Friday, October 15, 2010

Why Lutherans aren't (modern) Evangelicals

Category error! Teachable moment!

No surprise that Lutherans are bad at "evangelism" when evangelism is defined, not in terms of proclaiming and living the gospel, which we may also be bad at, but in terms of mission to convert. "Seeking and saving the lost" requires a functional definition of who the "lost" are.

Housholder, in the link above, has a problem, and it's a problem of precisely the catechesis he doesn't believe is necessary in today's world. As Kierkegaard also noted, much closer to our time and culture, "the education of nominal Christians" is a perennial problem. Those who think it isn't have a remarkable tendency to be exemplars for that fact. The problem is that we assume that Lutherans mean what Christians mean, and that Christians mean what the dominant cultural assumptions suggest that they do. Which results in the considered opinion that Lutherans have "no functioning eschatology" (by which he means a single violent end-times break with the long-running creation, a "destination" he desires, even though he disavows the "Darby-based dog and pony show" version), and "no theology of mission" (by which he means "we have no idea how to get someone saved"). Housholder goes on to talk about this last point, as though it were separate from the first, but I want to stop here for a moment. They're connected at a very deep level, because the modern Evangelical eschaton drives modern Evangelical mission.

If by eschatology you mean a global/universal endpoint, which we categorize in terms of armed conflict between the forces of the devil and the forces of God, no, we don't. That stuff, which you note Luther engaged in with respect to his own times, is called "apocalyptic" and has nothing to do with the actual future. Don't make the mistake of thinking that Luther believed that Leo X was *the* Antichrist as in the Millenialist/dispensationalist vision of Antichrist's role in the end-times. That is a profoundly literalistic and modern mis-reading of a profoundly classical rhetorical strategy of the faith. Genesis Rabbah engages in the same strategies with respect to Rome, reading Israel's future hope for victory and justice as a subordinated people into an eschatological triumph over the peoples that have subjugated them. Apocalyptic has everything to do with stories of hope. "We will win in the end." God will deliver us from our oppressors. It is entirely appropriate that the 16th-century Evangelical movement in which Luther was involved saw themselves in that way, as very plainly oppressed by the powers of the Roman church with and through its state allies.

It is perverse and offensive for modern, white Evangelicals, belonging to and exercising influence in and upon the dominant imperial government in the world today, to appropriate such rhetoric. It becomes hegemonic, which is what modern Evangelical missions are about. In its worst forms, it says to the oppressed that if they are not on the side of power, they will go to hell, because God is on the side of power. Evangelism driven by such an eschatological vision and dominant worldly power is what supports the "convert the heathens" notion of mission. Everybody must become Christian, and we have either a time limit, or a goal which we are trying to bring about, in the eschaton. It would be equally perverse and offensive for the magisterial Lutheran denominations of the world to uphold.

Housholder goes on to talk about confessionalism, and opposes the catechetical emphasis to the missional one. But before I touch that, I would like to correct a few minor points: 1) the Diet of Augsburg was about uniting the Holy Roman Empire for the sake of fighting the "Turk" -- Muslims were not "unthinkably far away," and 2) there was very clearly a significant amount of "frontier," much of it embattled. We're talking about divided European states under the HRE, each with their own governance and their own ideas about how things should be done, and a whole lot of tension along a whole lot of borders. The Reformation conflicts didn't help matters in Imperial terms. This is important, because Housholder says a lot of different things about 'the Church" and what it was and wasn't doing at the time. Catholics from a whole lot of places were out conquering the world and making it safe for the expansion of the gospel. I'd call that a form of "missional Christianity," even if I don't approve of its motives or methods. In the meantime, reforming German Evangelicals were quite busy with their own battles from underneath the Empire, many of which were concentrated on the home front, and consolidating a solidary and defensible position against overwhelming attacks. So Luther, among many others, and the catechetical enterprise.

Because of these niggling little details, you can see I might disagree with a statement like this: "So the Confessions were written in a time when the main job of the Church was not seen as evangelization or global missions. It was the education of nominal Christians (hence the writing of the iconic and ubiquitous Small Catechism)."

The confessions (including the many that aren't Lutheran) tend to be concerned with defense of a position in difference from the official teaching of Rome and its local enforcers. They aren't about "the main job of the church," nor are the catechisms our primary confessional documents. They stem from a concern on the part of a small-but-growing body of Evangelical theologians for the faith-lives of a small-but-growing body of Evangelical congregations and the souls in them. There was a lot of theological wrangling going on, and as is ever the case, theological wrangling can be dangerous to the people in the congregations, who are often bargaining chips in a battle of theologians' opinions. True then, true now. Catechesis is a pastoral theological concern, and this is emphatically true of Luther's Small Catechism. It is, in its own right, a profoundly important mission of the church. When our position is the teaching and proclaiming of the gospel, one might even dare to call it evangelism.

Oh, but wait, we were talking about the decline of the Lutheran church, I forgot ... he hadn't mentioned it at all until more than halfway down. And proposes that the solution to our problems as Lutherans is Arminianism. No, wait, it's charismatic Pentecostalism. Do I have that right? Our solution to not having a Lutheran theology of missions is not to develop a Lutheran theology of missions? I wonder what the quite large number of active Lutheran missionaries in the world would say about that. But wait, we're not actually talking about world mission as a solution to local church growth, are we? Seriously? Two red herrings? This is about "reaching the next generation"? Well, why didn't you say so from the start! I feel bad about having fallen for the first set of arguments, even though I do enjoy talking about historic Lutheranism and modern Evangelical piety.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A good hortatory reading of Romans 5

A quick Google will get you some points of view on indicative versus subjunctive for ἔχωμεν and καυχώμεθα in Romans 5. (A good research database will get you better ones, obviously.) From translating it to preach it the first time, to translating Romans 5 in rhetorical and sociological context, I'm obliged to lean to the subjunctive.

Why? What difference does this point of grammar make?

A big one! It was fine for Reformation dogmatics to take Romans as a theological treatise, and therefore to rely on the indicative sense, but Romans isn't a lecture. It is an impassioned position plea intervening in an ethnic dispute. The indicative is fine if you believe Paul is just rehashing common ground for eight chapters, but would you listen to someone recite, or even perform, that much material you already knew? And that's only halfway! Would you listen to her when she got to the point of exhorting you to action at almost twice that length? Would it make any difference who her patron's contacts were in Rome, all the way at the end, if you tuned out before the middle?

If it's persuasive, if the material is innovative and controversial, if Paul is taking a side and making a pitch for his position in the middle of a divided community, there's every reason to see hortatory logic behind chapter 5. Hear this:

"Since we have been made just by faith, let us have peace before God because of our Lord Jesus Christ -- through whom we have access by faith to that grace in which we stand. And let us boast about our hope in the glory of God! More than that -- let us even boast during oppression, seeing that oppression causes patience, and patience, proof, and proof, hope. And hope does not shame us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts and minds by the spirit of holiness that God gave to us.

For while we were weak -- while it was the right season -- Christ died for the impious. Indeed, it's rare that someone will die for a righteous person. It's conceivable that someone might dare to die for a good person. But God confirms his love for us because while we were sinners, Christ died for us. How much more will we be saved from wrath because of him, since we've been made just right now by his blood? If we were reconciled to God because of the death of his son while we were enemies, how much more will we be saved by his life now that we've been reconciled?

More than that, let us boast in God because of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received reconciliation right now!"

The key here in most discussions is "let us have peace pros ton theon" If Paul has been sufficiently convincing in chapter 4 about how the divided population is at one in father Abraham because of faith, they therefore have peace with God -- God isn't angry at them. So why would he exhort this? Ah, but what they do not have, as a divided Judean community in Rome, is peace in the sight of God, peace with respect to what is of God, peace because of God, peace in the presence of God. All perfectly good "pros ton theon" translations. And here we have classic cultic language, about access to stand before God, and the Kavod/Shekinah which is God's glory. Nothing but God's presence makes the Judean people special; nothing else is worthy ground for boasting. Circumcision, Kashrut, Sabbath observance, none of it means anything without God's dwelling in the community. If these things, under the slogan of observing the rules, have become destructive of that community, have become grounds for injustice within the community -- then Paul must oppose them while upholding a higher standard. If they are now reconciled with God, they must yet become reconciled with their neighbors.

Thlipsis. Oppression. Here we must understand context. The diaspora Judean community in Rome is under terrible pressure. Those who could be identified as Judeans were expelled under Claudius, an edict which has only just been lifted by Nero. Those who could pass for citizens were able to continue to be the faithful in Rome, but only by careful conformity with Roman culture. Do you conform? Do you support your brothers and sisters in secret? Do you make lifestyle choices in solidarity and receive the penalty with them? How black do you dare to be? How white do you dare to be? You're all poor, under the heel of the Roman patronage system. It keeps you down. While the authorities respect your existence as an ancient people with a law and a god, they're not interested in you being anything but Roman. You have peace, at the cost of your ethnicity. For Rome, it's easy: exert pressure, and watch the population split into "good Judeans" and "bad Judeans". The good ones get to keep their god and their law, and gain civilization.

And so the community becomes self-oppressing in both directions. The line imposed from outside combines with the `am/goy line that converts are in the process of crossing, that selectively permeable differentiation of self from other that is supposed to keep the community safe. It twists it. And the community commits hysteron-proteron, and starts boasting about the effects as though they were causes. Sacraments as though they commanded God's action. Works as though they achieved God's favor. The law and its commandments as though they constituted the covenant. A people that belongs to God because it is marked, not that is marked because it belongs to God. The distinctiveness becomes a thing in itself, the thing that constitutes faithfulness. And the other side, if it cannot have the marks, has holiness against the marks, holiness without marks, a piety which gets harder and harder to differentiate from that other culture. And where has the community's community gone, when both sides can be convinced to boast in divisiveness?

I see every reason, on this view, to read Romans as a position piece, an exhortation of self-motivated community in the midst of externally-imposed division. A call for unity, but not the unity imposed upon them from above, a unity which weeds out the faithful. A call for unity from below, unity from within, a lifestyle just as self-marking and self-evident as circumcision and kashrut, but expressed in ethical actions as God's community. A counter-culture that accommodates difference and therefore takes away Rome's ability to divide-and-conquer.

(Yeah, that's awfully positive, but I do things like this when I'm assimilating a position.)