The Dogma is the Drama


Amen and amen.

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.  If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them.  If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him?  We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly.  Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.

It is the dogma that is the drama–not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death–but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and the gate of death.  Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.

[Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama,” Letters to a Diminished Church20-21]



I Love America, But…

Theses on Christianity and Patriotism

  1. The Church and the State have their own separate realms, both of which are God’s.
  2. In the Church God rules according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; in the State God rules according to His Law, written into creation itself.
  3. Each has its own rituals, songs, liturgies, and traditions.
  4. The rituals and traditions belonging to each should remain in their respective realms.
  5. The facts of Christianity are not nor can they be known to everyone, because they are made known by revelation.
  6. The Trinity, Jesus, forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, the Gospel, and similar things are only known by faith given by the Holy Spirit.
  7. Thus, outside of the gathering of the saints of God around His Word and Sacraments, or outside of the witness of Christians in their vocations, these words and teachings should not be brought into the ceremonies of the civil realm, i.e., those events sponsored by the State.
  8. The facts of the civil realm are available to any person by reason and law.
  9. Laws, creation, morality, the existence of a deity can be known by experience, reason, and examination of the natural world.
  10. The State has an interest in regulating and legislating these things; therefore, they are not, nor can they be, Christianity.
  11. Therefore, Christianity in itself is not morality, law, the good things of creation, or citizenship in any nation.
  12. Christianity does not destroy law, government, morality, citizenship, or civic duty.
  13. Rather, Christianity wishes to keep them in their proper realm: the civic realm, where people have duties and responsibilities toward one another.
  14. Christianity wishes to keep its own realm, the Church, free from legislation and morality, because these will end up subsuming the Gospel back under the Law.
  15. Morality is good, but not in the Church.
  16. That is, the Church does not exist to teach morality.
  17. Legislation is good, but not in the Church.
  18. That is, the Church can legislate nothing.  She has only the Word of God.
  19. This does not mean the Church refrains from proclaiming the Law of God.  She must do this, or risk turning the Gospel into something less than the full, free, unconditional forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.
  20. But the lack of morality in the world, or the lack of holy living in the Church, cannot be solved by preaching the Law more.
  21. This must, and will, create either spiritually proud people, or spiritually despairing people, unless the Law is preached as a tutor leading to Jesus, who is the end and fulfillment of the Law.
  22. The Church, which will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God,  is where Jesus alone reigns through His cross, death, resurrection, and the forgiveness He gives.
  23. The United States is neither the Church nor the Kingdom of God.
  24. The Reign of God is beyond all national borders.
  25. God reigns in the United States, as in all nations, only according to His Law, which can only say, “Do this; don’t do that.”
  26. In the realm of the State, the Law is the final word.  There is only Law, and there is only justice.
  27. In the realm of the Church, the Law can never have the final word; it is always God’s “alien” or “strange” work before He does His true or “proper” work of the Gospel.
  28. Whenever these two realms are mixed or confused, the Law ceases to be a demanding and merciless word, and the Gospel ceases to be a free and unconditional word of mercy.
  29. Thus, generic songs about “God,” which are really directed to the State, are not appropriate in the services of the Lord’s House.
  30. This is because we do not have a generic “God,” which has to be interpreted as the Christian, Trinitarian God; we have a specific, explicitly revealed God in Jesus Christ.
  31. A generic “God” is appropriate in the realm of the State, which can know of a deity, but not who this deity is.
  32. Further, most people recognize that there is some “higher power,” by which we are held accountable for how we act.  This is good in the realm of the State.
  33. The Church should pray for the State, and the members of the Church are always citizens of some State.  They should act as responsible citizens for the good of all the other citizens (e.g., by voting, letters to the editor, activism, and any other means open to them).  If the State proscribes religious practice, the members of the Church must obey God rather than men.
  34. Since the Church is the realm of the Gospel and of revealed Christianity, the symbols of the State do not belong in her buildings (e.g., national flags).
  35. Since the State is the realm of Law and of reason, the symbols of the Church do not belong in her buildings (e.g., crosses).
  36. The Church should never give the impression that she is anything other than an outpost of the Kingdom of God within whichever State it finds itself.
  37. The Church is always in a State, but she is never of the State.
  38. The Church should never give the impression that she belongs to a particular State, because the members of the Church are scattered throughout every nation.  Therefore, she should not sing songs that do not apply to any Christian in any State.
  39. The Church should always retain a critical distance from any State, even when the State seems to support the free exercise of the Church’s rites.
  40. The State’s laws can always change; the Reign under which the Church is found never changes.
  41. The State and the Church often use similar words, and yet, according to their proper realms, these words signify completely different things.
  42. Freedom in the realm of the State does not signify the same thing as freedom in the realm of the Church.  Since there is no such thing as sin in the realm of the State (only the breaking of laws), there can be no such thing as freedom from sin in the realm of the State.
  43. Soldiers do not fight and die for the same freedom for which Christ died.  They are absolutely distinct, and must be kept that way to preserve the Gospel itself.
  44. Righteousness in the realm of the State does not signify the same thing as righteousness in the realm of the Church.
  45. Righteousness in the realm of the State is external and earned, not given–and as condemning before God as the worst sin.  Righteousness in the realm of the Church is in the heart and freely given, not earned–and as saving before God despite the worst sin.
  46. Christians ought not put their hands over their hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled banner, because they cannot serve two masters, nor do they have room in their hearts for both Jesus and the State.
  47. The United States is the worst country on the face of the earth–except for all the others; Christians will remember that though she is an excellent and prosperous Babylon, she is still Babylon.
  48. When we ceased to be strangers and aliens to the people of God in Christ, we became, by definition, strangers and aliens to whatever country in which we find ourselves.  Whatever we are as citizens of the United States (rich, poor, governor, governed), we remain in the Church vagrants, beggars, and supplicants who live only by the mercy of God in Christ.
  49. We will take advantage and use fully the benefits which all people are accorded in this country, but we will never rely on them for our life.  They are in the end, like all things that are not Christ, only death.  We will keep the laws, as long as they do not interfere with what God commands, or encroach upon the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments.  We will give thanks that we do not have to pay taxes on church buildings, etc., but we will not pretend that the Church lives or dies by its tax-exempt status.  We will give thanks for the protection of the Church under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but we will not pretend that the Church lives or dies on whether the government recognizes that freedom.
  50. The Church lives or dies by one thing only: whether the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sinners by Jesus Christ is preached from her pulpits and given out from her altars.

[Open for debate!]


Sasse on Ecumenism and Unity

Anyone interested in ecumenical endeavors has a lot to learn from Hermann Sasse.  Where today do we have someone as knowledgeable about as many different confessions and church struggles?  His interest in and love for those of other confessions should not be in doubt, and yet he was able to hold just as strongly to his love for the Lutheran confession.  Who sees as clearly where the real issue lies?  While we talk around and around over peripheral issues, Sasse sees the heart of the matter.

And what about the Lutheran Churches of America? They would have been entitled to speak and act for the Lutheran Confession at that time. In the thirty years which now have passed since the formation of the L.W.F. at Lund they have increased in stature and in favor with man. Whether also in wisdom and favor with God remains an open question. They have sent their young men to Europe to get a European degree in theology, preferably
a German one which is supposed to be the seal of perfect wisdom and knowledge. The time may come whcn our American brethren will realize that “authentic scholarship” and “relevant scientific thcology” does not save churches….  It was a false “critical” theology which has destroyed the Word of God instead of explaining it. A theology is false and a nuisance to the Church which destroys the dogmatic substance of the church under the pretext
to make it plain or to express it in “relevant” terms which modern man would readily accept. It is true of mankind in all ages: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” even not the man who has reached the state of “maturity.” … [Hello Seminex!]

Why do neither the church historians nor the dogmaticians nor the practical theologians examine these claims? Why does no one ask, in an age of alleged deeper Biblical studies, what the New Testament teaches on Church, church unity, the ministry? Why do we all take modern concepts of the ecumenical movement for granted? Who tells us that God wants all who call themselves Christians to be united in one big visible church? Certainly not our Lord and His Apostles. We read that into the New Testament. Who has invented the idea that the Church as the Body of Christ consists of churches and that this body is unfortunately divided? The body of Christ cannot be divided, neither the sacramental nor the spiritual body. “A sumente non concisus / non confractus, non divisus / Integer accipitur.” Who has invented the myth of an “Ancient undivided Church” which must be “reunited” into the “Future Reunited Church”? Who has invented the idea that by means of a dialog we can attain unity? In some cases it may be possible, in others not. Most certainly it will not be possible if this dialog aims at a minimum of doctrine and at formulas of compromise. A lot of these have been written in our time to overcome the doctrinal differences concerning the sacraments.  No formula has been found yet to overcome the contrast between those who teach that the consecrated bread is the body of Christ and those who teach that it is not. Even if in Holland, the home of Cornelis Hoen from whom Zwingli took over his doctrine, Roman Catholics now try their hands at a compromise by suggesting a new doctrine of “transsignification” (“In Holland everything changes in the Church except bread and wine”), the alternative remains. And all compromises on the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Baptism are marred by the fact that when unity seems to be reached the representative of the Quakers and the Salvation Army rises and states that all is nice and good, but that external sacraments are not necessary. Then you may try to convince him that this is wrong. In the very moment when the Quaker admits, he ceases to be a Quaker and must be replaced by another Quaker.  So the dialog must be continued until the last member of the Society of Friends has accepted the sacraments. And the dialog itself? We already hear alarming statements that our separated brethren in Rome, after they have converted the other churches to a renewed Catholic Church wish to extend the dialog to the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Buddhists, the Marxists and atheists.

But it may then happen that not only the walls between the Christian denominations become transparent (Edmund Schlink), but also other walls. We quote only one example. At the meeting of the International Missionary Council at Tambaram, Madras, in 1938 Walter Marshall Horton spoke of his friendship with “a Buddhist priest whom to this day I persist in regarding as my brother in Christ. He gave me a picture of a Bodhisattva . . . which to him perfectly symbolized the spirit and attitude required by his simple creed: ‘to cleanse the heart of evil, and endeavour to make this world a kingdom of God.’ There is a faint smile of self-congratulation on that picture face, which reminds me of the great gulf that remains forever fixed between Buddhist self-discipline and the Christian sense of grace toward sinners; but when I talked with the priest who gave me the picture, that gulf was not there. Differences of tradition seemed to vanish behueen us, as I often felt them melting away between Christians of different communions at ecumenical gatherings, and our souls met in something less tangible and definable than forms of speech and thought, but infinitely more real and authoritative. If I belong in any sense to the Body of Christ,-then he does too. It would be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Wind of God that bloweth where it listeth, for me to deny my Buddhist brother his place in that Body. When I ventured to say as much to a group of Christians in Kobe the next day, I was sternly reminded that ‘There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’; but I thought to myself that I have rather have the Spirit without the Name, than the Name without the Spirit” (Tambaram Series vol. I, “The authority of Faith,” London 1939, p. 149f.; emphasis added). This is the end of the dialog, if consistently carried on. We all should love our pagan brother in Adam. He is a sinner, as I am a sinner. But to make him my Brother in Christ, this is the denial of Christ, the only Saviour of sinners, of the Holy Spirit, of the Living God and His eternal Word. (Hermann Sasse, “Confessional Churches in the Ecumenical Movement,” The Springfielder, XXXI:1 (Spring, 1967), 25-27 [])

May God grant us to listen again to Sasse, and raise up his heirs among us.


Bayer on Christianity and Other Religions

[I find helpful Oswald Bayer’s discussion of the relationship between Christianity and other religions]

The relation of the Christian faith to the other religions is not only problematic but also full of opportunity.  Its claim to universality, however, does not give it the right to regard the truth claim of the other religions as indicative of an unbridgeable chasm separating them from Christianity.  Indeed, the existence of the other religions is a reminder to us that Christian theology does not exist in a vacuum and there is no such thing as a pure theology that dialogues with itself in isolation from the conflicts and struggles of the world and its religions.  On the other hand, the clear certainty of the Christian claim makes it impossible to transform this relationship into an apparently already existing identity, even if it is as Christologically grounded as Karl Rahner’s assumption of an “anonymous Christianity” in all religions. … [H]is assumption is thoroughly speculative and fails to recognize the importance of sin.  We must avoid the identification that Rahner makes, as in his thesis of the anonymous Christian, just as strongly as the disjunction that others make, and recognize that we are in a situation of conflict in which truth and error are in contention. …

A key event, especially for the history of religion, and one that is very specific as well as being universal, is the union of divinity and humanity.  This event is God’s physical and verbal self-communication in Jesus Christ.  That explains why the image of God in humans is to be understood in a concrete physical way… theology attends first and last to the “form” by appreciating the bodily aspect of the word as much as the linguistic aspect of the body.

If, in light of the Christ event, God’s self-communication and its appropriation involves our senses, and if God’s goodness can be “tasted” (Ps. 34:8), it follows that one of the tasks of mission is to take seriously the rites and myths of the ethnic and world religions that in themselves are responses to God’s address with its appeal to the senses.  However, in doing so, we must avoid starting with the idea of a general openness, in which the general closedness of humankind to God, which scripture calls sin (Gal. 3:23; Rom. 11:32), is not recognized.

This general closedness makes dialogue with other religions impossible insofar as a dialogue, at least according to the conventional understanding, assumes that the hidden truth, which always drives us to ask questions, will reveal itself little by little as we search for it together.  This assumption of a general oppenness succumbs to the same illusion as the anticipation of a common understanding. … The alternative to dialogue is not domination but intercession in the solidarity spoken of in Romans 9:3.  In the congregation’s intercession that grows out of learning through suffering, the church is there for others.  [Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, 199-201]


Liking Christ, But Not Christianity

That’s Anne Rice’s position (see here and here also) (along with a lot of other prominent people who are or were Christians).  I’ve never read any of her vampire novels, but I enjoyed very much her two novels on the early life of Christ (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: Road to Cana).  She manages to walk the very thin line of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, (almost) never confusing them, and (almost) never dividing them.  (I say “almost” because I can’t think of any specific parts, but there may be some.) 

But after a few years, she’s apparently done with Roman Catholicism (here’s an excellent response from a Roman Catholic and a, as usual, great post by Joseph Bottum), and various groups and people (sometimes officially) are making the case for why she should join them. 

This is the thing: if we could be Christians based on our own preferences, and never have to deal with other people who call themselves Christians, though they embarrass or confuse us, we’d each have our own church of one.  Unfortunately at times, and fortunately at others, the Body of Christ in this world is made up of selfish, idiot sinners who do and say stupid, sinful things.  I don’t agree with Anne Rice’s conception of what following Christ means (I also think she would fit right in in the UCC!), but I’m happy to call her a sister in Christ if she believes He died for sinners such as her and sinners such as me.  All “Christian” means is “sinner-covered-with-the-righteousness-of-Christ.”  Good fruit, including certain behavior, follows from that.  But if the former is not there, it’s completely irrelevant what nice things you say (the better for fans of vampire novels to agree!), or what nice things you do (the better for the secular press to approve!), or how tolerant you are of whatever the evil Fundamentalists oppose. 

Christ’s Body is the Church, no matter how whorish she appears (or: “God saves bad people”).  That’s why we “believe one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” and not we see her.  Believing is for this creation; seeing is for the next, when Christ makes all things new.  (And that’s the case for why Anne Rice should be Lutheran!)


January Forum Letter

I just received my January issue of Forum Letter, which is the monthly companion to Lutheran Forum. In this issue, Pr. George Murphy responds to Pr. Peter Speckhard, who wondered in the November issue why people would get so upset with him when they discovered he actually believed that God created the world over six days. They would say things to him like, “How can a bright guy like you believe in a six-day creation?” Pr. Murphy suggests that Pr. Speckhard is not so bright to believe such a thing. I don’t know if FL will publish my response, so I’m posting it here.

In the January 2008 Forum Letter, Pr. George Murphy takes Pr. Peter Speckhard to task for asking a question: Why am I (Pr. Speckhard) not allowed to hold a view of the Genesis creation accounts that fits with the Scriptures but not with the view of the current scientific establishment? Conveniently, Pr. Murphy simply ignores Pr. Speckhard’s strongest argument, that evolutionary theory is unequivocally opposed to the Scriptures on the issue of death. Death as the machinery of evolution and death as the wages of sin simply cannot be reconciled. They move in opposite directions.But, Pr. Murphy is very concerned that opinions like those of Pr. Speckhard will make Christianity the laughing-stock of the enemies of Christianity, with whom Pr. Murphy clearly wants to make nice. Pr. Murphy is apparently convinced that if Christians will discard all the nonsense of a “six-day creation and other errors,” then the enemies of Christianity will come around and realize that Christians aren’t really so bad. And then…what? Richard Dawkins will decide that maybe God isn’t a delusion after all?

Pr. Murphy then plays the “for the sake of the Gospel” card and says that “scientifically literate Christians” (as opposed, presumably, to Pr. Speckhard and his ilk) might well abandon the faith if people like Pr. Speckhard tell them Christianity requires belief in a six-day creation. Their abandonment of the faith then rests on the heads of Pr. Speckhard and those like him. Drowning by millstone is the deserved punishment for such a crime. Despite the fact that Pr. Speckhard never demanded that Christians, scientifically literate or not, accept his view of Genesis (which has been, more or less, the view of the vast majority of Christians throughout the centuries), Pr. Murphy condemns him to the hell of the scandalizers of little ones.

Two points that Pr. Murphy makes should not go unchallenged. First, he quotes Pascal that since “Scripture may be interpreted in different ways, whereas the testimony of the senses is uniform, we must in these matters adopt as the true interpretation of Scripture that view which corresponds with the faithful report of the senses.” It seems that neither Pascal nor Pr. Murphy is aware that the testimony of the senses, or at least the interpretation of that testimony, is not uniform. The information gained by the senses is not — even if we could, in our inescapable subjectivity, observe such a thing — objective fact, which simply “is what it is” and which does not have to be interpreted. The very event of stating, “Such-and-such fact of biology, chemistry, geology, etc. is or means thus” is an interpretation of such facts, just as translating a passage of Scripture is itself an interpretation of that passage. We interpret the testimony of the senses no less than we interpret the testimony of the Scriptures, and people may and do interpret both differently. And so it is not true that the testimony of the senses stands as a monolithic body of objective “facts,” against which the variegated and subjective testimony of the Scriptures must measure up in order to be taken seriously. It is strange (or maybe not) that Pr. Murphy would put more stock in the “faithful report of the senses” than in the inspired report of the faithful. Do the ministers ever have to listen to the queen? Besides, how does Pr. Murphy propose that we substantiate the faithfulness of the sensual report concerning creation, especially when creation is 13.7 billion years removed from us?

Secondly, Pr. Murphy places all the blame for the abandonment of the faith by “young people considering a vocation in science” squarely at the feet of Pr. Speckhard and those who agree with him. He says, ominously, “Those who push Christians toward such a sad and unnecessary choice should reflect on Matthew 18:6.” But, then, Pr. Murphy has already decided that it is a sad and unnecessary choice. Rudolph Bultmann and others decided that it was a sad and unnecessary choice between believing in the bodily resurrection of Christ and believing in modern electricity. Should those who “push Christians” to choose between science and the resurrection reflect also on Matthew 18:6? Or maybe those who think that no choice needs to be made should reflect on Luke 14:26-33.

If Pr. Murphy wants to defer to the scientific establishment, of which he is a part, on the interpretation of the Scriptures, that’s certainly his right. But should Pr. Speckhard have to defer to the scientists as well, so that Pr. Murphy doesn’t have to worry about whether the enemies of Christianity will like him?