The American Mind Meets The Mind Of Christ Part 2

This is part 2 of 2 of a book review of The American Mind Meets The mind Of Christ, which is a collection of articles written by Concordia Seminary professors edited by Robert Kolb. In this section of the review, I’ll share my thoughts on what was taught in this book in terms of what I will teach, not teach, and do and not do in my future pastoral ministry as a result of having read The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ.

The American Mind

Show that Christianity Works

First, I thought the Paul W. Robinson article that addressed pluralism and the mix-and-match religious adherents of our day had a few good points that I thought would demand a place in my future role as a pastor.  Robinson said, “In a mix-and-match religion meaning is created by an individual’s choice and value is determined by how well a truth claim ‘works’” (Kolb, p. 74).  This statement triggered a memory I had of a point mentioned by Philip Goldberg in his book, American Veda, in which he said that religion serves five basic functions:

  1. Transmission: to impart to each generation meaningful customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity
  2. Translation: to help people interpret life events, acquire meaning and purpose, and affirm their connection to a larger whole
  3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships
  4. Transformation: to foster maturation, ongoing growth, and the development of more fulfilled and more complete persons
  5. Transcendence: to satisfy the yearning to enlarge the perceived boundaries of the self, touch the infinite, and unite with the ultimate Ground of Being (Goldberg, p. 14)

Goldberg thinks that “organized religions in the West have emphasized the first three functions and paid far less attention to the last two” (Goldberg, p. 14).  It is here in the neglect of the last two functions of religion that Goldberg thinks Hinduism has found its root in American culture.  Essentially, New Age, mix-and-match religious adherents are practicing Hindus, just in a purely American way and it is here that Goldberg, a practicing Hindu himself, and Robinson agree – the mix-and-match religious adherent wants his religious truth claims to work – at least that’s how I interpret Goldberg’s definitions of transformation and transcendence.

I don’t have the time in this book review to take up in full detail how Christianity may or may not find itself functioning with Goldberg’s five points, but never the less, I think showing how the truth claims of Christianity will work in the here and now could be the ticket to ministering to New Age adherents, or to those of other Eastern spiritualties.  I’ve encountered again and again Americans who have converted to Buddhism or who have picked elements of Buddhism to follow because they have found that those practices work for them in their day to day lives – relieving stress and leading to more contentment and overall peace.  This is one reason Meyer’s statement, “beware the extremes and go down the middle [path]” (Kolb, p. 19), stood out to me so much in the discussion of wealth.  The “middle path” is the path the Buddha advocated and he found it only after having lived a path on both extremes of wealth (one being a prince and the other being an extreme ascetic).  Most of these converts don’t make too much of the reincarnation claims and other religious elements of Buddhism so much, as they just really dig the benefits they experience from following the eight-fold path and Buddhist meditation.

To move my preaching and teaching into a realm that will show how Christianity will work, I think the practical points of instruction of The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ will work.  Far too often, preaching in American churches focuses on the morality of what God wants us to do and not do and the transaction function taught is typically just Christ forgives your sins as the Gospel is proclaimed.  But if the theme of teaching Christians to see the idols in their lives through their cultural moorings with demonstrations of how such false gods lead down a path of pain and ruin as all paths apart from God’s will for our lives eventually do, we can then foster spiritual maturity and discipleship growth as we teach the full counsel of God’s Word with the benefits of what following the middle path of our culture will look like and what the benefits in the here and now will bring to the Christian who seeks after the Lord.  And to be clear, this isn’t some sort of prosperity Gospel that mingles Law and Gospel, this is a call to ditch our American idols for a closer walk with our Lord.  In such a walk, it doesn’t matter if we are well fed or starving, because in Christ we can do all things through him who strengthens us – not so much when our trust is in our money and the food that we might at the moment wholly lack!

I also strongly think that teaching is more than just words but a demonstration of the teachings put into practice by the teacher… so I got to live this stuff out myself.  A point that struck me in the book was a connection between Meyer’s article on wealth and Leopoldo Sanchez’ article on making room for God in our busy lives of individualism and indulgence.  Meyer says we must teach our congregants the “duty of rest” as a key to helping us escape the never ending rat race for more cheese.  Sanchez mentions this too and he says that far too often pastors don’t take time to rest, and that the sheep usually do what their shepherds do.  So how can pastors foster time of rest with God and rest with each other so we are not just cut off lone Americans hustling for bread before sitting in front of our television altars when we aren’t working?  He doesn’t really say, but he does speak of his experience growing up in Panama where the churches had daily mass and one would stop at church on the way to work for prayer and rest and to receive the body and blood of Christ.  The implication is clear… do our churches provide time for rest with God and together as a body of believers in our day to day lives.  Would that be valuable?  I think it would be and there are many factors that can keep this from being a reality, but I do have ideas to move in this direction, such as having a prayer room that is always open and accessible, or a daily prayer time with devotions printed that people can pick up as they enter the sanctuary.  I wouldn’t have to be present at all of these sacred opportunities for rest, as certain church members can lock and unlock the door on assigned days. This could be something very inviting to the community too, and it could be the perfect opportunity for the “American mystic” to sneak into the sanctuary, as David Schmitt describes this person as being drawn to the sacred spaces of Christianity but not drawn to the institutionalized community.  Such a time of invitation to come in and prayer with some guided resources available as an optional worship guide could be just the type of practices of hospitality that an American mystic needs to eventually get connected with Christ.  (Kolb, 78-79)

Make Christian Education Important and Relevant

As I have said, many of the articles ended with exhortations to teach the congregation the points of the particular article, namely pointing out the idolatry of that aspect of American culture and how to best drop it like a bad habit or to redeem that cultural element to the mind of Christ.  I can’t recall any time that the cultural topics of this book were taught in a Lutheran church service or Sunday school class.  Preaching on the pitfalls of our day to day culture that many of us daily embrace seems to be the most important topic for us to engage in regularly and often.  I aim to find amble time to incorporate cultural topics and current events into my preaching and teaching as a pastor, especially on issues such as politics and government that Biermann addressed, and science and technology and even transhumanism that Okamoto addressed. We can speak on movies and what they teach and how their teachings compare to the counsel of God as Lewis did in his article on cultural cinema.  Touching on such cultural topics regularly and often will also give a relevancy to my sermons as such issues are…. well, relevant.

I also think we must address obesity in the church as Lessing did.  It is crucial.  We are killing ourselves and limiting our range of service to God and our neighbor by not being physically well.  How many Christians don’t go on “missions” trips because they simply can’t because they’re too fat.  My granddad retired at 55 (he was from that generation) and he then went to work for Habit for Humanity for well over a decade every day, building homes for those in need.  He still keeps a garden and gives food from it to others and he goes out of his way to help others who are elderly who aren’t as capable to do certain daily chores.  He couldn’t do any of this if he was morbidly obese.  Too many in our churches will die too many years too early due to wretched eating habits –  a rejection of their God given bodies.  Have they let Gnosticism creep into their belief system as Lessing claims? I’m not sure, but I can emphasize the totality of our human nature being both body and spirit in my teachings and stress that the full salvation of man comes at the resurrection of the dead at Christ’s return not at the earthly departure of our spirit from our body, and as to providing a practical help in this regard, my wife and I have spoken about the need to offer some healthy snack options next to the doughnuts at church.

Finally, when it comes to teaching, I take away strong agreement with Robinson’s suggestion that “instruction must be tailored to specific situations and even specific individuals” (Kolb, p. 76).  This means in a Sunday school setting the people in the class dictate what is said and taught.  What questions do they have?  What’s going on in the community or congregation that needs to be addressed?  What religion is in the news this week, or what movie is numero uno at the box office, and what questions will these bring to the class discussion?  This also means that people need one on one attention and time to be taught what is most important for them to know right then and there concerning both God’s Law and Gospel in whatever matter is going on in their life.  I had great success with this approach as a high school world religions and Christian apologetics teacher.  Even when I taught the same lesson six times, I’d end up with vastly different experiences in each class by letting the students take control of the class through their questions and interests based on the subject I had prepared.  In a setting which doesn’t demand a fixed classroom agenda, such as in a church congregation, I think I’d shine at this approach, but that is also because I’m very comfortable at speaking extemporaneously, which I think we all have to be as teachers – at least if we are going to be good teachers.  Such openness to questions and even shifting planned topics if the class demands it also brings about the trust necessary to know that the teacher/pastor is open to any and all dialog which prompts plenty of great personal and sometimes unplanned Nicodemus moments that go on to have long lasting impact on the receiver and their fields of influence.  (John 3)

An element of why Robinson said we need to tailor our instruction in this manner is that he has found that traditional catechesis no longer addresses the problems of modernity, in which we are up against a lot more than just evolution vs. creation debates.  We now have an entire smorgasbord of worldviews that contend with our Christian faith.  Knowing this, I think we need to be well aware of many religions, not just Christianity.  The good news is that in some ways we don’t need to know that much about these other religions to still be seen as experts on them, because to be honest, Americans don’t know much about the world’s religions, nor even basic Biblical literacy.  The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey in 2010 to ascertain how much religious knowledge Americans possess. A random sample of 3,412 adults were contacted via phone and asked thirty-two religious questions. The average score was 50 percent, or an F! The highest-scoring group was the atheists and agnostics; they got 65 percent, or a D. Mormons outscored Christians on questions about the Bible and Christianity.

If we can just learn a decent bit of what other religions teach, it will go a long way in our witnessing abilities in our missions and ministries.  I once engaged with a Hare Krishna that was handing out materials at my local Wal-Mart and inviting people to a service at his temple.  Because I knew enough about Hinduism, not Hare Krishna, but Hinduism, I was able to recognize that he was likely Hare Krishna and not a Hindu without him telling me.  I was able to guess much of what he believed from the connections I assumed would be present in Hare Krishna from Hinduism.  And as he was describing a teaching to me, I used a technical term I knew from Hinduism that I thought expressed what he was trying to describe and his countenance completely changed and reached out to shake my hand and as I shook his hand he was smiling and saying over and over, “Brother, brother, you know, you know.”  I had to explain to him that I knew the term, but that I didn’t believe it to be a true doctrine.  His countenance didn’t change. He was still just so excited that I knew some things about his vastly minority religion.  When he asked what I believed then, I had already gained a lot of respect and shown that I wasn’t just denying the truth of his position from a place of complete ignorance of his faith.  Seriously, even though we do know the one true God and should be confident in this without knowledge of other religions, how arrogant is it to tell someone that he is wrong concerning the most important aspect of his life, his religion, when you know absolutely nothing about what he believes?

In our culture, coexistence and tolerance are valued.  I seriously do believe that if we can get our church bodies to be Biblically literate and to be able to ace the Pew Research religion quiz, the church will find itself as a people who are not just aliens and strangers who are NOTW, but seen to be wise people who can be trusted on spiritual and religious matters, because they know we’ve taken the time to study them. Also, if we can shake our own idols and live with hope and joy through our American culture that offers as much for us to fear as to love, we’ll be seen as the spiritual gurus – not Phillip Goldberg and his American Vedanta! People will come to us for spiritual and religious advice and guidance even when they are not Christians.  This is where I think our missions and ministries need to hone our focus on Christian education and countering the false worldviews so prevalent in our pluralistic culture, because the church is really weak in these regards.

Raising Up Defenders of the Faith

In the introduction to this book, Kolb says, “Since about 1980, and particularly since 2000, increasing numbers of Christians have experienced encounters with levels of antagonism toward the Christian faith that had previously not existed in North America.”  When I read this my first thought was, “That’s why we need apologetics.”  And on this point, I think The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ is greatly lacking, and this isn’t surprising to me, since in my undergrad theology studies at Concordia University Irvine there was only one course named Apologetics, and from what I know Concordia Seminary doesn’t even offer a single Apologetics course.

There were some moments in the book that I would have liked to have had more apologetic responses offered, or a mere mention of the word apologetics.  For instance, when Gnosticism is mentioned as a key reason for why so many of us in our country are dying of obesity, I think it would have been nice to spend more time making a case against Gnosticism.  Maybe point to how Irenaeus tackled Gnosticism, or how the early church beat Gnosticism.  The heresy just recently had a resurgence due to the finding of the Gnostic Gospels in the Nag Hamddi discovery – what are in these texts that are so appealing for people today? Could the ways the church countered Gnosticism in the second to third centuries potentially be something good for us to do too?

Schmitt advocated that we should have an invitation of hospitality to the American mystic over and beyond explanation, but when the real talk comes, he said we’ll find ourselves learning from the mystic a rediscovery of “how to talk about the things of God” (Kolb, p. 91).  However, “at times such conversation will be awkward and tentative, as we search for the right words so that we faithfully express the mind of Christ to the American mystic” (p. 91).  That’s all he says on this point.  I’d love to have heard more on what would the American mystic say that I’d find awkward, what I’d feel compelled counter – what would be necessary to counter since it opposes the mind of Christ.  I think I would have wanted a few pages addressing this part of the conversation so that I will be prepared to give a defense for the truthfulness of the Christian message to whatever contradictory speech I should expect to encounter after a time of hospitality with the American mystic.

The moment where I felt as if apologetics was invoked the most was at the end of Okamoto’s article on science and technology.  He rightly says that simply claiming the Bible to be the Word of God “does little work in supporting our account of the universe, our conclusions about life, and all of our teachings” (Kolb, p. 110).  He rightly points us to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the testimony of those he commissioned to be the proper way to account for the authority of the Bible.  But, that’s where he ends the article.  There is not mention of how one would give reason to or defend the truthfulness of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that gives authority to the truthfulness of the Bible.  I think a few sentences or two to describe what methodology would be used to do this would be helpful.  In his article he also addressed ideas of falsifiability as defined by Karl Popper that were empirical and based on repeatable and observable testing, but he didn’t drive home that this isn’t the only way of discerning the validity of truth claims.  Here I think mention of the process of court examinations and the methods used in discerning the truth of what occurred in the past would be helpful to point out that we all discern truthfulness concerning past events that we never witnessed and that we all believe things that cannot be empirically discerned, and thus there must be other acceptable methods for discerning truth besides just the scientific method.  This lends itself to defending our claim that the Bible has authority to speak on the origin of the universe on account of the historical claims and work of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s also good to point out that the origins of the universe are not something that the scientific method can rightly touch anyways since such an event isn’t falsifiable by Popper’s accepted standards of falsifiability.

As a pastor, I’d certainly want to equip my parishioners to be able to answer objections that they’ll inevitably face as they share their faith in missions and ministry.  I also would want to do my best to answer such questions that they have that bring them doubts or into a state of anxiety concerning the truthfulness of the mind of Christ revealed in Scripture.  As such, they’ll be equipped and ready to not only share the Gospel in their vocations, but also defend it.

4 Models of Preaching

Notes taken from a class discussion on Thomas G. Long’s presentation of 4 models of preaching found in his book, The Witness of Preaching.

The Herald Model

Herald Model of PreacherKarl Barth popularized this model.

God is the king and the preacher is the herald delivering God’s message to the people.

The emphasis is on the delivery of the Word and being normed by the Scriptures.

This model doesn’t necessitate a dynamic speaker or any special speaking abilities.  It avoids the celebrity pastor trap.  The downside is that there is a disconnect between the preacher and the congregation.

The Pastor Model

The pastor looks to his congregation and sees their needs and then goes to the Word and Pastor Model of Preachingsees what his people need to hear from the Word and then gives that message to his congregation.

Emphasis is on the benefit of the hearers and is likely more guided by the Scriptures than normed by the Scriptures.

Intentionally seeks to preach to felt needs of the people.  A downside is that the pastor might tend to start with psychology and counseling before going to the Word.  This can lead to reading into the text.

The pastor might also speak to a particular situation that a particular congregant or two are dealing with, but those congregants don’t show up for that sermon.

Storytelling Model

Storytelling Model of PreachingPreaching through storytelling.

The Gospel itself is a story so this model sees storytelling as superior theologically.

This model combines the herald and the pastor models.

It is easier for people to find themselves in a story than in a lecture.  The sermon text becomes the story.  A downside is that this model is sometimes used to influence or move people emotionally. 

Witness Model

The congregation calls the preacher to the Word to deliver the sermon to them.  Witness Model of Preaching

The preacher has authority to preach because he has been called by the congregation and because he has wrestled with the text of the Word.

The preacher goes to the Scriptures with the congregation in mind and he testifies about Christ to them as his words are to convey the event and witness to what he has heard and seen from the Word of God.

The American Mind Meets The Mind Of Christ Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a book review of The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ which was written by ten Concordia Seminary professors and edited by Robert Kolb.
Why does American Christianity need The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ?

In Southern California, NOTW bumper stickers litter the back end of vehicles as much or more than the popular Coexist sticker.    It took me awhile to figure out what the NOTW sticker meant – “Not of this World – in reference to Jesus’ statement about his followers in John 17:16 in which he says, “They are not of this world, just as I am not of it.”  Though Christians are members of God’s eternal kingdom and are “aliens and strangers in the world,” as Peter describes us, we are still very much in this world. In other words, the reality is that Christians who are NOTW still coexist in a culture and society with people who display the Coexist bumper sticker sold by Peacemonger, a printing company that specializes in stickers that lean towards religious syncretism and the endorsement of New Age beliefs and Eastern spirituality and are only negative against the Christian faith.  It is in this state of social pluralism with a multiplicity of religious beliefs and values that the Christian daily swims, and though the conservative Christian with the NOTW sticker on his car can likely agree that we need peaceful tolerance of diverse ideas and expressions of belief in American society, he probably hasn’t drunk deeply of the other message that Coexist is often interpreted to espouse – that all religions are equally valid and true paths to God.

Even though many Christians have avoided the growing ethos of religious universalism, there are many American Christians who belong to church bodies who have not successfully held on to the exclusivity of Christ’s message to be the only way to the Father.  But the NOTW sporting Christian shouldn’t grow too comfortable, thinking he’s escaped the culture war or religious unionism due to his sticker, because culture is a multi-headed beast that is the conglomeration of all the people’s diverse opinions and experiences in a society that blend together to form uniquely particular presuppositions about life and the world for the group as a whole.  Since not everyone in American society is “not of this world” it means that American Christians have certainly had their worldviews formed by cultural presuppositions that are derived from the ways of this world that stand in opposition to the mind of Christ.  This leads us to have to struggle to discern and know the mind of Christ revealed to us in Scripture, because we inevitably are bringing our American-tinged minds to the interpretation of God’s Word.

The American Mind.jpgTo help American-Christians wake-up to elements of the American way of life that stand in opposition to the message of Christ and his will for our lives and to aid us in proclaiming the goodness and truth that God has gifted to us within our culture, nine Concordia Seminary professors have taken on the task of thinking deeply on various aspects of our “American minds” to see how they align with the “mind of Christ.”  The articles they have generated comprise The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ and cover the cultural landscape of health and wealth, individualism and community, religion and religiosity, science and culture, and media.  With the seminary’s mission professor emeritus of systematic theology, Robert Kolb, at the helm of editing this tour de force of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American culture that most American-Christians have taken for granted as being rather neutral or positive in our alignment to the mind of Christ, the Church in American has been given sage advice on how to best witness to the culture through the culture in mission and ministry.

Recognizing Idols, Taking the Middle Path, and Being the Spiritual Gurus that we Truly Are

Three major ministry and mission themes emerge throughout The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ.  The first theme is recognizing that most aspects of American culture are idols or prone to be idols and these elements must be ditched in order to properly walk with God.  This first theme leads to the second theme, which is that there is often times a middle-path within the idolatry-prone aspects of our culture in which we can tread to the glory of God, and it is on this path that we can call others to walk through our ministries and missions.  The third theme follows the first two in that Christians should be the spiritual gurus in our culture!  We know the truth.  We know God.  We of all people in our culture should be the spiritual gurus – the teachers that enlighten the path to God.  It’s time to teach, teach, and teach some more the mind of Christ that we alone can know since we have the Word of God and the Spirit of Truth that knows the mind of Christ.  In doing so, we’ll show people their idols and help them ditch their false gods as they hop on the middle-path centered on Christ.

As I explained in the introduction, culture is deeply ingrained within us – it’s as natural to us as water is to a fish.  Because of this we are not always aware of how it forms our presuppositions on all matters of life and because our American culture is second nature to us we don’t easily recognize when we become dependent on our cultural norms for how we ought to live our lives.  This is where many of the authors recognized our American idols.  When we are dependent on anything but God, we have made an idol.  Also, multiple articles pointed to Luther’s definition that an idol is anything that we fear, love, or trust above God and our culture provides much to fear and love and trust that entices us into idolatry.

For instance, Dale Meyer suggested that our American consumerism can become an idol as we are prone to find our satisfaction and joy in our possessions, created things instead of our Creator. (Kolb, p. 19) R. Reed Lessing reminds us that many Americans have placed trust in medicine over and above God as they pursue to perfect their bodies for their own glory instead of God’s. (Kolb, p. 33) Joel Biermann teaches that the American concept of individual and personal rights is a cultural construct that is not shared by all cultures.  Our demand for personal rights drives us inward to our centers which Biermann says, “invariably ends with the individual self-enthroned and both God and the neighbor deposed” (Kolb, p. 46) There were numerous other examples of idolatry embedded within American culture, but I’ll close with one more.  Joel Okamoto demonstrates how science and technology are both sources of great hope (in that they better our lives to the point that we couldn’t fathom living without them) and fear (in that sometimes they give us devices like the A-bomb or the possibility of losing our humanity through transhumanism – which is something that some hope in instead of fear).  And as sources of great hope and fear, science and technology thus become idols by Luther’s definition of what a god is.

Once we recognize what the idols and potential areas of idolatry are for us within American culture, we must relinquish our hold on these idols and the solution the authors of the book gave again and again was to “beware the extremes and go down the middle [path]” (p. 19) An example of the middle path route to an aspect of our culture came in Lessing’s article on bodily health.  Too often we either reject the body (obesity is the second leading cause of death in America) or we strive to perfect it (as I mentioned above).  Both of these our extreme sides of American health that pull us away from God’s design for our bodies that the middle path approach of “respecting the body” can avoid.  This respect is grounded in realizing that we are persons comprised of both a body and a soul.  The one who rejects the body, typically does so by valuing the spiritual aspect of humanity over the physical (Lessing says this is an on-going influence from Gnosticism), and the one who strives to perfect the body essentially is pursuing a godhood grounded in his own physicality.  Respecting the body leads one to see that God has made our great bodies for us and that “our goal is to be available for Jesus Christ for the longest amount of time, with the greatest amount of energy, and the highest degree of emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being” (Kolb, p. 39).  This availability is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God as we serve him and our neighbors through ministry and missions.

Another middle path approach to culture came through David Lewis’ approach to watching American movies, though Lewis didn’t directly speak this middle-path; he demonstrated it.  Far too often Americans dive into movies head first for entertainment, not considering that movies convey messages and can form us as we partake in the viewing of the American culture embedded within the films.  Some Christians however do see this influence of movie consumption and to avoid being moved to sin avoid much of popular American culture.  This approach pulls them away from having the opportunity to be able to speak “sometimes with, and sometimes against, the values of the surrounding culture in this American context in which we are called to confess and live out our Christian faith” (Kolb, p. 140).   Lewis demonstrated how this speaking can be done through an in-depth analysis of the architypes of American movies in relationship to the architype of the mind of Christ and showed how embedded in two of the great classics of American cinema is the message that the ideal pattern of living is that of Christ’s – to deny one’s personal desires and wellbeing and to consider others before yourself.  This also happened to be the suggested path in Biermann’s article on individual rights – it’s best for us to approach life as if we have no rights since we are to put others’ rights before our own.

The third major theme that emerged through the book was an answer for what Christians should do with the two previous themes, in particular what pastors and future pastors should do with these themes since this book was written by seminary professors with that audience primarily in mind, and that is to teach the counsel of God on all of these cultural matters.  Essentially, it is the pastor’s job to help the congregation recognize the idols in their lives that they likely are unaware are false gods for them.  It is the pastor’s job to correct cultural lies and norms that are in opposition to the will of God for the lives of his congregants.  Finally, the fruit of such teaching is for our relationship with the Lord to be strong and vibrant.  He alone is our all-sufficient savior and any cultural idols that pull us away from him could lead us to reject our faith in God as it is a real potential that our love and fear and trust in such idols could grow to the point that we decide to squeeze the true God out of our lives entirely – to our eternal damnation.  As Christians learn the middle path approach to culture in which we avoid the idolatrous ditches of the extremes of our culture, we will know how to not just emphasize the NOTW aspect of our identity in Christ, but we’ll also know how to better witness and serve our pagan neighbors as we are in the world and in the culture in missions and ministry to them.  I think in this way we’ll become the spiritual gurus of our culture – because if we can shirk our idols and walk the path God has intended for us in this world, we’ll shine like stars in this crooked and depraved world (and culture) and some people will be drawn to us for the knowledge of God that we readily teach and proclaim.

Creeds! What are they good for?

The following is an example of an all too common conversation that arises when certain Christians encounter confessional subscription for the first time. 

Lucy: Hey, Andy, I know you are studying at a Lutheran seminary.  I was hoping you could explain to me what just occurred during this installation service for Pastor Forde.

Andy: (Starts to nod yes to give a reply, but is cut off.)

Lucy: During the service, the pastor said he confessed the Bible to be (she throws up her fingers for air quotes) “the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”  But then he also pledged himself to the creeds and the Lutheran Confessions.  Then he promised that everything he would do as a pastor would be (throws up her fingers for air quotes again) “in conformity with Holy Scripture and these Confessions.”  This seems like a contradiction.

Andy: How so?

Lucy: It seems to me that the promise he made puts the Confessions on the same plain of authority as the Bible.  Is this correct?

Andy:  No.  That isn’t correct.  Before I answer your question, let me first share with you what the Confessions are, so that you know what it is he subscribed to believe to be in conformity with Scripture. The Lutheran Confessions are called The Book of Concord which contains the three ecumenical creeds of the Church, the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasius Creed, as well multiple documents written during the 16th century during the Reformation: Luther’s Small and Large Catechism, Philip Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession and Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Smalcald Articles, Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Authority and Primacy of the Pope – in which he calls the office of the pope the office of the Anti-Christ – it’s awesome!  You’ll love it Lucy – and the Formula of Concord, which was written by many authors.

I can give you more information on any of these writings, if you would like them, but to answer your question; what the pastor just subscribed to was that he unconditionally recognizes that these writings are a correct exposition of the Bible.  In other words, The Book of Concord accurately represents the teachings of Scripture.  It is not “the infallible rule of faith and practice.”  Instead, the Confessions are normed by “the infallible rule of faith and practice” – the Bible.

Lucy: Do I understand you to be saying that these Confessions are true only insofar as they represent accurately what is in Scripture?

Andy: Some Lutherans might be open to accepting such a subscription, but my church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, expects our pastors to subscribe unconditionally to the Lutheran Confessions not insofar as they are a correct exposition of the Word, but because they are a correct exposition of the Word.

Lucy: To my way of thinking this still seems like splitting hairs.  It appears as if the Confessions are being raised to the level of Scripture.  Why is it necessary to have the Confessions?  In my Church, we don’t believe in creeds or have confessions; we just believe in the Bible.

Andy: I understand how this can be a bit confusing to you, as I do understand how this might seem as if we are adding words to the Bible, since you are not familiar with confessions or their use.  I ensure you that’s not what we are doing, and I might be able to help you understand how we are not doing this by pointing out that you just shared a creed of your church body.

Lucy: I didn’t share a creed.  We only believe the Bible.

Andy:  That’s your creed.  (Pausing to let it sink in)

Lucy: …That’s not a creed.  It’s an anti-creed.

Andy: A creed is simply a statement of belief.  You believe that creeds are not necessary for a church body to have and confess, but that is a statement of belief, thus creedal.  Essentially, everyone has creeds.

Lucy: So maybe what I’m asking and really wanting to know is, why isn’t the Bible enough?  What task or function do the Confessions play that make them necessary, or really important?

Andy: Great questions.  When we consider the Bible, it’s not that large of a book, but certainly there are many interpretations that emerge concerning it, wouldn’t you agree?

Lucy: Yes.  I know that you Lutherans believe that baptism saves you, but I reject that idea entirely.

Andy: That’s an example of division in the Body of Christ.  And from my experiences, when discussing this teaching, both sides of the debate end up using the same verses.  When I point to verses that I believe demonstrate the promises of forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation that God has given to us in baptism, Christians from your position typically say those verses are about spiritual baptism.

Lucy:  That’s right.  My church body would say such gifts are received in Spiritual Baptism when we receive the Holy Spirit and faith – or when we are born again.

Andy:  Because of these differing interpretations and the different hermeneutics – rules of interpretation – that bring forth these contradictory teachings, confessions are necessary and helpful.  They place a stake in the ground concerning what one understands to be the proper interpretation of Scripture.  You and I both would agree that we what we believe is found in Scripture, but we believe different things are taught by Scripture.  For instance, how would I know what you and your church body believes concerning the Bible, since all you believe is the Bible?  Would I have to read the whole Bible?  And then because of different hermeneutics, I still likely wouldn’t arrive at knowing what you believe when you say, “I just believe the Bible.”

Lucy: You’d go to our church website and you can find our “What We Believe” page.

Andy:  And when I click on it, would the page simply show a picture of a Bible, or would it take me to the entire text of the Bible, since that’s “just what you believe?”

Lucy: (Pausing a moment in thought) Are you suggesting that our “What We Believe” page functions as our Confessions.

Andy:  Yes, I am.  And I think when you understand that, you’ll understand more fully the function of confessions. I’m sure you believe that your church’s “What We Believe” page is in submission to Scripture.

Lucy:  I do.

Andy: And as such, that page and the beliefs found on it, are a helpful tool for you to share your faith with others.  It’s a good summation of what you (throwing up air quotes with his fingers) “confess” to be true as a Christian – even though the Bible is (again, throwing up air quotes with his fingers) “the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

Lucy:  I’m glad we’re having this conversation.  I’m understanding creeds and confessions in a brand new light.

Andy: Thanks for taking the time to understand our position and use of the Lutheran Confessions.  We certainly don’t want anyone to think that we are adding to or taking away from Scripture with our use of creeds and confessions.  I think it is also helpful to understand the origins of confessions.  Many scholars consider 1 Corinthians 15 to contain an early church creed.  Paul says that what he first received he passed on to the Corinthians as of first importance.  As I said, creeds are useful for sharing and teaching the faith with others, because they formulate what is in Scripture in precise statements that Scripture doesn’t always do for us.  The idea then is that Paul received this instruction when he became a believer and then he used that instruction to pass the faith on to others.  It’s a very simple creed: “Christ died for sins, was buried, and raised on the third day according to Scripture,” and then a list of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord is given.  If someone were to ask me what the Gospel is, I’d use that creedal statement that in this instance, interestingly, goes back to before Scripture was even written!

Lucy:  Are there other reasons creeds and confessions are used, or other reasons they were formulated besides simply confessing and teaching?

Andy: I do think we take for granted much of the doctrines we know in the Church today.  For instance, if I looked on your church’s website’s (throwing up air quotes) “creedal page,” I imagine that I would find statements about the Trinity – God being three persons, yet one God.  That doctrine and the wording we use to describe the nature of God is not clearly defined or formulated in Scripture.  We can see that all three persons are fully God in Scripture and we can see that Scripture is clear that there isn’t three Gods, so what do we do with that?  Well… thankfully, the early Church handled such problems for us by formulating doctrinal statements on the Trinity – a word that is not in the Bible by the way.  The Church was forced to do such work, because they recognized that teachings were emerging that were against the witness of Scripture.  Because the saints that have gone before us have done such work formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, such as what is recorded in the Nicene Creed, we don’t have to and that creed can serve as a boundary marker for us on what is correct and incorrect concerning the person and nature of the Triune Lord.

Lucy:  So what do you do if a new controversy or false teaching arises that isn’t addressed in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church?

Andy:  I’m glad you asked.  The Confessions can serve as a flexible guide that shifts to the needs of the times, since the Confessions don’t always address the concerns of the day.  For instance, a couple of decades ago, the book series, Left Behind, sparked a lot of conversation concerning the return of Christ.  The Lutheran Confessions don’t directly make statements on the Rapture or the Millennium found in Revelation chapter 20, yet they do provide guidance on what is allowed and not allowed to believe concerning such matters by the boundary markers they set concerning how we can interpret Scripture.

Lucy:  It is interesting that you mention that example, because when that series was so popular, our church made an addition to our “What We Believe” page.  Do you think your church body would ever add or update your Confessions to meet the needs of the day?

Andy:  It is possible.  We however have the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) that provides study documents, opinions and statements on theological issues that are not directly and specifically addressed by the Confessions in our current context.  Their reports serve as guidance to the pastors and congregations in our church body, but pastors are not bound to subscribe to them as they are the Confessions.

Lucy:  This is all very fascinating.  Thank you for taking the time to explain the Book of Concord to me.

Andy:  I’m glad you found my answers helpful.  Let me send you a text message of an image I have saved that I think will serve as a good summary of what we’ve discussed that you can use as a tool to help explain this conversation to others in your church.  I probably should have pulled this up at the start of our conversation. (Sends text message)

Lucy: (Opens message and sees the following image)

Creeds and Confessions

Everybody has a creed!

Everybody has a creed!

  • Every personal belief has a statement that expresses it.
  • Even those Christians who say “No creed except the Bible.”
    • That in itself is a creed.
    • This is a self-contradictory position.

Why isn’t the Bible enough?

  • Even though the Bible is a small book, there is a lot of content in it.
  • There are differing interpretations – different hermeneutics that bring forth contradictory teachings.
  • Confessions place a stake in the ground concerning what one understands to be the proper interpretation of Scripture.

The first creeds/confessions of the Church

  • The most important teachings, formulated in a way that you can get it across to your pagan neighbor! This would be like 1 Cor. 15
  • Nicene Creed – Written to counter false teachings
  • Irenaeus used the rule of faith
    • Subjective – everyone has a rule of faith that they run with
    • But this rule of faith must be in submission to Scripture
    • As to confessions the rule of faith has a flexible guide
      • This flexible guide shifts to the needs of the people
        • Confessions don’t always address the concerns of the day
        • Is it Left Behind? Is it speaking in tongues and spiritual gifts?  Is it transgender issues?  It depends.
      • Operative rule of faith
        • A rule that one would write for his current situation to operate by

The confessions set boundaries/parameters by which we can interpret Scripture.