctified circumstances. This perpetuates the old pneumatic tradition - that only valid incumbents are those who possess the gifts of the spirit. Those baptized by an unworthy and heretical bishop do not have the gifts of the spirit and that nothing happens.


This is an error that makes the validity of a sacrament and absolution dependent solely upon the administrator’s status of being ordained. Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures is this taught. I have scoured the Book of Concord and find nothing to indicate that a baptism performed by a woman or any layperson is invalid – this simply is not Lutheran and may be more reminiscent of the Council of Trent or Council of Florence.


Baptism is not about a spirit filled episcopacy – the act of baptism, is in itself a sacred act – not dependent upon the holiness or ordination of the clergy. Baptism is given to the church and man belongs to Christ in the act. A LCMS pastor should never rebaptize a parishioner from an ELCA congregation but rather confirm the baptism and comfort the baptized saint in complete sincerity and truth.



It is commonly understood that Lutherans live in their Christian faith with three essential books: The Holy Scriptures, the Catechism, and hymnal. Two of these books directly discuss lay baptism. In question 243 in the Small Catechism we read, “Who is to baptize? Normally the called ministers of Christ are to baptize, but in cases of emergency and when no pastor is available, any Christian should baptize.” This is echoed in the hymnals of the Missouri Synod (TLH, LW, and LSB) which all state that “any Christian may administer” baptism with the absence of the Pastor.


For synodical catechisms and synodical hymnals, a person can baptize if he or she is a Christian. Francis Pieper in the third volume of Christian Dogmatics writes,”Like all spiritual gifts the means of grace, including Baptism, are given by God directly to the believer, all Christians. The believer does not get them from the pastors, but vice versa. Pastors administer Baptism in their public office only as the called servants of the believers. If the public servants are not available, every Christian has the right, yes, is in duty bound, to administer Baptism.”


The position of the Missouri Synod mirrors the Roman Catholic Church whose catechism states in para. 1256, “In case of necessity, anyone, even a nonbaptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula…The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.”
Lutheran practice as represented by Pieper therefore contends that any Christian is a valid agent of baptism. Rome goes even a step further, contending that any human being may be a valid agent for baptism. Yet, lay baptism does not begin with Lutherans but goes back well into the early church. The first mention of lay baptism is from Tertullian in the year 198 where he writes that, “a baptized person can baptize by virtue of the fact that they have received baptism.” He asserts the laity may baptize when a priest is absent for the “sake of peace in the church.”


The Reformed however, that of Calvin and Bucer opposed lay baptisms at every turn. John Calvin writes in his Institutes “Christ never commanded women, or men in general, to baptize; He gave this charge to those whom He had appointed to be Apostles.” And in the Second Helvetic Confession quote, “We teach that Baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or by midwives. For Paul separates women from the ecclesiastical offices. But Baptism belongs to the ecclesiological offices.” Furthermore, in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, “There are only two Sacraments ordained by Christ…neither of which may be dispensed by any but a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained.”


If you are Reformed it is easy to dispense with thousands of baptisms, essentially because baptism means nothing. It only comes by way of law, of precise mandate, by a proper agent, with proper discipline and execution. Reformed ecclesiologies, following Calvin and Bucer, historically, are eager to delineate and draw lines in the sand, discounting so-called heretical baptisms, in order to more tightly define and control what constitutes true church, the true Christian, and true and valid baptism.


Luther writes in his Genesis Lectures, “Wherever the Word is heard, where baptism and absolution are administered, there you must determine and conclude with certainty, “This is surely God’s House, here heaven has been opened.”[1] We ought therefore hold that the church, the body of Christ is holy and perfect, though in Luther’s words, is also filled with “filth, matter, ulcers, spittle, and excrement.”


We ought to be sure that women’s ordination is clearly contrary to the scriptural witness and God’s divine order. The latter attributes of the church, that of filth and ulcers are present with the advent of women’s ordination – yet they do not cause the church to cease to be church. For even the most militant clipped haired pastorette will be made into an agent of baptism when God’s promise in water is given to a child in holy baptism. A child is certainly not robbed of God’s Holy Word in baptism because it is spoken and applied by a woman. Even by a woman serving as Pastor, the heavens are opened in baptism and a child receives all the blessings of baptism in there fullness.


Because a woman has stepped into the role of pastor, it does not mean that God has withheld his speaking, His Word of Absolution, and baptism. The congregation has not become deaf to the purity of God’s word. The congregation has heard God’s word. They sings the psalms and hymns. They read and hear the scriptures and confess the historic creeds of the church.
Luther understood this in his ecclesiological understand of what constitutes “church.” In his writing on the Private Mass in 1533 he writes, “The remission of guilt does not depend on the contrition of the sinner, nor on the office or power of the priest. Our faith and the sacrament must not rest upon the person, be he pious or evil, ordained or not, called or crept in, the devil or his mother, but on Christ, on His Word.” And in a sermon of 1529 Luther writes, “Each individual Christian can say to you, “God forgives you your sins, in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and if you accept that word with a confident faith, as though God were saying it to you, then in that same faith you are surely absolved. So completely does everything depend on faith in God’s word. No pope, bishop, or priest can do anything to your faith” (LW 35:12-13).


Hermann Sasse writes, “Hundreds of women are now officiating in Germany as “Pastorates.” They are, for us now pastors at all. One must pity these poor girls who have been misled by false teachers. We do not deny that God in His inscrutable mercy can give His blessing to ministerial acts unlawfully performed.” Great theologians of the Western Church has long argued for the validity of such baptisms. Therefore, the water used in a heretical baptism is not adulterated; for God’s creation is not in itself evil, and the Gospel’s Word ought not be faulted by any false teacher.


Luther writes in LW 41 "The holiness of the word and the purity of doctrine are powerful and sure, so that even if Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, the pope, Harry, or the devil himself preached it, or baptized truly (purely, without addition), they would still receive the true, pure word and the true, holy baptism, for there must always be hypocrites and false Christians in the church and a Judas among the apostles." Luther seems to allow that the false confession of the baptizer (who claims to be in theChristian church) does not negate the administered baptism, because the Word ofGod is still spoken and still stands true even if the one who speaks it in some other waydenies it. Lutheran theology does not encourage the drawing of boundaries in the church: as to what is true church and false church: true baptism and false baptism. If we take Lutheran theology seriously, we ought to know that drawing an identifiable line around the community of faith is a questionable proceeding, wrought with danger.


Our theology ought to be focused first and foremost on the center of what marks the Christian life which is of course baptismal theology and the Word and promises of God, and slow patient, and discerning to route out its circumference and point of delineation. The ELCA Christian community is one of wheat and tares. Just as the LCMS is a Christian community of wheat and tares. The most precious jewel that binds us and them and gives us the voice to speak to one another is holy baptism, with does not rest solely on a male agent.

And the voice that we have with the ELCA church body we need use to hold them accountable in witnessing to Christ’s Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, and the symbolical books of the Lutheran Confessions. We should continue to speak the truth in patience and love to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, particularly about women’s ordination and our confessions. We must also acknowledge that there is much that is good and Christian, even with this heterodox church body. There is Holy Scriptures, forgiveness of sins, the catechism, Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commands, the articles of the Creed, and most importantly baptism


Though women’s ordination is a serious error, if we may say one excellent thing about parishioners from the ELCA church we may say that they are baptized. Christ preserves His Christendom even in the midst of such destruction. If we are to prayerfully speak the truth to the ELCA and lovingly encounter their parishioners we ought not to deny their identity as Christians and their birth from whence Christ put them into the church.


This would be dangerously counterproductive: for instead of aiming at the Anti-Christ sitting in the church, we will have speared the poor Christian, robbed him of the baptism which he had faithfully trusted in, in turn afflicting him with doubt about the efficacy of God’s Word for the rest of his life. This is not pastoral theology which seeks to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. The faith of Christian saints is on the line, and we ought to confirm their baptisms and the Christian life in which they have suffered up to this day – rather than snuff it from them.



Pastors in the LCMS need a cautious and discerning pastoral care that has the courage to identify heretical and poor teaching while simultaneously feeding and strengthening the church. In Luther’s words we need to attack the ulcers which threaten the temple without destroying the temple of God itself. We should remain ever vigilant in attacking the abuses of the Pastoral Office and the erroneous views about Christ’s ministry.


We must not however attack baptism and rip it out from underneath a great expanse of the Christian church. The fallout would be devastating for our own church body. By doing this we would be taking the initiative of cutting ourselves off and cutting out a great community of saints in Christendom.


[1] LW: 5, 244.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Homily on Isaiah 30:18:21



Painting: Detail from Matthais Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece circa 1512-1516


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father whom waits for you with all long suffering and eternal vigilance. Today He desires your troubled and contrite heart. He desires to hear your desperation and hopelessness in times of trouble so that you may find hope in him alone and be built up in faith and love toward God and neighbor. Amen.

Dearest Christians. Do not be troubled but believe in this Easter celebration – that Christ has risen from the dead and descends on your households to speak everlasting peace and mercy. Our Lord does wait for you…We think we understand this waiting – we are acutely aware of it – we know God is watching and waiting. God’s presence – his proximity – his watchful eye is upon us. How often does it feel as though God’s waiting on you is more like that of a prison warden, waiting for your next rebellious act, your next fall from grace, that he may pounce on you like a roaring lion and cast you off forever. This waiting is completely and utterly terrifying to our old man who is certainly with us today – in the midst of the congregation. And this old Adam can do none other than rebel. He can do none other than fall from grace. None other than lie, cheat, deceive, and murder. After all, it is all he has in him.

We are aware that God is breathing down our neck. By his waiting and opportunities he has given us, we despair and imagine that we have quite exhausted his grace. Forsaken his love. We have just sinned too much – too much for a God of mercy - too much for God of justice who hates evil.

Yet who is this God – this waiting God – whom we often imagine we have offended beyond the scope of his mercy and perfect justice? It is every man’s nature to find himself quite outside the realm of God’s love. We are certain that God’s words of peace apply to others, each and everyone of them. Yet for you, and you alone, God’s peace lies beyond your grasp. It is quite fine for others but it does not apply to you.

The great lie is this – “Did God really say?” This lie from the serpent is daily whispered into our ears. “Did God really say this is my body and blood?” “Did he really say that you are forgiven?” “Did he really say that you and blessed, holy, and righteous?” Did he really say all that? Look at you, your wretched sinner! None of that is for you! If it were up to us alone to answer the serpent, the answer would always be the same: A resounding NO, “He must not have really meant that? - certainly not for me.

Yet, you ought not think so highly of yourself. That by your power and might – by your mighty sin and rebellion you have defeated God and overturned his work. You also ought not think that your thoughts about your relationship with God have anything to do with God’s relation to you.
Martin Luther wrote a letter to a dear friend who was experiencing these sorts of troubles and had this to say:

“Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts, at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke or jest, or engage is some other form of merriment. Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest, or even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles. We shall be overcome if we worry too much about falling into some sin.”

Luther urges his friend to drink a beer, joke, and laugh with friends because his friend is a Christian and he is certain that his dialoguing with Satan about the state of his salvation will end in despair, “Did God really say?”

Dear Christians, hear the Word of God, “He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you.” Your cry for mercy does not reverberate out into the black night never to return. Our God and our Lord does not bear down on you waiting for you to fall from his grace. He is not angry at you. He is please that your speak the name of Jesus Christ who has bathed you in his justice. He is deeply grieved by your sins and your pain and desires nothing other than to hear your cry and to respond. He has surely prepared a place for you.

He answers by giving you the bread of adversity – the bread and body of heaven which has destroyed Satan and his power over you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. The Lord Christ has washed you in the waters of affliction – that is the affliction of the atonement – this wrath being scourged into our Lord and tasted with His lips – you are baptized into Christ – baptized into the affliction of the cross – the putting to death of the Old Adam who wants nothing to do with God’s promise of life and salvation. But God has no anger and wrath left for you. He has dealt with it quite on his own, through his own Son, our Lord Jesus.

The Lord is gracious to you, for Jesus our teacher exalts himself on the cross to show us mercy. Our teacher teaches us to die. Your God and teacher has not hid himself from your eyes, for in faith we may say, I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way, walk in it," when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. Christ is all around you, urging you on, in the midst of his preaching, and the singing of his hymns. His Word is forgiveness and he speaks it through pastors and all Christians.

It is true - We deserve death and hell. But what of it? God has heard your cry. Christ, our teacher and friend knows you and in great joy has made satisfaction on your behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there you shall be also. Amen. .

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rethinking Sanctification

Paul Gauguin "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" 1888


It is no secret that Lutherans are often perceived of as a church body rather heavy on justification and light on sanctification. There is no basis to this observation other than that its observers are likely withheld from the fullness of the Gospel, that God justifies the ungodly in Christ by faith alone. This justification, this holy Gospel completely breaks through, destroying the old, reigning in the new. The Christian ethos in one sense is completely annihilated and drowned out by the advent of Christ and this alien righteousness, yet in another sense is truly created and breathed into being by God’s final word, “I absolve you.” This reception of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, is claimed solely by faith – faith itself being gifted by Holy Baptism and Christ’s continual lavishing of His preached Word and sacraments. This faith is only “our faith” if we rightly see that is has been freely given by God, apart from any interpretive or collaborative performance with the will of man. Faith advents in Christ, being gifted, experienced, and suffered. Man is declared justified and loves God in Christ’s binding of Himself to His church. In matters of faith God smites, hinders, and breaks the old Adam’s ascent toward self-justification that he may take refuge in the righteousness of God. That the Christian life is defined solely by God’s action is most superbly expressed by poet John Donne, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”[1]


A Lutheran ethic therefore must begin from the recognition of human bondage to God. Christ has baptized, justified, and sanctified His church by a “ravishing” of sin, death, and the devil. This bondage to Christ, by the passive righteousness of faith, is the starting point of human freedom, and therefore also the beginning of ethics. The bondage involves a drowning to death of the old man and a resurrection of the new. All Christian activity proceeds from this Gospel, “I forgive you all your sins…Go in peace.” God’s Word truly declares and therefore creates man as righteous before God. That God declares the final verdict in the present truly frees man to live before God - to live ethically in the world.


We ought to beware of the offensiveness of the Lord’s doctrine; its complete incompliance with every man’s striving religious ego. For it is foolishness to the philosopher (greek) and the moralist/legalist (Jew). Mary’s song tells us that the Lord scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and therefore we should not be utterly surprised with the encounter of an unbeliever. The foolishness of Christ, however, ought also make us sympathetic and longsuffering in its preaching and teaching. That forgiveness comes extra hominem and enters in, is in turn met with resistance. Every sinner desires a greater stake in the matter, to add to God’s verdict, to modify or supplement it. The forensic nature of God’s justification is simply not palatable to the religious ego because it leaves no room in the court room for him to numerate his past work and future plans to make himself presentable before God or neighbor. It is Oswald Bayer’s observation that the cosmos is organized forensically and that personhood itself is a “forensic term.” (living by faith p. 4). Man intuitively knows that he is being judged and that judgment means something – that it constitutes his very ontological makeup and has eschatological consequences. In my personal experience, visitations with the sick and elderly often bring this forensic model to light. Though we often think of the elderly as people who are “at peace” with the world, I have found this rarely to be the case. The psychological states of fear and anxiety, though subtle as they may be, are often the pressing moods. Testimonials flow in abundance from those who sense that the end is near. The content of most personal narratives deal with assigning meaning to personal tragedies, assigning guilt and vindications. The painful fractures in human relationships are rationalized and justified so that the narrator may place himself in his own tribunal, “I tried…I did my very best.” In this way, not only individual narratives but also the great expanse of world history may be seen as a battle for mutual recognition with its various strands as “histories of vindications and of the assigning of guilt.”


It is fascinating that Luther’s first public disputation (Against Scholastic Theology) deals squarely with the problem of ethical thinking. Theology done ad modum Aritotelis posed a problem for Luther, which threatened the truth of Gospel, “Virtually the entire of Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This is in opposition to the scholastics.”[2] In the 44th thesis he writes “Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without aristotle.” Luther so early in his career found the fusion of philosophical ethics and theology destructive, which clouds the relationship of sin, grace, and the proclamation of the Gospel. The occupation with ethics drives toward the first temptation of discerning good from evil. This internal philosophizing is always grounded in serpent’s primal question, “Did God really say?” Ethics is always understood as a fulfillment, a right action and order, and devoid of defect. Therefore ethics, as understood in the classical sense, simply gets in the way of theology. It is occupied with man’s action first and foremost before and against God’s action in man and need of neighbor.


God’s great ego absolve te graciously cuts down man’s ethical flight whether it be piloted by the will (moralism), emotions (mysticism), or mind (speculation/rationalism). We naturally ascribe to the human ethic a performance whether it be a performance of “knowing,” “doing,” or “thinking” with an accompanying adherence to a set of moral precepts that will naturally make us acceptable before God in heaven. The human will is believed to be collaborative with God in its work and vision rather than deeply corrupted and blind by sin. Koberle observes, “The saint who has sought to gain salvation through self-sanctification must perceive that behind his desire is concealed the pride of self-esteem that Luther calls the ‘queen of sins.”[3]


Concerning what may be a Christian ethic we should first consider the primacy of God’s Word, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), and that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). Confessing the Creed opens the lips that they may first confess God the creator as “Lord and giver of life” and themselves as creatures, wholly dependent upon the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. Sin has made the cities desolate and dry. In the old aeon, the descendants of the Old Adam lie about in the valley of dry bones (Ez. 37). We cannot resurrect our own corpses scattered in the dead trench of sin. We have no control in the death of trespasses and cannot handle our sin. This is ever so important as we consider justification, that it is not a reworking of the sinner, but always death and rebirth, anticipating the resurrection of the dead. Koberle observes that the Word forgiveness “produces faith and a new life. It does not simply aid, support, or strengthen the old will but creates a new will.”[4] The church lives by the performative Word of God which justifies sinners, and rescues them from sin, death, and the law. The law is now precious and good. It is no longer a devastating death sentence for the law now becomes a set of holy commands that we may gladly do. Whereas in the Old Testament the law functions to crush the self-justifying the sinner and lead to Christ, now the New Testament “parenetic statements are ethical exhortations addressed to believers who already possess what is required of them.”[5] Faith now daringly opens up the human heart to creation which becomes an arena for ethical action.


Sanctification means nothing apart from God’s final word of absolution and the new life that springs from it. The late Gerhard Forde expresses the relationship best when he argues that sanctification is “the art of getting used to unconditional justification wrought by the grace of God for Jesus’ sake.”[6] That the fullness of God incarnates into the world, into human flesh, in order to receive sinners might indeed take some time getting used to. That God desires to teach, eat and drink with us, indeed to suffer unto death for us is not immediately apprehensible. What’s more is that he loves to forgive, kill and make new, and continues the same address and fellowship through His holy ministry today. That God acts and that man is acted upon is central for justification and therefore also sanctification. All that a Christian is and does presupposes that he is justified. The relation to God is not in his works but in faith which has seized this gift of God. He departs in peace and now freely acts with the certainty that God is pleased with him. The fear and anxiety of self justification are no longer present and the human heart does not need to go questing for holiness, feverishly seeking out a sanctified work or spiritual imagination. The simplest commands of God are sufficient and indeed joyful. Luther in an unforgettable way describes the mundane task of a changing a child’s diapers when justification by faith is wrought in the heart of a father:


“O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? 0 how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.[7]


Oswald Bayer makes the significant observation that “ethics,” as understood by modern man, is occupied first with the question, “What should we do?” Yet, for him this is the wrong question. The religio-philosophical starting point of ethics must be “What has been given to us.”[8] The priority of gift over task is a decisive distinction that centers the Christian ethic in the creative work of the Gospel rather than deadness of the law or self-assigned task. Therefore the act of creation both in Genesis and in God’s redemptive work in the sinner erupts ex nihilo, apart from human performance. This pure and unconditional gifting of creation, redemption, and sanctification, when rightly understood, rips open the natural human delusion of autonomy.


Receiving daily bread, life, and salvation from God is relationally understood in the Trinitarian drama of God’s work in Christ and the giving of His spirit in the believer. That this gift is received passively in faith marks the true genesis of action – of a Christian ethic. Justification, the handing over and receiving of Christ through preaching breathes life into the valley of dry bones and reconstructs sinew and bone in the act of resurrection.


The answer for sanctification and for what may be considered a Christian ethic must always be more justification, in its true and radical nature. That God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the Sabbath points to Christ and Christ alone. God invites us to rest in our self-justifying thinking and let Christ work in us through His rest in the tomb and bodily resurrection. The incarnation puts the human creature into spontaneous joy and action so that he may no longer say, “Did God really say this” or “What must I do?” He acts because there is no acting left to do. He performs and speaks because he has been acted upon and has been spoken to.


A Christian ethic therefore does not exist as a portal to heavenly piety but an earthbound receiving of Christ and His divinely orchestrated outward movement into the darkness, through human interfacing. Therefore the occupation of ethics must first be dashed to pieces so that we may speak of the spontaneous joy of the forgiveness of sins and what this does to the human creature. His boasting of action in the world has to do with the action of another which he may in faith claim as his own. His justification, sanctification, and ethic comes from another. The otherness in which the Christian lives is in Christ’s justification, which is the first and last determinant of ethics.


[1] Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed.London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 165.
[2] Luther, Martin, and Timothy F. Lull. Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, 16.
[3] Köberle, Adolf, and John Caspar Mattes. The Quest for Holiness: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Investigation. Minneapolis, Minn: Augsburg Pub. House, 1938, 27-28.
[4] 148.
[5] 151.
[6] Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification edited by Donald Alexander (InterVarsityPress), 13.
[7] Martin Luther. The Estate of Marriage, 1522. (Translated by Walther I. Brandt).
[8] Presented at the systematic-theological symposium, “Gift a Fundamental Term for Theology?” (“Die Gabe – ein ‘Urhort’ der Theologie?”) on April 5, 2008 held at the Katholisch sozialen Akademie (Akademie Franz-Hitze-Haus), Munster, Westfali.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Georges Rouault, French expressionist artist, (1871 - 1958), painted “Crucifixion”


Here our true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree-
So strong His love to save us.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o'er,
And Satan cannot harm us.
Alleluia!

Then let us feast this Easter Day
On Christ, the bread of heaven;
The Word of grace has purged away
The old and evil leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed;
He is our meat and drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other!
Alleluia!

LSB 458
Rembrandt "Supper at Emmaus" 1648




Baptism is the ‘crossing over,’ the ‘crossing through’ of death and hell. We cannot understand baptism apart from the atonement, for our Lord when facing his great suffering says, “But I have a baptism to be baptized; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished” (Lk. 12:50). Baptism is therefore the entry of Jesus beginning his work as the Suffering Servant. Here a substitution and blessed exchange begins. When the Lord steps into his baptism he does not descend into waters to be washed clean as we are. He is the Son of God, without sin – holy and blessed. Therefore he is bathed and drenched in the sins of the world. In our baptisms we become one with Christ and share in his death and resurrection. We receive all that is his; righteousness and eternal life and he receives all that is ours; sin, death, and rebellion. In similar manner the suffering servant asks his disciples: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk. 10:38). The bitter wine that Jesus drank is the chalice of hell and death that he drinks for us, in turn pouring himself out in water, body, and blood for the redemption of the world.


Gustave Wingren links the first article of the Creed, that of the creator God also with the second and third of Christ’s work. He intends to provoke a consideration that the God who gives a resurrection to the corn of wheat in nature is the same God who raises Jesus from the dead. Wingren references that the early church often looked to the little miracles of nature; budding plants, withering flowers, death and rebirth as sorts of mini prophecies which point to the grander work of God in Christ. We can right say that the Word and sacraments are constitutive of the Church. When every eye will see him (Rev. 1:7) there will surely be speaking, singing, eating and drinking. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are bound up in the Word in such a way that they can never be separated. In the space between the ascension and the Parousia, the Lord’s Supper is so deeply rooted in the life of the church that we can rightly say with Luther that the altar rail is the “pulpit of the laity.” In this eating and drinking the church eats heavenly food for the remission of sins and confesses the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s work until He comes.


The time of preaching, the interim period of the Word which waits for the resurrection of the dead, casts a bridge between man’s present point in time and the resurrection of the dead. This time of the Word is where God creatively carries out the conflict with Satan. This preached Gospel includes the body in baptism and sets out on a journey where one is continuously fed the Lord’s Supper – “the food of travelers.” This body and blood holds the promise of the resurrection of the dead and grants the forgiveness of sins.


A Christian “ethic” can only be rightly understood if we confess that God has destroyed the power of Satan in and through Jesus Christ and that man may be justified. Ethics may not be understood as a right or wrong course of action or following precise moral precepts but rather the action that is born in baptism, finding its nourishment in the Lord’s Supper. Ethics can only be understood by the freedom granted by the Gospel. This alien righteousness is handed over to the sinner that he may be free from the law and serve God and neighbor in fervent love and charity. Luther believes that the sacraments actually bind Christians together in Christ’s body. It is understood that through the incarnation the world has been remade and that we encounter God in our neighbor, “When Christ approaches, our neighbor approaches as well, for humanity is something Christ in his incarnation became.” Therefore the body is very much drawn into this sacramental unity of the church so that we might be strengthened in body and soul and look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The incarnation of Christ and the sacraments reorients man that he may be opened up to creation to serve God and neighbor in love.


Wingren’s perception of the “week” and “Church Year” for preaching does not lay out legalistic customs or rubrics but is pragmatic in aim, “The Christian year is an order of salvation that does not lead men to any other stage than to that of the parish church.” The spiritual home and place to meet is simply this parish church where all blessings are given. The Christian church year ingratiates the hearer into Christ’s life and holy passion which in turn becomes his own. The preaching which proceeds during the week is a bubbling up and springing to life of a new creation born out of the forgiveness of sins. This moving out of the Word to the ends of the earth is simply the preaching in the parish church which delivers sinners from generation to generation.


It is Gustave Wingren’s observation that pietisms influence on preaching sets forth an “order of grace” – a movement which does not focus on Christ’s life and continuing work but rather a long series of actions of redemptive history. It is understood here, that the work of redemption lies in the past and is stationary and fixed. Holiness therefore lies in the past and must be returned to, here seen in such hymns as “Were you there?” There if becomes no longer Christ who advances but the individual who must reclaim holiness for himself based upon his own mystical imagination and personal discipline. The Word continually comes to us and brings everything with it, in fact all that Christ is and does. This order of salvation (Christian Year) brings people to the parish church to be bathed in both Word and Sacraments and to not only be present in all Christ does but actually to receive it. In this blessed exchange we not only receive Christ’s passive righteousness but also his active righteousness which fulfilled the law perfectly.

Wingren holds some wariness regarding an overly optimistic and prideful student of the Word who wishes to explicate law and gospel. He believes that the preacher remains subjected to the Word and letting it speak for itself rather than having lordship over it – to partition it, hastily divide it, etc. Wingren finds it sufficient to listen to the Word, rather than classifying law from gospel. It seems as though he desires that the Holy Spirit distinguish law and gospel, that God himself may chasten or comfort according to his will. His understanding is that the Word divides itself when it advances and makes an entry into the ears of hearer. Therefore it seems that the application of law and Gospel in preaching is more the work of God than the exegetical dealings of the Pastor.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Man Lives by Preaching

"Creation of Adam" - Michelangelo 1511



The Christian life is lived in utter conflict. The baptized emerge out of Christ’s holy waters at war with sin, death, and the devil. The faith which is given in baptism is sustained through the preaching of the Word in which the battle continues. Between Christ’s ascension and the last judgment the whole cosmos quakes and suffers the tremors between the old and new creation, between the old Adam and the new man in Christ. The discrepancy between human experience and God’s promise of life and salvation is met here in this tension between the old and new. Faith is a heavenly gift that we might hope in the things hoped for - that God remains faithful to his promise of peace and restoration.


Sin brings death and separation from God. At sins deepest core is unbelief, with a hardness of heart that refuses to accept God’s love. Given that sin brings this unbelief and death it is preaching the Gospel that delivers the message of victory to the many. The present Christian life is the continuing deliverance and bestowal of this victory – a handing over of this message, this good news that sin and death and defeated. Preaching is the proclamation of the creed, which confesses “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” The word of forgiveness is central, for where this is forgiveness there is eternal life and salvation. For Wingren, “word of forgiveness is the weapons which is first employed against the power of Satan, a word with which the enemy is hunted out of our conscience.” The conscience is the devil’s playground where he plagues each man, whispering that he is not within the sphere of God’s mercy and love, that his case is quite hopeless. The simple act of preaching the gospel through the forgiveness of sins “is the casting out of sin and guilt from the conscience.”[1]


Human life is breathed and created by God. Man’s body is knitted, formed, and poured out by God. If the eternal, living, and creative Word of God were to stop the whole cosmos would cease to exist. Faith in this Word, to live by the very speech acts of God is to truly have human life – to truly be creature just as God is true creator. Or as Luther has it in his catechism that we consider ourselves true children and God as our true father. The aberration of sin has cast human life into sin, distress, war, and death so that the creatures “humanity” as God breathes it into existence is plagued by the lies of Satan and compromised. Faith receives God’s love and Holy Gospel and lives by them as an infant lives by the breast of his mother.



Man becomes “true man”, “authentic man” when he is preached to. Gustav Wingren writes, “man is created in the image of God. He must become the image of God if he is to be man, that is to say, if he is to be redeemed from the violence of the Devil, and Christ in the image who has redemption.”[2] Therefore, humanity exists and locates its life in preaching – in God’s address. If man is dead in his sin, as a lifeless corpse, how does he become man? How does he exist? That man “lives from that which cometh out of the mouth of God” must mean more than a reception of some sort of spiritual guidance. Living from that which proceeds from the mouth of God involves the knitting of the human creature in the womb, declaring life ex nihilo – creating out of nothing – creating where life did not exist. Man becomes man as he was called in creation to be in Christ who has sealed us in his image, as “true man,” in the image of God that is so dearly desired.



Faith receives the Word, from whence man’s life is derived. Faith is event and gift that comes by way of hearing, that we may have “assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 2:1). Faith comes as Christ comes, adventing, incarnating – being handed over. This faith is the death and resurrection – “it is to let go our selfish will, and let the Word have freedom to accomplish its destroying and lifegiving work.”[3] Faith, therefore is freedom, for man is no longer bound by his will which will always reject and turn from God. He is rather bound up and sealed into the freedom which God grants in Jesus Christ. Faith precedes sight as the preached Word precedes the Parousia – it holds to God’s promise in the midst of spiritual affliction and looks forward the resurrection of the dead. Faith is man free, unoppressed, and forgiven.


It is right that we consider the incarnation, Jesus’ birth of the virgin Mary as a declaration of war against Satan. We can preach Christ as victor because it is biblical. It was promised from the beginning that the seed of woman would crush the Serpents head. We are promised that Christ shall hold the field forever, though all the devils of the world should surround us, the Holy Word itself will fell him. The Word of God is itself decisive act of war – “an onslaught on the demonic power in the world of men, an onslaught against our old man himself, who must be slain if the new one is to be able to arise in spite of hindrances.” The Word of God is incarnate – it is the living Word of God. It is preached by Pastor and this Holy Word of promise is drank and eaten in the Lord’s Supper. For the Word was made flesh and dwelt among men in the form of a servant Jesus Christ. And since the Pentecost the work continues until the final judgment.


“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Since the dawn of creation God has been a preacher and has raised up men to preach to one another. God’s address compels men to speak that word which gives life. Man therefore lives to be preached to. God addresses creation, ultimately incarnating into flesh, and breathes the breath of life into them. As the Father sends Christ to speak so does he send the apostles out to proclaim peace – to proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified. The breathing of the Holy Spirit on the apostles grants the power to either remit or retain sins. This creative and life giving breathing is centered around the forgiveness of sins, which brings the new creation into being. Preaching out be considered in this way, that man truly lives by the Word of God. Hearing the Word and being formed by it is not one element of ones life. It is not a lifestyle to hear the word of God in the midst of the congregation. Hearing is the Word and receiving it is rather to have life itself – to be formed of the dust and to be given both body and soul. Preaching is the source of God’s creative work, and nothing exists without it.


The first Adam was “a living being” who in the beginning was created and given life in paradise. The first Adam rebelled against God in sin and had to turn and hide himself. Now the last Adam is God himself who comes in divine condescension, who offers His “life-giving Spirit” which he carries out in the church. The new Adam, Jesus Christ the Son of God has been raised up to make all things new, that the blind will see and the weak will walk. This new Adam, the Son of God grants His life giving spirit not as a deity at the outskirts of heaven but as one who desires we call him “brother.” Yet the fullness of deity dwells within him and His gifts of righteousness and purity, eternal life and salvation are all given to us. He withholds nothing.


When we speak of the forgiveness of sins we are simply confessing the resurrection of the dead, for both appear together in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” This is the beauty of Lutheran theology which grasps that where there is forgiveness of sins there is Christ and heaven itself. Therefore we can never tire of receiving the forgiveness of sins, for it is the very center of Christian life by which all else depends. As sin brings guilt, death, and hell, so does forgiveness bring about all the riches of heaven that we might walk before God free from shame.


[2] Wingren, Gustaf. The Living Word; A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960, 46.
[3] 117.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Preaching the Creative Word


The Bible, both Old and New Testament finds its unity in Christ and him crucified and raised for our offenses. Gustav Wingren speaks of the cross as the “center of gravity…the starting point, the foundation and the end of theology.” The new testament is “new” because it brings the proclamation of this new and heavenly message, that God’s Word and promise in Christ has “slayed the beast and frees us out of the grasp of evil (Rev. 19:11-13).



The preaching task is obliterated when the resurrection is separated from the event of the crucifixion and bitter death. As Easter approaches, it is true that Easter morning services will be attended by the droves while only a scant few will attend the Good Friday service. Easter is always a big hit because there is a joyous celebration with motifs of life, purity, optimistic feelings, and joyous music – surely trumpets and the Handel halleluiah chorus. Yet, Easter morning means nothing if God did not become incarnate in the virgin to bear the sins of the world, suffering the pangs of hell in our place, to be crucified, tortured, mocked and cursed. God’s glory is manifest here – that God himself desires to be the suffering servant for his very creation – that the atonement is a matter within God himself. The modern mind does not easily apprehend the glory of crucifixion, of God’s bloody death on a cross. It simply is not very palatable of an idea that the God of creation makes of himself a lamb to be led to the slaughter. Yet, the wisdom of God is foolishness to the proud, for we are not saved by moral legality but only by this act of God. For this reason, Good Friday is not attended with the same fervor as Easter morning - though it truely ought to be. This crucifixion - Good Friday - must be preached in its fullness. For God’s act on the cross not only brings Easter morning but first and foremost a crucifixion. Death is the source of our life, for we are baptized into his death that we may die to our former selves and be resurrected as blessed and holy saints of God, finding fervent love toward God and neighbor.


Preaching occupies the interim time between Christ’s resurrection and His parousia. It is the speaking in the present, in the “now” and unto eternity. The Pastor occupies a space and time to speak and hand over what is given. Wingren describes the spread of the gospel as both geographical and historical that moves “out towards the people and onward towards the Parousia, to the end of the earth and to the close of the age” In this message only one things matters. It is to hear what Christ say – to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. This oral message - this living voice of God sounds out to the ends of the earth to forgive sins, bring life out of death, and comfort contrite hearts.


The office and act of preaching is itself the act of salvation. Preaching is not an addition, an “add on” to the Gospel, but marks its carrying out – it is the delivery of the goods. Preaching is God’s work. God is a preacher who creatively works life, love, and salvation in his creatures. Furthermore, preaching the gospel and its reception in faith is not quiet matter. It is addressed, spoken, confessed, sung, and prayed. Therefore preaching and the dialectic message of reconciliation is noisy – an unrelenting spoken promise in the violent wind of Pentecost where the Pastor speaks “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ… Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”


The Pastor does not read the Bible as a mere history of things longs since past. For the church is grafted into God’s revelation of creation and the advent of Christ. The biblical narrative is the narrative of humanity. Rather than “standing over” God’s Word to be “interpreters,” “knowers,” and “doers” we must place ourselves under it, to listen to it, as Mary at the feet of our Lord – to be interpreted, known, and done by God. The preacher is not studying an artifact in the biblical text, but has the living Word of God - a word which creates from genesis unto the present, and into Revelation and the final consummation of all things. This living voice of the Gospel that is preached throughout the world is the same voice that created the world and said, “let there be light!” and “Lazarus, come out!” This calling forth from death to life is the ongoing work of God, in the continuation of the Bible, which is the preached word, baptism, and Lord’s Supper.

Considering affliction


The kerygma – the preaching of the Word is unintelligible when it is either denied or taken for granted the the whole race of man is universally enslaved in sin, which has cast the world into war and decay. Human life today is the struggle to either excuse, explain away, or justify ourselves to get ourselves off the hook – escape judgment or deny it altogether. The starting point of human freedom is to recognize that man is not born ino a marvelous light of freedom and peace but one of human bondage. True and authentic freedom begins when one resigns his delusion of an autonomous will and is captivated by faith in Christ as the crucified and risen One, which is the center of all the Scriptures. The universal enslavement of the race of man is of course confessed in the creed, when the church prays “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The kerygma, the preaching of the Holy Gospel, can only proceed once man comes to terms with the divine revelation that he is creature rather than creator, mere man rather than God, that he is rebellious and dead in his trespasses. This enslavement comes by crushing imposition for whenever the law encounters man so comes with it despair and death.



This brings up the question – is the conflict between God and the devil still recognized by modern man? I am told by Christians older that I, that forty of fifty years ago Pastors seldom preached about the devil, his work, lies, and deceptions. At this time modern man was in full flight, with an unprecedented optimism in human reason and science to discern the great mysteries of the universe. Psychopathic therapy was exegeting the origins of fear and evil in the inner recesses of the brain. Experiencing wrath and affliction became a mental illness to be cured through talk therapy and group sessions. Post-modern man, with all his confusion may be better positioned to recognize the supernatural warring factions of God and the devil. Preaching demands that the called and ordained Pastor speak clearly and honestly about the work of Satan, who accusses and afflicts the human conscience, seeking to convince them that they lie outside of the arena of God’s gifts – forgiveness of sin and life and salvation. Post modern man, I believe, is more open to considering the demonic and the supernatural, and therefore also the great mysteries and inexplicable treasures of the church.

Preaching the Bible


The narrative of the Bible preaches the saving events of the living God. There is no need to go over and beyond the text to a mystical or hidden knowledge like the Gnostics. The very text of the Holy Scriptures preaches the raw facts of promise, an invitation to life and salvation. The text itself is kerygma and is publicly spoken and proclaimed by Pastors and in fact all Christians. Therefore preaching is not a human production of the preacher, even when he employs the loveliest expressions of sublime literary output. Gustav Wingren in The Living Word writes, “Preaching binds together what God did in the past and what is yet to be…In this way the Bible finds it unity when it preaches and is preached.” Therefore preaching may be seen as simply a handing over of the acts of God to the poor beggar in the pew, that he may be assured that these acts are “for you.” The “unity” found in preaching ought not be seen as a divine revelation to be vividly apprehended in its totality through a contemplation of historical world happenings. Rather, a “unity” is only found in preaching which creates faith. Needless to say, mere historian and scholar apart from the place of preaching and the advent of faith will find no “unity” in God’s narrative, only disjecta membra and fragments of acts.



Preaching the gospel is to preach to men who cannot free themselves from the enemy, the ancient serpent. Wherever the Word is spoken the devil is present to interfere, to twist and contort the gospel message in the human ear into something that it is not. In the conflict between God and the devil, it is the raising up of the suffering Servant Jesus Christ out of the grave that marks the greatest and final act. As Christ was raised from the dead so is the whole race of men who were buried with him. In the time between the ascension and the parousia, the time of expectant hope and sure promise, preaching is sent to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Holy Gospel and shatter all the devil’s plans. Wingren describes the preaching task as “taking one’s place in the midst of the mighty series of events that binds the beginning of creation in prehistory with the resurrection of the dead in eternity…as present event.”[1] That preaching is an “event” of course implies that preaching actually does something. The action is that preaching actually creates faith and hands over all the work of Christ to those lost under the dominion of sin, death, and the devil.



The Bible, these Holy Scriptures are not an antiquated text of a history long since past. There is no such thing as the “Bible times.” The Lord of the Bible is Christ, in which the whole history of redemption is revealed which shows God to be constantly at work, creating, redeeming, and sanctifying. The conflict with the devil in the Bible is the same conflict that is carried out in each human heart, as God incarnates into flesh to retrieve each wayfaring creature. The Scriptures bear witness to the historical truth of humanities liberation – from God’s promise in creation, to the bondage of sin, and to the long awaited victory in Christ’s death and resurrection. The preaching task carries out the history of redemption in the life of the Christian, who has the same fall into sin, the same bondage in Egypt, the same deliverance through the red sea of Christ’s blood and holy waters. The Scriptures interpret and define us, our past, future, and present situation. Modern man of course, views the Bible as an archaic text, an archeological exhibit. He thinks he may interpret it, put God on the operating table, and define God. Yet, God’s living word addresses and speaks to us - diagnoses our situation - interprets and defines us. The theme of God’s conflict with the devil is the conflict taking place in humanity. The message of course is that Christ has surely won and that he freely gifts the victory to us.


[1] Wingren, Gustaf. The Living Word; A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960, 46.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Book Review: Luther the Reformer




The late James Kittelson’s objective in Martin Luther The Reformer is to “tell the story of Martin Luther to readers who are not specialists in the field of Luther studies and have no desire to become ensnared in the arguments of the specialists.” There is also a probing not only of Luther’s formal theology but of the theological, educational, and religious traditions in which he was trained. This biography stands out because it treats Luther’s entire career, from his childhood in Mansfield to his death at his birthplace in Eisleben, in which the famous scrap was found, “this is true we are all beggars.” I consider this book an excellent overall topical treatment of Luther. Studying the great reformer involves an extraordinary amount of research and Kittelson has certainly done it, shown by his succinct highlighting of particularly important points in the life of Luther. His research is dominated by primary sources which he presents in the biography to support his interpretation of the reformer and the events surrounding him. Therefore this biography just not simply highlight the historical facts of Luther but brings us into his theology, and ultimately his love for Christ and His Holy Gospel.


Kittelson highlights the reality that Luther was more than a reformer or highly influential theologian. The reformation was radical and earthshaking. He writes, “Luther had turned late medieval theology and religious practice on its head.”[1] The theology of Luther and the Reformers violently ripped open the old ways of thinking about theology and salvation and reigned in a new. That righteousness is freely imputed to the sinner by pure grace for Christ’s sake is radically reformational, overthrowing an entire world view that rested on good works and appeasing God. Kittelson summarizes Luther’s theology, “everything depended on believing only in the truth of Christ’s promise.”[2] Needless to say, late medieval religion had to fall with its pilgrimages, masses for the dead, relics, images, and stored up merits.


I am grateful that a couple pages were devoted to Luther’s suffering under the heading “physical and spiritual testing.”[3] More than anything thing, spiritual terror, deathly fear and affliction were incredibly formative in the development of Luther’s theology and his perseverance in the events of the reformation. Facing Satan himself, the sweeping and deadly plague, excommunication and execution, the very weight of the world itself are terrors that are incomprehensible to the modern mind. The effects of immense suffering can be seen throughout his theological writings, hymns, and prayers. Kittelson observes, “In the midst of these trials, Luther’s trust in a gracious God endured. His assurance did not depend on his outward well-being.” Spiritual doubt and affliction are also highlighted in Luther’s early years, in which Kittelson acknowledges a common experience not merely unique to Luther alone, “the searching out of every failing was an integral part of monastic life. This process and the feelings that arose from it were so common that monks all over Europe had slang terms for it. They called the feeling of regret being ‘in cloaca,’ literally ‘in the toilet’ or ‘in the dumps”[4] The experience of tentatio in religious orders Kittelson rightly links to the practice of confession. I have not thus far considered the spiritual affliction from the medieval practice of confession to be felt and endured by the many. Luther’s personal narrative has usually captured my imagination in such a way that I have partitioned him off from the common experience of the many, based upon medieval piety.


If I were to come up with one criticism of Kittelson’s excellent biography it may be that he spent little time with Luther’s liturgical music and rites. He mentions Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” in passing but does not deal with the incredible richness and quantity of Luther’s sacred music. Luther’s understanding of music is that it was next to theology as the “queen of the arts.” Music and theology were intricately intertwined in such a way that one could not proceed without the other – that it drives away the devil and is an essential reaction to the Gospel.[5] We know that Luther was always in song, a family man who catechized with the singing of psalms and spiritual songs with his lute or whatever instruments were nearby. I think it is impossible to overemphasize the role of hymnody and liturgical music in the shaping of Luther, his understanding of the gospel, and his evangelical approach. The praying of the daily office and Luther’s memorization of the psalms is not given any special attention. Luther’s very first lectures as Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg were dedicated to explicating the psalms, with a highly developed Christology. The reformation insight of justification by faith alone is supported by the psalms more than any other book in the Augustana. It is a curious fact that Luther’s later criticism of the “babbling of the canonical hours” is a critique of the very means by which he may have acquired his genius and revolutionary hermeneutical breakthroughs.


The theology and dedication of Luther to his breakthrough of justification apart from works of the law is central throughout the movement of the biography. Kittelson writes, “Luther found his entire theology in the Scriptures. Here was what he meant when he said at Worms that he would stand by the Scriptures and evident reason. For him the Bible was not first and foremost a book of doctrines or collection of laws with respect to what one must believe in orders to be saved. Rather, it proclaimed Christ and him crucified, that is, the back-and-forth of law and gospel which repeatedly condemned and saved sinners.”[6] Here, Kittleson captures an important characteristic about Luther, that he was not first and foremost a systematician who saw a collection of various doctrines in the bible, but rather one doctrine – that of Christ crucified, in which God justifies the ungodly. In turn, church practice proceeds from this singular doctrine that God forgives sin and reconciles sinners. The primacy then lies in the living voice of the Gospel which comes and says, “Christ is your own with his life, teaching, works, death, resurrection, all that has, does, and can do.”


A great achievement with this biography is that the subject, Luther and the Reformation is treated very seriously. Where others biographies become entrapped by psychological analysis of Luther or political movements surrounding him, Kittleson presents the incredibly brilliant and pastoral theologian who comprehends his role in world history.[7] The reformer is shown to rise to the incredible challenges that presented themselves through his career, “By means of his catechisms, hymns, and new liturgy – as well as by his other actions – Luther was taking responsibility for the future of the Evangelical movement.”[8] On reflection of the Sacramentarian Controversy, Kittleson also observes that Luther had “become even more of a public figure than before. He was no longer simply a celebrity and the leader of a loose band of reformers. Now he was taking responsibility for a clearly defined, public movement in support of the gospel as he understood it.”[9] A great deal of the text deals with Luther’s disputations, negotiations, church councils, and engagement with Rome and the false brothers of the reformed tradition likely to show his dedication, longsuffering patience, and understanding of his personal call and duty to carry out the work that had been unleashed upon him.


Kittelson periodically throughout the biography returns to the fundamental truth of Luther and his work – that of Pastor and caretaker of the soul, “For Luther, nothing was more important that this struggle for faith. The first thing a Christian had to do was always to look at Christ, who was both Savior and cosufferer.”[10] Luther’s concerns for the conscience and guarding against the assaults of the devil are treated throughout the text. Kittelson notes that Luther’s life exhibits “amazing consistency” in his sense of mission, work, and defense of the Gospel, “The words and deeds of the older Luther reflected his most deeply grounded convictions just as surely as did those of the young man. Building and defending a church – and doing so in the teeth of false bretheren, ignorant peasants, grasping politicians, and bitter enemies – was just as perilous an undertaking as defying pope and emperor. Whether rightly or wrongly, Luther kept to it. Is is therefore not possible to speak well of the young man and cringe at the old man. Luther was a whole man.”[11] We may surely hold that Luther held rightly to the chief article, that of Christ and justification by faith alone. What lies behind Kittelson’s final reflection of Luther is that he is a “whole man,” not perfect or infallible, but a faithful Pastor who confessed the gospel with courage, facing extraordinary circumstances. Kittelson therefore does a masterful job of presenting Luther the earth shaking monk theologian alongside the faithful servant whose “ordinariness” makes him accessible as a fellow confessor of the true Christian faith.


[1] Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1986, 96
[2] 114.
[3] 210-211.
[4] 56.
[5] LW 49:428.
[6] 177.
[7] I have in mind Erikson, Erik H. Young Man Luther; A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Norton, 1958.
[8] 220.
[9] 228.
[10] 285.
[11] 300.