Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Story of the Wittenberg Concord – Kittelson on Luther

I mentioned previously that I had read this book and found some of its material interesting enough to share with you, gentle readers.

This piece is Kittelson’s description of how the Wittenberg Concord, as they say, went down. I found it to be a rather interesting story, and one that I had not heard before in anything like this much detail. So bear with me as this is going to be long. But you just might learn something like I did. The setting is Spring 1536.

James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Fortress, 2003), 267–68.
Unpredictably, Luther also showed himself willing to overlook, at least for the moment, one misstep on the part of the Strasbourg pastors. In February Bucer and Capito participated in writing a confession for the Baslers in which they minimized the physical presence of Christ in the bread and the wine. Perhaps unaware of what had transpired, Luther still invited them and other south German theologians to a meeting at Eisenach on May 14. There they could discuss whatever differences remained.

In the interim, Luther’s suspicions had returned. When the southerners arrived at Eisenach, there was no Luther. Days passed, and he had still not arrived. They traveled further east and there received a message from Luther in which the reformer pleaded yet another outbreak of illness and asked them to meet him not far beyond Leipzig. Bucer preempted these delays. He replied that the entire party would come to Wittenberg.

When they arrived, they learned that for unexplained reasons Luther would not meet with them. But then early the next morning they were suddenly called into his presence. Equally suddenly, the meeting was adjourned until mid-afternoon. Finally Bucer had a chance to explain at length all he had done in the last years for the sake of concord. Luther still appeared to be filled with suspicion. He replied by declaring that Bucer and Capito had to condemn Zwingli’s teachings explicitly and declare their belief in the real presence without regard to the communicants’ faith or lack of faith. After listening to a few words in response, Luther said that he felt faint and had to leave so that he could rest.

Skilled debater that he was, Luther had exposed the sorest point between them. With great care, Bucer and Capito had covered over the issue of what a person without faith received in the Lord’s Supper. Did the real presence of Christ’s body and blood depend on the communicant’s disposition? To an unbeliever, were the elements merely bread and wine? How was Paul’s declaration that whoever ate and drank in an “unworthy manner” brought “judgment on himself” to be understood? True to his reading of the gospel, Luther held that one who believed the words of Christ’s institution was a Christian. In this passage, therefore, the unfaithful and the unworthy were identical, and they received Christ’s body and blood, although they did so to their judgment. By the same token, for Bucer and Capito it remained unthinkable that bread and wine could—in and of themselves, with only the Words of Institution and without faith—be the body and blood of Christ.

Luther’s last demand crushed the delegation from south Germany. They could freedly deny that they had ever taught as Zwingli had done, or at least like the Zwingli of the Ratio Fidei that had been circulated at the Diet of Augsburg. But granting that infidels could eat the body of Christ with their teeth and drink his blood with their tongues was another matter. What the south Germans did not know was that Luther himself was unable to sleep that night.

The next afternoon, Bucer replied. He and his colleagues had never taught that the bread and the wine were mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood. To the extent that Zwingli had done so, he was in error. As to the second demand, Bucer declared that all who came to the Lord’s Supper were among the unworthy, and that all (even those without a living faith) were offered the body and blood of Christ in the Supper.

Luther asked if each of the south Germans was in agreement with Bucer’s confession. When they said they were, he turned to his colleagues from Wittenberg and asked if they were satisfied. They talked a little, but nodded their agreement. Luther asked Bucer, Capito, and the others once again if they truly believed what Bucer had said. They said they did. Abruptly, Luther radiated joy and kindness. He declared that they were all in concord and brothers in Christ.

Bucer and Capito wept. Luther had gone an uncharacteristic extra step. He had passed over the question of what the unworthy received in the Lord’s Supper and the problem of the precise relationship between “faith” and “worthiness.” For the sake of unity, he had contented himself with what Bucer offered.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Friendly Critique from Hauerwas: Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (5)

Stanley Hauerwas, some may be surprised to learn, deeply respects the work of Walter Rauschenbusch. In many ways, the two thinkers seem to share a common heritage. Note this appraisal of the Social Gospel thinker by the renowned contemporary theologian and ethicist:

Walter Rauschenbusch was an evangelist of the kingdom of God. The sermon that is Christianity and the Social Gospel is as desperately needed in our day as it was in his. The passion for justice, his prayers for social awakening, the hymns of social solidarity, and the institutions for humane care he created cannot be taken for granted. The work he began we must continue (176).


Constantine I

These comments come from short a commentary on chapter four -- "Why has Christianity Never Undertaken the Word of Social Reconstruction" -- of Rauschenbusch's 1907 classic. According to Hauerwas, Rauschenbusch, as a liberal Protestant thinker, respects the historical figure of Jesus and his prophetic ethical teachings; furthermore, the Social Gospel evangelist recognizes that the good news of the kingdom is the true locus for perceiving the comprehensive character of nature of sin in its social and individual dimensions. If the advent of the kingdom brings a transformation of society through a praxis that integrates ethics and religion, then sin must reside not merely in the individual human heart but more broadly in the reactionary structures that inhibit authentic human flourishing. "Rauschenbusch saw quite clearly that sin is not merely something that we do but a power that possesses us" (174).

Still, Hauerwas does proffer criticisms. The problem is not that Rauschenbusch is a woolly-eyed optimist. Rather, the issue (it is claimed) is that his ecclesiology is deficient. Rauschenbusch, on this reading, links the regressive character of much classical Christianity to the very phenomena that are most fecund for vitalizing a radical social witness -- for example, the monastic movement, sacramental theology, traditional doctrine, a "churchly" ethos and the subordination of church to state. Rauschenbusch, thus, deflates the vital "eschatological tension" between church and world characteristic of the Constantinian arrangement (Yoder's work informs Hauerwas' comments here). Rauschenbusch's gospel risks identifying Christian praxis too closely with the ideals of Western civilization and democratic institutions.

Granted, Hauerwas might have a point in his claim that a lack of eschatological tension may hinder Rauschenbusch from being yet more radical than he is (for more on this, see my previous post). Still, I question whether the best solution to this problem comes from a renewed embrace of traditional ecclesiastical structures and practices. If we proceeded along more apocalyptic lines, by contrast, we might risk fostering a "pie in the sky" escape from socio-political realism in ethics. Or, maybe, this move might uncover possibilities for a critical alternative to both Rauschenbusch and Hauerwas.

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Source: Stanley Hauerwas, "Repent. The Kingdom is Near," in Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century, edited by Paul Rauschenbusch (New York: HarperOne, 2007), pp. 173-176.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Wow. It has been a while since the last link post. Over a month! We’ve got some catching up to do…

Here’s what’s been up at DET:


And here’s the harvest from other regions of the interwebs:


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Monday, July 14, 2014

Apocalypse Never: Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (4)

On the supposition of a future life we can adjourn the manifest inequities of this life to the hereafter and trust that good and evil will yet be balanced justly when time and eternity are put together (Walter Rauschenbusch, 13).
Many theologians and biblical scholars today read apocalyptic texts, against the backdrop of their historical context, as a form of political resistance – as an encrypted summons to subvert the forces of empire. Not so Walter Rauschenbusch. For him, rather, the emergence of apocalyptic religion in post-exilic Judaism stemmed from a declension from the holy, reforming zeal of the early prophets of Israel and Judah, who sought a total reformation of society based on the central ideals of the Torah.

In his classic Social Gospel manifesto, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), chapter 1, Rauschenbusch gives a sketch and interpretation of the rise, maturity and decline of the prophetic consciousness in ancient Hebrew religion. The burden of this chapter – indeed, of the book as a whole – is to prove that the roots and fruits of authentic Christianity reside not in pious individualism but in social justice and political righteousness. In the eighth century BCE, the prophets Amos and Hosea issued stern critiques of a religion corrupted by greed and oppression. In their writing, the powers that be are shown to be profoundly corrupt and venal in light of the socially egalitarian vision of the Mosaic law. (Rauschenbusch acknowledges that, from the standpoint of modern historical criticism, the canonical formulation of the Torah may have been decisively shaped by the message of the prophets rather than preceding that message chronologically, but resolving this issue is not crucial for his overall argument.)

According to Rauschenbusch, the early vision of the prophets was realistic, this-worldly and -- despite the strident emphasis on divine judgment of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and marginal – rooted in a fundamentally optimistic belief in the power of God to transform the chosen nation into an ethical commonwealth. The subjugation and exile of the southern kingdom under the Babylonians during the sixth century forged the watershed experiences that shattered national hopes for radical transformation of the social order. In the writings of Jeremiah the prophetic hope for nationwide renewal turns inward in a profound articulation of covenant piety. While this represents an axial development in the history of religion, in Rauschenbusch’s view, it also means a declension from the sociopolitical activism of the earlier prophets. This decline is exacerbated in Ezekiel, where the energies of piety are directed away from social ethics to the legalistic and formulaic ceremonialism of the priestly class.
This type of [prophetic] religion was destroyed when the national life itself was destroyed by the foreign conquerors. The nation had been the subject of prophecy, and now the nation as such was blotted out. How could the prophets any longer appeal for national righteousness, when it was not at the option of the people to be righteous? Political agitation among a people under jealous foreign despotism would mean revolutionary agitation and would never be tolerated. Thus all the religious passion and reflection which had formerly flowed into social and political channels was dammed up and turned back. Prayer and private devoutness in pious individuals and in groups of pious men was the only field left to the religious impulse. The religious history and the ceremonial worship of Israel were the only bond of national unity that survived (19-20).
The decline of prophetic religion, as Rauschenbusch has it, culminates in apocalypticism, which he understands to be the religious expression of a defeated people who can no longer afford to be political as any gesture toward sociopolitical critique becomes an act of fatal insurgency against the imperial overlords. Pre-exilic Hebrew religion, he claims, was notably free of speculation about the afterlife: The just demands of God’s law were to be vindicated in this world. After the exile, by contrast, the focus on renewing the national life in the here-and-now is projected into the realm of otherworldly speculation. The locus classicus of this transition is the book of Daniel. Rauschenbusch writes, “[W]hen the weight of foreign empire was so overwhelming and crushing that even the boldest hope could see no adequate resources in the people, the catastrophe that would break this power was conceived as a supernatural cataclysm out of all relation to human activity” (25).

In essence, apocalyptic religion expresses an alienation of authentic aspirations for transformation of public life (note the affinity with Marxist theory here). Of course, Rauschenbusch can only dismiss apocalyptic forecasts because he believes they are fanciful and will never be realized; nor, however, does he take this genre of literature seriously as a non-literal call to political resistance under hostile conditions. This rejection of apocalypticism as an ersatz religious impulse will have ramifications as Rauschenbusch’s argument unfolds throughout the book, especially in his utterly non-apocalyptic portrait of the person and message of the historical Jesus (chapter 2). Does this move soften the edginess and disturbing otherness of Jesus – not only for his contemporaries but for us as well?

Might it also be an irony of Rauschenbusch’s thought that his account of apocalyptic literature reveals the genesis of a particularly radical account of sociopolitical, structural evil -- a resource that the great Social Gospel theologian fails to appropriate for his own program for re-envisioning social ethics? He writes:
By contact with foreign religious life during the Exile the belief in a great organized kingdom of evil had become a vital part of Jewish thought and the Jews saw behind the oppressive human forces the shadowy and sinister forms of demon powers that could be overcome only by archangels and heavenly armies (25).
Might it be the case, pace Rauschenbusch, that the apocalyptic imagination cracks a window into a sphere of reality for which modern social criticism lacks suitable categories?

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*Page citations for the Rauschenbusch text come are from Paul Rauschenbusch, ed., Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

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Friday, July 11, 2014

John Calvin’s Brief Confession to Henry II of France, 1557

Yesterday was the 505th anniversary of John Calvin’s birthday. Long time DET readers knows that Calvin gets a decent bit of time around here, and so it should come as no surprise that I wanted to do something to mark his birthday. But since I was out of town yesterday, he’ll get his birthday present from DET a day late this year. I’m sure he won’t mind.

In any case, I read a lot of scholarly material throughout the academic year and in the summer I like to read some lighter stuff. You know, books that are not just professionally beneficial but also enjoyable and relaxing to read. This is the third summer in a row that I have met this need by reading through a volume of Calvin’s correspondence from the 7 vol. John Calvin: Tracts and Letters series. About a week ago I came across the below in one of Calvin’s letters and it struck me as a very interesting minor confession that could be studied with some profit. I won’t bore you with the details of my reaction to the piece, but suffice it to say that I immediate wanted to share it with you, gentles readers.

I have uploaded a .pdf version of this material to Academia.edu in case anyone would like to have it with nice clean formatting. Click here.



John Calvin, John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 6: Letters, Part 3 1554–1558 (Jules Bonnet, ed.; Marcus Robert Gilchrist, trans.; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 373–377. Calvin referred to this as “an undisguised and unvarnished summary of our faith” (377). The present document was prepared by W. Travis McMaken (July 2014), who inserted the paragraph markings to further formalize the paragraph breaks in the English translation.

¶1. In the first place, we believe in one God, of a simple essence, and yet, in which there are three distinct persons, as we are taught in the Holy Scriptures, and as the doctrine has been laid down by ancient councils; and we detest all sects and heresies, which the ancient doctors have combatted.

¶2. We believe that man, having been created in purity and integrity, has fallen by his own fault from the grace which he had received, and by this means is alienated from God who is the source of justice and all good; so that his nature has been wholly corrupted, and being blinded in mind, and depraved in heart, he has lost all integrity, nothing whatever remaining of it.

¶3. We believe that all the race of Adam is infected with such contagion, and that original sin is a hereditary vice, and not a simply imitation, as the Pelagians would insinuate, a sect whose errors we detest.

¶4. We believe also that this vice is truly sin, which is sufficient to condemn the whole human race and is reputed such in the sight of God; that even after baptism it is always sin as to its guilt, though the condemnation of it is abolished, because God of his gratuitous goodness does not impute it.

¶5. We believe that it is by the mercy of God alone that the elect are delivered from the general perdition in which all men are plunged. And first of all we believe that Jesus Christ, without whom we are all ruined, has been given us as a Redeemer, to bring to us justice and salvation.

¶6. We believe that Jesus Christ, being the eternal wisdom of God, and his only Son, has put on our flesh in order to be both God and man in one person, that is like unto us, excepting only that he was pure from all taint of sin. Holding which belief, we detest all the heresies which anciently troubled the church. We believe also that the end for which he assumed our nature was that he might die, and be raised up again from the dead, and fulfil all righteousness in order to procure for us eternal life.

¶7. We believe that by this one sacrifice, which Jesus Christ offered up on the cross, we are reconciled to God so as to be held and reputed just, and that by this means we have liberty to invoke God with full confidence that he is our Father, inasmuch as by adoption we obtain what Jesus Christ has by nature.

¶8. We believe that our whole justification is founded on the remission of sins as it is at the same time our sole felicity, according to the expression of David. Wherefore we reject every other species of justification, which men presume they obtain from their virtues or merits, seeing that our trust can fix on nothing else, nor find a resting place except when we are convinced that God, in covering our iniquities, imparts to us, in order to justify and absolve us, the obedience which his Son has rendered to him.

¶9. We believe that by faith alone we are made partakers of this righteousness, and also that this faith is kindled in us by the secret grace of the Holy Spirit, which is a gratuitous and peculiar gift, which God communicates to whomsoever he wills, and that not only to introduce them into the right path, but to make them continue in it to the end.

¶10. We believe that by this same faith we are regenerated in newness of life, because by nature we are the slaves of sin. Now though this renewing of our nature by which God forms us to do good, is a part of sour salvation, nevertheless we confess that the good works which we perform by the power of the Holy Ghost, are not taken into account to justify us before God, nor afford us any claim to be considered the children of God, because we should be always floating in doubt and uncertainty, if our conscience did not repose on the satisfaction by which Jesus Christ acquitted us.

¶11. Strong in this confidence, we invoke God in the name of his Son whom he has given us for Mediator and Advocate, and boldly address to him our prayers, having so god and intimate an access to him; encouraged at the same time by his declaration, that our prayers will be to him a sweet smelling sacrifice, and by his command to have recourse to him by this means.

¶12. We believe that the order of the church which Jesus Christ has established on his authority, ought to be held sacred and inviolable; and yet that the church cannot be held together unless there be pastors who have the office of teaching, and these pastors we are bound to honour and listen to with respect, when they are duly called and faithfully discharge their duty, in which belief we detest all those visionaries who would annihilate, as far as in them lies, the preaching of the word of God.

¶13. We believe that we ought to observe and keep up the unity of the church, and that all those who separate themselves from it are perverse persons whom we ought to shun as deadly pests. Nevertheless we are of opinion that we ought prudently to discern which is the true church, because several falsely abuse this title. We declare then, that it is the society of the faithful who agree to follow the word of God and that pure religion which depends on it, and who profit therein during the whole course of their lives, increasing and confirming themselves in the fear of God, according as they have need to make progress, and tending always to that which is beyond. Moreover, that, whatever efforts they make, it behoves them incessantly to have recourse to Christ for the remission of their sins.

¶14. We believe that the sacraments are conjoined with the word for ampler confirmation, to be the pledges and earnests of the grace of God, and by this means to comfort and aid our faith, because of the infirmity and hard-heartedness which is in us. We hold also that the substance thereof is Jesus Christ, for being separated from him they lose all efficacy.

¶15. We believe that baptism is the testimony of our adoption, because thereby we are introduced into the body of Christ to be washed and purified by his blood, and then renewed in holiness of life by his Spirit. Now though baptism is a sacrament of faith and repentance, nevertheless since God receives into his church the children along with the fathers, we affirm that by the authority of Jesus Christ, little children born of believing parents ought to be baptized.

¶16. We confess that the holy supper of our Lord is a testimony of the union which we have with Jesus Christ, inasmuch as not only he died and rose from the dead for us, but also truly feeds and nourishes us with his flesh, till we be one with him and his life be common to us. Now though he is in the heavens till he come to judge the world, nevertheless we believe that by the secret and incomprehensible power of his Spirit, he nourishes and vivifies us by the substance of his body and blood. We hold indeed that this is done spiritually, in order not to substitute for a fact and a truth, an imagination or an idea, but also because this mystery transcends in its depth the measure of our capacity and the whole order of nature. In one word, inasmuch as it is celestial, that it can be apprehended only by faith.

¶17. We believe, as has already been said, that both in baptism and the Lord’s super, God in reality bestows on us and accomplishes by effects what is there symbolized, and moreover we conjoin with the signs, the real possession and enjoyment of what is there presented to us. And thus it is that those who bring to the sacred table of Jesus Christ a pure faith as it were a vessel, really receive what the symbols represent; that is to say, that the body and blood of Jesus Christ serve not less for food and drink to the soul than bread and wine to the body.

¶18. We believe that it is the will of God that the world should be governed by laws and policy, in order that there may be some restraints to check the inordinate appetites of men, and that thus he has established kingdoms and principalities and everything which related to that administration of justice, and desires to be recognized as the author of them, in order that for his sake men may not only endure that superiors bear rule, but that these may be honoured and esteemed with all due reverence, being held for his lieutenants and officers whom he has appointed to exercise a legitimate and holy office. We hold then that we are bound to obey their laws and statutes, pay tribute, taxes, and other imposts, and bear the yoke of submission with frank and loyal goodwill, provided always that the sovereign empire of God be preserved inviolable.

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Monday, July 07, 2014

Wibrandis Rosenblat – Unsung Hero of the Swiss Reformation

I want to present the following paragraph without comment, at least as much as possible. Suffice it to say that when I came across this recently I was immediately struck by this woman’s hugely important role in the Swiss Reformation, and by the unique constitution, determination, and commitment that must have gone into it. But you will be able to form your own opinions.

Machiel A. van den Berg, Friends of Calvin (Eerdmans, 2009), 103.
Wibrandis Rosenblat’s life (1504-1564) is a story in its own right. She married Bucer after her husband, Bucer’s inseparable colleague and friend Capito, died in the same epidemic to which Bucer had lost his beloved first wife. Bucer was Wibrandis’s fourth husband: prior to her marriage to Capito, she had been married to two other scholars in Basel, Cellarius and the famous Oecolampadius. Thus she had been the wife of four different Reformers, and she bore them all children.
I dare say that in our own milieu, what with our emphasis today on equality between the genders in society and ecclesiastical ministry, we might well prefer to honor someone like Katharina Zell. But it is useful to remember that other women supported the Swiss Reformation in other ways as well.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Reformational Hermeneutics according to Brian Gerrish

I’ve been reading a lot of Brian Gerrish (not pictured) lately. I’ve been familiar with some of his work for a while now, but I’ve lately begun diving into his essays. It has been a lot of fun. I find him very easy to read, and his keen historical judgment unfailingly results in thought-provoking insights. So it should come as no surprise that I wanted to share some of this with you, gentle readers.


What follows is a passage wherein Gerrish lays out five points as a summary of Luther’s “exegetical principles.”

B. A. Gerrish, “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture: Luther and Calvin on Biblical Authority,” The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 57. Bold is from; italics are from Gerrish’s.
Luther’s interpretation of scripture . . . . The pertinent exegetical principles can be summed up under five major heads. First, the literal meaning is to be preferred to the allegorical when we are seeking to establish points of doctrine. To the principle “Scripture alone” Luther adds the further principle “the historical sense alone.” Allegories may be used afterwards - as ornaments, not as proofs. Even then we must observe the analogy of faith: “that is, accommodate them to Christ, the church, faith, and the ministry of the Word.” Second, Luther insists that the understanding of scripture is fundamentally simple. Party, this is asserted in opposition to the Roman Church’s claim that only the pope can interpret Scripture – a view against which Luther argues in the Address to the German Nobility. Elsewhere he asserts that “the Holy Spirit is the simplest writer and adviser in heaven and on earth. That is why his words could have no more than the one simplest meaning, which we call . . . the literal meaning.” This does not mean that Luther neglects scholarship; on the contrary, with the utmost respect he calls the literary skills of humanism “forerunners of the Gospel,” as John the Baptist was the forerunner to Christ. Third, Luther believes that many difficulties can be cleared up – and many errors avoided – by interpreting each passage in the light of the biblical message as a whole. Scripture is its own interpreter. Fourth, however, his method is not purely technical; the Scriptures must always be understood in faith. We must feel the words of Scripture in the heart. Experience is necessary for understanding the Word, which must be lived and felt. Fifth - and this is perhaps another way of saying the same thing - we must listen to the voice of the same Spirit who wrote the Scriptures. In the light of affirmations such as these, we can understand Luther’s characteristic dicta that “it is better to leave reason at home” and submit to Scripture; or that “even the humble miller’s maid, nay, a child of nine if it has faith,” can understand the Bible.
Now I can hear you wondering, gentle readers – “Why did that McMaken guy title this post with reference to ‘Reformational’ hermeneutics and then only talk about Luther?!?!” Well, I’ll tell you: “Calvin’s exegetical principles were essentially the same” (Gerrish, 64).

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