Archive for the ‘The Way Forward’ Category

The Way Forward (3): The Bible in the Church

October 13, 2009

According to the Formula of Concord, the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” are “the pure clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm by which all teachers and teaching are to be judged” (Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm). Our attention easily locks onto the description of Scripture as the “only true norm” in doctrinal controversy. That’s the contested Protestant bit, the “Scripture-principle.” It’s been endlessly discussed since the Reformation, and entered deeply into Protestant identity.

It has also been viewed with increasing skepticism since the Enlightenment, not without reason. It just doesn’t seem to have worked out very well. Conflicts don’t actually seem to be resolved by biblical interpretation in the Protestant churches; controversies seem more likely to generate schism or else the formation of ongoing opposed parties within ecclesiastical communities. Hasn’t any unity Protestants have enjoyed really been brought about by state-church regimes or capacious denominational structures, rather than a meeting of the minds over Scripture?

Notice, though, that the Formula does not present Scripture only as a norm to be appealed to in controversy. Before Scripture is norm, it is the “pure, clear fountain of Israel,” the source of the water of life. A fountain is different from a norm; its work is prior to any outbreak of controversy, any pressing need for judgment. A fountain gives life and provides cleansing. Its waters sustain travelers, clear dust from human eyes, and turn deserts into fruitful fields. Unless the church is constantly being enlivened and formed by Scripture in this way, appeals to the Bible as norm and judge will be operating in a vacuum.

No method of resolving disputes within the church can function without the support of an underlying sensus fidelium, a common mind among the faithful. Even a teaching office on Roman Catholic lines can only settle disputes successfully if there is a shared perception that the office deserves respect. This can never be wholly a matter of recognizing the formal authority of the bishop or the Pope, as in the slogan “Rome has spoken – case closed.” It has to include a perception that the actual decisions made by the teaching office reliably cohere with central Christian beliefs and practices. Only so can a sense be maintained that obedience to the teaching office is an authentic form of discipleship. But for that to be the case, the teachers and the faithful must share a common formation in faith and life. They can only meet, so to speak, if they live in the same Christian universe.

The root of our problems with authority in the ELCA, I would suggest, is the confusion, weakening, and consequent fragmentation of the sensus fidelium, the common mind of the faithful. This confusion and weakness are by no means all on one side. We’ve all been affected by the biblical illiteracy, thin catechesis, clueless educational programs, and unfocused preaching that are widespread (I’m not saying universal) in our denomination. Seeking scriptural resolution to a passionate controversy on top of such weakness, confusion, and fragmentation is like trying to ride up the glass mountain in the fairy tale: no matter how strong your theological horse or how well you ride it, you’re never going to get traction.

This is one reason I’ve been suggesting that the way forward has to be a renewed formative engagement with Scripture as pure, clear fountain. We need to set the Bible loose in the ELCA; we need to uncap the hydrant and let the waters pour where they will. We need to do this not defensively, nor simply in a new round of argument about sexual ethics, but with the air of people discovering treasure in a field. The new mantra in the ELCA is that our unity is in Christ, not in theology or moral teaching. A confused mantra – but why not respond: “Good – then let’s go looking for him. Let’s dig up the field of the Scriptures to find him.”

I heard a couple of words in church last Sunday that encouraged me: “The word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). When we let the Bible loose, we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. But it’s not just our own power we have to reckon with. And we’ve just about run out of other things to try.


The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 4

October 8, 2009

My students know that my orbit around a point is often more like that of a comet than a planet, and that has probably been evident in these last few posts. What I’ve hoped to do is sketch some background against which the challenge of re-encountering the scriptural Christ might stand out more clearly.

Our relationship to Jesus Christ is inseparable from our relationship to the Bible. If we want to take hold of Christ by faith, then we must take hold of the garment of Scripture in which he has been clothed for us.  A renewed encounter with Jesus necessarily involves a new encounter with the Bible.

If traditionalists (or anyone, for that matter) are to take the present crisis in the ELCA as an occasion for repentance and renewal, therefore, we need to become actively dissatisfied with our present relationship to the Bible (as part of our penitence) and actively set about to discover anew what the Bible is and could be to us. This is a project for all of us. There is an element that scholars like me can contribute, but the rubber hits the road where teachers (not just the “rostered” ones) and preachers stand up to set forth the Scriptures to the people of God.

There is no salvation for us in schemes of “distinctively Lutheran hermeneutics” [“hermeneutics” = “theory and rules of interpretation,” for those who haven’t learned this jargon]. The very idea is sectarian: if Lutheranism is a movement of reform within the universal church, then it ought to be possible to make the case for Lutheran teaching on the basis of an ecumenical hermeneutics. Moreover, the temptation is overwhelming to take “Lutheran hermeneutics” practically to mean a way of guaranteeing that biblical interpretation will never disturb our ideas of Lutheranism.

What we need is not a unified hermeneutic (for which we will wait forever) but a thousand flowers blooming.  Pre-modern exegesis was wise in seeing the unity of scriptural interpretation not in a unitary method but in a shared focus on Jesus Christ and a common acknowledgment of the “rule of the faith” as summarized in creed and catechism. We need to take practical advantage of recent work that has made the exegesis of the ancient church far more accessible and intelligible than it has been for centuries. We need to explore the theological and homiletic possibilities of approaches that treat biblical interpretation as primarily literary analysis rather than historical research.  We need to ask anew about the role of imagination in scriptural interpretation, not only “What does it mean to read the Bible imaginatively?” but also “How do we involve the congregation imaginatively with the Bible?”

Diversity, experiment, risk-taking, and an element of godly play, will all be to the good if three rules are observed.

First, we can trust the church’s tradition enough to assume that we are on the wrong track if we find ourselves contradicting the creeds or the catechism. The risen Christ and the Holy Spirit surely did not wait around for you or me (or even Martin Luther) to come along to get the basics across to Christ’s bride, the church. This is the ancient principle of reading Scripture according to the “rule of the faith.”

Second, the direction of reading has to be into the biblical texts not away from them. If we are excited by the words, and drawn into the intricate interplay of the words in particular texts and across the canon, then we are moving in the right direction. If we can draw others into a passion for following and grappling with the words, then we are doing a good work.

The last thing the contemporary church needs is more big ideas and vague uplift. The last thing our imaginations need is to be launched (yet again) into the blue skies of religious fancy and wish-fulfillment. What we need is to get down on the ground and wrestle with the God-provided words of the scriptures like Jacob wrestled with the angel, all night long until the break of day. That’s much harder than playing with ideas. The words fight back; they resist us; they have sharp edges and they hurt. We may walk away limping – but we will be Israel.

The third rule is simply enough that the center of our interest in the Bible must be Jesus Christ. Not ideas about Jesus, not something we suppose that Jesus means or stands for, but Jesus Christ himself, the particular person in whose singular flesh God has put the whole creation to rights once and for all. The real test of every interpretive venture is the Jesus-test: do we come back around to him, do we find ourselves more attached to him, do we see something more of the whole fullness that dwells in him, as a result of this exegesis, this reading of this or that text?

Before long I’ll be posting some guidance on resources for facing these challenges, but the most important thing is actually to read the Bible more intensively and extensively, with the rules of engagement just mentioned actively in mind.

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 3

October 6, 2009

In my last post, I suggested that our difficulty in reading Scripture as a unified whole might be one factor undermining the depth and vitality of our witness to Jesus Christ. The difficulty arises from modern historical study of the Bible. Historical research tends to break down the unities in our minds by focusing on the real-life particulars of which they’re composed, and how they got that way. If you study “the ancient Greek city” historically, you’ll soon become aware of how different various Greek cities were, and your generalizations about “the” Greek city will be challenged.

I have no intention of rejecting historical study of the Bible or losing the knowledge it has yielded. Are we then stuck? I don’t think so. One question that’s seldom been asked until recently is “Why did pre-modern Christians read the Bible as they did?” Too often the answer has been assumed: “Of course they read the Bible in weird ways – they were ignorant and primitive.” Ironically, though, this generalization survives historical scrutiny just as little as generalizations about ancient Greek cities.

Put the question another way: did pre-modern Christians read the Bible differently than we do because they didn’t know things that we know? Quite a lot of research over the past half century suggests that the answer is No. The church fathers certainly didn’t have the historical methods or knowledge that we have. But it seems unlikely that any amount of information about the history of the biblical texts would have fazed them. Their confidence in the unity of Scripture rested not on a lack of information but on confidence in the providence of God, who rules over all the contingent messiness of history to achieve his ends.

The issues here are surprisingly parallel to those in current debates about God and evolution. Darwinian village atheists like Richard Dawkins and some proponents of Intelligent Design seem to agree that a state of affairs in the world must either be the outcome of describable processes in space and time or the outcome of God’s designing activity, but can’t be both.

This is a false alternative, because God is not one more cause on the same plane as others. God is the Creator, the reason the whole cosmic and historical process and everything in it exists at all. If something happens by accident, he’s the reason the accident is real rather than not real. If something happens by human will and design, he’s the reason that human thinking and willing are real and have real outcomes. Such a God doesn’t need to interrupt the cosmic or the historical process to achieve his goals (though he can if he chooses). He rules over all processes because he decides what is real and what is not.

My guess is that most ELCA readers of this blog accept the scientific consensus on evolution and believe that God nonetheless guided it. There seems no reason why we couldn’t take the same attitude to the Bible. The biblical texts developed in complex and diverse ways over centuries through a messy and tangled history in which all sorts of influences, interests, attitudes, and events played a role. And the Lord God of Israel sat enthroned over those roiling waters (cf. Ps. 29:10), and worked in ways our minds cannot trace to design a canon of testimony to his Son.

The Word Incarnate is a particular human being, with a known name and a known story, in whom nevertheless the whole fullness of the divine mystery dwells bodily (Col 2:9). The word of testimony is like him: it is a body of texts with a clear center and outline that opens up ever-new depths of meaning as we attend to its words, its manifold dimensions, its web of interconnections, and not least its internal tensions. Everything we have learned about the texts from historical research is potential grist for the mill. But when we reckon with the biblical canon as a gift of God’s providence we define exegesis as something more than a historical task. We admit the possibility that the Bible has other ways of signifying, other dimensions of Christ-attesting meaning, that can’t be caught in the nets of historical research.

In my next post, I will conclude these “Scriptural Christ” posts on a more practical note.

P.S. Mentioning evolution on the internet can be like leaving a carcass lying on the prairie. Before you know it, an immense crowd of creatures will gather to quarrel over it and pick its bones. Let me therefore say in advance that comments which would push the discussion away from Jesus, Scripture, and renewal in the church towards an argument about evolution will be refused by the Management.

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 2

September 30, 2009

In my last post, I presented some impressions underlying my uneasiness about the role of Jesus in ELCA preaching and practice of all varieties. Even if you aren’t convinced, it might be worthwhile to read on. Worry about the role Jesus is playing in our lives is at least a wholesome worry, and reflection prompted thereby might have value even if the concern is overstated.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t believe in Jesus, or that we don’t realize that our hope depends on him. But his experienced presence in our life as a church seems less vivid, less concrete, less attention-grabbing than it might be. He seems constantly ready to dissolve into various good things of which he might be the symbol or withdraw into the past or dwindle into a factor in a doctrinal equation.

It’s not likely that there is any one cause of this. There have certainly been theological trends in modern Protestantism that might lead in this direction. But I’ve taught too long to believe that theological teaching drives the life of the church directly, though theological attitudes and assumptions can get into the water supply and affect the way people think and (most important) frame questions for generations. In this post I want to suggest that another kind of problem dogs our engagement with Jesus: our broken relationship to Holy Scripture.

Of course, what I call brokenness, others call maturity. One widespread way of receiving modern historical study of the Bible is to affirm that it does indeed break down the church’s historic relationship to Scripture, and about time, too. Such a break is a compelling rational necessity, it is held, and a great liberation from the stifling fundamentalism of the pre-modern Christian tradition.

This view is easier to hold the less you know about pre-modern biblical interpretation. Still, it’s a powerful “narrative,” as they say, and its influence hangs over every pastor and teacher educated in a mainline seminary – which is by no means to say that seminary Bible professors always desire this outcome. Let me say too that I am not taking a superior position here. I’ve spent years trying to think my way out of this “narrative,” and I still feel its pressure.

I want to focus on the difficulty we have in reading the Bible as a unified witness to Jesus Christ. Traditional biblical interpretation, from the Fathers up to and including 19th-century evangelicals (with whom the confessional Lutherans of the time significantly overlapped), could still preach from a Bible whose every part converged to give depth and resonance and mass to the presentation of Jesus Christ. Every passage in Scripture was in principle relevant to the interpretation of every other passage, and the target-point of the whole was the particular person Jesus in the uniqueness of his story.

It was of course possible to do this badly – just as there is also a lot of bad historical-critical exegesis. There was exegesis and preaching that flattened out differences and smoothed away tensions in the Scriptures to produce a dogmatically homogenized and thoroughly predictable Christ. But there was also exegesis and preaching that allowed text to strike sparks from text, let Paul, John, and the Synoptics mix and react to one another, with sometimes explosive gospel-force, and found in the Old Testament not only theological foundations but an endless treasury of metaphorical figures for Christ and his salvation which, if nothing else, had the energy to penetrate and form the mind and imagination.

By contrast, when the witness of every text or text-tradition has to stand by itself, when the only permissible connections between biblical texts are historical connections, when preachers are conditioned to fear over-interpretation far more than under-interpretation, when the Old Testament may be connected with Christ only in roundabout ways, and when the ideal of “critical” exegesis discourages imagination from playing the role it would normally play in the interpretation of a body of literature – it isn’t really surprising that the results are a wee bit thin, despite the best efforts of all concerned.

Next time: Does it really have to be this way?

The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 1

September 28, 2009

I’ve been writing about a spiritual agenda for traditional Christians in the ELCA after the August Assembly, starting with penitence. But true penitence is inseparable from faith in Jesus Christ. The “way forward” must also begin and continue with a renewed encounter with him.

An advantage of this proposal is that almost no one will disagree with it. That’s also its disadvantage. We all know that Christ is important; we’re Christians, aren’t we? It’s not so easy, however, to get out of the box of routine and reconsider what encountering Jesus means.

I am going to begin this series of posts by relaying six observations that make me uneasy about the role Jesus is playing in our preaching and life. They are of course generalizations to which there are many exceptions; I am not indicting every pastor and teacher in the ELCA. Also, I admit up front that this is subjective evidence.  The question for you the reader is whether they add up to a picture you can recognize. You may be wholly unconvinced that there’s a problem at all, and I can’t refute you. I can only share my impressions.

1. Most of the sermons I have heard or read over the past several decades have been based on the Gospel lesson, but a majority of them have not really been about Jesus. Sermons tend to get diverted early from the concrete figure of Jesus to focus on some truth, value, imperative, or experiential possibility supposedly represented by Jesus.

2. What good thing does God give us in the gospel? I hear very few sermons that follow Luther (in the Catechisms) in saying that the good thing is having Jesus as our Lord instead of the devil. Instead I hear a lot of abstractions about being accepted (but into what?), stirring but vague rhetoric about new possibilities, and a lot of generic assurance that “God is with you.”

3. Even preachers who make the point that it’s Jesus’ presence that saves us don’t often seem to have much to say about him. The affirmation that his presence saves us doesn’t often lead to an interest in knowing what he is like, what sort of fellow he is, and what it would be like to have him present with us. He tends to be described in doctrinal or metaphorical formulae, remaining what literary critics call a flat rather than a rounded character.

4. Increasingly often I hear a kind of casual de-christologizing of the Eucharist – vague talk about “God’s presence with us in bread and wine” as though the gift of the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s incarnate Son, gave no special shape to our joy or our hope.

5. I hear Jesus appearing less and less as the subject of verbs in sermons on the Gospels. Instead we hear about what Matthew or Luke is telling us by this or that way of presenting Jesus. Does profiting from modern insights into the theological distinctness of the Gospels require that we always say “Mark presents Jesus as saying” rather than “Jesus says”? This distances Jesus from the assembly; the Gospels become veils of opinion behind which he is hidden rather than media of his presence in our midst.

6. Finally, what has Jesus got to do with “Lutheranism”? My impression is that theologically articulate Lutherans of all schools can talk a blue streak about justification, grace, faith and works, law and gospel, etc., without ever saying more about Jesus Christ than the formalistic “for Christ’s sake” of Augsburg Confession IV. It certainly doesn’t seem that standard ways of explaining Lutheran themes have the effect of directing people towards the concrete figure of Jesus and involving them more closely with him.

Let me be clear that I have by no means observed these trends only among “liberal” Lutherans. As I said in my last post, we traditionalists are not so very different from our revisionist brothers and sisters, and this is one of the ways in which that is so.

In my next post, I’ll try to sum up my concerns.

David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence, continued

September 25, 2009

In my last post, I wrote about penitence in general, claiming that penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing. In this post I want to talk about the specific reasons why the traditionalist response to the 2009 Assembly should begin and continue in penitence. I want to suggest two reasons.

1. Traditionalists should begin and continue their response in penitence precisely because we’re in the right on these issues. That may sound paradoxical, but it really isn’t. Given the condition of the believer as described at the end of my previous post, one of the hardest things in this world is to be in the right without getting it wrong.

That’s the challenge facing traditionalists. Our consciences are captive to the Word of God on this matter, and we have not been shown plain texts of Scripture or clear arguments of reason sufficient to change our convictions. But being right does not guarantee that we will get it right – that we will respond to the present situation in ways that honor the Word that binds us.

In a sense, our best moments as disciples of Jesus are the moments when we have just discovered that we have been wrong, embarrassingly wrong. Those are the moments when we are most aware that the truth of God stands over against us and judges us, when our trust in ourselves is most shaken, and we are most likely to be teachable. By contrast, the moments when we are aware of being right are moments of grave spiritual danger. That’s when we are most likely to identify our own mindset with God’s word, as though being right about one thing meant that we are right about everything important. That’s when we are most likely to think ourselves competent for the journey of discipleship – as though being right implied that we are righteous. It’s the moment when we easily become least teachable – and therefore the biggest fools.

2. A traditionalist response should begin and continue in penitence because we are not that different from our revisionist brothers and sisters. This catastrophe did not come upon the ELCA out of nowhere, like a Creature from the Black Lagoon. It developed quite naturally out of the mind and life of late twentieth-century American Lutheranism. As Michael Root has suggested, standard 20th-century academic construals of Lutheranism, even at their best, typically had structural weaknesses that lent themselves to this outcome. These are the Lutheran theologies that shaped most of us who are seminary educated, and through us have entered into the shared mind of our denomination.

Furthermore, we have been formed in a common church life. This is an area where generalizations easily make people angry, but surely it can be said that we have mostly not been, in recent decades, a biblically or spiritually intense people. Let me speak only for myself: I have spent over thirty years studying the “great tradition” of Christian thought and practice. I know the diversity of the tradition and the many different forms of church life and practice it contains. And still I have to say that the main lesson I have learned – but not learned well enough – is that by the standards of that tradition, despite its diversity, I am a shallow Christian. When I look around and suspect that by those same standards I have been formed in a somewhat shallow church, I am not viewing the scene from a position of superiority and judgment. My uneasiness about the Lutheranism I’ve been shaped by is part and parcel of my uneasiness about myself.

This raises many uncomfortable questions. Theologically, we may be resting right convictions on shaky foundations. Are we willing to rethink our “Lutheranism” down to the ground, rather than retreating into it like a fortress? Are we, the traditionalists, willing to be stripped of our theological self-confidence, to take seriously that we ourselves might be deeply confused about law and gospel, grace and works, faith and new life? Are we ready to ask whether our own various ways of managing the problem of historical consciousness and scriptural authority are actually viable for the long haul? And let’s not forget our old friend the false alternative: one of the ways in which contesting parties are often constrained by what they have in common is that both see two alternatives in a situation, both bad – for example, either a rigid and unfeeling faith or a warm and shapeless faith (though naturally, having chosen one of these, we will describe it more flatteringly).

But the questions get more personal: We who teach or preach, are we really feeding the flock with solid food? Can they live through the times ahead on what we are giving them? For all of us, are the forms of church life and Christian practice with which we’re comfortable sufficient, so that we just have to defend them and continue on? Or are recent events a wake-up call to rethink who we are and what we have become? Beginning with penitence means starting with the thought that we traditionalists ourselves might not be OK, that we probably aren’t OK, that we are in fact almost certainly our own worst enemies. The call we’re hearing may be a call not to go out of the ELCA, but to go deep into the Christian mystery, deeper than we’ve imagined going before now.

We do, after all, have clear teaching from our Lord that God does not allow catastrophes in order to show us that other people are wrong. “Those Lutherans who jumped off a cliff in Minneapolis, do you think that they were worse sinners than all the other Lutherans, because they made such a hash of things? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (cf. Luke 13:1-5).

David Yeago
Coming soon : The Road Ahead (2): The Scriptural Christ.

David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence

September 23, 2009

I’ve been gratified by the positive responses to “In the Aftermath” – it seems that it struck a chord with some. In hope of continuing to be useful, I will be writing a series of posts on “The Way Forward,” elaborating on the concluding paragraphs of that essay, in which I briefly sketched a possible future for traditionalists in the ELCA. In this first post, I want to begin expounding the proposition that penitence is the gateway to any worthwhile traditionalist future.

In a sense this is obvious, or should be: as long as we carry the flesh around our necks, penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing. But as Aquinas might have said, what is most obvious in itself is not always most obvious to us. Therefore in this post I’ll back up and look at the meaning of penitence, and in the next post apply these thoughts to the situation at hand.

“Our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent!’ intended that the whole life of believers be penitence.” There are still many Lutherans – fewer than there used to be, I fear – who would recognize this as the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. But how do we stand towards the claim it makes? Our whole life – penitence? I’m deliberately translating penitentia as “penitence” and not “repentance” to keep alive the Latin word’s association with penalty and pain, which is clearly alive for Luther. “For penalty/pain (pena) remains, as long as hatred of self (that is, true inner penitence) remains – until we enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Thesis 4).

To repeat the question: our whole life – penitence? Willing acceptance of a “penalty” – God’s No to our sin – as the “pain” of inward “self-hatred” – our whole life long? I have only my own observations to go on, but I have to say – this doesn’t sound like Lutheranism as I know it. I shudder to think what would happen if an ELCA ordination candidate told her committee that her goal in ministry was to teach parishioners to hate themselves. And the committee would be right to be spooked – Luther’s thinking has become so alien to us that anyone who parroted his words today would very likely mean something awful by them.

But why has the thinking become so alien to us? One reason is that we don’t think much about the corruption of sin. We tend to assume that “sinfulness” is inevitable and to that extent “normal,” and that the real problem is the condemnation of the law. Luther, however, was convinced that the gospel overcomes both the two great evils that plague sinners (cf. Against Latomus), both condemnation by God’s wrath and the inner corruption, the distortion of desire, the blindness and confusion, to which God has “handed over” those who do not acknowledge him as God (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28). The gospel overcomes condemnation all at once by forgiveness and at the same time initiates and sustains a protracted conflict with the flesh, a lifelong struggle in which there is, however, hope for genuine change and renewal.

If this is so, then corruption of the heart is not inevitable, though it is very difficult to combat. It is not “normal” but shameful. It betrays us into being and thinking, saying and doing ugly things that in our right minds we hate. God loves the spiritually ugly and makes them his children but his love intends to bring them to the beauty of holiness. His gospel brings us the gift of the Spirit, and promises that he will reward our struggle: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

Something like this lies behind Luther’s talk of life-long penitence. Yes, God accepts sinners into his fellowship and justifies the ungodly – that’s us — and in that we rejoice. But our rejoicing is inevitably accompanied by sorrow, because we are not all at once capable of receiving all that God is giving. There is still something hateful woven deep into the fabric even of the believing self, something that resists what God gives. The self-hatred of which Luther speaks is not morbid, however, but hopeful. It arises in the presence of the divine generosity that loves us and wants us to shine. It is a steady and militant refusal to settle for less than the glory and honor with which God means to crown us in Christ.

There is a specifically Christian sense of our situation that goes with this spirituality of penitence. God has started something holy in each believer, but that new thing is like a oil-lamp on a raft tossing on an ocean of craving and confusion – the Old Adam, the “flesh.” Christ can walk across the sea to bring oil for the lamp and save the raft from capsizing. He is the master even of this ocean. But our ability to stand against it is as tenuous as Peter’s, always dependent on his word and always threatened by distraction. We are not hopeless – given Christ. But we can’t trust ourselves, neither our passions nor our reasoning, which is subverted by our cravings in so many cunning ways. At every moment, from every juncture, a broad and easy road stretches out attractively towards destruction. The narrow road is hard for our eyes to see and uninviting when we find it. We lean towards destruction.

This is why Christians of old schooled themselves to self-distrustful watchfulness and self-examination with a rigor that we tend to find, well, scary. And this is why penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing.

Next post: applying these thoughts to the situation of traditionalists in the ELCA.

David Yeago
(The “by Michael Root” just means it went through his computer.)