Friday, April 29, 2011

Baptism of Lucia Anne Larson








Christology and Care of Souls



Pastoral care is the care of the soul.  Lutherans have a heritage of the “Seelsorge,” meaning that the office of pastor tends to the cure of the soul – whose balm and healing is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Gerald Krispin in his article, “A Study in Luther’s Pastoral Theology,” observes that Luther saw the locatedness of the Resurrection in the mouths of angels and therefore the office of the holy ministry.  Krispin writes:

"Luther indeed found in the ordaining and sending of the angels the certainty that God wants to give us the resurrection of Christ, and implicitly found here the point of connetion to the men who are now “ordained” and “sent” through the office of the ministry to proclaim the resurrection.  It is in this office that Luther himself therefore declares the resurrection as giving Christ’s benefits for us, both as present consolation as an eternal hope."[1]   

The church therefore needs a preacher for the care of souls.  The office of the ministry is essential in the care of souls, for men need to be sent to speak the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in the stead of Christ.  The true seelsorge and caretaker of souls is Christ and Christ alone, who is present in His church – teaching, preaching, and feeding His church with His life-giving Word.  Pastoral care begins and ends with Jesus and His work.  Care of the soul follows the Creed, confessing God as Father through Christ and His work.  The Spirit sanctifies and delivers the gifts of Christ and calls sinners to repentance and faith.  The subject of theology is that God justifies the ungodly through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Christian care of the soul flees to the God preached and revealed in Christ.   

Lutheran theology, and therefore spiritual care as well, begins not from above but from below – from the womb of Mary where the fullness of God dwelt bodily, and to the cross where Jesus, though innocent, died the death of a criminal for our justification.  Lowel C. Green in his article, “Martin Luther on Coming to God from ‘Below’ in Its Implications for the Church Today,” locates this “coming to God from below” theology as primarily a discovery of the vital distinction of law and gospel which framed Luther’s theology as a whole.  At the heart of the law/gospel discovery is the revolutionary insight that the sinner is not saved by the righteous of the law (active righteousness) but rather through the righteousness of the gospel (passive righteousness).  Of this reformational breakthrough Luther shared with his friends: “Previously I had lacked nothing except that I made no distinction between law and gospel.  I took both to be one, and I said that Christ did not differ from Moses except in time and in perfection.  But when I found this distinction, that the law is one thing and the gospel another, then I experienced my breakthrough.”[2] 

Green notes that Luther often referred to the law as man seeking God above as opposed to seek God below.  The gaze that looks up to God focuses on His divine majesty (God in his nakedness) where he only encounter me as wrath and terror (law).  Luther likens this to the unsearchable mysteries of God which encounters man as law.  In Luther’s rendering of Exodus 33:23, “Thou shalt see my back parts; but my face shall not be seen,” he notes that the law is the back part of God, revealing wrath, sin, and his hiddenness.  The Gospel of course is God’s face, how he wants to be truly seen and revealed to man.  Or as Luther brilliantly penned the fourth stanza of Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice “He turned to me a father’s heart; He did not choose the easy part but gave His dearest treasure.”[3]  This is why we must go below, to the cradle where God became incarnate to reveal Himself as the suffering servant and long awaited Messiah to save the people from their sins.  Faith belongs to the revealed God, to the Gospel in which God shows his will and his Fatherly heart in Jesus Christ – by incarnation, life, teaching, crucifixion, death, and resurrection.  This is the precise meaning of “Immanuel” (God with us).  Spiritual care begins here, with Immanuel as “God with us” – as man, and most importantly “for us.”  Green quotes Luther, “He remains a Child for us unto eternity.  He gives himself to us, not in fourfold severity, not in frightening majesty, but he gives himself to us as a tiny Child and he plays with us unto eternity in his childliness.”[4]   

True care of the soul is oriented Christologically – to Jesus Christ and His promises.  Spiritual care and consolation does not speculate on the God not-preached in his terrified hiddenness.  Care of the soul does not begin with theodicy but rather with theophany – with God revealed.  Therefore the focus of pastoral care of the soul moves away from God along with his majestic attributes – be they omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience.  The Lutheran Confessions and therefore the care of souls does not begin there.  The Confessions proceed rather by expounding upon the economy of the trinity – namely the Father’s giving of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.  In these latter days God speaks through His Son, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Lk. 9:35).  In addition to the Scriptures, the most profound and simplest Christology is seen in Luther’s opening to his explanation to the 2nd article of the Creed: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord…”  Article III of the Augsburg Confession and article VIII of the Formula may very well be summed up in this simple prayer.  Most importantly Jesus Christ, true God, is my Lord.  Christian care and counsel cannot begin if God is not “for me,” for the Gospel is not truly the Gospel until it is “for me.”  The starting point for the care of the soul does begin through a theocentric apparatus, in lofty speculation, but rather proceeds Christologically – following the outline of the Creed.     

Along with the incarnation, a true care of the soul must be brought into the death and resurrection of Christ.  This is not to say that death and resurrection are a metaphor or illustration for the Christian life, but rather the true sum and content.  Christian consolation and care takes on a cruciform shape because its content is only Christ crucified and raised for sinners.  Therefore, baptismal life, accompanied by the preached law and Gospel, actually puts the sinner to death and raises him up to live before God.  In the care of the soul, man is exposed as a sinner.  And all sinners must die, whether they die to sin or die in their sin, for God is just and holy.  Dying to sin, means dying with Jesus.  The cross of Christ, if taken seriously, destroys all loopholes for the sinner to bypass the judgment of God.  The death of Christ therefore means that the old man cannot find an escape.  He must also be put to death through repentance and a returning to baptism.  This putting to death is by no means a onetime punctiliar event but a daily death to sin.  The new life through baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection therefore “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” 

This Christology of the care of souls must be understood through the 3rd article of the Creed, namely that on the Last Day, “He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.”  No amount of inaugurated eschatology can reign in that final rest in the here and now.  There must be prayer and vigilant anticipation of finally dying as a Christian in the full consolation of the Gospel.  Christian care of the soul must keep the third of article of the Creed ever before the ears and eyes of the church.  Sanctification through Jesus and the giving of His Spirit to build and keep the church must be retained as an essential article of faith.  Awaiting the Last Day and the resurrection of the body by daily reception of the forgiveness of sins is central to pastoral care, not simply for those near death but for all Christians, both young and old.  It is true that we live in a culture that either naturalizes or ignores death.  Both pitfalls must be avoided, that God’s full counsel and Holy Gospel can shine forth with the brightest light and truth.  Care of the soul ought to make use of the psalms and Lutheran hymnody to orient one toward the realities of death and resurrection which stand at the heart and center of the Christian life.   

Krispin postulates the idea, also observed by others, that all of Luther’s theological work took shape with pastoral considerations in mind.  That is to say, Luther was first and foremost a pastor who took care of his parish and those souls entrusted to his care.  His funeral sermons bring to light his third article theology that speaks only of Christ’s death and resurrection and the faith which claims these promises and his or her own.  Death upon the confession of faith is repeatedly the foundation of his consolation and care.  We see this in Luther’s own death, where Jonas seeing death was near asked the dying Luther, “Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?”  It is recounted that Luther bellowed a loud “Yes!” – and died.  It is only by God’s gift of the Holy Spirit that we can also die as Christians.  A proper care of the soul puts the “yes” in the mouth of the faithful only by placing Jesus before their eyes and ears and upon their heart.        


[1] Krispin, Gerald S. "A Study in Luther’s Pastoral Theology.” LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology . (2001 (article originally published Eastertide 2001) ): 127-132.
[2] Green, Lowell C. "Martin Luther on Coming to God from "Below" in Its Implications for the Church Today." LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology . (2001 (article originally published Trinity 1995) ): 53-56.
[3] LSB 556, stanza 4.
[4] Green, p. 53. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

(Katherine and Kristina on Easter Sunday)

Joy in the Lord's Supper



In Luther’s questions and answers for those who intend to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, he outlines three questions why we should remember and proclaim the Lord’s death: “First, so that we may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for our sins. Only Christ, true God and man, could do that. Second, so we may learn to be horrified by our sins, and to regard them as very serious. Third, so we may find joy and comfort in Christ alone, and through faith in Him be saved.”[1]  It is noteworthy that Luther includes joy as a reason to faithfully receive the Lord’s Supper.  Prior to Luther’s reforms the Lord’s Supper had in many ways become a source of superstition and terror rather than a true comfort and joyful gift.  Luther recalls this sense of terror in his first mass, where he trembled with fear with the awful and abominable task of offering up the sacrifice.  Though the Supper has been misunderstand since Jesus’ own ministry, we pray that all Christians would be led to a true knowledge of this Sacrament, holding fast to this gift as a source of comfort and great joy.    

In the liturgy we ask that God give us joy.  This joy is not simply a feeling or sentiment, but more so a way of life which has the cross and the resurrection at its center.  The familiar words of Psalm 122, point to the joy of worship and holy communion, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord.”  Many of the feasts and festivals instituted by God in the Old Testament were times of celebration and teaching, particularly the Passover.  The Psalms are full of such shouts of joy, recounting the Lord’s deliverance and saving presence among His people.  In Peter’s Pentecost sermon set among the activities of baptizing and the Lord’s Supper, he preached the words of Psalm 16, “You have made known to me the ways of life, You will make me full of joy in Your presence.”  Of the various Biblical themes that converge in the Lord’s Supper, “joy of the sacrament” might not be at the top of the list.  After all, is not joy merely an emotion or byproduct of faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Therefore, wouldn’t it make more sense just to speak about the Lord’s Supper and its benefits?  Maybe, but upon further reflection, I believe that joy is more than a positive emotive affect of the Sacrament and in fact a central biblical theme.  That is to say, joy is more than an incidental aspect to worship and the reception of the Supper, but a central biblical theme that runs throughout scripture.  Therefore it is good to speak of joy in the Sacrament!      

It is good and right that we place emphasis on the objective character of the Lord’s Supper and its benefits in the context of worship.  Spiritual care always points to the Words of Christ and His body and blood in the Sacrament.  Lutheran theology is correct to orient the Christian outside of the inner recesses of the human heart to the certain and performative words of Jesus.  We do not look to our emotions as an indicator of how God regards us, or whip up our emotions toward some mountaintop experience.  What matters is the experience of Scripture and receiving the Gospel, not enthusiastically, but through the sensorium of hearing and upon the tongue in the blessed Sacrament.     

There is some wisdom in speaking tepidly about joy in regards to the Lord’s Supper, insofar and where that joy is rooted and how it proceeds.  It is not rooted in the Vatican II notion of “ecumenical hospitality,” nor is it some love fest where we all just get along to get along.  Rather there is joy in receiving those gifts which God loves to give – namely His Son and all that belongs to him – life and salvation.  Jesus and His life-giving sacrament comes to us poor sinners.  Essential for a proper understanding the Lord’s Supper, and the Divine Service as a whole, is confessing the presence of the crucified and risen Christ in the flesh to serve His Church.  For the presence of Jesus, in the flesh, fresh from the grave is linked with this joy.  He is God with us and for us and in us.  Therefore, there is no greater joy than receiving the Gospel and the Lord’s Supper.  In many ways we cannot speak enough about the experience of joy in the heavenly Supper, and thanking God for this comfort and gift.  For in a world that is increasingly being experienced as joyless there is all the more reason to speak of joy in the sacrament and forgiveness of sins.

Joy is granted throughout the Divine Service, in worship and praise, receiving God’s gifts and responding with thanksgiving.  The service that frames Word and Sacrament worship is festal in nature.  In many ways the entire Communion liturgy keynotes joy.  It is important to see that the Divine Service revolves around preaching of the Word and the Lord’s Supper.  Because we come before God with eleisons, we realize that His self-giving service and sacrifice to us is wholly undeserved and comes as pure grace.  The Gloria erupts with doxological praise and thanksgiving.  Angels and the heavenly host appear before the shepherds praising God, announcing the birth of the long awaited Messiah.  God takes on human flesh, born of the virgin, to suffer and die for the sins of the world.  The long awaited Messiah is now here.  God is with us (Immanuel) in the flesh to be received in the most special and intimate of ways – through His preached Word and His holy body and blood.  This hymn of praise cannot be sung as a stoic but proceeds as a Trinitarian hymn of praise that fixes our eyes on the Father’s sending of the Son to be a sacrifice for sin.  This is good news and the only comfort for sinners.  The Sanctus reminds us of Psalm Sunday, hearing the loud shouts “Blessed is He the cometh in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.”  We also see Isaiah’s vision where we are taught that heaven, which had been closed to us because of sin, is now flung open for the sinner through the intercession of Christ’s cross.  The sinner no longer stands in judgment, but like Isaiah is absolved through Christ’s Word.  The angels sing because sinners receive gifts from God.  The congregation sings because Christ and His forgiveness is what they love.  In many ways, heaven and earth meet as the communion of saints in heaven and on earth meet in the body of Christ.              

The greatest joy and surest comfort for the Christian are in the Words of Institution themselves.  Nowhere in scripture is there a more succinct and clearer Gospel than the words, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  The sacrament is the Gospel and the Gospel is the forgiveness of sins, nothing more and nothing less.  For where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation and heaven itself.  Receiving the Supper is only a joyful event through self-humiliation and the gift of faith.  Only faith can receive this Gospel – Christ’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.       

Members are brought through holy baptism into the church, joining the body of Christ in a truly supernatural way.  We are kept in this unity also through a participation in the sacrament of the altar as one body.  Though congregations commune at their own local altars, they are joined to the true una sancta ecclesia, and there is great comfort and joy in this.  As isolation and loneliness increase in this mad world, a confession and participation of the one holy Christian and apostolic church, as an article of faith is also a statement of great joy and a cause for celebration.  Here all Christians are joined together with Jesus and therefore also joined with one another through a participation in His body and blood.  Saint Paul writes, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).  Therefore, this communion (koinonia) is both a participation in the true physical body and blood of Christ in the sacrament as well as membership in Christ’s mystical body – as one holy church.  Only by a confession of the physical eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood can one understand and enjoy the company of the one holy catholic church.  The epistles of the New Testament emphasize the joy and peace of this holy fellowship: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Rom. 16:16; 1 Peter 5:14).  These joyful greetings are cues for the celebration of the Supper and fellowship in Christ. 

Understanding the true presence of Jesus in the Supper and the greater mystery of the una sancta ecclesia does not take us out of the sufferings of this world, but brings us into greater participation with them.  The joy of Holy Communion is not like the joy of the world, which to a greater extent views joy as mere pleasure or absence of pain or discomfort.  Because joy is located precisely in Christ’s suffering, atonement, death, and resurrection, the Lord’s Supper helps us to realize the shape of the new life in Him – which is ultimately cruciform in orientation.  If one member of the congregation suffers, all members suffer with him and attend to his needs.  The Lord’s Supper when faithfully received by a congregation dashes the myth of autonomy and brings Christians into one body together.  There is joy in the unity that Christ brings through His Supper and great joy in suffering together under the cross



[1] LSB, p. 330.

Luther on Easter

(Albrecht Durer Resurrection of Christ, 1510)

"Thus we see another picture at Easter, that no sin, no curse, no disgrace, no death, but only life, grace, blessedness, and righteousness are in Christ.  With such a picture we should lift up our hearts.  For it is put before us and presented in such a way, that we should receive nothing else than this, that God has himself awakened us today along with Christ.  For as little as you see sin, death, and the curse in Christ, so you should also believe that God, for Christ's sake, will see these in you, when you receive his resurrection for yourself and receive its consolation.  Such grace faith brings to us.  When that day will come, however, one will no longer believe, but will see, touch, and feel."

(Luther's House postils Easter sermon, quoted in A Study of Luther's Pastoral Theology" A Reader in Pastoral Theology)

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Lutheran Pastoral Theology

One of my favorite paintings is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altar painting at the Marienkirche in Wittenberg (which happens to be the main at top, on this blog).  Pastor Luther is preaching from the pulpit to an attentive congregation of women, bearded men, and infant children.  Between the pulpit and the congregation is Jesus Christ hanging from the cross, with a crown of thorns, hands and feet struck through with nails, with flowing blood from his pierced side.  The preacher has his left hand on the Holy Scriptures, while his right hand points toward the crucified Jesus placed before the attentive congregation.  Luther is pointing toward Jesus, preaching of His works, and laying the Gospel richly upon the congregation.  He is not pointing toward himself and one wonders whether anyone in the congregation is able to see anything but Christ and Him alone.  Every ear and every heart is fixed on Jesus, especially the preacher.

I am reminded of John the Baptist, preacher of repentance and Christ, who points to Jesus saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  He later testifies that his joy is complete, acknowledging that the bride belongs to the bridegroom.  It is all about Jesus.  He must become greater and I must become less.  So it is with the pastor, that he directs all attention to Jesus who takes away the sin of the world.  Spiritual care begins and ends in the person of Jesus Christ. 

We are all sinners in this dying world.  The world has gone to hell in a hand basket since Adam and Eve cut themselves off from God’s life giving Word.  People come to church not as professional do-gooders but as professional sinners; real sinners who need a real Savior.  They are broken down, sick, and addicted to sin.  Preaching, catechesis, liturgy, and pastoral care are the ordinary means of bringing people into communion with God in Jesus Christ that grants life over death – and the final victory over sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus is the great physician of body and soul to heal us fully and release us from the bonds of sin and death.   

I firmly believe a pastoral care must proceed from a hearty confession of holy baptism.  Baptism must be the very foundation for a pastoral theology; for within it contains all that we truly need for this life – forgiveness of sins and deliverance from death and the devil.  Here the Christian is daily put to death and raised to new life before God.  The first time I was asked whether I was baptized was by a Lutheran pastor when I was 19 years old.  I was shocked that he would ask, for I came from a liberal reformed background in which baptism was seldom mentioned.  When I said I was, he smiled, and proceeded to tell me what I had received as a child.  When I saw that it was true from Scripture, I saw that the heavens were opened to me, a poor sinner.  For the first time I was instructed in the sacrament and found that it was not merely something in the rear view mirror but a heavenly flood of regeneration that was good for today and tomorrow, fully completed in death.  God had indeed granted me a promise in the externum verbum of Gospel, something I could truly rely on outside of myself, and the chaos of my own sinful heart.   

For the first time in my life a pastor pointed me toward what God had done for me in the blessed sacrament of baptism.  He pointed me to Jesus, who died for me, baptized me, and justified me through his innocent suffering, death, and resurrection.  All the religious authorities I had consulted prior to this Lutheran pastor had pointed me toward moral purity, metaphysical speculations, or mystic contemplations.  In my own seeking of God apart from Christ, with Luther, all I found was an unknowable God, wrathful, hidden, and indistinguishable from Satan.  All of these pursuits came up short to address the fundamental problem of sin and suffering.  Baptism and the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified for us poor sinners changed everything.  It was no longer I who was required to perform the verbs, but God himself was the doer and the justifier.  The content of a pastoral theology must introduce the hearer to Jesus and deliver His promise over to real sinners.  Therefore the true content of pastoral theology is the sinful human and the God who justifies.            

Given the centrality of baptism, I am constantly returning to Luther’s pastoral letters in which he very consistently and creatively thrusts baptism to the fore – right before the eyes and ears of those sin sick souls that he addresses.[1]  To a man troubled with election Luther urges him to say:

‘I have been baptized!  I believe in Jesus Christ.  I have received the Sacrament.  What do I care if I have been predestined or not?’  In Christ, God has furnished us with a foundation on which to stand and from which we can go up to heaven.  He is the only way and the only gate that leads to the Father.  If we despise this foundation and in the devil’s name start building at the roof, we shall surely fall.  If only we are able to believe that the promises have been spoken by God and see behind them the one who has spoken them, we shall magnify the Word.  But because we hear it as it comes to us through the lips of a man, we are apt to pay as little attention to it as to the mooing of a cow.[2]

Baptism must be the foundation of pastoral care.  Luther writes in his large catechism, “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life.  Christians always have enough to do to firmly believe what baptism promises and bring – victory over death and the devil, the forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”[3] 

Preaching, which proceeds from the foundational theology of baptism, is not a presentation of one’s intellectual gifts or personal magnetism.  It is the proclamation of the Gospel – of baptism - that men are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith and by way of pure gift.  Cranach’s altar painting of Luther preaching illustrates this better than anything else.  Luther is not illustrating or simply describing the life of Jesus.  He is rather preaching Jesus, actually handing him over to the hearer – his righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  For preaching is not merely descriptive but truly gives the gifts of which it speaks.  In the words of Forde preaching is the “act of election.”  It is the raising of the dead.  Preaching does expose the man as sinner and puts that man to death.  Preaching is the living voice of the Gospel (viva vox evangelii) that raises the dead to life and faith in the Gospel.  Forde describes his own discovery about the sacramental nature of preaching, a discovery that must be made by all evangelical preachers:

And so there was only one course of action left: I could only give them the treasure! Do it to them! I could only surprise them absolutely by daring to say to the hearers, ‘You lucky stiffs, you have stumbled unto it here and now because I am here to say that Jesus died and went into the blackness of death and still overcame for you.  I am here to say your sins are forgiven!  There it is!  The hidden treasure!  The kingdom of heaven.  The preachers has to have the audacity to believe that the very moment of the preaching is itself the sacrament, the audacity to claim that from all eternity God has been preparing for just this very moment and thus to say, ‘Here it is, it is for you![4]

Iwand in a similar way writes, “In the gospel it says: today, here, and now!  Today is the day of your salvation…The gospel says: he, whom you need, is present and is standing in your midst. ‘It is God who justifies…”[5]  Therefore the Gospel does not come as a new morality but brings a proclamation that the promise and fulfillment is in the here and the now.  Pastoral theology must hold that God does what He says and that He is not a liar.  It is God’s will that sinners believe in Jesus.  And it is God’s will that pastors preach the law in its sternness and the Gospel in its sweetness.  God desires that sinners receive the consolation of the Gospel that Christ brings.  God is committed to his creatures and He loves them, as is clearly seen through the life and death of His own son.  God speaks directly to us and addresses us through preaching and the consolation of the Gospel.  He is deeply entrenched in our lives.         

In the presence of Christ, humans beings are allowed to be sinners, for only in this way can they be helped.  Pastoral care ought to encourage a community that is at home confessing sins and receiving absolution.  There is nothing more alienating than to enter a church whose orientation is only toward the law and self-righteousness, where people are not centered around the sacraments and the forgiveness of sins.  Bonhoeffer writes of this sort of delusional community:

For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner.  Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community.  We are not allowed to be sinners.  Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious.  So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact real sinners.[6]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes “The goal of all spiritual care is the confession that we are sinners.  This confession actualizes itself preeminently in the confessional.  So the confessional is the essential focus for all spiritual care.  The invitation to confession is the invitation to become a Christian.”[7]  Exposing sin must be done in a gentle but honest way, for sin that remains in the dark and hidden within the human soul festers and stinks and takes violent possession of a man.  Satan wants to keep sins un-confessed and convince a man that the law and condemnation is the only word that applies to him, and that mercy does not extend to him.  Iwand writes, “Satan wants us to doubt and to despair of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  He seeks to delude us so that we no longer dare to believe in forgiveness and to think that the law only exists for us and that grace is not intended.”[8] 

Bonhoeffer later writes “Sin creates detritus in the soul.  The serpent must stick its head out of its hole in order for it to be clubbed.”[9]  Although Bonhoeffer no doubt has formal confession and absolution in mind here, I have come to appreciate the more ordinary ways in which sin is confessed and brought to light (not simply in the context of a more formal liturgy of confession and absolution).  Many informal conversations that take place between pastor and Christian often proceed from an eagerness to confess sins (whether knowingly or unknowingly)!  A pastor must have a keen ear and heart to listen to the tension of the human heart in its distress, and in time gently guide him toward a truthful confession, in turn speaking absolution.      

Confession of sins means the death of the sinner.  It is rarely (if ever) a particularly pleasant experience (though God does often grant us comfort by His Word).  It is not a therapeutic exercise, though relief may indeed be a fruit of the absolution.  It is the putting to death of the old Adam, exposing his secret sins – his pride, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, and exposing his idols – his incessant refusal to let God be God.  Though confession is a spiritual and even physiological need (Ps. 32:3), the catechumen needs some instruction in the art of self-examination and confession.  The 10 Commandments and table of duties (vocation) in the Small Catechism provide the essential diagnostic resources to make a confession of sins.  Most importantly they help guide the penitent to “confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts.”  The art of self-examination and confession is learned through a lifetime of oratio, meditation, and tentatio – hearing, wrestling, and receiving God’s Word within the disorientation of Christian suffering and congregational life.

Although confession and absolution is located at the very center of pastoral care between pastor and penitent, I believe it must also be the normative activity of every Christian and household to exercise this gift among its own particular community.  St. John Chrysostom often called the household a “little church,” in that it exercises the holy gifts of forgiveness, love, and discipline.  Pastors, by catechesis and encouragement for daily prayer, should hand over the gift of absolution to the family.  Members of the household should receive instruction of learning how to confess to one another when they sin and to proclaim forgiveness.  The prayer office of compline can help center the Christian household around a vocabulary of confession, forgiveness – the peace may rule in the home.         

Forde writes, “The way of absolution, that is, for both God and the sinner, goes through death.  It is costly and dangerous, costly to God and dangerous to the sinner.  I expect the reason why modern theology has been so skittish about the way of absolution is just this cost and this danger.”[10]  That is to say, proclaiming absolution necessarily means that death is all around.  The sinner needs to be put to death and the new man, in Christ, needs to be called forth.  No theologian of glory has the stomach to come to terms with this.  And no theologian of glory is looking for God who dies in the place of sinners – it is indeed costly and dangerous.  The cross always puts things in perspective.  Sinners do not need a reworking or a ten step program.  The life of the Christian is a life of the cross, lived in death and resurrection.  Iwand notes the following from the blessed reformer, “Luther coined a famous formula that is essential for the newly given righteousness of man: peccator in re, iustus in spe! (sinner in reality, righteous in hope).  This formula means that we are sinners in the reality of our existence, but righteous in the hope that we have in God.”[11]  This insight means that pastoral care also points toward the resurrection of the dead, which we daily confess in the creed.  In this way “pastoral success” and “church growth” means in its finality burying a Christian into his grave.      

The great consolation and joy of the Christian is that we are able to hear the final judgment ahead of time: righteous, innocent, and blessed – His very own.  Iwand writes, “What happens in this event, in the death and intervention of Jesus for our sins, is not something that occurs contemporaneously, but it is an end-time event.  The righteousness that Christ brings is dedicated to us finally and conclusively at the time of the last judgment.”[12]  A pastoral theology and care should not be afraid to proclaim this message through preaching, administration of the sacraments, catechesis, and individual consolation.


[1] It is apparent for me that Luther’s finest theology can be mined from his letters of pastoral care.
[2] Tapper, Theodore, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College Publishing, 1995), 122.
[3] Large Catechism 4:41-42; Kolb Wengert, 461.
[4] Forde, Gerhard. The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub Co, 2007. 157. Print.
[5] Iwand, Hans J. The Righteousness of Faith according to Luther. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008. 41-42. Print.
[6] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Geffrey B., Daniel W., and James H. Life Together Prayerbook of the Bible. Fortress Press, 2004. 93. Print.
[7] Jay C. Rochelle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Spiritual Care (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 60.
[8] I wand, p. 49.
[9] Ibid., 63.
[10] Forde, Gerhard. The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub Co, 2007. 157. Print.
[11] Iwand, p. 73.
[12]Ibid., p. 78.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mama and Lucia


Picture of mom and Lucia napping - so content

A Look at Buddhism from a Christian World View




Last year a popular book came out titled, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, received with much fanfare.[1] The book is written by Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, of World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary. The suggestion is that Buddhism and Christianity are in harmony with each other and are equal expressions of the same fundamental truths. In the introduction to the text, Knitter also proclaims that “without Jesus I could not be a true Buddhist.” Coming out of the liberation theology tradition, which is common among the broader theological schools in the west, his principle interest is social justice and radical pacifism, which he links to both Christian and Buddhist traditions. In academia and the university system it is common and highly commendable to think of all religions as equally true and valid. The popular illustration is to think of all religions as different ladders that eventually lift each person to the same goal – the “divine.”[2] Although Knitter’s book has taken off with great popularity, one must question whether to what extent harmony exists between the Buddhist and Christian worldview.

Eastern religions, and especially Buddhism, came into great popularity in the U.S. with the rise of hippy culture and a general acceptance of pantheistic monism (though historically Buddhism is essentially a non-deistic religion). Buddhism does not necessarily reject the idea of god(s) but is simply not concerned in deistic speculations. Therefore in regards to epistemological and soteriological conversations there exists a great chasm between the east and the west. Knitter’s text does not begin to deal with those gaping discrepancies but glosses over them and appeals only to the similarity of Buddha and Jesus in their concern for social justice. Therefore doctrinal formulations are not even important to the conversation. James Sire, in The Universe Next Door, notes the challenges of Christian missionary efforts in the East:

It is, I think, no wonder Western missionaries have made so little headway with committed Hindus and Buddhists. They don’t speak the same language, for they hold almost nothing in common. It is painfully difficult to grasp the Eastern world view even when one has some idea that is demands a mode of thought different from the West. It seems to many who would like Easterners to become Christians (and thus to become theists) that Easterners have an even more difficult time understanding that Christianity is somehow unique, that the space-time resurrection of Jesus the Christ is at the heart of the good news of God.[3]

While I agree with Sire’s observation of the far-reaching chasm and divergence in worldviews, there are points of convergence that must be looked at, particularly the emphasis on suffering and the problem of lusts and desires that feeds into their understanding of what is wrong with the cosmos. First we must take a basic look at the historical development of Buddhism.

Siddhartha Guatama, according to the Tipitaka scriptures was born in modern day Nepal in the year 563 BC. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, in whose palace he was forbidden to venture out of. At the age of 29 he began a series of encounters outside the palace walls, which in Buddhist literature is known as the four sights, in which he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and finally an ascetic holy man. The only man that was at peace with the world was the holy man, and it was this fourth and final site that encouraged him to the leave the confines of the family palace and embark on a spiritual quest. Guatama studies with all the famous religious teachers of the day, mastering all the meditations and teachings they had to offer. Yet, he was not able to overcome the permanence of suffering, and therefore continued his quest. He next attemped an extreme form of asceticism with the Shramanas, closely related with the Vedic tradition. Here he practiced extreme forms of self-mortification, including fasting, breath holding, and exposure to pain, and flagellation. Legend holds that Guatama nearly starved himself to death.[4] In his final commitment to achieving true enlightenment he sat under a fig tree (Bodhi tree), vowing not to rise before finding true liberation (Nirvana). After many days he achieved it and was free from the desires of his mind, and the cycle of suffering and rebirth.


Although the histories and contours are far different, one with a little imagination might see some strong parallels with the spiritual question of Martin Luther. Though Buddhism is non-deist in orientation, there remain some similarities that are hard to ignore. Both men sought out a very deliberate path of spiritual enlightenment. Guatama sought an end to suffering and complete liberation, while Luther sought a journey in which he wanted to find the favor and mercy of God. They both set out on their way through very rigid forms of self-mortification, that ultimately did not lead them to the enlightenment that they were looking for. Guatama brought about a reformation of sorts out of the Hindu religion, as a way to escape the anxiety and suffering of the caste system and the endless cycle of birth and death. For Luther it was to overthrow the Roman system, which had submerged the chief article through a system of works righteousness and the plank of penance. With Buddha we see a sort of anthropology worked out that sees man and his desires as a negation of the ultimate reality. Therefore, the diffusion of man and the suppression of the ego, ultimately lead to “true being,” which is non being.


Buddhism was founded upon the ancient Indian religion and might be seen as a sort of reformation of the ancient Hindu religion. The development can be traced to the broader tradition of the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads. The Buddha himself and his teaching was not incredibly unique to his time, and therefore the religion should be seen as something entirely separate from the relio-philosophical marketplace of the time. Indeed, it was a product and collection of those ideas. Although Buddhism later came into greater conflict with Hindu orthodoxy, its adherent grew by incredible numbers in the north of India and eventually the greater part of Asia. Like Hinduism, the Buddhist worldview retains the foundational doctrine of karma. Karma is a universal moral determinism that spring from actions of body, speech, and mind. These actions bring about consequences that reverberate throughout the universe in the samsara cycle. For the western mind this is a challenging idea to fully comprehend, for there is no divine salvation or forgiveness for one’s negative karma. Karma is an impersonal force that is not dealt with individually or relationally with the divine. The great expanse of the universe is “unforgiving” and the laws of nature – of negative karma cannot be rewritten. Therefore on the karma balance sheet, there is no hope for cancelling a debt. The Buddhist is not dealing with a personal God, as relates to one’s negative or positive actions of body, spirit, and mind. It is a universal moral determinism that cannot be alleviated but through Enlightenment, and the extinguishing of the self. In certain forms of Buddhism, such as Vajrayana, the recitation of mantras is a means of cutting off or alleviating previous negative karma. Nevertheless, if true Enlightenment is not attained, these mantras do not ultimately release one from samsara cycle.

From a Christian worldview, it is striking to observe the awareness among Buddhists of a certain corruption in the universe. To be sure, they have no articulated doctrine of sin and depravity of man, but there is a sense of knowledge that bad action is a cause for disorder and suffering. Furthermore, they see suffering as a corruption or alien intrusion into the ultimate reality. I believe Christians have a significant inroad here to open up dialogue with the eastern religious worldview. Buddhists believe that suffering is predicated upon the lusts and desires of worldly and fleshly desires. Christians can certainly resonate with this and even agree, although we would see this through a confession of original sin and wanting to be our own Gods. Nevertheless, they are inroads to be sure.

Furthermore, that the Buddhist world view proceeds from an acute awareness of suffering is also helpful to prepare one for an appropriation of the Gospel. The Four Noble truths, which are foundational for the entire religious system, are dedicated solely to an explication of the reality of suffering and how to overcome it. In turn, the Eightfold Path lays out ethical and behavioral precepts that lead to the cessation of suffering (dukkha). The final victory, if it is to be achieved is found through Nirvana, which is a complete emptying or extinguishing. It is noteworthy to understand that the goal is a realization of a complete lack of inherent existence – a loss of the self completely. In a sense, a death of the individual, that is ironically a coming to life in the ultimate reality. From the Christian world view, the critical goal of the Buddhist seems to involve a denial of the self and of the very nature of creation itself. The motif of illusion in the eastern worldview is essential, so that everything seen exists only in the strata of relative knowledge, that is not to be trusted but viewed with a detached suspicion. The duality of the universe and the individual, as if they were separate realities, is an illusion that needs to be overcome through Buddhist meditation. In regards to a Christian apologetic here, reaching across this religio-philosophical chasm is a giant jump to make. The inherent value of the individual – every sinner – in the Christian worldview can hardly be emphasized enough. That God Himself, desired to become man – to suffer and die for the very worst sinner shapes and defines the value and importance of each human life. The incarnation and life of Jesus affirms the duality and distinction between creation and every man and woman.

In a Buddhist/Christian dialogue it seems necessary to lay out the narrative of the Biblical revelation of cosmology. Buddhism, which is predicated upon ancient Indian cosmologies, regards the human race as playthings of the gods, used for amusement. Though Buddhism is anti-deistic in orientation, it is clear that Buddhism has inherited the somewhat arbitrary value of the individual from Hindu tradition (I am not suggesting Buddhists are not compassionate and kind to one another). Therefore, the confession that man is made in God’s image is an idea so foreign to the eastern view that it makes soteriological conversations immediately divergent, given that man is robed with God likeness – realized fully in the advent of Jesus Himself. Therefore, I believe, in conversations with Buddhist the biblical revelation of creation must be systematically laid out. That man is formed in the likeness of His own creator and brought into communion is fundamental to laying out an anthropology, dealing with man’s existence and purpose in life.

A word must be said about the fundamental difference between Hinayana and Mahayana within the broader Buddhist tradition. When the Buddha obtained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree there were two courses set before him. The first is to keep his knowledge for himself and to pass into the pure bliss of Nirvana. The other course is to remain in the world and to pass on the necessary wisdom for others to seek and attain nirvana for themselves. The idea with Mahayana is that attaining this valuable wisdom is for the sake of passing it on to others, and to work toward universal enlightenment. This is not to say that Hinayana is less compassionate, for there is no greater good that passing into a state of Nirvana. Each school of thought claims that its expression is truest to the Buddha. Hinayana claims that it’s interpretation of passing to Nirvana is closest to the teaching, while Mahayana insist that they have reached the real spirit of Buddha’s teachings, which they relate to helping others reach Nirvana through compassion and teaching. The predominance of Mahayana Buddhism eclipsed Hinayana about 500 A.D.


Foundational to Mahayana Buddhism is the idea of Dharma, which may refer to the teaching of Buddha himself, or simply the actual world as it is. Dharma is also spoken of as “universal law” or the “ultimate reality.” It can be used as simply a word for truth itself or an expression of the way the universe truly is. There may indeed be some parallel here with the western understanding of “natural law,” articulated most clearly by Thomas Aquinas, asserting that there is a certain discernable moral order to the universe based upon personal conscience and a distinction between right and wrong, that is experiential. Nevertheless, the understanding of Dharma deviates strongly from the western view of natural law, given that its interpretation is grasped only by self-elimination through a transcendental wisdom.

In Buddhist thought, a rendering of how they conceptualize a soteriology is so radically different than a Christian conception, that the word may in fact be better off avoided. Given the fact that the goal of Buddhism, in a sense, is self-extinction and nothingness, which to the western mind is completely contradictory to its own idea of being saved. Nevertheless I will stick with the word, for it is accurate if we correctly understand that the Buddhist idea of liberation lies precisely in a sort of self-annihilation and diffusion into nothingness.

In order to properly understand the Buddhist soteriological world view three fundamental principles are essential: 1. All is transitory, 2. All is suffering, 3. All is egoless, and based upon these the Four Noble Truths: 1. All existence is suffering, 2. Suffering is caused by desire, 3. The extinction of desire leads to extinction of suffering, and 4. The way to extinction of suffering is the Eightfold Noble Path, the steps of which are Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Behavior, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.[5] In the Buddhist worldview it is impossible to overestimate the significance of suffering as well as the broader eastern religions. For the Buddhist, suffering results from rebirth, which is due to Karma. In this series of rebirths the faculties cling to that which is illusive and temporary – which for the Buddhist has not real value and does not pertain to ultimate reality. In this endless cycle where one wills to live, one gets further caught up in karma and the endless cycle of birth and death. The goal then is a liberation from the atman to the non-atman or non-ego. This doctrine of the non-ego is incredibly difficult to understand and there are multiplicities of different interpretations of it. In short, the ego and individuality for the Buddhist is an illusionary idea that is precisely the problem that must be transcended. If there is an authentic ego or individuality it is only found in the realization of Dharmakaya found in the perfection of insight, in the all-encompassing one – of seeing ego, creation, and universe as one great indissoluble reality. This Dharmakaya is considered to be the most sublime and truest reality in the universe. This state however, according to the Buddha’s own teaching is “inconceivable.” Therefore, little can be said about it, other than the use of images such as rivers and the clouds to describe the complete dissolution of the ego.

A few words must be said about a Buddhist epistemology. According to Mahayana thinkers there are three different forms of knowledge and truth, Illusive (parikalpita), Relative (paratantra), and Perfect or Absolute (parinishpanna).[6] It is the object and goal of Buddhist meditation and instruction to lead to Absolute Knowledge (prajna). The first form of knowledge, which is an illusionary knowledge, is foundational for the Buddhist worldview. In this world view is it is very much a part of life that all is not what it appears to be. Many desires and experiences and even objects are likened to a mirage that has no reality in and of itself. A common analogy among Mahayana Buddhist is a rope and a snake.[7] The teaching proceeds that the ropes and the snake look essentially the same. Without a greater investigation that which appears to be true is not, often with a consequence that is fatal. The second form of knowledge deals with Relative Truth.[8] Relative knowledge[9] concerns the phenomenal world, which is universally experienced and real for practical purposes. Relative knowledge concerns the unenlightened and Buddhist put all world religions into this category, and reserve true knowledge as that which can only be attained through Buddhist meditation and teaching. Even for the adherent to Buddhism the great deal of normal daily existence is lived out in the realm of relative truth, for it serves ordinary life. The highest knowledge is “Void” (sunya), being named because nothing connected with relativity can be constituted in this knowledge. It is difficult to say much about it because no relative terms or words can be descriptive of it. It has no idea or logical representation. Void constitutes Enlightenment, also known as Nirvana.

Nirvana literally means “extinction,” and means a liberation from the disturbance of samsara that cycles through continuation of birth and death. When evil passions and desires from egoism are uprooted through Enlightenment, one can finally be “extinguished” and reach the “disappearance of form” merging with Oneness. The Buddhist however does not see this as a negation of being but rather its very establishment. In the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra we read: “When there is no more oil, the light goes out, but it means only the going out of the evil passions; as to the oil-container itself, it remains there. Likewise the Tathagata has all his evil passions extinguished but his Dharmakaya remains forever.”[10]

These are all the sorts of conversation necessary to begin a fruitful dialogue with the Buddhist. While the vast differences are certain to present challenges, the biblical revelation of creation, sin, and redemption are essential for striking up a bold witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The Buddhist worldview needs to be taken seriously and engaged with respect and dignity. Conversations will naturally have to proceed from an awareness that Jesus found it desirable to suffer for the Buddhist, the Hindu, those of the occult, and every philosophical persuasion. If this is maintained relationally, the confidence in dialogue must be apprehended through a belief that God’s Word is an efficacious Word that does and enacts what it claims.




[1] Knitter, Paul. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Oneworld Pubns Ltd, 2009. Print.
[2] In my undergrad experience at the University of Milwaukee this was the generally accepted thesis about world religions.
[3] W., James. The universe next door: a basic world view catalog. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988. 153-154. Print.
[4] Lopez, Donald S. Buddhist Scriptures. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Putnum, 2004. 33. Print.
[5] Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are outlined in  Lopez, Donald S. Buddhist Scriptures. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Putnum, 2004. 101. Print.
[6] These forms of truth are explicated in great depth here Von Glasenapp, Helmuth. Buddhism-A Non-Theistic Religion. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1972. 77. Print.
[7] Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955. 197. Print.
[8] I have chosen to capitalize terms that are capitalized in Buddhist texts.   
[9] Knowledge and truth are used interchangeably in Buddhist texts.
[10] Lopez, p. 182.