Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Case for Teaching Virtue

Dr. Joel Biermann, a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, asks some very interesting questions in his book, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics
• What’s the place of moral teaching in our churches?
• Does Lutheran theology, with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith, create a barrier against intentional efforts to form Christian character?
• Do Lutherans suffer, as some have contended, from an “ethical disability?”
• What does it mean to live a Christian life? Are Lutheran churches providing a satisfactory answer?
• What would an orthodox and pragmatically useful approach to ethical life in the Lutheran church look like?
The last question on the list is a key motivator for Biermann’s book. He begins with the premise that the task of moral formation and guidance needs to be revitalized in the church, and he points to parish pastors and laypeople as his intended audience.

“Understood scripturally,” says Biermann, “the goal [of the book] is quite simply to provide a way for congregations faithfully to practice the Lord’s parting instruction to make disciples—baptizing them, yes,—but also ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’” (p. 9, original emphasis). 

Fantastic. I love practical insights, especially when they deal with important matters like the  Christian faith. I don’t know about you, but despite hearing about justification and sanctification, the two kingdoms, and the three uses of the law umpteen times in my life, I’m still not always 100% clear about them (and that is an understatement).

Now that I’ve finished the book, I can say that it prompted a lot of thinking, reflection, and questions, but it also left me with a pretty fuzzy idea of what to do with all the information.

Biermann does a solid job of identifying problems with Lutheran ethics, particularly as noted by figures such as Stanley Hauerwas. Summarizing one of the charges, Biermann writes: “Handicapped by what might be called justification-induced myopia, Lutheran doctrine, it is asserted, suffers from an inherent incapacity for ethical concerns, which leaves Lutheran believers poorly equipped to address practical concerns of Christian living” (p. 65).

To investigate this claim, Biermann turns to Reformation-era writings, specifically the work of Melanchthon. Based on his research, Biermann concludes that intentional moral formation is not, in fact, incompatible with Lutheran theology, at least as it was articulated in the Confessions.

With these findings established, Biermann offers a “creedal framework” for thinking about ethics in a manner that conforms to Lutheran doctrine (e.g., justification) while enabling intentional character formation.

Biermann's Creedal Framework

The model, which includes three types of righteousness (governing, justifying, and conforming) grounded in the articles of the Creed, is a bit too complicated to get into here. Suffice it to say that if you agree with the old saying that “nothing is as practical as a good theory,” the model itself may satisfy your search for the practical “news” of the study.

As for me, I was hoping for more concrete ideas like those mentioned in the final 10 pages of the book. There, Biermann mentions careful catechesis (especially for young people, but for older parishioners, as well), cultivation of community (which involves, among other things, emulation of examples), daily prayer, regular use of the liturgy, and emphasis on the church year.

I’m sure Biermann has other ideas (as do you, I’m guessing). And I’m sure that any of these ideas could be spun into a book chapter of its own. 

In the meantime, how about kicking off a conversation here?

What do you think about the place of moral formation in our churches? Are we missing the boat, or are we on course?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Visit to Youth Catechesis: 3 Surprises

It’s 1980, and I’m sitting in the conference room of my church/school. My friends and I have arrived early, just in time to leave a note on the chair of a boy we all like. A few minutes later, Pastor Redlin walks in, and it’s time to get down to the business of confirmation class.

The next thing you know, I’m answering questions in front of the congregation, taking communion for the first time, and eating cake at my confirmation party.

What happened in between is a blur. I’m sure that much of what I know now about Lutheran doctrine was covered in that 2-year class, but I don’t remember learning any of it. (Are others as memory-challenged in this area?)

Last night, I went back to confirmation class—or more precisely, Catechesis II (the second and third years of instruction)—at my church. What I saw on my visit surprised me on several fronts.

Surprise #1: Yes, I probably did learn this stuff in junior high, but I could use a refresher.

Actually, some of what I saw last night was very different from my own confirmation class, including the service of Evening Prayer (LSB, p. 243), which was the first item on the agenda. (I don’t recall much variation in the services of my youth; it was either p. 5 or p.15 from TLH.)

While I was stumbling through the service of Evening Prayer, the students sailed along, sounding like they’d been doing it forever.

After about 25 minutes in the nave, it was off to class, where the general topic of the night was God’s law. Some of you may recall learning the three types of Old Testament law: moral, civil, and ceremonial. Do you know how long each type is applicable?

Moral law: Forever.

Civil law: Applies only to ancient Israel.

Ceremonial law: Applies until…

Applies until? Well…I was thinking along the lines of “applies in the same way as the civil law.”  

The more precise answer from Catechesis: The ceremonial law applies until Christ dies.

I’m guessing I’ll remember that distinction from this point forward.

Surprise #2: Teaching middle schoolers? Switch it up. Often.

Okay, this one wasn’t a total surprise. Variety is a good thing in the classroom, but what I observed in Catechesis was variety on a whole new level. No leisurely pace here. No digressions off into the woods. Instead, students were constantly pivoting from one activity to another.

The longest activity was a 20-minute lecture/discussion near the end of class. Prior to that, the students handled the following: progress updates (“Get those sermon summaries in!”), memory work (round robin: each student around the table supplied one word of the verse), a quiz, a Bible reading (read aloud with each student taking a verse), worksheet/notes, and a brief break for Snickers ice cream bars.

I don’t recall the same “switch it up” strategy in my own confirmation class, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t do things like “speed points,” which work like this:

During the weekly quiz, students have the opportunity to earn speed points; the first ones who finish get those points. Quizzes done the old way (sans speed points) used to take about 10 minutes. The quiz I observed took about 3. Importantly, both the teacher and students report that learning has increased since the introduction of “speed points.”

Fastest Quiz Takers in the West

Surprise #3: Such bold singing, reading, participating. Please, young Lutherans, do not curb your enthusiasm.

When I looked around the nave at the beginning of the night and prepared for “Evening Prayer,” I was thinking I might be the only one audible. (10 kids? 4 adults? How big a sound can this be?) I had no reason to worry. The students sang their lines confidently.

And they sang the hymn confidently.

And read aloud in class with clear, strong voices.

Eyes on the front. Hands in the air. Pencils poised to write down what they need to know.

Maybe this is an unusual class. Maybe it was an unusual night. Maybe it’s the teacher. But I suspect it might be the time of life, too.

If only we could put all that enthusiasm in a bottle.

To Aubrey, Luke, Kris, Faith, Riley, Lorelei, Reese, Emmalie, and Will (and everyone coming up in Cat. I): I’ve heard your names during the Prayer of the Church (“Bless all catechumens of the church…. Grant them to grow in grace and in the knowledge of You, and keep them firm in Your Word and faith to everlasting life”), and I’ve basically nodded along, saying, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Next time I hear your names, I’ll really think about the words of that prayer. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Friday Figure: Metanoia (or, Repent!)

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore.

Ever since I started writing “Friday Figure” posts, I’ve ended up spending far more time reading about figures than I intended.

That’s the case again with this month’s figure, metanoia (μετανοια), which, as I found out, is not just a rhetorical figure but also an important theological concept. Someone’s even devoted a whole book to it. (See Treadwell Walden, The Great Meaning of Metanoia, 1896).

The word in its theological sense means repentance, or perhaps I should say, it’s typically translated as “repentance.” As it turns out, the translation of metanoia has been the subject of some debate, which is how I ended up in the weeds. (If you want to wander into the weedpatch, too, I recommend starting with Robert N. Wilkin’s thoughts on how metanoia should be understood.) 

The basic definition is clear enough. According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, metanoia means “after-thought: change of mind on reflection, repentance.” The verb metanoeō has several meanings: 1. to perceive afterwards or too late, 2. to change one’s mind or opinion, and 3. to repent.

Together, these two words appear over 50 times in the New Testament, in familiar passages like these:
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matt. 3:11)
I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)
Theological metanoia, as indicated by the basic definition, involves a change of mind, and that idea is central, as well, to rhetorical metanoia.

The figure, also known as correctio and epanothorsis, “retracts what has been said and replaces it with something more suitable” (Rhetorica Ad Herennium, 4.26.36). The change might strengthen a thought, weaken it, or make it more precise or striking, as you can see in the following examples:
O Virtue’s companion, Envy, who art wont to pursue good men, yes, even to persecute them. (Rhetorica Ad Herennium, 4.26.36)
And if I am still far from the goal, the fault is my own for not paying heed to the reminders—nay, the virtual directions—which I have had from above. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)
You know, folks, that’s the America that George Bush has left us. And that’s the America we’ll continue to get if George – excuse me, if John McCain is elected president of the United States of America. Freudian slip. Freudian slip. (Joe Biden, speech at the DNC) 
The Biden example, by the way, comes from a Guardian article that describes metanoia as a rhetorical trick—“one of the most effective rhetorical devices for creating the illusion of spontaneity in a prepared speech.” 

It may be easy to talk about “rhetorical trickery” in the realm of politics, but the label doesn’t stick when we’re talking about metanoia in the Bible.

Consider these examples of “amended speech”:
From Paul: To the married I give this charge (not I but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband. (1 Cor. 7:10)
Also from Paul: I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
And from Jesus: Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. (John 16:32)
Rhetorical trickery? 

If I said that, I’d need to repent.

ART: “A Repent Enthusiast at the Eugene Saturday Market.” 16 November 2013. By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Think You Have True Faith? Not So Fast (Says Walther)

What are the signs of having true faith? And what’s a “good Lutheran” answer?

Back in 1841, C. F. W. Walther, first president of the Missouri Synod, took a stab at this question in one of his sermons. If you aren’t very familiar with Walther, his answer might surprise you. 

I don’t know a lot about Walther myself. His name is familiar. His hairstyle is familiar. His formulation of the “proper distinction between Law and Gospel” is familiar. 

But his sermons? Never read a one.

Which is why I was pretty excited when I spotted the book C.F.W. Walther: The American Luther (1987) at the annual “Friends of the Library” book sale in Topeka last month. (Yes, that’s right—in Topeka. If any of you Topeka readers donated your book to the library, you now know its fate.)

I marked up all the pages of chapter nine, “Walther as Preacher,” by A. R. Broemel (trans. Donley Hesse), thinking it might be perfect for a “Rhetoric and Preaching” entry on the blog.

As it turns out, the chapter is heavy on telling and light on showing. Broemel describes Walther’s preaching in very broad, laudatory strokes (Orthodox! Poetic! Creative! “Knows Luther as well as if he had been the man’s twin!” p. 136) but offers relatively little specific textual evidence in support of those claims. 

So I went looking elsewhere—looking for evidence of Walther’s liveliness (“a liveliness that is seldom seen in the Lutheran church,” p. 138), orthodoxy (“as orthodox as John Gerhard but as fervent as a Pietist,” p. 138) and novelty (“knows how to avoid repeating the well-known thoughts found in hundreds of sermons,” p. 140).  

And then I found his sermon, “Three Signs of Having the True Faith” (trans. E. Myers). 

I’ve wondered about the “true faith” question now and again (e.g., “Do I really have true faith if I’m doing/not doing X?”) and was curious to hear Walther’s answer.

It wasn’t what I expected. According to Walther (the 1841 Walther), we have true faith when we observe these three signs:
1. When our faith is founded upon God’s Word alone;
2. When it is joined to a living experience of the heart; and
3. When it is manifested by a new holy mind and life.
Hmmm. I might have come up with the first sign but probably not the second (I’m not even sure what it means) and definitely not the third (which sounds pretty Pietistic, with its emphasis on sanctification). After I finished reading the sermon, with its perfectionist demands, I was pretty sure that I do not possess true faith (and for that reason, I dont recommend passing this sermon on to your inquiring/doubting friends). 

Some of you are probably nodding your heads, saying, “Yeah, didn’t you know Walther was influenced by Pietism during his younger years in Germany?” 

Ah…no. But I do now. You don’t have to research Walther for long before discovering this connection.

The moral of the story: I’ll be a bit more cautious with Walther, especially with his earlier writings. And I’ll think harder about claims like this one from Broemel: “What he preaches is nothing but pure orthodoxy. He never adds to it nor subtracts from it. He stands exactly where the old Lutheran preachers and theologians stand” (p. 137).

Perhaps thats more true of Walthers later writings. All pietism warnings aside, Walther has given voice to a number of memorable thoughts, including this one from a lecture that eventually became part of The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel:  
The Gospel does not require anything good that man must furnish: not a good heart, not a good disposition, no improvement of his condition, no godliness, no love either of God or men. It issues no orders, but it changes man. It plants love into his heart and makes him capable of all good works. It demands nothing, but it gives all. Should not this fact make us leap for joy? (Lecture 2, Sept. 19, 1884) 
Now there we have it. Creative! Poetic! Lutheresque!

And much more orthodox than subjective signs of the true faith.

On a related note…

If you’re curious about the initial question regarding true faith, here’s one confessional Lutheran response, from an FAQ page on the LCMS website.

Q: On what should we base our assurance of salvation? I know the Word and the promises of the Gospel are our rock, but how do we distinguish between real faith and mere intellectual assent? I ask this because many evangelicals make me nervous when they say that if one has doubts about one's salvation, one is probably not saved, because the Holy Spirit is supposed to provide inner assurance. (I guess this ties in to the whole Pietist problem.) But in the face of emotional ups and downs, moral failings, intellectual doubts, and confusion over doctrine, how can one know if one truly has faith in Christ? (emphasis added)

A: Lutherans believe that faith is created and strengthened not by looking inside of one's self (to one's own faith and/or doubts) but by looking outside of one's self (to God's Word and promises in Christ). Therefore, assurance of salvation is to be sought by looking to God's Word and promises in Christ (which create and strengthen the faith through which one is saved), not by looking inward at the strength or weakness of one's own faith (which creates either pride and false assurance or doubt and lack of assurance). Anxiety regarding doubts, strength of faith and certainty of salvation are signs of faith (however weak it may be), not signs of unbelief, since the unbeliever has no concern or anxiety about doubts, faith or salvation. If you would like to study this issue further, I would recommend Martin Chemnitz's book on Justification available from Concordia Publishing House (800-325-3040, stock no. 15-2186).

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Will You Say at the Pearly Gates?

Imagine that you’re standing in front of St. Peter on Judgment Day. You have to tell him why you should get into heaven. What will you say?

Back in grad school, a professor of mine posed this question in a professional development seminar. We students were supposed to envision our futures and imagine all of the professional accomplishments we expected to make during our careers. Then we’d tell it all to St. Peter (and presumably get a nod of approval for enduring all those academic conferences over the years).

We all lined up, and “St. Peter” moved down the row. Several of my classmates came up with excellent lists. Then the professor stopped in front of me. “Well, what about you?”

 I just shrugged. “What can I say? I’m Lutheran. Nothing I’ve done will get me into heaven.”

My professor, a self-described lapsed Catholic, smiled and let me off the hook. “Oh, you’re one of those.”

Yep. One of those.

Funny thing about being “one of those”: After reading Souls in Transition last month (see previous blog post), I’m feeling more and more like a real minority, especially in light of the prevailing views about religion that author Christian Smith describes. According to Smith, 
Different religions claim to be unique and do in fact emphasize distinctive ideas and rituals. But ultimately, most emerging adults say, all religions actually share the same core principles, at least those that are most important. All religions teach belief in God and the need to be a good person. These things are what really matters. (p. 145, orig. emphasis)
Put differently, “Many people . . . believe that the main purpose of religion is to help people be good” (83). One of the implications? “The single thing in which it [religion] specializes—helping people to be good—is actually not needed in order for people to achieve that outcome.”

Or so the thinking goes. And in light of that thinking, many of the trends we’re seeing make a lot of sense. If the primary purpose of religion is to teach and uphold moral values, a person might reasonably ask:
1. Why go to church every Sunday? If I’ve learned this stuff already and have a good sense of right and wrong, what’s the point? 
2. Why go to church at all? It seems to be failing, based on all the hypocritical churchy types.
3. Why not embrace various traditions, or pick and choose what works best? All religions basically teach the same thing, and some moral codes appeal more than others.
4. Why even think about religion? It’s really not necessary.
5. What’s the value here? If I’m investing time in a self-improvement plan, I want to see results.
I understand the focus on being good and doing good. Honestly, it’s one of the things I remember most from my parochial school days. (“We are NOT to waste God’s gifts. You are going to sit here in the lunchroom until you eat ALL those beets!”)

I’m drawn to the Law—to messages that tell me what to do, that convince me I should do something, and CAN do something.

Then there are those other messages.
By grace you have been saved through faith…
God wants all to be saved…
He that believes and is baptized…
Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word…
I am the way, and the truth, and the life…
That’s Christianity’s uniqueness, isn’t it? Care of the soul. A sure path to salvation, not dependent on our moral goodness. A way out of this pickle. An assurance of God’s unending love for sinners of all kinds (including the kid who deceived her first-grade teacher and smuggled beets into the trash under napkins and in empty milk cartons).

In the words of Chad Bird, from his blog post “Christianity Is Not for Everyone”: 
Christianity is not a religion; it’s a person. It’s Jesus, the God of flesh and blood, who is looking at you even as you read these words, saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. I forgave you before you even knew you needed forgiveness; died for you even before you were born; rose for you even before you knew you were dead and needed my life. I am your God—all yours—and you are my child—all mine.” 
That’s Christianity; it’s all gift, and that gift is Christ for you.
I think these words would satisfy Peter—the real St. Peter—who says: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

With Christ, we’re prepared. Left to our own devices, not so much.

ART: "At the Pearly Gates.” 1894. By Hans Sandreuter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.