1 Corinthians 1:10
January 27, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Even so, these celebrations of diversity aren’t always good. For when it comes to honoring the Lord Jesus Christ, there’s just no room for celebrating diversity of opinion, perspective and interpretation – or so St. Paul would argue (contra T. F. Driver, Christ in a Changing World, 1981). Therefore while diversity may be good in matters of art, politics and economics – and there we would surely want a thousand flowers to bloom – that’s not the case regarding Jesus Christ, the only Son of the most high God (John 3:16). Who he was, what he did that was of great significance and how he pulled it off – none of these are well served by the proliferation of diverse viewpoints, opinions and interpretations (contra L. Swidler, After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection, 1990). And so we’re told that when it comes to things of God – it’s not “a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20)! And Martin Luther – our greatest teacher, according to the Lutheran confessions [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 577] – confirms this critically important point:
God’s sayings... need no human interpretation, so that nothing more than the naked sword, the word of God, rules everything (Luther’s Works 39:165).
Diversity, then, thrives best where there are no absolutes – as in, for instance, matters of financial investments, or second opinions on elective surgeries. But where there are absolutes – then the celebration of diversity runs aground. Therefore we wouldn’t be interested in, for instance, celebrating diverse opinions regarding rape and incest – since the taboos against these heinous crimes are absolute (contra Thornhill & Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, 2000). So we’d only want to celebrate diversity where there was some wiggle room for it.
The Mess in
And that wiggle
room was missing in
Although both truth and friends are dear to us, preference must be given to truth.... [For] human beings can err, but the Word of God is the very wisdom of God and the absolutely infallible truth (LW 1:122).
Baptism (1:11-16, 3:5-15, 15:29)
the cross (1:17-25)
adultery (5:1-5, 7:1-4)
interpersonal adjudication (6:5-6)
greed (6:10, 16:1-4)
divorce (7:10-17, 27, 39-40)
idolatry (8:10, 10:14)
working for a living (9:1-12)
testing God (10:9)
dietary laws (10:25-33)
gender roles (11:3-16, 14:34-36)
the Lord’s Supper (11:20-22, 27-29, 33-34)
spiritual gifts (12:11, 18)
love (13:1, 16:14)
speaking in tongues (14:5-19, 39)
the resurrection (15:12-19, 35)
And simply sharing
a belief in Jesus wouldn’t straighten out any of these neuralgic issues
– even though many prestigious Christians today are saying it would, in
open defiance of
Answering these two questions is precisely what doctrine is for. And that’s why Luther taught that
where doctrine is impure and false, faith cannot be right or pure, and where faith is not right, there can be no good... works.... All depends on the doctrine. Where doctrine is right, then everything is right: faith, work, love, suffering, good and evil days, eating, drinking, hunger, thirst, sleeping and waking, walking and standing still, etc. Where the doctrine is not right, then it is in vain, all is lost, and everything is completely condemned (LW 43:280-281).
A simple faith in Christ will not give you this – neither will the enthusiastic celebration of diversity. But doctrine can. Now doctrine – our cherished doctrine – is the faithful reflection on the holy words of Scripture, in order to get their ideas and points laid out properly. Much of this doctrinal elaboration is in the Bible itself (Romans 8:1-3; 1 John 5:6-12) – but some of it also comes from the faithful witness of the church of Christ, rooted in him and inspired by his spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22; John 14:26). So while believing in Christ is something we do by ourselves, one person at a time (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2; Philippians 2:12; Acts 9:3, 18, 26:14), how we think about our faith in him must be done in concert with the doctrine of the church. So the first act is individualistic – scorning all crowds. But the second is corporate – opposing all independence, creativity and adventure. The first is filled with the wild Spirit of God (John 3:7-8; Romans 9:18, 10:17) – but the second is made up of strict volitional submission and intellectual steadfastness (1 Corinthians 15:58; Ephesians 3:14, 4:12-14).
The Lutheran Confessions
For Lutherans, our doctrine is tied up in the Lutheran confessions (1529-1580) – and all of the orthodox doctrines assumed in those confessions from the over 1500 years of Christian reflection that occurred before the Reformation took place in Germany (BC, pp. 3, 37, 47, 95, 107, 166, 175-176, 179, 182, 221, 235-236, 240, 249, 297, 329, 350, 352-353, 416, 419, 444, 571, 589). So when Lutherans are ordained into the ministry they make a vow before God not only to preach and teach according to the Holy Scriptures – but also according to the Lutheran confessions [Occasional Services: A Companion to Lutheran Book of Worship (1982) p. 194].
That’s because we can get the Holy Scriptures all twisted up (2 Corinthians 4:2; Matthew 13:22) – and so we need the confessions to help us untangled them (George Lindbeck, “Confessional Subscription,” Word & World, Summer 1991):
1. Romans 7. Take for instance the turmoil in Romans 7 and whether or not it applies to the redeemed life in Christ – as Ernst Käsemann and many other deny that it does [Commentary on Romans (1980) p. 200; Robert Jewett, Romans (2007) pp. 441-445]. We could spin our wheels for years on this and lose any sermonic punch for the church in the short term – as we wait for a consensus to emerge on Romans 7. But the confessions settle this quickly by saying that this turmoil does in fact apply to our redeemed life in Christ (BC, pp. 477, 533; LW 25:339) – and so faith truly is a battle (1 Timothy 6:12) and not some serene apprehension of ideals.
2. Acts 4:12. Or take the contested case of Acts 4:12 – which is a dispute over whether or not Jesus is the only savior of the world, as John A. T. Robinson and his minions vehemently deny [Truth is Two-Eyed (1979) p. 105]. Again, the confessions settle this for us quickly by noting that Acts 4:12 means what it says – that Jesus is the only savior of the world (BC, pp. 121, 292; LW 23:55, 34:213).
3. Romans 5:9. Or again whether or not Romans 5:9 teaches that Jesus was punished in our place to appease the wrath of God – as many today loudly argue against, alleging that such an understanding of redemption constitutes some sort of divine child abuse (Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, ed. B. Jersak & M. Hardin, 2007). But once again the confessions settle this by saying that the wrath of God is indeed appeased by the crucifixion of Jesus and that this is not divine child abuse (BC, pp. 30, 118, 129, 136, 153, 193, 208, 215, 227, 232, 268, 271, 414, 419, 561; LW 26:235, 282, 51:277, 52:253).
4. Ephesians 2:8. And finally consider Ephesians 2:8 on whether the fact that faith is a gift means that we can help ourselves believe in Christ – as many evangelists and philosophers would have us think we can (T. Honderich, How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem, 2002; N. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 1999, 2001). But the confessions oppose this interpretation, insisting, on the contrary, that “Scripture denies to the intellect, heart, and will of the natural man every capacity, aptitude, skill, and ability to think anything good or right in spiritual matters, to understand them, to begin them, to will then, to undertake them, to do them, to accomplish or to cooperate in them [by] himself” (BC, pp. 522, 526, 345).
Breaking the Spell
Now how can we best go about taking up this confessional way of thinking, so that we might, unlike the Corinthians of old, think “rightly” or “correctly” about our faith in Christ (BC, pp. 25, 125, 273, 523, 558, 618) – rather than going our own way? Well, we would first have to break the sinful spell that our yearning for independence has on us – which makes us ever more hanker after new interpretations of Christianity. Luther believed that our sinful penchant for newness – when properly scrutinized – is actually a terrible burden upon us. We “weigh ourselves down with big piles of new teaching” (LW 41:128), he argued. And he worried over this so because he knew that “evil teaching is the greatest evil on earth, and it leads souls to hell in large numbers” (LW 39:130)!
better break its spell over us. Daniel Dennett – for nearly opposite
reasons to those of mine – says that we can break bad spells by
introducing “the spellbound to a good spell, a god spell, a gospel,” if
you will [Breaking the Spell:
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) p. 13]. And I agree. So what
we need – as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that great admirer of
Luther, once wrote – is to bind up the berserk with orthodox,
theological concepts (Kierkegaard’s
Writings 24:93, 155-157, 168). In that way we can keep ourselves
from becoming mesmerized by theological innovations – which we can do by
tightening up “the reigns of thought to the utmost” (KW
Our seminaries don’t help us much with this. Back in 1975 when I was in my last year at the seminary, we had a class, that everyone secretly salivated over, called “constructive theology.” In this class the best grades went to the most innovative, creative and imaginative students. Here was our chance to make up our own brand of Christianity. How disgusting! All that we had in this class was just more of that rotten sapientia verbi! So rather than supposing that a good grade in that class was a sure sign of spiritual brilliance – we should have known better that it was only a sign of theological waywardness and rot in the foundations of the church.
Preaching Christ Crucified
So our minds need something better. They need to be filled with thoughts
of Christ dying for the sins of the world. “Have this mind” among you,
For when we behold Christ crucified, we’re ineluctably drawn to him (John 12:32). Without that soteriological power, if you will, we would be dead in the water. No salvation would then await us – but only slavery to sin, wickedness, meaninglessness and despair. For when Christ bears our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24) he saves us from our sins by doing for us what we can’t do ourselves (Romans 8:3). That’s why we call him our blessed savior. Luther preaches this glorious gospel in unforgettable terms:
[Jesus] suffers not for his own person but for us, that in this way we might be free and rid of sin and death.... This suffering is extremely, indescribably great. For one drop of Christ’s blood is incomparably greater than heaven and earth.... As our dear Lord Jesus Christ is lifted into the air to hang on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth, with nothing any longer on earth to call his own, he is exercising his true, real, priestly office, accomplishing the work he came on earth to do.... The purpose of his suffering and priestly offering is, as he himself states in.... John 10:15: “I lay down my life for the sheep”.... But when he offers himself thus for us, what... priestly garb does [he] wear and what is his altar?.... He hangs on the cross bare and naked, covered with his wounds, and has, so to speak, not a thread on his body. Instead of a purple rob he is red with blood, his body covered with wounds and welts, badly swollen. Instead of a priestly headdress he wears a bloodied crown of thorns.... This High Priest is both priest and offering; for he offers up his body and life on the cross.... In great love [he] offers up himself and lets his own body be consumed for the redemption of the whole world.... The altar of this High Priest is the cross and gallows.... Today we call it the holy cross, for Christ made it glorious; but at that time it was nothing but.... a shameful, horrible, uncommon altar.... In fact it was Moses who said, “He that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). When oxen... were sacrificed in the temple they were brought with pomp... to the holy, consecrated altar. But Christ, the...preeminent sacrifice,... is led... to an inglorious... altar of abomination, to be executed as a criminal. We human beings count no place so repugnant as the place where a cross or gallows stands.... Sheer venom and the evil move his crucifiers.... No one shows him compassion, but things are made as spiteful as they possibly can be.... The venom poured out [on him] is so great that it cannot possibly be described.... He is... spit upon, vilified, and taunted. Nowhere in history does one read that a human being was ever so unmercifully punished, as was this man. People usually don’t scoff at an evildoer who has been condemned or mock the person about to be executed. It’s not something to sport about. Rather they offer them wine as a sedative, speak kindly, and befriend the victim as much as possible. But this High Priest is treated differently, for he must be the most shameful thief and scoundrel that ever lived. That is also why he still is a sorry, contemptible High Priest to the world now,... an offering abhorred by the people.... As he was lifted up on the cross, they poured out all their venom and malice upon him; yet no amount of... scoffing and blaspheming could satisfy them.... Nevertheless,... as the prophet Isaiah clearly attests (53:4-5): “Surely he hath borne our griefs... We did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities,... and with his stripes we are healed” [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:421-424].
Learning in the
So take this gospel to heart. Let “nature’s eyes... be gouged out entirely,” as Luther advised, so that “naught but faith [may] be present” (LW 43:52)! Then you’ll be able to “inquire of the Lord in his temple” (Psalm 27:6) – without shutting down intellectually. You’ll be able to investigate into God through his word – so that in your thinking you’ll become “mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). And as Kierkegaard noted, that will mean keeping “rebelliousness” from sneaking into your thinking (KW 18:104, 53). Amen.
(printed as preached but with elaborations)