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Concordia Journal
Concordia Seminary
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Winter 2016
volume 42 | number 1
Winter 2016
volume 42 | number 1
In Quest of a Historical Angle
Three Myths about the Crusades
Scripture and Tradition in an Evangelical Contex
Dale A. Meyer
David Adams
Charles Arand
Andrew Bartelt
Executive EDITOR
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Charles Arand
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This is an extremely
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can be achieved and for
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Issued by the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, the Concordia Journal is the successor of
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On the cover: Detail from Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich (1818). In a footnote to his article, Robert Rosin sees this work by the German Romanticist as a touchstone for the work of history: “Is the wanderer looking back to reflect on where he has been, or is he peering forward to reconnoiter what seems to lie ahead? Could be both:
history is Janus-like, looking both ways . . .”
© Copyright by Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri 2015 |
Jonathan Ruehs
Mary Scott
Jack M. Schultz
Peter Senkbeil
Roderick B. Soper
Cindy Steinbeck
Bret Taylor
Kerri L. Tom
Michael E. Young
—Gene Edward Veith, PhD
A biblical, Lutheran view of higher
education that’s rooted in the
interaction of faith and learning
Printed in the USA
(ISSN 0145-7233)
© 2015 Concordia Publishing House
J ournal
5 Introduction from the Chair
William W. Schumacher
6 Messengers of the Message
Dale A. Meyer
13 In Quest of a Historical Angle: Tree? Labyrinth?
Rhizome? Landscape? Hinge and Promise!
Robert Rosin
28 Three Myths about the Crusades: What They
Mean for Christian Witness
Paul Robinson
41 Scripture and Tradition in an Evangelical Context
Joel C. Elowsky
Winter 2016
volume 42 | number 1
Introduction from the Chair
When someone starts a sentence with the phrase, “History clearly teaches . . .”
they are probably about to make an assertion they are either unable or unwilling to support with real evidence and arguments. In other words, we often encounter a kind of
rhetorical appeal to history to bolster this or that present-day cause. At best, this kind
of superficial appeal to the past serves to confirm one’s own biases; at worst, it devolves
into cynical and pseudo-scholarly puffery in service to ambition. One would have no
trouble documenting this kind of misappropriation of history in this election year, but
the study would have to be done by someone with much greater tolerance for listening to campaign rhetoric than I have. Of course, secular politics is not the only sphere
in which history gets hijacked to serve power. In the church we also hear such appeals
to the past, to tradition, to the “clear lessons” of history to support whatever policy or
direction is being promoted at the moment.
Some people, when they come to recognize this (mis)use of history, may conclude, with Henry Ford, that “history is more or less bunk.” Perhaps this is a peculiarly
American temptation: it is deeply engrained in our national myth that the future is
open, that the past does not define us (individually or collectively), and that (to quote
the Sting song) “history can teach us nothing.” The sad result of that wholesale dismissal can be shallow faddishness and the silly illusion that every current fashion is both
unprecedented and ultimately important.
The essays before you in this issue of the Concordia Journal show that it is possible, and helpful, to steer our thinking on a course between self-serving propaganda
and dismissive ignorance. History does teach us, but the lessons are often more ambiguous, and more open to argument, than we might like. Read these pages, and consider
how thoughtful reflection on the past can serve us well, not by offering slam-dunk
answers to every question, but by cultivating tempered wisdom, intellectual humility,
and patient trust in the God in whose hands are all our days and years and centuries. It
might also mean we listen and converse with perspectives we’re not used to.
One of the Missouri Synod’s finest real historians was Carl S. Meyer. When
Meyer died at the end of 1972, he left unfinished a full scholarly history of the Synod,
and that lack still haunts us. One of his Concordia Seminary colleagues wrote, “As a
result, we may continue to fail to understand the real strengths and weaknesses of our
Synod and may continue to fall prey to those who use their picture of the past to propagandize for a future that they can trust only to the degree that they can determine
it” (Herbert T. Mayer, Concordia Theological Monthly 44 no. 3 [May 1973]: 163).
Historical scholarship (as exemplified in these essays) continues to chip away at our
ignorance, to defend us against propaganda, and to liberate us from our lust to determine what is in God’s control.
William W. Schumacher
Chair, Department of Historical Theology
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
Messengers of the Message
To begin with the obvious, changes in society have left many of our congregations struggling and in decline. That’s an intellectual observation until we put a face on
the person who has walked away. Someone you baptized and confirmed? Someone who
joined the church filled with new-found joy in the gospel? Someone from your own
family? Now it gets personal, not just intellectual talk about the church in decline but
heart-rending. People leave for many reasons, that is true, but one reason has been identified that is especially grievous, our conduct as pastors. Ask district presidents if congregations are troubled because of wrong teaching or from character flaws or personality
quirks in the pastor, and they’ll tell you that very often the conduct of the pastor causes
or exacerbates the church’s problems. As I reflect upon the mistakes in my ministry, it
was something I did or my reaction to a situation that caused or contributed to problems. The refrain is known throughout the church, “Seminary graduates know their
theology but their people skills are lacking.” Like heat-seeking missiles zeroing in on the
target, people complain to the Seminary and ask, “What are you teaching?”
The church lives and ministers in the context of its times. The changes that
have come upon us in American culture have come in no small measure because of the
dominance of major thought centers, like liberal universities, and many in the media.1
Liberal intellectual thought disseminated by willing media has successfully planted attitudes and conducts into the popular culture that couldn’t have been imagined decades
ago. Seminary formation and pastoral practice can learn much from an ancient context,
Corinth in the first century AD: “Whatever was written in former days was written for
our instruction” (Rom 15:40). Founded as a Roman colony in 44 BC, Corinth’s location made it a cosmopolitan city. Merchants, soldiers, philosophers, dramatic performers, tourists, religious pilgrims, and evangelists all streamed through Corinth. Truly
a pluralistic society, the popular culture of Corinth found public expression in the
speeches of traveling orators called sophists. These intellectuals came to town and spoke
in public, wooing followers with their wisdom and knowledge. They promoted strength
and belittled weakness, exalted knowledge and disparaged the unschooled. They fostered a conventional wisdom of power, position, prestige, and personality. They made
the messenger more important than the message—a theology of glory—and it was
harming the body of Christ in Corinth. Of course, those believers didn’t understand
this and so Paul had to teach them, and he did so amidst some strained interpersonal
relationships with members of the congregation.
Paul wasn’t a sophist but he was perceived as one. That’s understandable. When
Paul first arrived in Corinth, he had an agenda, spoke in public as a skilled rhetorician, and attracted a following.2 Paul moved on after eighteen months but got word
that in his absence some Corinthians were comparing his leadership unfavorably to
other leaders, not just to sophists but especially to other Christian leaders, like the
smooth Apollos: “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor 1:12). Their persons were
being compared and judged because some Corinthian Christians were more under the
of popular culture than under the cross. Andrew Clarke: “Some from the
elite (in) Corinthian society also belonged to the Pauline community and . . . , both
in practices adopted and perceptions of leadership in the church, some of these were
strongly influenced by a secular model.”3 You might expect Paul to have said, “My dear
Corinthians, it’s all about the message; pay no attention to me, the faulty messenger.”
But no, instead of deflecting criticisms about his ministry by saying the church members weren’t getting the message right and, to be sure, the Corinthians weren’t properly
living out the message, Paul presented himself as a model of how the message of the cross
applies to life. He said, “Be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:16). How would you feel about
standing before your congregation and saying, “Be imitators of me?”
While we can intellectually separate the messenger from the message, Paul
recognized that the two are closely linked in the perception of the public within and
without the church.4 If the saving message is carried by a flawed messenger who causes
offense, many people will reject the gospel, or at least have nothing to do with that
congregation. The Point, a mission church in Knoxville, Tennessee, is reaching many
people who had walked away from church for many years and reaching some who never
attended. Pastor Matt Peeples writes,
People are tired of spin and gimmicks. . . . As a result of being bombarded
with messages, they have become more savvy to what the message is really
communicating. We are in a time where what you are saying is as important as how you are saying it. What you are saying needs to be genuine
and authentic.
In this culture, content becomes secondary to connection. If you do not
connect, you will not be given the opportunity to share your content.5
The messenger must be a different kind of person, a leader willing to be scrutinized for the sake of the more important message. “I urge you, then, be imitators of
me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to
remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor 4:16–17). “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 10:33–11:1). Then and now, the pastoral
demeanor and personal life of the messenger of the message are mission critical.
Historically The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has kept the message and
messenger somewhat separate. Seminary formation focused on intellect, on lectures and
reading books of theology, and the character of the messenger, while important, was
not given a priority. Seven questions are asked a candidate at ordination or installation.
Six are about fidelity to the biblical and confessional message but only one question
turns to the character of the pastor: “Finally, will you honor and adorn the Office of
the Holy Ministry with a holy life?” This emphasis upon faithfulness to the word is as
it should be. Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples and you
will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31–32). “Scripture alone” is
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
our Reformation
heritage. The masthead of the German predecessor to the Lutheran
Witness read, “God’s Word and Luther’s teaching shall to all time endure.” Students at
Concordia Seminary will continue to receive this blessed Lutheran emphasis upon the
message, God’s word, but pastoral formation has to become more intentional in balancing head and heart. Paul David Tripp has written,
Academized Christianity, which is not constantly connected to the heart
and puts its hope in knowledge and skill, can actually make students dangerous. It arms them with powerful knowledge and skills that can make
the students think that they are more mature and godly than they actually
are. It arms students with weapons of spiritual warfare that if not used
with humility and grace will harm the people they are meant to help.6
Right now the faculty of Concordia, St. Louis is hard at work revising the curriculum for our major pastoral formation program, the Master of Divinity program.
Curriculum means not only what is taught in the classroom but the entire campus experience (chapel, sports, clubs, participation in campus events, personal stewardship, thankyou letters, interactions with staff, and so on). The very first goal of the new curriculum
will be Theological Foundations, the acceptance and use of Scripture “as the inspired
and normative word of God and the Lutheran Confessions as their authoritative interpretation.” That’s not just a nod; the new curriculum intends our graduates to conduct
their ministries and guide their congregations from a biblical and confessional mindset.
Worldly wisdom and knowledge can aid in ministry (for example, Paul used the devices
of rhetoric), but such helps must always be subservient to ministry animated by the word
of Christ. In that light, the new curriculum highlights Pastoral Practice and Leadership
more intentionally than in the past. Students will have more firsthand experiences with
healthy congregations. They need to see how theological knowledge is put into practice
by pastors who are acknowledged servant-leaders of their congregations, worthy of imitation. Through a new curricular emphasis, Cultural Interpretation and Engagement,
students will learn in classrooms and on-site about bringing the word of God to people
of different cultures and ethnicities. And because there has been a problem with the
conduct of some pastors, much more attention will also be given by the seminary to
the character of the candidate for ministry, so that our future pastors will “be above
reproach” and “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tm 3:1–7). New ways of focusing on
Personal and Spiritual Formation are being planned, emphasizing your future pastor’s
devotional life, physical and emotional health, relationship skills, accountability and
much more. Before the whole faculty votes to certify a student for the holy ministry,
each student will have to demonstrate successful progress toward these desired outcomes.
As never before, formation for ministry will focus both on the messenger and the message. Nancy Ammerman, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Boston University:
Simply teaching the basic skills of preaching and teaching will not help
students assemble the disparate pilgrims moving through the city to hear
what they have to say. Simply ensuring adequate scriptural and theological
knowledge may or may not help a student hear the halting questions of
a young adult who has never been to church. . . . All the things seminaries have learned to do are still essential, but they are no longer sufficient.
Today’s religious leaders have to invite people into a spiritual community
where worship introduces connections to God, fellowship introduces connections to one another, and service introduces connections to a large mission in the world.7
Ordination isn’t completion; it signals intensified zeal for sanctified living. “Be
imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Paul’s strained relationship with the Corinthian congregation wasn’t as much
about doctrine as about their failure to deal with one another as fellow members of the
body of Christ. “There is no evidence that the factions Paul describes in 1 Corinthians
represented any differences in doctrine or practice.”8 “The problem is ‘a power struggle,
not a theological controversy.’”9 The gospel message gave them all they needed for
vibrant congregational life (“you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” 1 Cor 1:7), but
their most vocal members, the “strong,” didn’t get the difference between prevailing
culture and life in the church. Society’s emphasis upon knowledge became their pride
in theological knowledge. To that Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up”
(1 Cor 8:2). Society’s stress upon individual power and prestige became their justification for self-assertion to the spiritual harm of other church members, the “weak.” “All
things are lawful [that is, can be justified theologically or by the bylaws], but not all
things are helpful” (1 Cor 10:23). In short, their theology of glory blocked the power
and wisdom of God that comes from the message of the cross. To translate the message from their heads to the habits of their hearts, Paul presented his personal life as a
model. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” That’s mission critical for tomorrow’s
pastors, and today’s as well, for Jesus’s sake.
Dale A. Meyer
See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Acts 18:1–8 tells about the founding of the church at Corinth.
3 A. Clark, Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth, cited by Gregory Lockwood, 1 Corinthians,
Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 11.
4 The distinction between the message and the messenger is confirmed by the orthodox reaction to the
Donatist heresy, which taught “the Church of the saints must remain holy and that sacraments dispensed by a traditor were not only invalid but infected the recipients.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1970), 362.
5 Matt Peeples, “The New Realities of Communication,” numbers 13 and 8 (
6 Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling; Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton,
IL: Crossway Publishing, 2012), 54.
7 Nancy Ammerman, “America’s Changing Religious and Cultural Landscape and its Implications for
Theological Education,” Theological Education, 49, no. 1 (2014): 33.
8 Lockwood, 55.
9 L. L. Welborn, Politics and Rhetoric in the Corinthian Epistles, 7, cited in Anthony Thiselton, 1
Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 39.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
In Quest of a Historical Angle
Tree? Labyrinth? Rhizome? Landscape? Hinge and Promise!
Robert Rosin
are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that one can never
honor, praise, and thank them enough. That may very well be a work of great lords, as
the emperor, king, etc., who in their time deliberately had histories written and securely
preserved in libraries. Nor did they spare any cost necessary for supporting and educating such people as were qualified for writing histories.”1 Sage words. At least Martin
Luther thought so. The lines are his, professing a like for history not simply for entertainment’s sake (although there is plenty to amuse and amaze) but rather for the lessons
history provides, for the use it has, and for the angle it offers to help make sense of life.
But just what ought that slant be? Any number of models might serve, some more useful than others. There also are a number of ways to make hash of the whole business,
to cloud rather than clarify. In the end, knowing where one is on the historical timeline
and understanding what one can and cannot say makes all the difference. History’s
practical lessons are on display in Luther’s lines that follow his words just quoted, as
well as in other things Luther said along the way. We first will draw on Luther and the
Reformation, familiar material from history to take a look at the use of history. Then
beyond that, just how do we put things together to use history to make sense of history,
of life? That is part two, but first there is some history (of course!) to consider.
Even though Luther officially was a professor of biblical theology at Wittenberg,
he had a great interest in history and the importance it held for theology’s connection
to daily life. He understood that history comes with some restrictions or limits, but it
also opens up real avenues for church to be church. As we shall see, history properly
understood makes sure church cannot be constricted by someone’s myopic take on
how things ought to be. But rather, a healthy grasp of history guarantees a church set
loose with the word having free course, proclaimed for the joy and edifying of Christ’s
people. People who understand life via history also are more likely to do priestly work
in ways that embrace life, and, in turn, contribute to history that bears witness to God
on the move.
Luther lamented he had not studied history more while in school. “How I regret
now that I did not read more poets and historians, and that no one taught me them.
Robert Rosin is the Eugene E. and Nell S. Fincke Graduate Professor
of Theology at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis. A global scholar on Luther
and the Reformation, he has been a guest instructor or lecturer in Papua
New Guinea, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Croatia,
Germany, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, England, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
I was obliged
to read at great cost, toil, and detriment to myself, that devil’s dung,
the philosophers and the sophists, from which I had to purge myself.”2 In a sense,
the Reformation was part of that purge—and the purge was part of the Reformation.
Change method, change outlook, and new conclusions and consequences will follow. A
new day arises. An increased emphasis on history was part of a wider change that bore
fruit in theological reform.
When Wittenberg opened in 1502 there was no history professor and certainly
no history department. (When Marburg was founded in 1527, it copied most of what
Wittenberg had done but added a professor of history, perhaps wanting to be even
more intentional about history’s place in a curriculum that supported evangelical theology.) Yet history was always there in Wittenberg from the start as part of the foundation. It implicitly had a place because theology for Luther was no empty exercise, no
retreat to an obscure corner of textual study or grammatical navel-gazing. No, the Bible
reflected life. God was engaged with his creation, with those blessed souls on day six
and in another way with wayward souls ever since. His efforts to re-create came through
real events over time. God creates history and acts in history. The Old and New
Testaments are not some collection of rootless once-upon-a-time stories. They reflect
life and relate real events. To care about what God said over time was to care about history, and Luther certainly did. And to care about history was to care about how God
had acted and continues to act. On one level this is simple, but on another it is more
involved, as Luther well knew (and as we shall see). There is history and then there is
history, and we are well advised not to confuse the two. If that seems muddled at the
moment, have patience. The distinction, as we will see shortly, is crucial. And while we
must be careful in distinguishing what can and cannot be said, the task is not impossible but rests on some pretty basic lessons. And yet, there also are a number of ways to
go astray as history shows.
The Reformation has had a profound effect on its own day and after. “The
hinge on which all modern history turns,” intoned James Anthony Froude in the nineteenth century.3 Yet while it turned the world upside down, it had help, standing on
the shoulders of the Renaissance, a cultural revival of the liberal arts that had roughly
a hundred-and-fifty-year head start on the religious rebirth of the sixteenth century.
Aristotle had dominated learning, including theology, since the twelfth century as
the church fell in step with the Peripatetics using Aristotle’s thought patterns and the
vocabulary. It all made sense: if God is wise and good and makes no errors, and if God
gives law and says, “Keep it to live (or else),” therefore there must be some way (even if
enabled by grace) that we can keep it. If that were not possible, then God would be an
idiot or a fool, and that cannot be, so therefore . . . If ___, if ___, therefore ___ seemed
rock solid. But Luther found himself buried under the load and unable to be sure he
could dig himself out and find a God who loved him.
The New Learning of Renaissance humanism offered another avenue, other tools
by which to read the Scriptures.4 It understood that logic was basic to the liberal arts,
but left to predominate (or worse, left alone), it would skew theology. A fresh look at
the grammar and the rhetoric of the texts gave Luther a different understanding. Law
in Romans,
for example, was not multiplied by Paul in order to show what one could
do but rather was heaped up to reach a breaking point, a critical mass that would crush
any notion that keeping the law was possible. Not “therefore (ergo)” but “nevertheless
(dennoch)”was the operative term. In other words, it is not because of how we are, but
in spite of how we are that God loves us and saves us. It was a Renaissance humanismrooted understanding of language, of rhetoric, that gave Luther new eyes to see. As historian Bernd Moeller remarked, “No humanism, no Reformation.”5 And as he read the
texts, Luther saw a history of failure and faithlessness nevertheless overcome by God’s
grace flowing from his love. From Genesis onward, this history played out never to our
credit but always to our benefit. Is Abram a great man deserving of God’s favor? No.
He had been chosen and promised much and then responded with a lack of trust: the
heir (that is, the start of the great nation) never seemed to come, so Abram took matters
into his own hands taking up with Hagar to get Ishmael. God, in contrast, remained
faithful. That was but one case in history that could be multiplied again and again,
demonstrating how God overcomes failure and how God’s own ought rightly to believe
and live—God’s own both within Scripture’s history and beyond. The biblical characters were no different than we. The Scriptures offered a look into history, a slice of life
readily recognized, at times painfully close to home and at others joyfully close to heart.
The texts laid out a story rather than logical constructs or propositions that arguably
had to be believed. How one viewed history, in the Bible and thereafter, made a difference. A closer focus on that how will come shortly, but first a look at a few more ways
in which history either sparked or bolstered some of the ways the Reformation came to
look at life.
Renaissance humanism is inextricably bound with the Reformation, especially as
it flowed from Wittenberg.6 When Elector Frederick the Wise’s university opened in
1502, it intentionally opened its doors not simply to students but to the New Learning,
announcing in its charter that it welcomed the study of “poesie and the arts.” That
was sure to attract scholars and students looking for something other than the standard
scholastic fare, and it worked as the eyes of humanists throughout the empire focused
on Wittenberg to see what would come of the place. Luther, as a new professor required
to add his own insights to the larger body of knowledge, drew on humanists for ideas
on how to read biblical texts. Grammar and rhetoric brought insights lost through logic
alone. And history, a way of illustrating rhetoric in antiquity, now gained a standing
of its own. The result was a kind of religious renaissance that stretched in many directions, especially in an evangelical path.7 Luther championed a shift away from a curriculum marked by scholasticism (which was also allowed at the start—let things sort
themselves out and let an identity develop was Frederick’s approach), and he pressed for
more humanism. The direction Wittenberg took not only built its student body and
academic reputation, but it also put it clearly on one side of a theological argument that
would erupt, and it gave to German theologians arrows in the quiver they would use in
that fight. One of these arrows was history.
Humanism’s focus on history paid dividends in terms of German identity—nationalism, in a sense—that steeled the reform movement as Luther and the
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
(not to mention dozens more at other universities marked by the evangelical movement) stood up not only to Rome but to Emperor as well. It is difficult to
imagine the place the institutional church held in the minds, the culture, and the life
of the people in that age. Today’s American scene is marked by denominationalism—a
foreign concept in that era—with overlapping structures and faith claims. More, people
today are what they are as a result of voluntarism, choosing to belong to this or that
group—not so foreign back then but also not a welcome approach since voluntarism
was associated with radical reform groups peopled by those who chose to walk away
from the one church that everyone, including those radicals, belonged to. So to stand
up as the Reformers did was no easy matter. They had no intent to head off on their
own but rather held out hope that any fissures eventually would be properly repaired.
In the meantime, they spoke up, bolstered by history.
History taught them that might was not always a matter of being more sophisticated with complex institutions and elaborate culture. The Germans had bested Rome
before—not Rome the church but Rome the empire. In Renaissance days, Tacitus was
often reprinted with the Roman historian’s inspiring stories of how when the Roman
armies came to suppress the Teutonic tribes, they had their lunch handed to them by
Arminius and the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest, ending Rome’s efforts to gain
permanent control east of the Rhine. Rome represented advanced culture and high
civilization. The tribes were crude and rude but marked by deep virtues, showing loyalty and commitment. It happened once. It could happen again. Humanism’s interest
in the classics prompted Hans Holbein to picture Luther as the German Hercules,
slaying Jacob von Hoogstraten, the Dominican inquisitor from Cologne (known as
the German Rome for its some three hundred chapels and churches in a city of thirty
thousand).8 When Aeneas Sylvius returned to Rome to become Pope Pius II after serving in the German church bureaucracy in the fifteenth century, he “complimented”
the people, saying they had advanced greatly—for Germans. The people were used to
the insults and high-handed behavior, yet those “barbarian thickheads” were expected
to contribute heavily to the budget of Rome. The imperial diets (the assemblies of the
various estates in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) regularly filed grievance lists that routinely included complaints of wagons of gold heading to Rome with
little coming back in terms of spiritual care. Learning about the past, about the nobility of their forebears, contributed to the backbone they showed when the Reformation
And it was not as if the Germans were out of step when it came to rallying
national identity. Early on in the Renaissance, Coluccio Salutati, a contemporary of
Francesco Petrarch who is often credited as the father of that era’s humanism, promoted what historians today call “civic humanism”—history and rhetoric along with
moral philosophy (or ethics) enlisted in the service of the patria, the fatherland.9 When
Milan looked about to overwhelm Salutati’s Florence, he called up patriotic stories of
Florence’s past to rally the people to sacrifice again in the present crisis. Changed circumstances spared Florence, but the point was that history was seen as a useful tool to
call people to defend the walls.
it could happen in Italy, it could happen amid the Germans. The evangelical
princes were not ignorant of the implications when they allied to defend themselves
when necessary. The Augsburg Confession was in a sense a political document with
the signatory princes and city leaders putting their necks on the line in the name of
theology. They were not charting a new course but rather in Melanchthon’s text they
were making the argument that they were not sectarian or heretical but rather part of
the church. What they confessed was demonstrably part of the historic (and thus also
in that era, politically legal) voice of the church. They would work within the institution as much as possible, but the content of the message finally was what mattered. The
Lutherans knew from history what they were doing and the risks they were taking. But
confession could not take second place to inertia. The past taught them that the past
was not always in the right or the proper place to be.
Luther himself learned from and used history to make his theological points.
One dramatic episode involving Thomas di Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, illustrates this.
Cajetan granted Luther an audience in Augsburg in 1518, not to discuss but so that
upstart monk could apologize and withdraw. Today even high officials sent out on
business do not go it alone but are in constant contact with their superiors back home.
With that being impossible, the cardinal was dispatched as a legate, sent with full papal
power within the scope of his brief. Luther was in effect standing before Pope Leo
in the person of Cajetan. The two became embroiled in an argument over merit and
Rome’s authority to dispense the same. Cajetan claimed Luther had argued new, errant
theology in his ninety-five theses and cited Pope Clement VI’s 1343 bull, Unigenitus,
as proof that Christ had won a treasury of merit that Rome could then tap into and
distribute through indulgences. Luther responded that Christ’s treasure was the gospel
grasped in faith, making Christ himself in effect the treasury, and Unigenitus countered
Scripture. Luther had done his historical homework and had checked the text.10 He
came to that point because he also had researched the history of indulgences and knew
how claims had been inflated.
History served Luther again two years later in his 1520 Appeal to the Christian
Nobility. Rome’s argument for a wall between sacred and secular vocations to keep business as usual safe in the hands of the bishops came crashing down, at least in Luther’s
eyes, when he saw another model long argued by emperors and princes. In the generations after Charlemagne’s coronation and the revival and transfer of the empire over
the Alps, emperors argued they were the protectors and patrons of the church in their
lands. Yes, popes had the highest spiritual role, but the rulers on the secular side of the
divide were rather like David and Solomon, like Israel’s kings who did not pretend to
be of Levi in a priestly role, yet had the responsibility to guard and further true religion
among the people. David led the people in celebration at the ark’s return, not as high
priest but as the one responsible for the nation.11 This is a concept foreign to our time,
but in Luther’s day this was not an argument to be dismissed lightly. It was an argument with roots more than half a millennium old, one Luther learned from history.
Those are a few examples of Luther and the Reformation leaning on history.
Germans did not have the same historical roots as did humanists south of the Alps.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
humanists looked to classical antiquity for historical models to inspire,
while those in the north delved more into church fathers. In so doing the Germans
learned of a rich Christian theological past, a wider catholic heritage in which the
Reformation was comfortable.12 When the taunt “Are you alone wise?” was hurled at
him, Luther knew better. Both horizontally in his own day and vertically back through
history he could find other voices that supported him.13
History helped fueled the Reformation, providing support and ammunition for
the theological arguments. As one of the key components of humanism, the Wittenberg
movement could hardly have done without it. That much can hardly be disputed.
Theology does not happen in a vacuum apart from life. It draws on history, life past,
even as it addresses the present. But when it comes to enlisting history today, how
should we understand it and use it? This is the focus of part two in this essay.
What is history? “What happened in the past” is often the response. But things
are more complicated, and not just a little bit. Try to think back on the past five minutes that have gone by while reading this, and then try to describe what happened, how
things were and now are. Start with the setting—the room, the furniture, the light,
the sounds, the smells, the temperature, and more. Then describe all the action that
occurred. You read, and you also thought (we hope), but you also smelled things and
heard things (or maybe overlooked both of those). Just sitting there your heartbeat,
your blood pressure fluctuated or maybe not, you breathed. Did you count any or all
of that? That’s also an action of sorts. Who else is in the room—perhaps in the library
with other students or your living room with family members? Can you describe all that
as well? And what of the connections of all that to other things around? All of that and
more exists—happened. You see the point: you could spend the rest of your life describing the last five minutes, describing what happened. And if someone next to you were
to do the same, what would that description look like?
Beyond this, what of memory? You think back to relate what is there now with
what happened before. Or did it? Memories are selections of past impressions and experiences, and we know they are not static but rather can change. The house that seemed
so large when you were a child is modest at best. The sledding hill that you remembered as near alpine in scale is anything but. Yet historians rely on the memories written or oral shared by others (as well as their own). More, memories can be tinged with
nostalgia that sketches a picture that pleases but may not accurately reflect a time now
recast in memory.
History on one hand is less than the sum total of everything that exists at any
given moment. If a historian is ever going to get beyond endlessly recounting the last
five minutes, choices have to be made. At the same time, memory and nostalgia can
make history more than what happened creating relics and icons that may not have
meant much at the time but now have taken on added weight and influence.
And if that were not enough, even when things are accurately described and
remembered—stipulate for now that this is settled—there are always new things to
learn. We think we understand the Wittenberg Reformation story and then some new
study casts light on an angle about peasant life or about city politics or another topic
that in turn enriches or perhaps challenges the standard account. Revisionists may not
always be welcome for the rethinking they may cause, but until someone can guarantee
omniscience and omnicompetence, that’s how life is going to be.14
At this point the temptation is to throw in the towel. It is not a matter of history
being complicated. It seems more a question of whether constructing history is possible
at all. But we cannot quit. History is personal. “Who I am and where I belong, I first
learned to know from the mirror of history,” said Karl Jaspers. We are the product of
all our yesterdays, so a look back seems worth the effort. But if the quest of a perfect
mirror image is an impossible task, why bother? The answer there is simple: just what
in life is finally whole and complete? It is not just a matter of margins of error. We live
constantly with loose ends and unfinished challenges, yet we make sense of enough
to press on. At the same time we realize what to value and hold fast and what to hold
more at arm’s length as we go through life.
Theology is one of those areas where we know and don’t know. For example
(and it is a big example), when we recall how Luther made his case against Erasmus
and argued for the bound human will in salvation, we naturally question why God
does what he does. Suddenly we are into the Deus absconditus, the hidden side of God
where we simply don’t know and ought to keep silent. “Wenn zur Theologie kommt,
eine gewiße Bescheidenheit gehört dazu.” (That’s such a great line that it deserves using
the German.) That is, when it comes to theology, a certain modesty (Bescheidenheit)
is called for. But it shouldn’t paralyze; there are also sure things to lay hold of, theology that allowed Luther to insist “take away assertions and you take away theology.” It
is the difference between God hidden and God revealed. It is about knowing when to
stop. In fact, Bescheidenheit can liberate: it frees us from any notion that everything
has to be known and all the pieces have to fit in a picture we construct. Time and effort
saved there can be spent on what we do know, hanging on for dear life.
Important also is that Bescheidenheit includes a willingness to rethink, to
revisit, to reconstruct, and to grow as more becomes known. We see that happening
in biblical history. Adam knew and believed certain things from his encounters with
God. Promises were given, and Adam was saved by holding fast to the same. He was
not saved potentially or provisionally until the final fulfillment but was God’s at the
moment. When Noah came along, he could not say, “Thanks, but I’ll make do with
Adam’s promises.” God addressed him anew, and Noah was saved by holding to God’s
pledge to save despite the flood. Abraham is yet another example: promises made specifically to him about being the father of both a great nation and a great blessing. The
pattern continues on through history with those addressed being saved by holding to
the word given at the time. Hebrews says as much in its great run through history in
chapter 11: by faith, by faith, by faith. And it is still true. We cannot quit with what
was Adam’s or Abraham’s. In fact, those are not even our promises in the same way.
We have our own: this water at the font is your entrance into my kingdom, says God.
This now-empty cross and tomb are yours. This bread and wine are my body and blood
for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Those specifics were not there once, but they
are there now and are addressed to us. There is a lot we do not know, but some things
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
we can be most certain. God has not changed his focus or purpose through
of which
history, but he has accomplished that purpose in a variety of ways. Who I am and
where I belong I learn from that history.
But now a problem, a temptation, arises, especially when it comes to using history in service of theology. Remember, history is always being constructed. The past may
be better known and the picture enriched, but it also might have to be revised. In putting together a useful past, there are models that seem to serve but also bring baggage.
Umberto Eco provides two models in his book From the Tree to the Labyrinth:
Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation.15 The first model, the tree, is an old
image: knowledge draws on a mass of material (the roots) and emerges clearly where
it can be traced along a sure and certain single line (the trunk), then spreading out to
touch various aspects of life (the branches). It is a powerful and seductive image, one
we are quick to adopt because we like the idea that we know what’s what in making
sense of the world. More, because we see the line, we then can extrapolate and even
pontificate when branching out to encounter life. Eco suggests there is not a certain
modesty but a certain arrogance in all this. Are we sure we really know what is behind
and all around and are in a position to hold forth? (Leave theology out of this for the
moment. Claims of revelation and divine wisdom are game changers that will return in
a moment. For now, just think “ordinary history.”) Are we sure we have a clear trunk,
or could we miss the forest for the trees? It is rather gnostic. (The tree shows up in this
vein in another book: Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis.16) The approach suggests
that once something is known, something from the past, it is etched in stone and we
move on from there, never rethinking or learning or correcting.
In contrast, Eco’s second model is the labyrinth. There is not simply one way to
go but a number of possibilities to navigate to the end. There are things known: there
are dead ends, but there are also open avenues heading to the goal. There are other
similar images. For example, a tapestry has intertwined strands that all contribute to the
end. Jorge Borges described a perpetual quest in The Library of Babel with hexagonal
galleries filled with people holding all sorts of ideas in different cultures. There is no
single line to hold but a myriad of paths that would keep a pilgrim infinitely busy.17
But even these images can be too tidy. Another image comes from Gilles
Deleuze: the rhizome.18 A critic of neat and clean systems, Deleuze doubles down on
postmodernism’s emphasis on personal perspective. He argues that models, no matter
what they are, do not exist independently, waiting to be found and used. Despite other
thinkers claiming they have hit upon something that simply is there, organizational
paradigms are creations, constructed by those who then use them and find them helpful. (Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions said as much: we use a system
until it has too many qualifications and exceptions and becomes unworkable, and so we
blow up the old paradigm and put together something new.19) A rhizome is this tangled
mass of fibers that hang together yet defy efforts to sort them out. There are some
larger connections that may prove more important, but they cannot be separated from
the secondary ties that in sum make the rhizome what it is. In some ways, the rhizome
describes well the thick texture of history.
The models abound because there is clearly something to be known, but who
can exhaust the possibilities? Yet the prospect of a nervous breakdown while trying
has not stopped thinkers through the ages. Francis Bacon thanked Aristotle for his
Instrumentum, his writings on logic, and then offered a Novum Organum, a New Tool,
to have a new go at knowledge. Rene Descartes swept aside old methods and set forth
his own method and logic as the key. George Friedrich Hegel put life on a procrustean
bed of dialectic with history supposedly stretching forward to the end, to the truth. In
literature, Goethe’s Faust is famous for the effort to take it all in. Faust is allowed to
range far and wide in his effort to know, but he will survive only because he realizes
the end will never come. If he pauses for a moment—“Wait, this is so beautiful”—as
if he may have arrived, then demonic Mephistopheles can have his soul. Over and over
hubris gets the better of people who are no small minds. Trouble is, even then their
minds are not large enough.20
Grasping all of history is just one more example of a futile quest. Yet knowing the past is not impossible so long as one knows and lives with limits. John Lewis
Gaddis offers a model specifically for coping in The Landscape of History.21 It is like a
map drawn to travel life’s landscape. No map is perfect, mirroring what actually exists.
Flat maps of round worlds have to compensate as in the Mercator projection. An atlas
may have a foldout page for Europe, but just how much can fit on the page? Unless
there is a one-to-one scale, there are always compromises. But is one-to-one scale really
the thing itself or a map? What good is that scale while motoring around? At one point
Gaddis asks how long the coast of England is. The answer: it depends. The point is not
facetious. There are wrong answers. “Two feet” will not do. The point rather is how
close one needs to come. It could be X number of miles if measured in broad-brush
terms from an aerial view. Or it could be longer if measured on hands and knees, wrapping a millimeter measuring tape around every rock and inside every cranny along the
coast. It is a kind of Newton versus Einstein comparison: just what are we trying to
know and on what level? If I am to write a piece on history and theology, how many
pages or words do I have? Scale comes into play.
Tree, labyrinth, library, rhizome, and fog-shrouded landscape—some work better than others. (Or is it rather that some seem more reasonable than others given the
fashion of the day?) We might fall back on the Gordian knot, but that also failed. It
was “solved” by Alexander the Great with his sword, but came out the worse for the
encounter. History shares some of that problem as well: it is a complicated compound
that begs to be dissected, but then the whole is no longer the whole but neither is it
simply the sum of the parts now scattered loose.
One more image, one that recognizes limits and helps focus on what we can and
cannot know: the hinge. The hinge as used here is prompted by but does not simply
echo Carl Michalson’s, The Hinge of History.22 No book is perfect—not talking about
the Bible here—there are always “yes, but” moments, and Michalson’s is no exception.
Yet the idea goes far. While he ventures into Existentialism—it can hardly be avoided—
Michalson is concerned not about the “ism” but the characteristic behind it that later
became a belief or attitude, even an ideology. Christianity can be viewed as a hinge with
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
Christ as the pin holding all together. A hinge has to have two parts to operate, and
Christianity has two as well. First, there are facts or events—history. God created time
and works in time not just to preserve but also to redeem. This is often what is meant
when people say Christianity is a historical religion (versus a philosophy). And those
who think God needs defending also think they have proven Christianity if they can
demonstrate that the events are true. But that hardly settles things because there is a
second half of the hinge, a part beyond apologetics.
The second half is the existential half, the relational half that is sometimes called
the theology of the event. This is the why and lays out what God accomplishes with the
events. Here are the promises. Although events are past, we say promises because the saving value of the events is a matter grasped by and in faith. The two halves are on display
in the Second Article of the Nicene Creed, for example. Who Christ is comes first: “God
of God, Light of Light . . .” And there are events: “came down from heaven and was
incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified
also for us under Pontius Pilate . . .” Strange events, unique events to be sure, but happenings nonetheless. And in between comes the other part of the hinge, the theology or
the promises: “who for us and for our salvation.” Both halves must be there for the hinge
to exist. Both halves have to be there for Christ’s person and work to be whole.
Critics can ridicule promises, but those cannot be disproved. A parent may
promise a new bicycle, and it may not come, but that does not mean it will not someday. On the other hand, if promises are pegged to events and to facts, and if those facts
are not so, then the promises are rubbish. David Strauss knew that when he went out
after the facts of the New Testament in his Das Leben Jesu. He may despise the promises, but to tear down the faith, the events have to be destroyed. St. Paul knew it: “If
Christ is not raised [fact] our faith [theology/promise of the event] is in vain.” Waiting
in hope may be difficult. Bones rather than an empty tomb are fatal. Christianity rests
on history, but also on promise. Both must be there.
So how much history must we know? A lot of attention rightly is paid to texts, to
what is said to have happened. Events are often challenged and extra proof of the happening is demanded—often more than is asked of other events, but that is not surprising given the nature of some events. A lot of rabbis taught and gathered disciples—no
argument there. How many died and rose? St. Paul anticipates that as well, offering a
witness list including five hundred in one group. That any and every such response is
discarded out of hand says more about the assumptions and points of view of the critics. We know plenty from the texts, all that we need to know for the theology tied in.
Those texts also thankfully provide commentary, reasons why events happened, at least
for pivotal events where we need to know. “This was done to fulfill what was spoken
by the prophet . . .”or “Which is easier to say? . . . But so that you might know that
the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins I say, ‘Pick up your bed and go
home.’” So biblical texts are more than ordinary history. They provide theological commentary on what God has done.
But what about history since? What is God doing in the world today? If
Scripture explains why someone was ill (and then healed by Christ), what’s the reason
for my disease or my misfortune? Or why does some blessing come into my life? Much
as we would like to know, it does not matter. In fact, nothing that God does since
Acts matters when it comes to accomplishing salvation. At his ascension, Christ promised his disciples the Paraclete and that they would be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea/
Samaria, and the ends of the earth. That has happened. The Spirit came at Pentecost
and the church grew in Jerusalem (Acts 2). Persecution forced them out into the surrounding Judea and Samaria (Acts 6). And the uttermost parts of the earth came in
Acts 10. Given our cultural and historical take on things, we think of Greenland’s icy
mountains and India’s coral sands—and those are far-flung regions in need of the message. But historically speaking, the promise came to first-century Jews. They were (with
apologies) like people of New York City who think the world ends at the state line and
flyover country begins. A famous cover of The New Yorker looks west with a detailed
cartoon map of Manhattan streets and then hits the Hudson. Beyond are broad-brush
markers: New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Japan. First-century Jews cared about
God’s gift of their land, but beyond that . . . So when Peter goes to Cornelius (a gentile) in Caesarea (a Roman city) and Cornelius believes, the gospel has broken out into
the ends of the earth as far as Jesus’s disciples are concerned. But they also realized that
there was plenty more that stood outside the promised land, and that was a lot to cover.
Christ had said he would not return to end history until the ends were reached. They
had now been reached—and continue to be ever since. (That is a huge mission imperative: every day is, so to speak, the second to last day before Christ’s last-day return.)
What this means for history since Acts, what is means for us, is that it does not
matter what God is doing behind and through history. There is no more need to interpret events in the same way in the centuries that follow. It does not matter if some nation
builds an empire, if someone discovers endless energy, if I make a killing in the market or
lose it all. There is nothing more to interpret theologically. Yes, no sparrow falls without
God knowing, but we now speak only in general terms, not in a personal way. So those
keen to decode Daniel or decipher the Apocalypse to St. John should give it up. Back in
history, even the prophets who knew some things with keen insight were in the dark on
others.23 No, no need to know. The gospel is now out and to the ends of the earth, finding more ends and corners, more hearts and minds every day. But there is nothing else
that has to be fulfilled, no more promises to keep until Christ comes again. History does
still show God in action. (That is a faith statement, based on his promise that he numbers the hairs on our heads and does a whole lot more.) But it is not important and not
even possible to know precisely what God does with every action all the time.
Luther realized this. His Preface to Galeatus Capellae’s History, quoted in part at
the start of this essay, continues this way: History shows us how God “upholds, rules,
obstructs, prospers, punishes, and honors the world, and especially men, each according
to his just desert, evil or good.”24 Take note: Luther never claims we know specifically
which individuals in particular receive evil or good, or which people God specifically
punishes or rewards. Luther will only say that God does all this, a faith claim Luther
makes based on the Scriptures. Luther knows this is standard operating procedure, but
beyond that we are out of the loop and have no need to know.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
But we do know some very specific things God is doing because of personal
promises made to each of us. Brought into his family by the washing of regeneration,
he forgives sins through that washing, through the announcement of the grace of God,
through Christ’s body and blood given—all of this done to me and for me even if I
were the only one who needs it. It is that specific and personal. And that is enough
when it comes to history conveying theology.
In practical terms, where does all this leave us? We have seen that history plays
a role in theological development and thinking. The Reformation examples confirm
that. But how should that thinking be organized? Surely some models work better than
others, at least with what we know and why we are interested, at least for now. But
if there is one huge takeaway in this all, it is the need for less pontificating and more
We become attached to our own history. It is comfortable, and when that is
most of what we know, it is easy to say that others ought to look like us. All too often
what is practice or custom—even when useful and effective—is promoted as if it were
essential to the proclamation of the word. Put another way, too often too many cannot
distinguish between doctrine and practice. Doctrine is our effort to put the revelation
of God into terms that communicate his saving truths to people, to faithfully reflect
the ideas in the biblical texts to people in various cultures. Practice is a way to get that
done, but it is not the same as the teaching itself. (A colleague has observed more than
once that when we clash over how something is done, one side or the other quickly tries
to grab the high ground by converting an argument over procedure into a debate over
doctrine.) If all practice is doctrine, then we are in a whale of trouble today, because
in so many ways, we look nothing like the early church, or we hardly operate like the
Reformation-era church. The context is different. The key is to get the message across
even with the gaps.
History is, if nothing else, always cross-cultural. It is the height of folly to think
one simply can find a passage from Luther (or from C. F. W. Walther or Augustine or . . .)
and simply sling it at a problem and that settles things. Context counts. It could be
argued that ignoring context while mechanically quoting the words can even distort
the message. Yet too often we see efforts to repristinate, to return to what are called the
great days of yesteryear as if time, God’s creation that he keeps moving, can be frozen.
Instead sugared memory and nostalgia rich in sepia tones kick in, and we see this era or
that epoch as the golden age. If we could just return to the time of [fill in the blank].
Call it building booths on the mountaintop. It is good to be here. We know the answer
that Peter got. It was good, but it also was not the end. He had what he needed from
that teaching moment, from the promises given in his time with Christ—but there also
was work to be done.
What that means is, when it comes to history, to doctrine and practice, the
proper approach is not to impose but to ask. The church has not always looked like
what we have now. The claim that this or that is a historic tradition or that the institutional church has done something this or that way at some other time and place is of
little consequence. It certainly is no reason to cause trouble for those who otherwise are
and practicing the faith along biblical lines. In a time when the shift is away
from the old European-American axis to elsewhere in the globe, that can be hard for
the old guard to swallow. The temptation is to hang on to so much and call it essential. But look at Luther’s later-life treatise “On the Councils and the Church(es)” from
1539.25 While we might expect Luther to have a long prescription of things necessary
to identify and maintain “church,” in the end, his list is really very basic and minimal,
although at the same time, what is there is crucial.
So the church has learned to travel light, to translate the message into new cultures and new idioms from its earliest days.26 It has worshiped and educated and filled
the public office and provided help for the same in many ways over the years. Given the
impossibility of knowing the whole history, let alone where God intends to take things,
we would do well to abandon any hint of superiority. We might even ask questions of
others who seem to lack the insights we claim and the resources we have and yet manage to have church in their midst. A century ago, “Brother John” (William Nicholas
Harley) recounted an itinerarium made by an ultimately frustrated Martin Luther in
Little Journeys with Martin Luther: A Real Book Wherein Are Printed Divers Sayings and
Doings of Dr. Luther in These Latter Days When He Applied for Synodical Membership
in the United States.27 As Luther moves from one group to another, the results are both
funny and sad. At one stop he cannot pass the colloquy exam and is rejected because
his theology—his, not theirs—is declared not Lutheran. When Luther comes to the
Missouri Synod, there is really nothing to complain about theologically, but he moves
on because of the attitude. The Missourians were orthodox—no argument there. They
had it all put together. But they knew it, and being so proud of how they did things,
they stood so tall with heads thrown back that they fell over backwards.
Still a problem? Hope not, but it is not easy to keep feet on the ground. History
enlightens, but even as it educates it also holds to account and chastens at times. When
we read of what all God accomplishes through others with very different circumstances
and means (not of grace but manpower and resources), it is hard not to agree that when
it comes to theology and practice, a certain modesty is called for. Boris Gujevic, faculty
member at Westfield House in Cambridge, has written that “someday when we get
around to writing a genealogy of our failures, inadequacies, and disappointments, an
important place in such a study will be the books we never read, for whatever reason. . .
[T]he books we never read will be one of the indicators of our anachronisms and our
flawed humanity.”28 Translated: we did not really enter into honest discussion because
we had already decided there was no possibility to learn; we did not cross over and
enter in to ask, to think, to challenge, to debate, and perhaps to take and say thank you
when it comes to learning from others. Gunjevic has a particular focus in mind, but
history certainly could be in the mix. Yet there is so much “out there” that it is guaranteed there will be books not read, things not learned, history still not known. We avoid
despair when we realize that not only is it not possible to master all, it also does not
matter whether we know God’s day-to-day working. In fact, not knowing is liberating,
freeing me from the burden that God carries far better than I. Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 has
a wise final word: Fear God (that is: trust, believe, have faith) and keep his commandConcordia Journal/Winter 2016
ments (that is: pursue your God-given vocations, knowing that God stands above and
behind the history that you are in).
Cautions abound and warnings are always close at hand. In the end, however,
this look at history is not intended to be downbeat or sound negative. True, there is
plenty that frustrates and saddens. But on the other hand, today is yet another second
to last day in that history that God is unfolding. Because the last day is not yet here,
that means one more day to look and learn and then to apply and serve. History teaches
us so that we serve better. No wonder Luther wished he had spent more time on history. It connects members of the body of Christ as they seek in their particular way
to convey God’s unchanging revelation with its sure message to an ever-changing and
always fascinating world. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of Luther’s favorites for his emphasis on the personal faith relationship, wrote this: “To possess what one knows nothing
about, what glory can there be in that?” What indeed?! But context counts, and so the
hinge of history works the angles, linking facts and promises, pivoting on Christ. And
to have a place in that grand enterprise, well . . . it’s exciting. That’s history, that’s life.
1 Martin Luther, “Preface to Galeatus Capella’s History (1538),” trans. Lewis W. Spitz, Luther’s Works,
ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 34:276 [hereafter LW.]
2 Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1899), 15:46 [hereafter WA]. LW 45:370. From Luther’s
Address to the Municipalities.
3 Anthony Goodman and Angus MacKay, eds., The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe During the
Renaissance (New York: Routledge, 1990), 214.
4 It is important not to confuse “secular humanism” of more modern times with the “studia humanitatis”
of Luther’s day. Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains (New York:
Harper Torchbooks, 1961), highlights a core of grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy—five
subjects to correct what was seen as an imbalance when Aristotle held sway.
5 Bernd Moeller, “The German Humanists and the Beginnings of the Reformation,” in Imperial Cities
and the Reformation: Three Essays, trans. and ed. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1972), 36.
6 There are a number of studies on Wittenberg and humanism, including several old standards. Max
Steinmetz, “Die Universität Wittenberg und der Humanismus (1502–1521)” in 450 Jahre Martin-LutherUniversität Halle-Wittenberg, vol. 1: Wittenberg 1502–1817, ed. Leo Stern, et al. (Halle, 1952), 103–39. Maria
Grossmann, Humanism in Wittenberg, 1485–1517 (Nieuwkoop, 1975). The argument that the Reformation has
its most important roots in scholasticism, not for the logic but for other insights gleaned, is made by Heiko A.
Oberman, “Headwaters of the Reformation: Initia Lutheri—Initia Reformationis,” in Heiko A. Oberman, ed.,
Luther and the Dawn of the Modern Era: Papers for the Fourth International Congress for Luther Research (Leiden:
Brill, 1974), 40–88. In contrast, the debt to humanism can be seen in Lewis W. Spitz, “Headwaters of the
Reformation: Studia Humanitatis, Luther Senior, et Initia Reformationis,” in Luther and the Dawn of the Modern
Era, 89–116.
7 Lewis W. Spitz, The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1983).
8 In Holbein’s woodcut Luther is clubbing Hoogstraten having already laid low Aristotle, Thomas
Aquinas, William of Occam, and Peter Lombard, who lay at his feet. A. G. Dickens, The German Nation and
Martin Luther (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), offers a look at Luther’s place in the culture.
9 The term “civic humanism” comes from Hans Baron, and he recounts the story of Florence versus
Milan in The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955).
10 Eric W. Gritsch, Martin—God’s Court Jester: Luther in Retrospect (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 25–26.
11 Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1957). The king had his own person but also was the symbolic embodiment of the people.
12 This is not a hard black-and-white division but rather more a matter of degree and tendency.
13 Later in the sixteenth century Roman and Lutheran theologians clashed over the testimony of the
church father, arguing for roughly two centuries over what was said and who “owned” the testimony. Rome
argued its position had been confessed “everywhere, always, and by all” as reflected in fathers assembled by Vincent
of Lerins in AD 434, but Lutherans were quick to show a wider range of voices than those in the Vincentian
Canon, including fathers who supported the theology of the Reformers. Quentin D. Stewart, Lutheran Patristic
Catholicity: The Vincentian Canon and the Consensus Patrum in Lutheran Orthodoxy (Arbeiten zur Historischen und
Systematischen Theologie) (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015).
14 The examples sampled here barely scratch the surface of all that complicates the study and writing of
history. A thorough (600+ pages) and entertaining tour through the complicated ins and outs is David Lowenthal,
The Past Is a Foreign Country—Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). Lowenthal tackled the
same topic three decades earlier, but plenty has arisen to justify a second thorough pass through that land.
15 Umberto Eco, From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
16 Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism
(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).
17 Jorge Borges, The Library of Babel (Boston: David R. Godine, 2000).
18 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian
Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
19 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970).
20 From popular culture there is the futile, self-destructive quest that shows up in Indiana Jones and the
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where at the climax, with multiple genius aliens fusing into one, the villain (Cate
Blanchett) declares, “I want to know everything, everything,” but instead she cannot bear it and disintegrates, only
part of the larger whole.
21 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2004). On the cover Gaddis uses the familiar painting The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David
Friedrich. The solitary figure stands on one peak and gazes across the landscape. Fog fills the valleys, but peaks jut
up and afford a certain lay of the land. A good question then is: Is the wanderer looking back to reflect on where
he has been, or is he peering forward to reconnoiter what seems to lie ahead? Could be both: history is Janus-like,
looking both ways.
22 Carl Michalson, The Hinge of History: An Existential Approach to the Christian Faith (New York:
Charles Scribner, 1959). In examining various existential voices, Michalson can tend to be more generous than
some might like. But it is refreshing that while there are also things to be criticized in the thinkers Michalson considers, he does not then simply reject them out of hand. Rather, Michalson seeks to sort through what is there and
extract what proves positive and useful before moving on.
23 See 1 Peter 1: Old Testament prophets longed to know the outcome of what they foretold but were
told, Peter writes, that they had enough, that the message was for others later. It’s an example of the idea discussed
earlier: promises and word given to each as God deemed appropriate for the time at hand. Peter adds that even
angels longed to know more, although in their case it is not a case of being in the dark about Christ but in not
being able to appreciate the joy and gladness that comes with the forgiveness of sins. An interesting thought: we
have it better than the angels on that count.
24 LW 34:275–276.
25 See LW 41:3–178. The American Edition of Luther’s Works has “church.” Occasionally others use
“churches” instead and suggest that is a better reading. Could this be yet another illustration of how little some
things finally matter?
26 Worth reading is Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (New York:
Orbis Books, 1989). Through centuries, while some religions have insisted on delivering a whole package rather
like one size fits all, the genius of Christianity has been its ability to communicate the teachings of the faith on
the edges where cultures interface. So one culture already with the message hands it on to the other and then steps
back to let these new recipients take the faith into their midst.
27 William Nicholas Harley, Little Journeys with Martin Luther: A Real Book Wherein Are Printed Divers
Sayings and Doings of Dr. Luther in These Latter Days When He Applied for Synodical Membership in the United
States. Carefully Set Down In Writing at That Time by Brother John, of the Order of the Poor Brethren Commonly
Known as Lutheran Pastors (Columbus, Ohio, 1916).
28 The lines are from Boris Gunjevic “Every Book Is Like a Fortress—Flesh Become Word” in Slavoj
Zizek and Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 131.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
Three Myths about the Crusades
What They Mean for Christian Witness
Paul Robinson
Paris attacks carried out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) remain
in the headlines as I write this article. By the time you read these words, the memory
will have faded somewhat but perhaps only to be replaced by news of the latest terror
attack by ISIS, Boko Haram, or another jihadist group. Terror attacks are nothing new,
and significant attacks predate the destruction of the World Trade Center by followers
of Osama bin Laden. It seems—and this perception is often reinforced by news reporting and political commentators—that conflict between Islam and Christianity has been
a constant since the time of the Crusades, which are often portrayed as a sustained
attack by European powers on a peaceful Muslim world. In fact, 9/11 and its aftermath
provoked a flurry of publications on the Crusades precisely because of this connection.1
In addition, many blame Christianity for initiating and provoking this current state of
hostility between East and West.
What is fact and fiction in this widely accepted narrative? And what does the
truth about the Crusades mean for Christian witness? Those are two of the questions
posed in the seminary class I teach on the Crusades. The answers routinely surprise
us, because we, too, have consumed through news media, literature, and film certain
standard ideas about the Crusades that most often have only a tenuous connection to
historical fact. One thing is certain: most people who mention the Crusades in the context of relations between Christians and Muslims or as a criticism of Christianity know
surprisingly little about them.
What is a Crusade?
So we should begin with a brief summary of what the Crusades were. That is
more difficult than it might seem because historians do not agree on what defines a
Crusade. For many, only the official military expeditions launched from Europe to the
Holy Land and sanctioned by the pope count as Crusades. Historians using this definition normally count eight or nine Crusades beginning with the first (1096−1099) and
ending with the fall of Acre (1291), the last crusader-held city in the Holy Land, to the
Egyptians. Yet even with this basic definition, there is no agreement after the fourth
Paul Robinson is professor of historical theology and dean of the
faculty at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis. Robinson became interested in
the Middle Ages precisely because Lutherans seemed to say so little about
the time between Augustine and Luther—despite the fact that it comprises
one out of two millennia in the history of the church to this point.
Crusade on which expeditions count as separate Crusades and, therefore, what number
they should receive, which is why the total number varies. In addition, this definition
ignores a number of expeditions to Jerusalem that certainly look like Crusades. The
“Crusade” of King Sigurd of Norway is one example. Sigurd led a military expedition
to Jerusalem in 1107 after the first Crusade had conquered the city (1099), won several
battles, and then returned home. Yet this successful campaign in the Holy Land did
not count as a Crusade (at least according to some modern historians), since the second
Crusade did not begin until 1145.
What, then, is a Crusade? Another possible definition of Crusade focuses exclusively on its religious credentials. In this view, the offer of the Crusade indulgence is key
to defining a Crusade. The indulgences, so familiar as the impetus of the Reformation,
have their origin in the first Crusade. When Pope Urban II announced his plan for an
armed pilgrimage to retake Jerusalem from Islam at the Council of Clermont (1095),
part of the inducement to join the expedition was an indulgence. Here Urban borrowed
from the typical practice in which travel to a religious site fulfilled the penance assigned
when the pilgrims had confessed their sins.
What came to be known as the Crusade indulgence was different, however,
because it was the first plenary indulgence, meaning that upon fulfillment of the
Crusade vow, it replaced the assigned penance for all sins confessed up to that point.
This represented a development in the church’s understanding of the sacrament of
penance (confession and absolution), but perhaps more importantly it signaled a sea
change in the church’s attitude toward war. Very often, prior to the time of the first
Crusade, soldiers were expected to do penance for taking a life even in the course of a
just war. So, for example, even though William of Normandy had the pope’s blessing
for the 1066 campaign in England that resulted in his becoming king there, his troops
were assigned penances four years later for their part in the battles. With the call for an
armed expedition to Jerusalem, however, Urban announced that a certain kind of warfare—what would become known much later as a Crusade—not only did not require
penance but was itself penitential, that is, that participation in this war would count as
penance for other sins.
If the definition of a Crusade is the offer of this indulgence, the number of
Crusades increases profoundly, as many more expeditions qualify. For example, this
definition of Crusades includes the innumerable military campaigns conducted in
Europe against heretics or at least against those the pope was willing to consider heretics. Perhaps the most famous of these are the Albigensian Crusade and the Crusades
against the Hussites.
The Albigensian Crusade was launched in the south of France against a heretical
sect knows as Albigensians, or Cathars. The Cathars were dualists, that is, they believed
in an eternal conflict between good and evil. Their holy men practiced ascetism and
poverty in order to transcend the evils of bodily existence. As a result, their teaching
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
and explicitly criticized the wealth of the church and garnered support among
the people, including the local nobility. Early attempts to convert the Cathars failed,
and when a papal representative to the region was assassinated, a military campaign was
sent against them in 1209. Periods of fighting continued until 1255, when the decisive intervention of the king of France brought the previously independent territories
involved into his kingdom.
The Crusades against the Hussites were similar in that military force was used
against Christians considered heretics by the pope. Several years after Jan Hus, the
reformer of Prague in Bohemia (part of the modern Czech Republic), was executed in
1415, his followers rebelled against the church and the Holy Roman Empire and organized for war. They led a series of successful raids into northern Germany and were the
object of five separate Crusades before a peace agreement was signed in 1436.
Despite the advantages to this definition of Crusade, it presents two problems.
First, it leads to the difficulty of counting Crusades. Relating a particular papal offer of
the indulgence with subsequent military expeditions is not always easy and can lead to
uncertainty about the status of a particular war or, at the very least, inflates the number
of Crusades almost beyond measure. Second, using this definition, the Crusades do not
end neatly with the fall of Acre (1291) but potentially continue into the subsequent wars
between European powers and the Ottoman Empire. So while this definition has the
benefit of defining as Crusades those military undertakings that contemporaries clearly
understood as Crusades, it can result in an understanding of crusading that is so broad
and unmanageable as to fail to be helpful in analyzing history. Nevertheless, more and
more historians have adopted this definition, though perhaps with some restrictions.
Crusades are defined in this essay as including campaigns beyond the Holy Land geographically and within the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries chronologically.
Since what historians have to say about the Crusades can be so conflicted on a
basic point of definition, it is little wonder that the idea of the Crusades lodged firmly
in the popular imagination is almost complete fiction. So we move on to consider three
myths about the Crusade. For each one, an historical analysis is combined with drawing
out the implications of that myth as it pertains to conversations with non-Christians,
particularly Muslims and critics of Christianity. So, on to the myths!
Myth #1: The crusaders were motivated by land, power, and wealth rather than
by religion.
If you had a history class in high school or college that covered the Crusades,
you probably heard that the crusaders were not really motivated by religion. Crusade
historians in the twentieth century argued that most fighting men who went on the
Crusades did so for worldly motivations. They wished to acquire land and power to an
extent that would have been difficult for them in Europe. This analysis has held sway
for decades in no small part because many historians refused to recognize religious belief
as the real motivation for any human activity, believing instead that religious rhetoric
always masks and is a pretext for economic or political motives.
More recently some historians have challenged this idea and have argued that
religion as a genuine and even primary motive for the crusaders should be restored to a
central place in our understanding of the Crusades. These historians have a great deal
of evidence on their side. Numerous aspects of the first Crusade make little sense apart
from a religious framework. Pope Urban II’s call for Crusade is a good place to start.
The Council of Clermont in 1095, at which he announced his plan for a Crusade,
was the culmination of a preaching tour that had taken him to major religious sites
throughout France, including the massive Benedictine abbey of Cluny. The council
itself was planned primarily as a gathering of the clergy, who were then to proclaim
the Crusade to the fighting men of their regions. Urban seems to have portrayed the
object of the Crusade as aiding Christians in the East, since the Byzantine emperor had
requested aid from the West against the encroaching Muslim power. The rhetoric of
Urban’s appeal, however, included profoundly religious elements. Robert the Monk’s
account, which is one of several, states in part:
Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage and shall
make his vow to God to that effect and shall offer himself to Him as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, shall wear the sign of the cross of
the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. When “truly” having fulfilled
his vow he wishes to return, let him place the cross on his back between
his shoulders. Such, indeed, by the twofold action will fulfill the precept
of the Lord, as He commands in the Gospel, “He that taketh not his cross
and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”2
The crowd responded by shouting, “God wills it!” and Urban pardoned all who took
the vow to go on this “holy pilgrimage.” He also, significantly, promised salvation to all
who might die on the journey or in battle. This was important to reassure those who
might participate, since they lived with the anxiety-producing possibility of a sudden
death that did not give opportunity for a final confession. It also indicates, however,
how desperate a gamble it would be to go on this Crusade in order to gain wealth,
land, or power. Those who departed did not expect to come back alive. Then, when the
expedition that Urban had inspired was, against all odds, successful in taking Jerusalem,
the majority of crusaders cut palm branches to take with them, as was commonly done
by pilgrims to show they had been to Jerusalem. With this proof that they had fulfilled
their vow, they went back home. Far from seeing the majority of crusaders carving out
land to form new states, the end of the first Crusade saw a crisis in the lack of defenders for those territories, including Jerusalem, that were now ruled by crusaders. This led
eventually to the formation of the military monastic orders, primarily the Templars and
Recognizing the primarily religious environment and motivation of the first
Crusade also makes sense of the more bizarre accounts related to this expedition. In
particular, an apocalyptic mentality, that is, believing that the end times had come, can
be seen in almost every aspect of the undertaking. One example is the so-called Peoples’
Crusade, the name given to the army made up of peasants and low-ranking knights led
by Peter the Hermit. In response to the call for a Crusade, Peter’s band set off toward
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
before the noble-led armies that made up the official portion of the expediJerusalem
tion. Although his army was destroyed in battle with the Turks, Peter himself survived
and accompanied the rest of the crusaders. Some sources from the time suggest that it
was Peter and not Pope Urban II who first preached the Crusade. The common people
who joined Peter might have done so for many reasons, but their expectation of victory
in a faraway military campaign makes sense only in a world expecting the imminent
return of Christ.
Further examples illustrating the apocalyptic mindset abound: one group of villagers followed a goose that they believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit; the crusaders attributed their victorious breakout from Antioch to the miraculous discovery of the
Holy Lance that had pierced Jesus’s side; Jerusalem fell only after a vision of the papal
legate, Adhemar of LePuy, who had died of disease at Antioch, inspired the crusaders
to march barefoot around the walls of the city, led by Peter the Hermit, in penitential
imitation of Joshua at Jericho. Finally, apocalypticism makes sense of some famously
graphic accounts of the fall of Jerusalem.
Fulk of Chartres, who participated in the attack on Jerusalem, was one of several
authors who wrote about the slaughter that took place on the temple mount: “Indeed,
if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the
blood of the slain.” Whether or not Fulk exaggerates, his reason for writing this way
becomes clear when we recognize the prevailing idea that this victory represented the
beginning of the end of the world and announced the coming judgment. He, and others who made similar statements in their accounts, probably thought of Revelation
14:20: “They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of
the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.”
Now, what does this mean for Christian witness? Consider the following:
Recognizing the sincerity of the crusaders’ religious motivation seems to implicate
Christianity more deeply in the devastation brought about by centuries of warfare. At
the very least, the Crusades cannot be blamed on cynical opportunists who used religion as an excuse for their political and economic power plays. A number of historians,
in fact, resist the impulse to distance the church from the Crusades. They argue instead
that the Crusades are a normative development in Christian history rather than an aberration that departs from the very heart of Christian belief. Though they deplore the
atrocities committed by the crusaders, they argue that the Crusades themselves can be
justified within a Christian framework of just war. They would remind us that the lands
being fought over during the Crusades were Christian before they were Muslim, and
that the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem were latecomers to a city that had long been the
object of pilgrims who wished to walk in the footsteps of Christ and before that, the
place of Israel’s temple.
Further, the Crusades simply reflect a different understanding of violence and
God’s justice. The modern tendency is to consider any violent act evil in and of itself.
That has not always been the case, and certainly during the Middle Ages the idea of a
just cause for violence, embedded in the just war tradition, held sway. In addition, to
fail to fight on God’s behalf in a just cause would have been considered a failure to live
up to God’s
own justice and to be unwilling to be an instrument for his use against his
enemies, analogous to the way the Old Testament describes Israel’s wars.
I understand this reasoning but am not entirely sympathetic to it. The Lutheran
tradition, while agreeing with the idea of a just war, is very clear about who is responsible for waging that war and what the means and ends of warfare are. In other words,
war is a secular affair to be pursued by secular authorities who, though they are put
in place by God, serve him in terms of the affairs of this world. Christians wage wars
as citizens. The church should not be in the business of deciding when to go to war
and who the enemy is, not to mention promising spiritual rewards to those who fight.
Luther, in his day, faced the vexing question of war against the Ottoman Turks and
stated clearly on numerous occasions that this was a job for the emperor rather than the
pope, who continued to call for and finance Crusades against the Ottomans. If it is not
the church’s job to pursue warfare, then the pope’s leadership of the Crusades appears
to be more of an aberration in the history of Christianity than a normative historical
development that completely legitimizes crusading.
Yet, the vast majority of Christians, in response to the pope’s call, supported the
Crusades. The indulgence certainly played a role, but the role of apocalyptic thought
should receive more credit than it typically does. The century that gave birth to the
Crusade also saw increased expectation of the return of Christ. Only the idea that the
end times were upon them explains the widespread fervor that accompanied the first
Crusade, and this apocalyptic dimension helps to explain acts that were considered
extreme even in a violent age.
Throughout history, certain strains of apocalyptic thought have proven to be
dangerous additions to Christian faith. For example, in the sixteenth-century the city of
Münster was occupied by radical Anabaptists looking for the coming of Christ. It is no
accident that the extreme elements of Islam that confront us today are moved by apocalyptic ideas. Only recently has the West appreciated the extent to which the policies of
ISIS are designed to bring about a war that will presage the end of the world.
Myth #2: The Crusades were wars of conversion.
Critics often hold up the Crusades as a prime example of compelling belief by
force; that the crusaders set out to convert Muslims or kill them. Such a misconception
is understandable because, at various times in history, conversion by force was practiced
by Christians. Charlemagne forced the pagan Saxons to receive baptism after defeating
them. There were also occasions when Muslims were forced to convert, most notably in
Spain once the Muslim states had been conquered and Ferdinand and Isabella unified
the crowns of Aragon and Castile.
Yet the Crusades typically did not approach this extreme, and the overall goal of
the Crusades was never to convert the Muslims in the region to Christianity. The goal
was to drive them from Jerusalem and surrounding territories. Pope Urban II talked
about cleansing the land of this “vile race” in his announcement at Clermont. Yet even
that goal was tempered by necessity after the fall of Jerusalem to the crusaders. Crusade
leaders trying to rule the territories they had conquered lacked settlers (farmers and
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
trades people)
for those territories just as they lacked fighters. As a result, they were
often forced to maintain and rely on the native populations, whether Christian, Jewish,
or Muslim, to work the land. Non-Christian citizens might be heavily taxed, just as the
Muslims taxed Jews and Christians in their territories, but they were too valuable to be
driven out.
In much the same way, the rulers of these “Crusader States” quickly found themselves in situations in which politics dictated cooperation with Muslim territories. As
the Europeans settled in, they found themselves at odds with one another as often as
with their Muslim neighbors. Certainly religion frequently transcended politics, as it
did when Raymond of Toulouse was reconciled to King Guy of Jerusalem before the
disastrous battle of Hattin (see below). Yet when other threats emerged, Muslims and
Christians might find themselves fighting side by side. In fact, during the first Crusade,
the crusaders had sought an alliance with the Egyptians against the Seljuk Turks who,
at that time, held Jerusalem.
Forced conversion was, in fact, more frequently practiced in Europe itself with
pagans and heretics at the time of the Crusades than it was with Muslims in the Holy
Land. Two Crusades stand out in this regard: the Albigensian Crusade discussed earlier
and the Crusade of the Teutonic Knights against pagan tribes in the Baltic region. The
Teutonic Knights, a military order, was founded too late to serve in the Crusader States,
since the prime fortresses were already garrisoned by Templars and Hospitallers. The
Teutonic Knights, however, were offered as much territory as they could conquer in
northeastern Europe, where pagan tribes such as the Livonians still lived. The knights
gradually acquired territory by killing or converting the population. They emerged as
a powerful state, ruling vast lands from their castle in Marienburg (modern Malbork,
Poland). As I have mentioned, many scholars consider these Crusades to be, at best, only
tangentially related to crusading proper. Yet both can be seen as resulting directly from
one of the greatest defeats in the history of the Eastern Crusades, the battle of Hattin.
On July 4, 1187, the army of Saladin, the great Muslim leader, attacked the
army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at a place called the Horns of Hattin near the Sea of
Galilee. Saladin had marshaled his forces against the kingdom because one of its leading
knights, Reynald of Chatillon, had been carrying out raids on Muslim caravans in spite
of a truce. Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, had marched his army out to oppose
Saladin against the advice of some of his generals, and now they found themselves without water and under attack. Heat, thirst, and enemy archers took their toll. The foot
soldiers deserted the knights and both groups were destroyed by Saladin’s forces. King
Guy, many other leading knights, and hundreds of Templars and Hospitallers were
captured. Saladin killed Reynald of Chatillon and all of the Templars and Hospitallers.
News of the disaster quickly reached Europe, and the pope is said to have died when he
heard it.
The pope’s successor issued a proclamation calling for renewed efforts to take
back the lands captured by Saladin, which by that time included Jerusalem itself. This
papal bull, Audita tremendi, assumed that by the defeat at Hattin, God was punishing
the crusaders for some sin they had committed. The bull, however, went beyond this
assumption to spread the blame to the entire church. “We, therefore,” it
says, “should heed and be concerned about the sins not only of the inhabitants of that
land but also of our own and those of the whole Christian people so that what is left of
that land may not be lost and [the enemy’s] power rage in other regions.” By this time,
the church had already begun to proceed against heretics more systematically than it
had in previous centuries, but the disaster at Hattin heightened the concern for a pure
church and with it the urgency of going to war, often literally, against heresy.
What does this mean for Christian witness? Christians need to be aware of their
checkered past and resist oversimplification about the means by which people have been
brought into the fold. While it is a myth that the Crusades themselves were intended to
be wars of conversion, they did incidentally spark such wars in Europe.
Perhaps more important, there were dissenting voices, even in the Middle Ages,
opposed to using violence too freely in the pursuit of religious goals. The most famous
example of this opposition is probably Francis of Assisi. Francis, whose order of Friars
Minor (commonly known as Franciscans) had only recently won papal approval,
crossed enemy lines during a lull in the fighting of the fifth Crusade to preach to
the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Kamil, who was Saladin’s nephew. We don’t know exactly
what Francis said, since accounts of the meeting were recorded much later and differ
greatly from each other, but we do know that he was trying to convert the sultan to
Christianity. This, as might be expected, was Francis’s preferred approach. Yet that does
not mean he rejected the Crusade, and Franciscans, like other preachers, often preached
sermons in support of the Crusades.
Other voices opposed the Crusades more strenuously and consistently. Isaac
of Stella, a Cistercian abbot, is one example. Isaac was a contemporary of Bernard of
Clairvaux, leading churchman of the twelfth century and the most famous Cistercian
of all time. Though Isaac and Bernard seem to have been on generally friendly terms,
Isaac opposed his colleague on the matter of the Crusades, particularly in the case of
the Templars. The Templars represented a novelty in medieval religious life in that they
were monks who were also fighting men. They took vows and observed rules as other
monks did, but rather than working in the fields or copying books, they engaged in
warfare. Bernard defended this new order, most famously in his treatise In Praise of the
New Knighthood. Bernard’s enthusiasm for the Templars did not persuade Isaac. In one
of his sermons, Isaac had this to say:
There has sprung up a new monster, a certain new knighthood, whose
Order—as a certain man says neatly—is from the fifth Gospel [because it
does not come from the other four!] because it is set up to force unbelievers into the Christian faith by lances and cudgels, and may freely despoil
those who are not Christians, and butcher them religiously; but if any of
them fall in such ravaging, they are called martyrs of Christ.3
The “new monster” is, of course, a reference to the Templars. Isaac states plainly
that he does not consider this new order to stem from the Gospels, from which other
monastic orders were assumed to have come because they modeled their way of life on
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
that of Christ and the apostles. Note that Isaac understands the Templars’ task as forced
conversion, and it is this that makes them, in his eyes, unfit to be true monks.
For most, the objects of crusading were the liberation or defense of Jerusalem
and personal salvation aided by the Crusade indulgence. Crusades to the Holy Land
were not wars of conversion but led to wars of conversion within Europe as a way of
purifying the church, in part at least to gain God’s favor for the Crusades. (The same
dynamic, by the way, can be seen in the Muslim world. The rhetoric of holy war (jihad)
that Saladin employed so effectively came also to be used against him and other rulers
who seemed, according to their opponents, not to be pursuing war against the crusaders as effectively as a true Muslim should.) In addition, the Crusades continued an
argument within Christendom over whether force should ever be used in the pursuit
of religious goals. The argument against force and the argument’s presence even in the
Middle Ages, as represented by Isaac of Stella and others, needs to be put forward when
the issue of the Crusades and conversion is raised.
Myth #3: The Crusades initiated conflict between the West and the Muslim
world that continued uninterrupted to the present.
There is no doubt that the Crusades affected relations between Christians and
Muslims in the Middle Ages. Traditionally, the impact on Europe has been seen as
mostly positive, since Western science, including medicine, benefited greatly from the
Crusaders’ encounters with the Islamic world. Philosophy, too, benefited from Muslim
scholars, whose Arabic translations of Aristotle, once translated into Latin, were received
in Europe over the course of the twelfth century. Yet the idea that the Muslim world
had greatly advanced beyond the West is an exaggeration. Furthermore, the Crusades
add to a negative picture in the West of Muslims as the great enemy of Christendom.
The question is whether this state of affairs led to a constant state of enmity
between Christianity and Islam that persists to the present day. Many scholars today
assert that it did not, at least not in the way most people assume. Thomas Asbridge
summarizes this position in his history of the Crusades:
There is no unbroken line of hatred and discord connecting the medieval
contest for control of the Holy Land to today’s struggles in the Near and
Middle East. The Crusades, in reality, are a potent, alarming and, in the
early twenty-first century, distinctly dangerous example of the potential
for history to be appropriated, misrepresented, and manipulated. They
also prove that a constructed past can still create its own reality, for the
Crusades have come to have a profound bearing upon our modern world,
but almost entirely through the agency of illusion.4
Both the West and the Muslim world have received a narrative about the
Crusades that has little to do with the distant past but is nevertheless used to fuel the
conflicts of the present. We often hear, for example, that people in the Muslim world
still carry a grudge against the Western powers as a result of their suffering during the
Crusades. We might accept that statement without questioning it, thinking that people
in that part of the world certainly have suffered greatly, no doubt remember that suffering, and act accordingly. It should seem odd to us, however, that people would carry a
grudge for centuries over a war that they won. It is often forgotten in modern rhetoric
surrounding the Crusades that the crusaders lost! They were driven out of the lands
they had conquered in 1291. In the following centuries, the Ottoman Turks finally
conquered what remained of the Byzantine Empire and threatened Europe, besieging
Vienna in 1529 and 1683, though without taking that city.
The current state of distrust and enmity between East and West is of much more
recent origin than the Crusades. Renowned Crusade historian Jonathan Riley-Smith
argues in The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam that imperialism and colonialism, not
the Crusades, are responsible for the innate Muslim suspicion of everything Western.
The Western impetus to conquer Africa and the Near East was often clothed with the
language and imagery of crusading, and some genuine Crusader impulses survived, as
in a short-lived military order that was formed to protect native converts to Christianity
in French North Africa. Yet for the most part, the crusading rhetoric associated with
colonialism was just that—words separated from their substance and applied to expansionism and economic exploitation in order to give these activities a higher-sounding
This was possible only because in the nineteenth century the Crusades had been
rehabilitated, especially in France. In the previous centuries, Enlightenment thinkers had vilified the Crusades as the best example of what was wrong with the Middle
Ages, especially the evils of the church’s involvement in secular affairs. This view of
the Crusades colored many later accounts as well, such as the early nineteenth-century
novels of Sir Walter Scott. Yet at about the same time Scott was writing Ivanhoe, Joseph
François Michaud published his multivolume history of the Crusades. Far from criticizing the crusaders as benighted, Michaud, driven by nationalist impulses, praised them
for spreading the civilization of France. The rooms in the Versailles palace that were
redecorated in the 1840s to celebrate French crusaders reflect this new spirit of appreciation for crusading.
It is not surprising that such enthusiasm should be reflected in the colonial
impulses of France and other European nations. In fact, Crusade rhetoric was a powerful force up until the end of the First World War. When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited
Jerusalem in 1898, he entered in triumph on horseback wearing clothing inspired by
the crusaders, or at least what late nineteenth-century Europeans thought the crusaders
wore. On the same trip, he praised Saladin and laid a wreath on his tomb. When war
broke out, the German government had an office in Berlin tasked with promoting jihad
among Muslims in French and British territories, now labeling the occupying forces as
crusaders. Some at least embraced the name, and crusading rhetoric resounded from
pulpits and in the press in England. Yet when the British army conquered Jerusalem, its
commander, Edmund Allenby, entered the city on foot in direct contrast to the Kaiser’s
pompous entry almost twenty years earlier. Allenby’s sensitivity and tact were not imitated on the home front. The humor magazine Punch featured a cartoon showing King
Richard I, who had famously failed to take Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, lookConcordia Journal/Winter 2016
over the city with the caption, “My dreams come true!” This is the crusading
ing down
spirit against which the Muslim world reacts today.
What does this mean for Christian witness? It is important to note that many
conversations taking place today about the Crusades are not really about the Crusades
at all, particularly for Muslims. The history many Muslims have learned conflates the
more recent wrongs of colonialism and imperialism, including economic imperialism,
with the ancient wrongs they are told their people suffered at the hands of Christians
during the time of the Crusades. If we understand this, we can listen and speak to our
Muslim neighbors more sympathetically and effectively. There can be no doubt that the
Crusades present a stumbling block in such conversations, but knowing how the narrative about the Crusades developed in the Muslim world can help to disentangle one of
the key issues, namely, the meaning of Christianity.
In the Muslim world, Christian is widely used to mean Western, which to our
way of thinking demonstrates a failure to distinguish between church and state. The
attitudes and actions of government or private industry are understood to be reflections
of Christian ethics. This is certainly not true of all Muslims, but it is the dominant
rhetoric, particularly among the fundamentalists. As a result, even people who rejected
Osama bin Laden’s beliefs and tactics shared his assumption that President Bush literally launched a new Crusade when he attacked Afghanistan. So far, I have been speaking in general about dominant patterns of thought in the Muslim world. The point
is to expose some assumptions that might lie in the background of conversation with
our Muslim neighbors. Individuals, of course, vary greatly from one another in their
beliefs and attitudes. Conversation is the goal, and for the sake of that conversation it
is important not to project a preconceived idea of Islam onto our conversation partners. Only in that way will we convince others to make the same allowances for us—to
understand that not all Christians are the same.
Many more myths about the Crusade could be explored, but the three mentioned here have the greatest implications for understanding the past and present
of the church. While it is true that today’s church is not directly responsible for the
Crusades—in fact, that church has long since fragmented into churches—Christians
are nevertheless responsible for understanding their own past. The stories we tell
about ourselves shape who we are and how we interact with people around us. Even
if, as Lutherans, we protest indulgences along with Hus and Luther and side with the
Hussites against the crusaders, the Crusades have formed our thinking about war and
peace, about the role of church and government, and about a world divided between
Christianity and Islam. Accusations about the Crusades, whether from atheists or
Muslim fundamentalists, do us the service of reminding us that we cannot simply
ignore the past. Instead we need to be ready with informed and thoughtful conversation
in order to faithfully be God’s people in the twenty-first century.
1 As a result of this flurry of publications, the information in this article can easily be found in more
than one source. For this, and other reasons, I have chosen to provide references to select primary and secondary
sources in a bibliographic note at the end of this article, rather than through a cumbersome barrage of citations
within the article.
2 Robert’s account can be found in Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook http://legacy.
3 Quoted in Helen Nicholson, The Knights Templar: A Brief History of the Warrior Order (London:
Running Press, 2010), 40.
4 Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War in the Holy Land (New York:
HarperCollins, 2010), 669.
Bibliographic Notes
More information on the people and events mentioned in this essay can readily be found in any encyclopedia or dictionary of the Crusades. For those interested in
reading more about the Crusades in general, I recommend the following:
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History. 3rd edition (Bloomsbury Academic,
2014). Riley-Smith is one of the more prolific experts on the Crusades and has written
a number of books besides this one—any one of them is worth reading.
Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (Cambridge: Belknap
Press, 2006). Tyerman’s book has been called the new standard history of the Crusades.
It is very complete and as a result very long. Those wishing a briefer treatment should
consider . . .
Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War in the Holy Land
(New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Asbridge’s book is a highly readable narrative history
of the Crusades to the Holy Land.
Thomas Madden, ed., The Crusades: The Illustrated History (Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 2005). Madden’s work brings together experts in the field. Separate
chapters deal with each Crusade, background information, and related topics. The illustrations are well chosen and give a good sense of the crusading period.
Other resources provide specific information for the myths as follows:
Myth #1
On this and other questions of interpretation see Norman Housley, Contesting
the Crusades (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
Urban’s address at Clermont and Fulcher’s account of the fall of Jerusalem, along with
many other primary source selections concerning the Crusades, are available from Fordham
University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook (
For an account of the first Crusade that emphasizes the apocalyptic dimension
see Jay Rubenstein, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse
(Basic Books, 2011).
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
a recent example of understanding the Crusades as normative within the
Christian tradition, see Thomas Madden, “Getting Medieval: Let’s Leave the Middle
Ages out of Discussions of Modern Islam,” National Review, Feb. 7, 2015.
On ISIS and apocalyptic thought see the lecture given at Concordia Seminary
by Dr. Tim Furnish (
id934124074?mt=10), and Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic
Monthly, March 2015 (
Myth #2
On the persecution of heretics in Europe see R. I. Moore, The War on Heresy:
Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (London: Profile Books, 2012).
On Francis and the Franciscans see Christoph T. Maier, Preaching the Crusades:
Mendicant Friars and the Cross in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994).
Myth #3
The argument presented here is based on Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades,
Christianity, and Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
Scripture and Tradition in an Evangelical Context
Joel C. Elowsky
I grew up in a very conservative Evangelical Lutheran home—what some might
even term anti-Catholic in the Reformation sense of the term. I still remember classes,
too, in our Lutheran parochial school where we learned how the Catholic clergy of
Luther’s day had wanted to keep the Bible in Latin so that people couldn’t read it, even
chaining the Bibles in the library, we were told, to limit access. My impression was
that Catholics knew little, if anything, about the Bible, but that they were very good at
traditions, rituals, and rites which seemed to form their spiritual life much more than
Scripture. Eating fish on Friday, praying the rosary, making the sign of the cross—these
were all Catholic traditions that seemed to me as though they were only going through
the motions, motivated by what I later learned to call an ex opera operato (literally
“from the work worked”) understanding of church faith and life. Tradition was viewed
by me and other Lutherans and Evangelicals as a “succession of mistakes upon mistakes” that were perpetrated shortly after the time of the apostolic age by the church
fathers, and extending, perpetuating and compounding those mistakes, through the
next fourteen centuries until Luther and the Reformation arrived on the scene to set
things right with their emphasis on sola scriptura—scripture alone.
As my colleague on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Christopher
Hall has noted, things haven’t changed all that much since my childhood: “For many
Protestants much of church history remains a barren wasteland, a desert of error strikingly characterized by the absence of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and discernment.”1
What I had noticed growing up in the 1960s and 70s was part of a pattern of mistrust
and mutual accusation that had centuries of precedent and prejudice—on both sides.
The Catholic scholar Yves Congar admits the fact that there were papal expressions too,
especially in the nineteenth century, that viewed the Protestant enterprise of disseminating the Scriptures as “perverse machinations” that were like “a deadly spring dispensing
poison,” like a “plague” polluting “poisonous pastures.”2
Needless to say, there has been mutual suspicion and distrust, and perhaps a bit
of caricature of one another’s views regarding Scripture and tradition and the relationJoel Elowsky is associate professor of historical theology and director
of the Center for the Study of Early Christian Texts at Concordia Seminary,
Saint Louis. This essay was first delivered at the World Evangelical Alliance and
the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity hosted by the Vatican in
Rome, September 12–17, 2011. The purpose of the conference was to create
trust and promote better understanding among Catholics and Evangelicals.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
ship between
the two. But behind such criticism and distrust lie real differences in
doctrine and practice that have divided in the past and continue to prevent us from
sharing in the Supper which our Lord gave us that is to testify to our unity in the faith
(Jn 17:11). As Evangelicals and Catholics, we are fratres separati3 who nonetheless come
together in the task of mutual conversation and consolation. Our goal is to come to a
clearer understanding of the truth of God’s word even as we acknowledge the need to
be taught by our mutual, as well as our separated pasts. The words of Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, remind us that “our quarreling ancestors
were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that
they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great
and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.”4
The present paper is an attempt to explore the Evangelical engagement with
Scripture and tradition and the role both have played in the church’s faith and life. In
the first part of this paper we will explore how Evangelicals have viewed Scripture and
its role in faith and life, beginning with a brief historical introduction. Then we will
examine how Evangelicals have reacted and interacted with tradition. We will conclude by summarizing the areas of divergence between Evangelicals and Catholics on
the relationship between Scripture and tradition as well as identifying possible areas of
convergence and mutual conversation that may occur with Catholics. It is an ambitious
agenda that regrettably will not perhaps be able to go into the depth that is needed, but
nonetheless can serve to chart a course forward.
A Brief Historical Introduction
As Evangelicals, we hold to “the authority, perfection and sufficiency of the
Scripture,” in the still timely words of the sixteenth-century Evangelical Lutheran
Martin Chemnitz.5 The phrase sola scriptura, along with other solas (sola fidei and sola
gratia), is intended to eliminate anything other than Scripture as an authority. The
issue of sola scriptura came to a head in the sixteenth century—the beginning, in one
sense, of the Evangelical movement—when Luther and others were being challenged
and condemned by the church for what they were teaching. When the reformers cried
sola scriptura!, they were in essence saying, “The church can and has erred” in its pronouncements on doctrine, a statement which on the surface no Catholic could accept
unqualifiedly because the church was founded by Christ and Christ would not permit
error to enter into his church.6 This had the unfortunate and unintended result of setting the authority of the Scriptures over against the authority of the church. In retrospect this was a lamentable situation in many respects which we will talk about below;
but it is also an understandable reaction by the Protestant Evangelicals. In the eyes of
Evangelicals, the church had sought to silence Luther’s conscience and that of the other
Reformers by simply asserting the church’s authority, with an appeal largely centered on
an unwritten tradition and the magisterium that had produced an unruly growth over
time; the assertion of the church’s authority was deemed sufficient. Between the time
Luther posted his 95 theses protesting the sale of indulgences in October of 1517 and
the time when he was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521, the battle lines were
drawn and the rhetoric had escalated to the point where little compromise was possible.
Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms not so much for the purpose
of debate and clarification as for the “opportunity” to renounce what he had written. When Johann Eck placed Luther’s books and writings before him and asked if
he would reject them and the errors they contained, Luther responded, “Unless I am
convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and
councils, for they have contradicted each other; my conscience is captive to the word of
God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right
nor safe.”7 In that single statement, Luther laid down the principle that the ultimate
authority in matters of doctrine, faith, and conscience could be ceded to no human
being or institution, even one established by Christ himself; authority was only to be
sought in the word of God. When confronted with the subsequent Papal Bull condemning him and his writings, he asserted even more strongly, “Scripture alone is the
true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth. If that is not granted, what
is Scripture good for? The more we reject it, the more we become satisfied with men’s
books and human teachers.”8 Luther thus became the champion of sola scriptura in
opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium, which constituted the authority of the
church of his day. Implicit and explicit in his writing was the charge that the church
in the person of its popes and councils had, indeed, erred and been deceived and even
contradicted itself. An attack on tradition was viewed by the Catholics as an attack
on the church. Luther, however, believed the church had overstepped its bounds. He
proceeded to delineate what he believed to be the limits of the church’s and, thus, tradition’s authority when, in 1530, at a crucial time in the Reformation as political and
religious forces were coalescing, he composed forty theses on the limits of the power of
the church in light of Rome’s claims:
(1) The Christian Church has no authority to establish a solitary article
of faith, has never yet done it, nor will ever do it. . . . (3) All articles of
faith have been sufficiently established in Holy Scripture. Therefore it is
unnecessary to establish any additional one. . . . (5) The Christian Church
has no authority to confirm, as a judge or superior, articles of faith or
commandments concerning good works, the Gospel, and Holy Scripture,
has never yet done it, nor will ever do it. . . . (7) The Christian Church
confirms the Gospel and Holy Scripture as a subordinate; it bears witness
and testimony to them as a servant does to the colors and the coat of arms
of his master. 9
The intent of these theses was not to denigrate the church, but to relativize it
in relation to Scripture. Nonetheless, they allowed for little possibility for rapprochement between the Evangelical Protestants and the Catholic Church with their differing definitions of the church. The logic was inescapable for Evangelicals: if the church
could err, and if there were errors found within the tradition, as even the tradition
itself admitted in its correcting of itself, then it could not be considered authoritative.
Scripture alone was the only reliable source for authority in matters of doctrine and life.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
It alone had the guarantee that it was divinely inspired (2 Tm 3:16). Thus at its heart,
the Reformer’s concern was with the doctrine of the church, with Scripture and tradition as subtext.
The Response of the Council of Trent
Largely as a result of the Reformation movement and the challenges to the
authority of the church going on in Germany, a council was called in Trent (1545–
1563) by Pope Paul III10 to deal with what were viewed as Protestant heresies, especially
regarding the authority of the church. The Council itself initiated a reform movement within the Catholic Church concerning some of the abuses brought to light by
the Protestant Reformation. But it also sought to address Protestant challenges with
its own counter-Reformation. Among the first topics to be addressed at Trent, in
fact, were Scripture and tradition and the relationship between the two. Regarding
Scripture, Trent spoke of the extent of the canonical Scriptures, including in its list
the deuterocanonical books, referred to as the Apocrypha by both the ancients and the
Protestants.11 The old Vulgate Latin edition was put forward as the authoritative text
and translation of the Catholic Church.12 While Evangelicals had issues with these, it
was the other part of the canons of the fourth session that drew their strongest objections. These canons asserted that no one should presume to interpret the Scriptures
“contrary to that sense which is held by holy mother Church, whose duty it is to judge
regarding the true sense and interpretation of Holy Scriptures, or judge regarding the
true sense and interpretation of holy Scriptures, or even contrary to the unanimous
consent of the Fathers.”13 The first decree of the fourth session of the Council states
that “following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, [the church] receives and holds
in veneration with an equal affection of piety and reverence14 all the books both of the
Old and of the New Testament, since one God is the author or [sic] both, and also the
traditions themselves, those that appertain both to faith and to morals, as having been
dictated either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Spirit and preserved in
the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.”15 In essence, Trent had put Scripture
and tradition on the same authoritative footing, largely it would seem in response to
the Protestant Evangelicals pitting Scripture against the church and unbiblical traditions that had accreted over time into the church’s faith and life. The battle lines that
had been drawn during the time of Luther were now etched in stone in the Council’s
canons: sola scriptura versus scriptura et traditiones. And there they have largely remained
through Vatican II and up to the present day. Vatican II’s Verbum Dei 9 reiterates
Trent’s assertion that “both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and
venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”16
To understand the seeming intransigence along these battle lines, and to pursue
a way forward, it will be helpful to explore why sola scriptura remains the sine qua
non for Evangelicals, and whether or not sola scriptura is understood in the same way
by both sides. Then we can examine, while still holding to sola scriptura, if there is a
role for tradition among Evangelicals who, from the Reformation onward have had a
response towards tradition that holds both promise and pitfalls.
Canon and Sole Authority for Evangelicals
We begin with the Evangelical understanding of Scripture. Three questions come
to mind: (1) What is the role and purpose of Scripture for Evangelicals? (2) What are
the Scriptures that constitute the authoritative canon? (3) How are the Scriptures to be
interpreted and why is only Scripture and Scripture alone viewed as authoritative for
Scripture is God’s written revelation of himself.17 It is a divine Trinitarian pattern of revelation from God the Father centered in Jesus Christ through the agency of
the Holy Spirit which ensures that everything God has revealed in Scripture is without
error and profitable to our salvation.18 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God and the Word was God” John tells us. That word, “became flesh and
dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1, 14) in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man.19 Jesus Christ
is properly the Word of God and all Scripture speaks to and about him. God the Father
and his will for us would be unknown to us and the world unless he had revealed himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. No one knows the Father except the Son and those
to whom the Son reveals him (Mt 11:27). This revelation occurs through the promised
Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who proceeds from the Father through the Son to testify
about Jesus (Jn 15:26). This Trinitarian pattern of revelation was provided to Jesus’s
disciples who would also testify about him, Jesus said, since they had been with him
from the beginning (Jn 15:27). Thus, revelation did not stop with the death of Jesus; it
continued under the apostles through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit
as they proclaimed Jesus and his saving gospel and recorded this proclamation, writing it down for our benefit, even as the prophets of old did in the Old Testament. The
apostles and prophets did not write down everything they preached or witnessed, but
what they did write was “written so that [we] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the
Son of God, and that by believing [we] may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Thus,
Scripture is God’s revelation of himself, centered in Christ, provided for us through the
agency of the Holy Spirit in order that we might believe and have life in and through
Christ Jesus.
While John refers to many other things that Jesus did that were not recorded
(Jn 20:30), and Paul refers to tradition himself when speaking of the Lord’s Supper (1
Cor 11:23) or the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3), it is precisely the fact that both he and
John then recorded what they had received from the Lord that provides us with a written record of the Lord’s words that are also recorded in writing by the other apostles
in the Gospels. In 1 Corinthian 15:3–4, in fact, Paul appeals to the written Scriptures
as the authority for what he had received when he writes, “For I delivered to you as of
first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the
scriptures” [emphasis added]. This phrase in accordance with the Scripture was included
later verbatim in the Nicene Creed as a testimony to the written record of Christ’s resurrection that had been prophesied in the Old Testament in order to guarantee the facConcordia Journal/Winter 2016
tual nature
of the key event of the Christian faith, that of the resurrection. The written
record of Scripture cannot and does not err because it is divinely inspired, which is also
why it is authoritative; but the fact that it was written down also provides a verifiable
stability that oral tradition cannot offer to the same degree. Thus, Scripture’s purpose is
to serve as the formal principle and the norma normans (“the rule that rules”) as a solid
foundation for doctrine and instruction. Anything less than divine authorship is subject
to human failing and sin.
Evangelicals refer to this as the “formal principle” which holds that the Scriptures
are “the inspired revelation of God . . . totally true and trustworthy, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”20 The Bible says “all Scripture is inspired by God”; it
makes no such explicit claim for tradition or anything else. Creeds and confessions are
believed and confessed because they are in agreement with Scripture, not vice versa.
This does not mean that creeds and confessions are unimportant or that they have no
authority for Evangelicals21; their authority, however, is relative to Scripture and rests in
the fact that they agree with and confess scriptural truths.
The difficulty with unwritten traditions from an Evangelical perspective is that
they cannot claim inspiration and are not as stable or reliable as written texts, nor do
they have the same guarantee of divine authorship and inspiration that Scripture has (2
Tm 3:16). Not everything Paul heard or spoke was divinely inspired,22 just as not everything our Lord said or did was recorded (Jn 21:25); but John tells us that what was
written was written so that we might believe (Jn 20:31). He doesn’t give us any indication regarding what happened to the unwritten record of what Christ said and did.
The historical proximity of the apostles to the life of Christ is unique in the life of the
church; to place the recorded apostolic witness on the same level as subsequent tradition
and reminiscences diminishes that witness. The church which followed after the time
of the apostles was engaged in a process of discernment precisely to determine what was
authoritative and what was not as they disputed over which books were to be included
in the canon of Scripture. During the canonical process, a clear line of demarcation was
being drawn “between the primordial depositum fidei and its subsequent exposition and
proclamation (i.e., tradition) in the ongoing life of the church.”23
The Canonical Witness
A basic disagreement that stems back at least to the time of the Reformation is
over what constitutes that authoritative Scripture upon which Christians base their doctrine. What is the written text upon which Evangelicals believe Christians should base
their faith and life? With the advent of humanism and Erasmus’s text-critical work, the
call was for a return to the Hebrew and Greek languages of the original manuscripts of
the Old and New Testaments. Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular of
the German people was based on his translation of these original languages. Tyndale,
Wycliff and other Evangelical translations also derived from the Greek and Hebrew.
While the Catholics of Luther’s day acknowledged the value of this return to the
sources, the old Vulgate Latin edition was put forward as the authoritative text of the
Catholic Church at the Council of Trent due to its resonance with the liturgical and
life of the church. Thus the very language of the text to be appealed to for
authority differed from the start between the Evangelicals and Catholics. This would
have implications later on, for instance, with the teaching about Mary’s sinlessness,
immaculate conception, and bodily assumption which could be found much more readily in the Latin text of the Annunciation (Lk 1:28) than in the Greek.24 It should be
noted that Vatican II’s Dei Verbum speaks much more positively of other translations
besides the Latin Vulgate, and even of cooperation with fratres separati in new translations that might emerge. Evangelicals can only view such development in a positive light.
The very content and makeup of the Scriptures themselves in the canon has
also been a further area of disagreement; although Dei Verbum does not address the
issue, we would assume that it still holds to the Tridentine definition of the canon.
The Lutherans and other reformers restricted the authoritative canon to the thirty-nine
books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. Trent,
and Catholicism since then, has asserted that the content of the canonical Scriptures
should not be limited to these sixty-six books, but should also include the deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha. Many of the reformers viewed the books of the Apocrypha
favorably and often used them in their writings25 and personal devotional life. Luther
included the Apocrypha in his translation of the Bible into German, noting that “these
books are not held equal to the Scriptures but are useful and good to read.”26 He and
the Reformers knew that the New Testament book of Jude, for instance, refers to the
Assumption of Moses and the Book of Enoch, which are books of the Apocrypha.27
Nonetheless, they still chose to remain with the more ancient distinction between the
canonical books which are “read openly in the church,” and those which might be
beneficial for reading but should not be used for the purpose of supporting doctrines
of the church.28 In Athanasius’s Festal Letter 39, he sees his task, in part, to untangle
“the books termed Apocryphal” from the “divinely inspired Scripture” only the latter of
which are to be “included in the canon and handed down and accredited as divine.”29
More recently, there have been groups among Evangelicals, such as the
Anglicans, who include the Apocrypha in their Bibles (see, for instance the New English
Bible). The recently completed ecumenical project the Ancient Christian Commentary
on Scripture included the Apocrypha30 as the last installment of the twenty-nine volume series. The thinking was that it would be helpful for Evangelicals to become more
familiar with the Apocrypha which has served as an important witness to the faith and
life of God’s people. To include them as part of the canonical Scriptures which can
be referred to as authoritative for matters of doctrine and practice, however, remains
a point of disagreement. The Reformers, and Evangelicals ever since, have maintained
the ancient distinction between the authority of the Apocryphal books and that of the
accepted books found in numerous canonical lists such as Eusebius, Athanasius, and
Augustine which are consonant with the canon that Evangelicals accept today.31 While
there was some fluidity with regard to the canon in the early years of the church, which
included a fair bit of controversy and debate over what was to be included in the canon,
by the beginning of the fourth century the list became fairly standardized, although
there is no doubt that Augustine includes the Apocrypha in his canonical list in his
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
Christian Doctrine 2.8.12. There remains disagreement among Evangelicals
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themselves as to whether that list has since been closed or if it is still open to further
additions. Still, there is general agreement that inspired revelation ceased after the time
of the apostles, except perhaps among some charismatic and pentecostal churches.
Related to this issue of the canon is whether the church formed the canon or
whether the canon emerged through the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the
church and was then recognized and received by the church.32 Evangelicals firmly hold
to the latter; we are also joined by some Roman Catholic theologians who have moved,
as well, beyond the polemics of the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic George
Tavard, for instance, refers to the formation of the canon as “a self-manifestation of
the Word in the Church.”33 Yves Congar is even more to the point: “It is not that
the Church and her Magisterium actually create the canon; even less do they endow
Scripture with its authority as mistakenly rather than intentionally certain Catholic
apologists have sometimes maintained. With this dogma, as with the others, Church
and Magisterium simply recognize the truth established by God’s action.”34 Along with
these Catholics, Evangelicals seek to emphasize first and foremost the divine action of
the Holy Spirit in preserving his word and the apostolic witness, while also acknowledging the church’s receptivity to and discernment of the Spirit’s working in its faith
and life. This is another area where Evangelicals can rejoice with Catholics in the Holy
Spirit’s uniting work in the church.
There is general agreement between Evangelicals on Scripture and its purpose in
the Christian’s faith and life. While the issue of the canon has not been resolved, there
seems to be a developing sense among Evangelicals of the value of the Apocrypha for
some aspects of Christian faith and life, and among Catholics that the Holy Spirit is
pre-eminent as the magisterium in forming the canon. But what about sola scriptura?
Are the differences irreconcilable?
Sola Scriptura and Scriptural Interpretation
In order to answer this question we begin with another question to get at the
heart of the matter: Why is only Scripture and Scripture alone viewed as authoritative for Evangelicals? And, what does this mean for an Evangelical interpretation of
Scripture both positively and negatively? A simplistic understanding of sola scriptura
can make Evangelicals vulnerable to the charge of capricious or subjective interpretations of Scripture. Such interpretations can be found from the small group Bible studies
popular among Evangelicals, to televangelists who provide their own ready-made version of the gospel, to conflicting interpretations among different denominations. Luther
contended with this when dealing with the Schwärmerei who believed they had direct
revelation from God apart from the Holy Spirit (even if they claimed the Spirit) or the
Scriptures. And claims of guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpretations does not guarantee that guidance. How, then, are we to deal with differing interpretations? Sola scriptura does not mean nuda scriptura (literally, Scripture unclothed; i.e., denuded of and
abstracted from its churchly context). Evangelicals hold to Scripture alone with the full
realization, however, that Scripture is never alone. Scripture alone is the final authority
for doctrine,
faith, and life. If it cannot be clearly appealed to in matters of doctrine,
then such doctrine is suspect. But just as faith alone means that faith is never alone but
is evidenced by works (Jas 2:17), so Scripture is never alone in this sense.35 Faith without works is dead; Scripture without the gospel is a dead letter. The Ethiopian eunuch
read the Scriptures, but they were a dead letter to him until Philip proclaimed the gospel to him (Acts 8). Scripture needs to be read in a context and in community and its
result on the hearer is meant to be evidenced in that community.36 Read in community
there is also accountability. Read and interpreted in isolation, Scripture can become the
wax nose of the interpreter with no accountability. This in no way implies that private
Scripture reading is not salutary or profitable for one’s faith and life. On the contrary,
as one is fed in private the motivation then becomes to strengthen and build others up
in the body of Christ (1 Thes 5:11).
All Scripture is inspired by God, but not all interpretations are divinely inspired.
What makes for a valid interpretation, then? The answer for Catholics, as I understand
it in Dei Verbum, is that
the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written
or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively [my emphasis] to the living
teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of
Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves
it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding
it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of
faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (DV 10)
The teaching office of the church exercises exclusive authority to interpret the
Scriptures.37 I don’t believe this meant that lay people should not read the Scriptures,
although that was sometimes the impression in the past. But does this statement mean
that a lay person cannot interpret the Scriptures, or does not have the authority to
interpret the Scriptures? And, if the latter, then what is the difference between interpreting and having the authority to interpret, and how does this comport with the Berean
Christian’s actions in Acts 17:11? What if someone disagrees with the teaching office
of the church, for instance, on the immaculate conception, or the bodily assumption of
Mary, or purgatory, believing that these are not testified to clearly and unambiguously
in Scripture?
What makes for a valid interpretation for Evangelicals? When the Protestants38
put forth their cause at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, this is what they had to say about
Scripture and its interpretation:
Ministers shall preach the Gospel according to the interpretation of the
writings accepted by the Holy Christian Church. This raises the question:
What is the true and Holy Church? There is no small diversity of opinion at this point. There is, we affirm, no sure preaching or doctrine but
that which abides by the Word of God. According to God’s command,
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
no other doctrine should be preached. Each text of the holy and divine
Scriptures should be elucidated and explained by other texts. This holy
book is in all things necessary for the Christian; it shines clearly in its own
light, and is found to enlighten the darkness. We are determined by God’s
grace and aid to abide by God’s Word alone, the Holy Gospel contained
in the Biblical books of the Old and New Testaments. This word alone
should be preached and nothing that is contrary to it. It is the only Truth.
It is the sure rule of all Christian doctrine and conduct. It can never fail us
or deceive us. Whosoever builds and abides on this foundation shall stand
against all the gates of hell while all merely human additions and vanities
set up against it must fall before the presence of God.39
Again, the issue of ecclesiology comes to the fore at the beginning of this statement. But
as the statement proceeds, no clearer evidence could be given about what Evangelicals
understand regarding the material sufficiency of the canonical Scriptures. The canonical
Scripture interprets itself and contains the gospel in its entirety. It is all that is needed
for doctrine, for reproof, for teaching, and preaching, and for instruction in righteousness (1 Tm 3:16). It is the sure and certain rule that “can never fail us or deceive us.”
The Reformers were looking for that which is sure and certain because their, and our,
eternal salvation depended on it; such certainty can only be found in that which has
divine authorship, “For I the Lord do not change” (Mal 3:6). Catholics, no less than
Evangelicals, are looking for that certainty. As Dei Verbum says,
[I]t is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty
about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same
sense of loyalty and reverence. . . It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord
with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one
cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own
way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the
salvation of souls. (DV 9, 10)
Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are put on an equal footing along with the
Magisterium; all three are so linked together that none of them, not even Scripture, can
stand on its own as an authority. The quest for certainty is the same: the source for certainty is where the difference remains.
At the heart and core of both the Evangelical and the Catholic concern over the
interpretation of Scripture is the issue of certainty. How can you be certain your interpretation is the right one? Catholics find their answer in the threefold authority of tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium, as Scripture’s interpretation was handed down
from one bishop to the next in apostolic succession through the ages guided by the
Holy Spirit. There is much to commend this approach which has largely stood the test
of time. But the difficulty for Evangelicals is that this would seem to severely limit any
further reforming of the church once a doctrine is pronounced as an infallible dogma
and is then considered part of the fidei depositum.40 Evangelicals find their answer in
Scripture alone which they believe is sufficient unto itself in all matters of doctrine,
faith, and life. The possibility exists in Evangelical churches for another Luther or
Calvin to rise up to challenge what is being taught because the word of God is the final
arbiter of truth. As Kevin Vanhoozer writes,
Ultimately, Luther stands for the possibility that the text and its meaning remain independent of the process of interpretation and hence have
the ability to transform the reader. Indeed, one reliable indicator of
good Protestant hermeneutics is whether it allows reformation. . . . The
church should be that community of humbly confident interpreter believers whose consciences, seared and sealed by the Spirit, are captive to the
Word, and whose commentaries and communities seek progressively to
embody the meaning and significance of the text.”41
If the church, when it makes an infallible pronouncement,42 stands as final judge over
Scripture, or even as the final arbiter of what Scripture means, then it ultimately can no
longer be reformed by Scripture, since the church determines what that reform should
be. Luther was, in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, an “obedient rebel; or, as he [Luther]
put it, ‘By the grace of God, we are holy apostates.’”43 The question addressed at the
Diet of Speyer remains: what we are really dealing with are two different conceptions of
the church and its authority. Congar puts it this way from a Catholic perspective: “The
Protestants want a Church ceaselessly renewing herself by a dramatic and precarious
confrontation with the Word of God. Together with the Fathers we see the Church as
the continuous communication, through space and time, of the mystical community
born from the Lord’s institution and Pentecost.”44 The Vatican I pronouncement on
infallibility, for the moment, seems an insuperable obstacle.
But is there, then, a role for tradition among Evangelicals? And if so, how can
tradition find its proper place within an Evangelical context? Must/do Catholics hold
that Scripture and tradition are equal in authority?
When speaking of tradition’s role in the life of the church, Evangelicals often
cite the example in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus who spoke of the danger of allowing
tradition to trump the word of God. Jesus used the example of the Pharisee’s practice of
Corban whereby they refused to help their parents—a clear violation of Scripture and
the fourth commandment—because they had dedicated that money to God, “thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such
things you do” (Mk 7:13). The tradition of the Pharisees, which started out with the
best of intentions, had been corrupted and ended up contradicting the word of God.
This is the danger that Evangelicals have been trying to avoid in their caution, and
sometimes even disdain of tradition. The Berean Christians in Acts serve as a model for
all Christians—not just those in positions of authority in the church—when they quesConcordia Journal/Winter 2016
tioned Paul at every turn to see if what he was teaching was true (Acts 17:11). What
purpose then, if any, can tradition serve in the churches of Evangelicals?
Traditions and the Sixteenth-Century Polemic
Before we answer this question we should clarify the fact that when talking about
“tradition” both Evangelicals and Catholics have made distinctions at various times
between “tradition” and “traditions.” Much of the sixteenth-century argument concerning Scripture and tradition was actually about traditions—in the plural. The Reformers
were seeking to deal with traditions that had arisen in the church that they believed not
only had no scriptural warrant, but were contradictory of Scripture.45 They were not
seeking to jettison tradition altogether. Luther, for instance, did not consider his stance
on sola scriptura to be in opposition to the larger Catholic Church and tradition. In
his Disputation against Scholastic Theology, and elsewhere, he often asserted that what he
taught was in agreement with the Catholic Church and the teachers and fathers of the
church.46 Luther, and to a certain extent, Calvin, had a critical, but overall favorable
view of tradition. They saw much value in the creeds and the confessions of the church
and often appealed to the ancient church as an authority for their interpretation of
Scripture. Not everything that had occurred under the pope was to be jettisoned as the
sectarian spirits were doing, Luther said. “We, on our part confess that there is much
that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and
good is to be found there and has come to us from this source.”47 Thus, while Luther
was in dissent from the Catholic Church, arguing that it was horribly deformed, he still
believed it was holy and a church because it retained the sacraments. “The voice and
text of the Gospel, the sacred Scriptures, the ministries, the Name of Christ, and Name
of God. . . . The treasure is still there.”48 Calvin, too, saw that the gospel had been
obscured in the church, but the means of grace were still present and could still provide
God’s saving gifts to those who had ears to hear within the Roman Catholic Church.49
The chief view of tradition with which the Reformers quarreled was that embodied later in the fourth session of the Council of Trent (April 8, 1546) which we discussed earlier. We noted that the Council of Trent asserted that Scripture and tradition
were to be treated with the same, or equal, reverence and devotion, putting Scripture
and tradition seemingly on an equal footing of authority. Following Trent, there were
polemicists on both sides who took this to mean that there were two complementary
sources of revelation: Scripture and tradition, with part of revelation being drawn from
Scripture and part being drawn from a tradition that existed apart from and outside
Scripture. For example, Peter a Soto at the time stated, “It is an infallible Catholic rule:
Whatever the Roman Church believes, holds, and observes, even if it is not contained
in the Scripture, that was handed down by the apostles.”50 Cardinal Avery Dulles
admits, “Some of the Fathers at Trent spoke as though certain revealed truths were
contained in tradition alone.”51 At the time, no doubt, there were overstatements made
by Evangelical Protestants in their disdain of tradition too. We need not rehearse all the
charges and counter-charges over the centuries. The fact that tradition could be put on
a par with Scripture was enough to fuel Evangelical suspicion that the Roman Catholic
Church was apostate; in turn Catholics believed that Protestant Evangelicals were schismatics if not outright heretics who had departed from the unity of the church. Both, in
one sense or another, inevitably pitted Scripture against tradition, causing the two to be
in competition with one another.
More Recent Developments: Tradition in the Singular
More recently a salutary reassessment among both Evangelicals and Catholics
has occurred: with Evangelicals regarding the role of tradition in its faith and life; with
Catholics, a reassessment of the language of the fourth session of Trent. The latter
occurred during Vatican II in preparation for Dei Verbum. An examination of the Acts
of the Council, provided in Hubert Jedin’s A History of the Council of Trent, gives us
evidence that a lively debate went on at Trent regarding the wording that went into
the decree of the fourth session. The first draft had been changed from “this truth and
rule are contained partly (partim) in written books and partly in unwritten traditions” to
“this truth and rule are contained in written books and (et) unwritten traditions.” This
may have only been a stylistic change, or as some Catholic theologians such as Congar
believe, it may also allow theological room for the material sufficiency of Scripture.52
It would seem that at both Trent and Vatican II, there was a debate as to whether the Church should speak of two sources of revealed truth, or one.53 While some
fathers at Trent spoke of two sources, there were others, according to Jedin’s account,
such as the Servite General Agostino Bonuccio, who argued that “tradition is essentially
an authoritative interpretation of Holy Writ, not its complement.”54 He recounts an
exchange in which Bishop Nacchianti of Chioggia and Francisco de Navarra, bishop of
Badajoz engage in debate on Trent’s wording:
“It is ungodly (impium)” Nacchianti shouted, “to put Scripture and
Tradition on the same level!” When Francisco de Navarra asked: “Are we
an ungodly people?” he was answered harshly: “Yes, I repeat it! How can
I accept the practice of praying eastward with the same reverence as St.
John’s Gospel?”55
According to Cardinal Avery Dulles, there seems to be a concession among modern Catholic scholars, also reflective of some at Trent, that our distance from the apostolic age makes it increasingly difficult to determine the apostolic origin of doctrines
and practices not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament.56 Therefore Vatican II
adopted a somewhat different conception of tradition in Dei Verbum that spoke of
tradition in the singular. “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit
of the word of God, committed to the Church” (DV 10). Cardinal Dulles clarifies what
Dei Verbum meant by tradition:
[It] consisted not in particular truths but in a dynamic process of transmission under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. By continuously handing down
the faith received from the apostles “the Church, in her teaching, life, and
worship, perpetuates and transmits to all generations all that she is and all
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
that she believes” (DV 8). Tradition is seen as progressing in the church,
bringing about a growth of understanding that moves forward to the day
when the words of God reach their fulfillment in her. (ibid.)
This global, dynamic, nonverbal concept of tradition differs markedly
from the atomized, static, and oral view usually (but somewhat too simplistically) attributed to the Council of Trent. Far from entering into competition with Scripture, tradition disposes the faithful to apprehend more
fully and accurately what is implied in Scripture. (Dulles, 51–52)
If I understand Dulles correctly, then, the current Catholic view seems to be that
there are not two sources of authority, but rather that tradition serves as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, and in this way both are treated with the same (pari)
reverence and loyalty. Dulles clarifies: “In the order of discovery (in ordine cognoscendi)
there are two sources we can speak of to ascertain doctrine, but in order of being (in
ordine essendi) there is only one source, the Word of God.”57 What Dulles is advocating seems to be similar to what a Lutheran might say about the Confessions contained
in the Book of Concord, or what someone in the Reformed tradition might say about
the Westminster Confession; in other words tradition serves in a way as norma normata,
being normed by the norma normans, Scripture. Nonetheless, as Dulles asserts, “From a
Catholic point of view it would be unwarranted to say that the Bible alone is the word
of God, or that tradition is totally dependent on Scripture as a prior given. Together
and not separately both Scripture and tradition embody and transmit the word of
God.”58 Confessing Evangelicals would have to disagree with this statement since they
would not consider their Creeds and Confessions as embodying and transmitting the
word of God in the same way that Scripture does, but rather summarizing, explicating,
and establishing an inner coherence between the Creeds and Confessions and Scripture.
Tradition among Evangelicals Today
Jaroslav Pelikan, who began as an Evangelical Missouri Synod Lutheran (which is
my denomination) and ended in the Orthodox communion, spoke often of tradition as
the living faith of the dead, as opposed to traditionalism which is the dead faith of the
living.59 Evangelicals have often viewed tradition as the latter, that is, as traditionalism,
a dead or dying faith stuck in the past that has no relevance for the present, let alone
the future of the church. What I was taught in the 1960s and 70s was fairly standard
for North American Evangelicalism in its bid to disparage the past while allowing the
hegemony of the present moment to hold sway. But more recently there have been
Evangelicals such as Robert Webber and Thomas Oden who have been rediscovering
and mining the wisdom of the ancient church, its exegesis and its doctrinal formulations, and who believe the Holy Spirit has a history that is more than just from the
sixteenth century to present day. At a gathering that I attended in 2011 of Evangelicals
at the Oxford Patristics conference, it was noted by George Kalantzis that Evangelicals
are just now again coming to terms with their past—the past that precedes the sixteenth
century. There is a noticeable return ad fontes, which includes reading the ancient
writers and becoming reacquainted with church tradition, although not all are
pleased with this retrieval and some openly question whether it is only a fad or something deeper and more enduring.
In the April 2011 issue of First Things, Gerald McDermot notes a dual tendency
toward tradition within Evangelicalism today: those who see it as irrelevant and those
who are increasingly embracing it. McDermot explores the implications of what each
stance means for scriptural authority in a sola scriptura milieu. He writes that most
Evangelicals believe the word of God is “a transcendent, authoritative revelation. But
not all are so convinced, and therein lies a problem for the future of Evangelical theology and the future of Evangelicalism.”60 How is Scripture authoritative for Evangelicals?
He identifies what he refers to as two camps among Evangelicals: the Meliorists and the
Traditionists. Meliorists, he writes, “think we must improve and sometimes change substantially the tradition of historic orthodoxy.” Meliorists (from the Latin melior =better)
believe that direct human intervention can make things like doctrine better and better,
believing that real progress forward in new ways that are culturally relevant is not only
possible but preferable to the older way of doing things. Traditionists, on the other
hand, “think that while we might sometimes need to adjust our approaches to the tradition, generally we ought to learn from it rather than change it.”61 While not everyone
agrees with his assessment,62 it does reflect that a divide exists among Evangelicals on
the role of tradition, even as it did in the sixteenth century when Luther’s and Calvin’s
view of tradition is compared with that of Zwingli or Thomas Münzer. Those like
Luther and Calvin valued the tradition, even as they felt free to critique it. Those like
Zwingli and Münzer derided the tradition and saw it as the source of the church’s ills.
We might also distinguish a third group in the sixteenth century, the Schwärmerei, or
Enthusiasts; today we have the Pentecostals and Charismatics. This group, then and
now, were not so much against tradition, they simply didn’t and don’t know much
about it and its role in faith and life. But this group today demonstrates an exuberance
and vitality, especially in spreading the gospel, of which the church is taking notice.
It is characterized in places like Africa as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” There is a
yearning for a deeper level of grounding of faith in the majority world that perhaps an
engagement with the early church might fulfill.
Scripture and Tradition—Convergences
A Co-inherence between Scripture and Tradition
Scripture need not be pitted against tradition or the church, nor do tradition and
the church need to be opposed to Scripture. Both Evangelicals and Catholics have come
a long way from the disputes of the sixteenth century. In many Evangelical circles at
the beginning of the twenty-first century, the tradition and insights of the Fathers are
becoming not only second nature but are appealed to with a certain level of authority
in biblical interpretation and doctrinal exegesis,63 although not with the same authority
as the magisterium and tradition hold in Catholicism. Evangelicals would stop short of
saying that the interpretation of the Fathers is authoritative; but many recognize that
they ignore those interpretations to their peril since the Fathers knew their Bibles better
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
of us do, and built on the tradition they had received and further forged in
than most
the fires of doctrinal controversy. They are our teachers in the faith who have, cumulatively, centuries of experience. We can also learn much from their doctrinal treatises
which were, more often than not, simply focused exegesis that took into account the
whole of Scripture in explicating a particular doctrine. There is a “coinherence”64
between Scripture and tradition. Tradition can serve as an important touchstone for
Evangelical interpretation of Scripture.
Encounters with Tradition Enhance Community
There is a postmodern sense arising among Evangelicals regarding the importance of community. We still recognize the importance of individual conscience,
personal conversion, and a deepening personal relationship to Jesus Christ that are so
inimitable to Evangelicalism. Part of the postmodernist movement also realizes and recognizes the importance of community in strengthening and supporting the individual
members of the body of Christ. Instead of the “just me and Jesus” mentality that in
many ways coincides with American individualism, Evangelicals are beginning to see
that the whole community throughout space and time that Jesus left on this earth is an
important component for remaining in the faith passed on from generation to generation. Further exploration into the role of the historic liturgy in explicating and internalizing Scripture, the whole sacramental life of the church which had such an enduring
history—these are areas that Evangelicals such as Simon Chan are beginning to take
seriously.65 But there is much more we can learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters
and the ancient church.
Encounters with Scripture Strengthen Personal Faith
Evangelicals can appreciate that documents like Dei Verbum go a long way
(although not as far as Evangelicals would like) in lauding the salutary use of Scripture
and the primacy of its authority. Many Catholic parishes today seem to be promoting
biblical knowledge and biblical preaching and teaching among the laity and the clergy,
believing it can strengthen individual faith and thus strengthen the church. Vatican II
and, more specifically, Dei Verbum represent a huge step forward in the emphasis on
Scripture, the allowance of joint translation of Scripture, and the encouragement of a
lively engagement with Scripture, informed by tradition, the liturgy, the exegesis of the
Fathers, a sacramental life, and so on. Much of this is foreign to Evangelicals, which
means there is also much to learn with a discerning eye. But Evangelicals are also left
wondering what effect a principle such as sola scriptura could have on Catholics, realizing differences and obstacles still remain.
The Extent of the Canon
Evangelicals and Catholics continue to disagree on what constitutes the
Scriptures, specifically, the extent of the canon. Catholics can rightly trace their canon
back to any number of early church fathers, including Augustine;66 Evangelicals can
rightlytrace their Old Testament canon back to the canon of Palestinian Judaism
decided at Jamnia at the end of the first century. We can also trace the entire canon we
hold back to church fathers such as Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem,67 Athanasius, Jerome,
and others. The extent of the canon can have direct bearing on scriptural support for
such doctrines as purgatory, the intercession of the saints, and so on. There are some
among Evangelicals (such as Luther, for instance) who, after viewing the history of
canonical development, do not consider the canon closed.68 This reflects the history of
canonical development itself. Such a position, however, is more theoretical than practical since no doctrine is to be based on apocryphal or disputed books, following the
counsel of Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, and others.69 Evangelicals should feel free and be
encouraged to read the Apocrypha for spiritual edification since there is much of value
in these books as the church throughout the ages has recognized. Often, ignorance of
what the books actually contain has caused Evangelicals to caricature and even defame
them without understanding their value.
Development of Doctrine
Why, we are asked, do Evangelicals accept a fourth-century development in the
doctrine of the Trinity but not accept more recent (nineteenth and twentieth centuries)
developments in doctrines such as the sinlessness of Mary, her immaculate conception, and bodily assumption? Why would Evangelicals accept the Christology doctrinal
development that occurred in the fourth and fifth centuries but not accept the twelfthcentury development in the doctrine of transubstantiation? If there can be development
in one doctrine, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the bosom of the church, why
shouldn’t there be development of doctrine in another area? These are valid questions
that Evangelicals need to address. But the converse is also true. Evangelicals must ask
Catholics: What is the “critical principle”70 that Catholics use to address distortions that
may have occurred in doctrinal development? Is there ever a possibility for a dogma to be
reformed? Including relatively late doctrines, such as the Marian dogmas, in the history
of the church as part of the fidei depositum which, as such, are fundamental and irreformable, seems to Evangelicals to go too far. This has always been the crux of the problem
for Evangelicals. Evangelicals might appear arbitrary or capricious in their choice and
acceptance of the development of one church doctrine over another—except for their
own critical principle of sola scriptura. The Trinitarian and christological doctrines that
Evangelicals accept were explicated in the exegesis of the Fathers from Scripture. Even
though the terms homoousios and trinity are not found in the Bible they are, nonetheless, expositions of Scripture and help make sense of and provide a unitive whole for our
understanding of the person of Christ and his relationship to the Father.71 When translating the gospel into new languages and cultures, some kind of theological explication is
necessary, especially when the gospel is challenged by heretical notions of the truth. But
these heretical challenges were always met with Scripture as the foundation upon which
any development was enunciated within the life of the church.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
The Teaching of Equal Reverence: Two Sources of Revelation
The logic of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum inexorably leads toward an understanding
of equal reverence for Scripture and tradition. Evangelicals have begun to appreciate the
level of reverence which the Fathers and tradition might deserve, but only in relative
terms. Scripture is divinely inspired—God-authored. Can tradition claim such inspiration in the same way as Scripture can? Evangelicals believe the answer is no, and this is
why we continue to hold with Luther, Calvin, and the magisterial Reformers that popes
and councils in the church can err and be deceived because they are human institutions.72 Scripture does not err, it is not deceived, nor does it deceive. We can claim the
Fathers as our teachers; but Scripture is our textbook. It is the word of God in a way
that tradition can never claim. Therefore to treat both with equal reverence goes too far,
in our estimation. Scripture alone, as God’s divine revelation, is in a category by itself,
apart from tradition. But Evangelicals must also grapple with the diverse interpretations
that result from a distorted view of sola scriptura, asking ourselves if we are consistent
in our use of sola scriptura as a critical principle we use to norm our interpretations.
I have been surprised at my own change of heart regarding the value and importance of tradition in the life of the church. This has enhanced for me rather than taken
away from the principle of sola scriptura. I have witnessed firsthand the great reverence
the fathers had for Scripture and have begun to appreciate even more the historic sacramental and liturgical life that is possible in an encounter with the past. I am heartened
to see among friends and relatives in the Catholic Church a renewed interest in the
study of Scripture. There is much that Evangelicals and Catholics can share and learn
from one another in their disparate views of the relationship between Scripture and
tradition. Nonetheless, important differences remain on the extent of the canon, the
development of extra-biblical doctrines, and what still seems to Evangelicals as an elevation of tradition, the Magisterium, and the very church itself over Scripture. Enveloping
all of these differences is an overarching concern that was only touched on briefly in
this paper. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to our unity is our differing understandings of
the church and its ministry. Nonetheless, perhaps dialog on this topic may yield further
fruits of mutual understanding.
1 Christopher Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,
1998), 13.
2 Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1964), 90, n. 16. Pope Pius VII
in a papal pronouncement (Sept 8, 1816) and Leo XII’s papal pronouncement (May 5, 1824) included such quotes
in opposition to the Protestant.
3 I realize that our Catholic brothers use this term to refer to those who are separated from Holy Mother
Church, but I also believe the phrase is an apt description of brothers and sisters in dialog who recognize that differences remain.
4 Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 98.
5 Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Vol. 1, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 150.
6 Question 163 of the Catholic Catechism asks: “What is meant by the infallibility of the Catholic
Church? By the infallibility of the Catholic Church is meant that the Church, by the special assistance of the Holy
Ghost, cannot err when it teaches or believes a doctrine of faith or morals. . . . We know that the Church is infallible in matters of faith or morals because Christ promised that He would be with the apostles and their successors
in their work of teaching until the end of time. It would be impossible for Christ to be with the official teachers
of the Church and permit them to teach error.” The Baltimore Catechism, no. 3, Lesson 12. Electronic text (c)
Copyright 1996 EWTN. The Catechism goes on to emphasize that it does not say that the church is impeccable
(i.e., without sin) but only infallible in matters of doctrine and faith.
7 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Cokesbury and Abingdon, 1950), 142–44.
8 “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles Which Were Rejected by the Roman Bull” (1521), WA
7:317.1–9; LW 32:11–12.
9 WA 30 II, 424; SL 19:958. Translation taken from Ewald Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1959, rep 1994), 286. Luther had already come to this view of the church in 1520
when he wrote On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. “The Church has no power to make new divine promises of grace, as some prate, saying that whatever is established by the church has no less authority than what is
established by God, since the Holy Spirit rules the church. But the church is born of the Word of promise through
faith, and is nurtured and preserved by this same Word. This means that the promises of God make the church,
not the church the promise of God; for the Word of God is incomparably superior to the church. In this Word the
church, as a creation, has nothing to establish, ordain, or make, but is only to be established, ordained and made.
For who begets his own parent? Who first makes his own maker? The church is indeed able to do this: it can distinguish the Word of God from the words of men.” (WA 6:560f; SL 19:108f.)
10 The council lasted through two other popes, Pope Julius III and Pope Pius IV.
11 The Protestant response regarding the Apocrypha/deuterocanonical books being included in the canon
was that the ancient church had always made the distinction between these books and the canon utilized at Nicea
and other subsequent councils and synods. See Chemnitz, Examination, Vol. 1:39.
12 This was promulgated at the First and Second Decrees of the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent,
April 8, 1546. Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto
Pub., 1954, rep. 2004), 244–46.
13 Ibid., 245.
14 The Latin reads pari pietatis affectu ac reverentia suscipit et veneratur. See J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, eds.,
The Christian Faith (New York: Alba House, 1996), 96.
15 Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 244; emphasis mine.
16 It precedes this statement by noting, “Hence there exists a close connection and communication
between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a
certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch
as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God
entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully,
explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church
draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.”
17 Cardinal Avery Dulles notes in his article “Revelation, Scripture and Tradition,” in Your Word Is
Truth [hereafter YWIT], eds. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 47
that “many Catholics make a distinction between the revealed word of God (described in the first chapter of
Dei Verbum) and the inspired word of Scripture (discussed especially in the third and sixth chapters). While this
distinction has merit” he says, “it should not be pressed to the point of presenting revelation and inspiration as
external to each other.” He then lists three reasons why such a very close connection should be acknowledged.
According to Dulles, and Vatican II, revelation should not be pitted against Scripture as though some parts of
Scripture were not revealed (contra Raymond Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible [New York: Paulist Press,
1981], 7). Dulles asserts, “The whole Bible not only transmits, but is, the word of God” (Dulles, 48, no. 25).
18 See also DV 11: “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be
held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”
19 Later in that same Gospel Jesus declares that the Scriptures, which would have been the Old Testament,
testify about him; Moses himself wrote about him (Jn 5). The book of Hebrews begins, “In many and various ways
God spoke to his people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
20 Quoted from the 2000 Amsterdam Declaration.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
21 James Packer and Thomas Oden have documented the important place that creeds and confessions do
hold within Evangelicalism in their book One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity
Press, 2004).
22 As he himself intimates when he differentiates between customs and Scripture as in 1 Corinthians 11.
23 Timothy George, “An Evangelical Reflection on Scripture and Tradition,” YWIT, 28.
24 The Latin is gratia plena “full of grace” whereby Catholics believe that Mary was filled with a singular
grace that enabled her to be without sin; whereas the normal translation of the Greek (kecaritwme,nh) means
to bestow favor or to consider as highly favored which has more the connotation of honor, something which
Evangelicals would do well to consider when they at times seem to disparage her rather than honor her in anticatholic polemics.
25 See Luther’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1–2 (LW 28:74); see esp. Luther’s Prefaces to the
Apocrypha (LW 35:337ff).
26 LW 35:337, no. 1; WA, DB 2,547; cf. Ibid., 519.
27 See Jude 6, 9, and 14–15 where the book of Enoch is quoted. Allusions to the Apocrypha can also be
found in Romans 1:19–32 (Ws 13:1–15); 1 Pt 1:7 (Ws 3:5–6), Heb 11:35 (2 Mc 6–7).
28 See Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4.35 and Jerome, Preface to the Books of Solomon; PL
28:1242 as quoted in Gerald Bray, ed., We Believe in One God Vol. 1, Ancient Christian Doctrine Series (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 25.
29 Athanasius, Festal Letter 39.3; NPNF 2 4:551–52.
30 Ably edited by the Roman Catholic scholar Sever Voicu.
31 For an Evangelical discussion of the canon with reference to the fathers of the church, see Bray, We
Believe in One God, 23–28 where there is copious proof that before Augustine there was general agreement concerning the value of the Apocrypha, while still distinguishing it from the canonical Scriptures. See Athanasius,
Festal Letter 39.3–6; Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse 4.7–10; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures,
4.35–36; Jerome, Preface to the Books of Solomon; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.25.1–5, see also 6.14 for comments on Clement of Alexandria’s canon; Muratorian Fragments 3-4; Apostolic Constitutions 8.47.60. See also
Augustine, Against the Adversary of the Law and Prophets 1.20.39 where he discourages using evidence from apocryphal books attributed to Andrew and John.
32 For more on the subject I refer the reader to Bray’s volume referenced in the previous note.
33 George Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), 5.
34 Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, 103–104. I am indebted to George’s article “An Evangelical
Reflection on Scripture and Tradition” for these insights and references.
35 In other words, it is faith alone that saves, not works. But as James and Paul would both agree faith
apart from works is dead.
36 Kevin Vanhoozer, The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge: Is There a Meaning in
This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 467.
37Perhaps this is why Luther said, “At Worms I was the Church!”—a remark which, Timothy George
says, “must sound as jarring to Catholics as Pius IX’s ‘I am Tradition!’ does to Protestants.” Timothy George, “An
Evangelical Refection on Scripture and Tradition,” YWIT, 15.
38 So-named not because they were protesting but because they were bearing witness on behalf of (cf. the
Latin pro + testantes = those who bear witness on behalf of). Ibid.
39 See the Walch edition of Luther’s Works, vol. 16 (1745) col. 399. English translation from Robert
Newton Flew, Rupert Eric Davies, The Catholicity of Protestantism (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1950, rep.
2002), 13–14.
40 Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio #6 says clearly that “Christ summons the Church . . . to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth. Therefore, if the
influence of events or of the times, has led to deficiencies in conduct, in Church discipline, or even in the formulation of doctrine (which must be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself), these should be rectified at
the proper moment.”
41 Vanhoozer, The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge, 467.
42 My understanding from my Catholic brethren in ECT is that reform is possible concerning doctrines
that are not held as infallible dogmas, and that there are various levels of authority with different Catholic doctrines.
43 Jaroslav Pelikan, Obedient Rebels (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 19. See Luther’s Lectures on
Genesis, WA 42:412; LW 2:213.
44 Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, 104–5.
45 Chemnitz lists the traditions that were in dispute: “those customs whose beginning, author, and origin
are unknown
or cannot be found [that] have been handed down by the apostles: The offering of the sacrifice of
the altar, the anointing with chrism, the invocation of the saints, the merits of works, the primacy of the Roman
pontiff, the consecration of the water in Baptism, the whole sacrament of confirmation, the elements, words, and
effects of the sacraments of ordination, of matrimony, and of extreme unction, prayers for the dead, the enumeration of sins to be made to the priest, the necessity of satisfaction” (Chemnitz 1:273) Later additions to the list
include what he refers to as “the mutilation of the Lord’s Supper (communion in one kind), the celibacy of the
priests, the choice of foods, purgatory, the traffic in indulgences, the cult of images, the legends of the saints”
(Chemnitz 1:274).
46 The Augsburg Confession of 1530 begins with these words, “We unanimously hold and teach, in
accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicaea . . .” Those who followed after Luther also held that they were
in line with the catholic tradition. See the Catalog of Testimonies included in the Book of Concord 1580 which
is a catalog of references and quotes from the church fathers testifying that the Reformers were in agreement with
the ancient ecumenical consensus, especially on the issues of the Trinity and Christology. Chemnitz’s Examination,
filled with copious and systematic references to the fathers also demonstrates the same conclusion as do the orthodox fathers who followed in the seventeenth century. The same tendency can also be found in Calvin in his exegetical works as well as his Institutes.
47 Luther, Von der Wiedertaufe an zwei Pfarrherrn, (1527/28); WA 26:147; (Luther letter, Concerning
the Rebaptism of Two Pastors). Elsewhere in the same letter Luther “contends that in the papacy there is true
Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints.”
48 Luther, On Galatians 1:2; LW 26:24.
49 George, “An Evangelical Reflection,” YWIT, 17.
50 Quoted in Chemnitz, 1:273.
51 Avery Dulles, “Revelation, Scripture and Tradition,” YWIT, 51. See also Fr. Thomas Guarino, “It is
true . . . that some Counter-Reformation theologians held to the position that tradition constituted a ‘separate’
source for revelation. But this understanding was never seen as a basis for expanding or creating some new revelation of God.” Guarino, YWIT, 89–90.
52 Guarino, YWIT, 85.
53 Vatican I (1870) spoke of two sources. As Avery Dulles notes, Pius IX wrote in his letter Inter
Gravissimas (October 20, 1870) “Scripture and tradition are the sources of divine revelation” (Acta Pii IX, part 1,
vol. 5, 259).
54 Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent (New York: Nelson, 1961), 2:75, quoted in George,
YWIT, 24.
55 Jedin, Council of Trent, 2:86–87. Quoted in McNally, “Scripture and Tradition at the Beginning of
the Reformation,” 78–79. This quote and the above references were originally gleaned from George’s article, “An
Evangelical Reflection,” YWIT, 23–24.
56 Avery Dulles, “Revelation, Scripture and Tradition,” YWIT, 51.
57 Ibid., 37.
58Ibid., 53. He cites both Trent DS 1501 and Vatican II, DV 9 in support of his view to show that
Vatican II was able to support in this way what Trent had said four centuries earlier while also going beyond it.
59 Jaroslav Pelikan, Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.
60 Gerald McDermot, “Evangelicals Divided,” in First Things (April 2011): 46.
61 Ibid., 46.
62 See the letters to the editor in subsequent issues of First Things.
63 Witness the popularity of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (IVP) which has sold over a
half million volumes in English and is being translated into seven languages around the world; a related project is
also the Ancient Christian Doctrine series (IVP) that provides commentary on the Nicene Creed from the ancient
church; see also Robert Wilken’s The Church’s Bible (Eerdmans) and the Brazos Theological Commentary on the
Bible which incorporates insights from the Fathers. Many Evangelical colleges and seminaries such as Wheaton,
Trinity Deerfield, Baylor, and others, are starting patristic centers of inquiry and study.
64 I borrow this term from Timothy George.
65 See Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 2006).
66 See Augustine, Christian Instruction 2.8.12; PL 34:41; NPNF 1 2:538–39.
67 Cyril however includes Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah.
68 He for instance will make a distinction, as the early church did between homolegoumena and antilegomena books of the Bible, which means there were some books (homolegoumena) that were agreed to by all, but
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
others where
there was legitimate disagreement and dispute as to whether they should be included in Scripture
or not (antilegomena). See the discussion for instance, by the Lutheran dogmatician Francis Pieper, Christian
Dogmatics, Vol.1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 330–38.
69 Cyril, “Of the books [contained in the Septuagint] read only the twenty-two [contained in the Hebrew
canon] and have nothing to do with the apocryphal writings. Study earnestly only those that we read openly in
the church.” Catechetical Lecture 4.35; PG 33:497f; cf. NPNF 2 7:27. Jerome, Preface to the Books of Solomon; PL
28:1242. Many of the Fathers, of course, also utilized the LXX, but discussion on the authority of the LXX will
lead us too far afield.
70 A phrase borrowed from Fr. Thomas Guarino, YWIT, 94.
71 When Jesus told his disciples to baptize in the name and then listed three names, there is no way to
understand what he said unless one has the doctrine of the Trinity in mind. When Jesus said, “I and the Father are
one,” the term homoousios helps us understand what he means.
72 Cardinal Ratzinger, at the time, noted that a possible weakness of Dei Verbum was that it did not
take into sufficient account the negative aspects of the human condition. “The whole vast subject of sin, law, and
the anger of God is gathered together here in the one little word lapsus (Post eorum lapsum . . .) and thus is given
neither its full weight nor is it taken seriously enough. The pastoral optimism of an age that is concerned with
understanding and reconciliation seems to have somewhat blinded the Council to a not immaterial section of the
testimony of Scripture.” Dulles (“Revelation, Scripture, and Tradition,” 38), directs us to Ratzinger’s commentary
on chapters 1 and 2 of Dei Verbum in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler, 5 vols.
(New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), 3:155–198; this quote above is from p. 174 of Ratzinger’s commentary.
Homiletical Helps
Homiletical Helps on LSB Series C—Gospel
Lent 1 • Luke 4:1–13 • February 14, 2016
Confessing the truth means renouncing the false at the same time, “Do you
renounce the devil, and all his works, and all his ways?” Often, the latter is ignored due
to various theological lapses or cultural and individualistic reasons. In this text, we have
a glimpse of the nature of truth and false. In any missional context, these two tensions
will always be accentuated. As Christ reveals himself in the Holy Scriptures, we are
reminded that as Christians, we are called to proclaim and perform the truth. It is the
Lord alone that we worship (v. 8, see also the Old Testament lesson, Dt 26).
The ultimate goal of Satan is unbelief. The first commandment is where Satan
ultimately wants to undo us. Once this theological foundation is established, the rest of
Satan’s activities are more readily identifiable. The fallen human nature will allow Satan
to attack from the external realm. And from the internal realm, our human heart is the
cause of evil thoughts and sinful works (Mt 15), which plays right into Satan’s temptation schemes.
The responses to Satan’s attacks or temptations, historically speaking, have always
fallen into one of the following categories. The first three are remedies that introduce
their own problems.
Scripture and Tradition
This approach has always been problematic because human traditions will always
distort the word of God no matter how pure or of good intention one might think the
traditions. Certain traditions by themselves may not necessarily be flawed, as they can
be God’s gifts to people for part of their basic human survival. The problems come as
traditions are appropriated in the context of faith and life in the church. Satan will use
traditions to distort the truth of God’s word.
Scripture and Logic
When logic is employed to bring attractiveness to the word of God and faith,
Satan will use that logic to his advantage. All of a sudden, the responsibility shifts to
humans to battle Satan countering the armor of God that enables us to stand firm (Eph
6). We see the conditional nature of Satan’s works and ways in this gospel text, “If you
do this then I will do that . . .” (vv. 3, 7, 9). Thus, our whole faith and life becomes a
grand bargaining chip with God as we deal with Satan’s attacks and temptations.
Scripture and Manipulation
Certain sectors of Christianity are quite manipulative in their attempt to
convey the truth of Scriptures. When the surface labels of Christianity are stripped
away, the line between worshipping the Lord and idolatry becomes quite blurred. For
an example, miracles become an end unto themselves. Thus, a false view of miracles
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
persists that defines faith. Jesus would not yield to this demand of Satan (v. 3). Properly
speaking, miracles are there to confirm faith when it is according to God’s will but
not to define faith.
Scripture Alone—The Only Remedy to Satan’s Temptation
It is through Scripture alone that we can confess with our mouth and believe in
our heart that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10). Satan will attack and tempt us in our moments
of weakness and suffering. Yet, it is in these moments that we see God’s grace and
mercy clearly through his word because this is the way of the cross. Through suffering
and the cross we come to God—as Luther would emphasize over and over again—and
overcome Satan, and all his works and all his ways.
The temptation of Jesus gives us a glimpse of how Satan works in the world. He
will take what appears to be the truth and turn it into something that is false. Creating
doubt is Satan’s first step in all his schemes, “Did God really say . . .” or, “If . . .” As
humans, we naturally want to add something to Scriptures to counter any temptation.
When this happens, Satan gets the upper hand. Therefore, we confess the truth and
renounce the false through God’s word that brings life and salvation and helps us to
overcome the temptations of Satan. It is the Lord alone that we worship.
Kou Seying
Lent 2 • Luke 13:31–35 • February 21, 2016
This week’s lessons are confrontational. The Old Testament lesson is a confrontation between Jeremiah and the people of Judah. In the Gospel we hear of the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. They confront us with a “prophetic word”
that our people and maybe we, ourselves, may not want to hear.
In Luke 13 Jesus warned the people to repent or they would perish (v. 3). He
told them to strive to enter through the narrow door or they would be shut out (vv.
24–28). How did they react to his word?
“Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Get away from here for Herod
wants to kill you.’” This wasn’t a friendly act of concern. The Pharisees always looked
for ways to discredit him or trap him because he often confronted their self-righteousness. This time they tried to intimidate and scare him away.
Herod didn’t like the message Jesus preached. He had heard it before. John the
Baptizer had accused him of adultery. Herod didn’t want to hear that, so he arrested
John and beheaded him. Jesus knew he was dealing with a tyrant when he said, “Go tell
that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the
third day I finish my course’” (v. 32).
Herod’s threat would not deter Jesus. He had come to proclaim God’s word, to
do his Father’s will, and to die on a cross and rise again. He would fulfill God’s plan of
Why be so confrontational? Because that’s the prophet’s job. A prophet is sent by
God to faithfully speak his word. The people in Jesus’s day were comfortable in their
sin. They didn’t want to be called to repent. So, the prophetic word has to be confrontational.
Does the church today still speak a prophetic word? We, too, have become
comfortable with our sins. Adultery, fornication, homosexuality, violent crime, pornography, and profanity are cabled into our living rooms and called “entertainment.”
Coveting and greed are seen as the only way to survive. No, people don’t want to hear a
prophetic word calling them to repent.
Perhaps, the church has grown fearful of speaking it. We’ve allowed Satan and
the world to intimidate us and convince us that it is more loving to overlook than to
confront and more like Jesus to permit people to remain in their sin. So, the church is
tempted to speak a word that people want to hear, but it’s not God’s word.
The world, the church, and you and I need the sure prophetic word. The church
must say once again, “Thus says the Lord!” It doesn’t matter what the law of the land
will allow, or society permits, or others are doing. God says, “Amend your ways and
obey the Lord” (Jer 26:13).
This is the message we are sent to proclaim in our vocation as parent, friend,
neighbor, or preacher. We can expect opposition, but we simply cannot become comfortable with sin. That’s not the Christ-like thing to do. For then, we would empty his
cross of its power to save. Without the prophetic word people will never know God’s
mercy and grace and never truly hear the gospel.
Faithful prophets love their people. Jeremiah is called “the Weeping Prophet,”
and you hear his anguish, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a
fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people” (Jer 9:1).
In the Gospel we hear Jesus lamenting, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that
kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. How often would I have gathered your
children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
He loved them and longed to save them, but they weren’t willing to hear the word and
repent of their sins. They rejected his love and crucified him.
Can you hear Jesus lamenting over the world today? Do you hear his great mercy
and love for you? He was willing to suffer and die on a cross to save you.
On the road to Emmaus two disciples told a “stranger” about “Jesus of Nazareth,
a prophet powerful in word and in deed before God and all the people. We had hoped
that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:19–21). What a surprise
when the risen Savior revealed himself to them!
Yes, Jesus is a prophet, and more than a prophet. He is our crucified and risen
Savior. He promises us life and salvation. Hear him calling today “O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem . . . O (your community . . . and you) how often I have longed for you.”
Paul Sieveking
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
Lent 3 • Luke 13:1–9 • February 28, 2016
In this text Jesus doesn’t explicitly accuse someone of something that needs
repentance. Rather, he says the unfortunate people in the tragedies were not worse sinners. So this sermon focuses on the second half of repentance—the turning toward
Jesus in faith—although a short section does mention what we need to turn away from.
I use the warm phrase “coming home” to get at that part of repentance. The goal is that
the hearers repent (come home to Jesus) more often, even daily.
What follows is a working brief, not a full sermon, allowing you to recast it in
your own words and context. A fuller version of the sermon was proclaimed at a St.
Louis congregation in September 2015.
Coming home is good when you are welcomed. It’s good to be welcomed home
in love and acceptance. I occasionally take a trip of a week or more. But it’s great to
drive into the driveway, walk through the front door, and be welcomed home. But not
just after a long time away from home. Each day, to come home from work and to be
welcomed in love and acceptance is so very good. Repentance is like coming home. To
repent is to come home to Jesus in love and acceptance. But more about that later. Let’s
go back to the gospel reading.
Two tragedies have happened. (Here I described the sacrifices made and how the
soldiers mingled the worshippers’ blood with sacrificial blood. I called it sacrilege. Then
I described a tower falling on unsuspecting people, and called it a disaster.) But did you
hear what Jesus said? Were the Galileans worse sinners? No. Were the eighteen victims
worse sinners? No. So in these cases these tragedies were not because of some great sin.
We have those tragedies too. I get letters from St. Jude’s Children’s Research
Hospital. The children there have cancer. The letter is asking for a donation and a child
is usually pictured. No hair, hospital gown, but a smile on the face. Are these children
worse sinners than other kids? Jesus says . . . (I kept silent for a few seconds and let
people fill in the answer). No. (I then did the same thing with three other examples, a
mother and child killed by a drunk driver. A tornado taking one house and leaving the
one next to it standing. A child shot by a drive-by gunshot. (Each time I kept silent and
had the people answer before I did with, “No.”)
So why did they happen? We’re waiting for the answer from Jesus. But he
doesn’t give us one. No, he ignores the abstract, “Why do bad things like this happen?”
and goes straight to the lives of those listening. And to us. He turns and looks at us.
Unless we repent, we too will perish. And this perish is even more catastrophic than the
tragedies that brought death. This perishing is eternal. Forever being separated from
God. Never being able to come home to his love. Jesus is taking us out of the abstract
“why?” and turning us back to ourselves. Calling us to repent, to come home.
Now, most of the time we have heard repentance defined as turning, and it is
that. We turn from one direction and head another. We are to turn from anything and
everything that gets in the way of our relationship with the Lord. If it disrupts our connection to Jesus, turn away from it. And it’s not just the big things like murder, adultery, or embezzlement.
No, more often it’s the everyday things we need to repent of. The way we bud-
get leaves us living from paycheck to paycheck with little to give to those in need. We
have the things we want, but ignore the generosity Jesus wants us to do. So we turn
away from that greed (I was walking slowly in one direction here and suddenly turned
around and walked in the other direction) and come home to Jesus. (I did the same
with other everyday sins: anger, complaining, impatience, fear, and lust. Each time
giving a brief description of the sin and then turning around while saying the phrase
“come home to Jesus.”) Do you see how repentance works? You turn away from something that is pulling you away from Jesus and turn around to come back home to him.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of repentance. The young son wants his
inheritance early. His father gives it to him. He heads off to another city to live. (I told
this biblical story in greater detail during the actual sermon.) Do you see what the big
problem is? As Americans, we think about how he wasted the money. We imagine what
type of sinful living he indulged in. But the bigger problem happened earlier. He. Left.
Home. He turned his back on his home.
Finally, he realizes what he has done. He’s feeding pigs and they have better food
than he does. So repentance has begun. He turns away from what has led him so far
from home and heads back. His father sees him coming. He runs to meet him. New
robe. New sandals. New ring. Celebration! He’s come home. Repentance is coming
home. Repentance is being welcomed home in love and acceptance.
Repentance is coming home to Jesus, and he’s waiting with open arms. His nailscarred hands welcome you with his love. He stretched out those arms on the cross to
provide the forgiveness for all that we need to turn away from. His open arms have
forgiven the greed, fear, lust, impatience and any other everyday sin that gets in the way
of our relationship with him. When we come home to Jesus, he is risen from the dead
and restores us to his family. He brings us home once again. And he gives us his Holy
Spirit to renew our lives. Generosity, patience, trust, contentment, peace, and kindness
become the fruits of repentance in our lives when we come home. Yes, coming home
to Jesus’s love is so needed. Coming home to Jesus’s acceptance is so good. Nothing is
more wonderful than to be welcomed home by Jesus.
And we need to come home every day. Martin Luther’s evening prayer helps us
do that. (I spoke it, with the emphasis on “I pray that you would forgive my sins.”)
Each night before going to sleep, this prayer brings us home to Jesus, to sleep in his forgiving, welcoming love.
This year I turn sixty. I figure I have lived two-thirds of my life, with one-third
left. But it could be 98 percent lived. The cancer cells could grow in my body. The
plane I’m in crashes. The stray bullet finds me. For many of us, we don’t know when
and how that moment of death will come. But when it does, Jesus wants us to be home
with him. He’s calling us to always come home to him.
When I travel, I use a GPS. If I miss a turn, it says, “Turn around when possible.” With Jesus, it’s always possible to turn around and come home to Jesus, and he
welcomes us with love and forgiveness. Repentance is coming home to Jesus. Amen.
Glenn Nielsen
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
Lent 4 • Luke 15:1–3, 11–32 • March 6, 2016
The fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare (rejoice) Sunday. It is the midway point in Lent and has been viewed as a day of celebration as the mood of Lent is
briefly lessened.
Luke 15 is filled with parables of rejoicing; the shepherd rejoices over finding
the one lost sheep, the woman rejoices in finding her one lost coin, and then we have
today’s parable where there is rejoicing over the return of the prodigal son.
Jesus addressed these parables to the scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling
amongst themselves concerning the kind of people to whom Jesus ministered and received
(v. 2). The progression of the parables leads up to today’s reading; a certain man had two
sons, not one out of ninety-nine, and not one out of ten, but one out of two. Jesus fleshes
out the purpose of his ministry and recipients of God’s grace as he addresses the Pharisees
and scribes defining the characters in this, the lengthiest of the three parables.
15:1–3: Luke gives the setting and context in which Jesus delivered these parables.
Two groups of people are present: Pharisees and scribes, and tax collectors and sinners.
The tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus. He welcomed them and would
actually eat with them! This is table fellowship language, which is a sign of full acceptance. The table fellowship language also hearkens the hearer to eschatological themes and
those who are received at God’s heavenly banquet as well. Could tax collectors, sinners,
and Gentiles really be welcomed and present at God’s heavenly banquet? These verses set
up the general circumstance of Jesus’s ministry rather than pointing to a particular incident. Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and scribes is the church’s response too.
15:11–17: The focus of the parable isn’t exclusively on the two sons, or the one
son for that matter. The focus is on the father: a certain man had two sons. The father
has a relationship with each of the sons.
The division of property between the two sons: a younger son would receive one
third of the property. Βίος “property” also means “life” or “manner of life.” The estate
is what supports the life of the family. Normally the disposition of the property would
happen after the death of the father and not before. For more on this law and customs
check commentaries.1 At the very least the younger son is breaking down the solidarity
of the family.
The son squandered his property in reckless living: this reflects the son’s attitude
toward the family property and his spiritual life as well. What the son thought to be
freedom leads him further away from the father. Now broke he looks for a way to sustain himself by taking a job feeding pigs and even longing to eat what the pigs eat! To
the Jewish hearer he had become like a Gentile and outside of the covenant.
15:17–24: The son comes to his senses and confesses his unworthiness. However,
one of the themes for preaching can be found in the action of the father, for the father’s
welcome precedes the son’s confession. The father’s joy toward the son is shown in the
activity of dressing him, providing a ring, and throwing a banquet for the younger son.
His status is reversed, which is much more that he had even hoped for (v. 19). It is
interesting that the father ended his proclamation declaring that his son was lost, but
now is found. “There is a condition worse than death, to be lost; there is a condition
better than life, to be found.”2
15:25–32: Does grace offend some people? That seems to be one of the points
in this section. The older son wasn’t upset that his younger brother was back. He was
offended at the grace the father showed the younger son by throwing him a party and
restoring him to his previous status. In addition to the older son’s response, what might
have been going through the thoughts and minds of family friends witnessing this turn
of events? What might be their response? Is the father rewarding bad behavior? And
does God’s grace and restoration toward those who repent still offend people today;
maybe even within our own congregations?
One of the challenges for preaching on this parable is that it is well known, or
at least familiar, to many of the hearers. They can just about finish the sermon before
preachers even step into the pulpit. The preacher might want to preach this sermon
from a different perspective then, from the perspective of the Pharisees and scribes
who are receiving this from Jesus—remembering that God’s baptized people exhibiting
pharisaical tendencies at times does not make us “Pharisees,”—the perspective of the
younger son, the perspective of the older son, or the perspective of the friends who are
asked to come to the banquet.
Since this is the time of Lent, and since this is also the Sunday to rejoice, it would
be fitting to preach this parable from the perspective of, not “the prodigal son,” but rather
“the forgiving Father.” In addition, the preacher should simply let the parable speak for
itself. It might be tempting to get into a lot of detail, and some of this might be necessary
for the sermon; however, that richness of detail might be best served in a Bible study.
Michael J. Redeker
John Noland, Luke 9:21–18:34 35B Word Bible Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1993), 782.
Fred B. Craddock, Luke Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1990), 187.
Editor’s note: The following homiletical help is adapted from Concordia Journal, January 1980.
Lent 5 • Luke 20:9–20 • March 13, 2016
The preacher needs to resist mightily the temptation to use this text as the occasion for letting the congregation have it. It would be easy to become a stern preacher
of the law, and to use this text to proclaim only God’s wrath and punishment. Indeed,
such is the lot of those who reject the stone, Jesus Christ, whom God puts forward.
The scribes and the chief priests recognized that thrust of Jesus’s words to be directed
against them. The people in the parish, however, ought not to be assumed to be their
present-day counterparts. Although the parable contains the strong note of judgment on
those who spurn God’s action, there is also the note of triumph in the elevation of the
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
rejected stone. The hearers ought to be deepened in their grasp of God’s persistent love
in the ministry of Jesus.
The Scripture appointed for the day directs the hearers to focus on God’s action
on their behalf. Psalm 28:1–3, 7–11 exults, “The Lord is my strength and my shield,
in him my heart trusts,” and “The Lord is the strength of his people.” Isaiah 43:16–21
announces that the Lord who is Creator of all is doing a new thing so that his people
might declare his praise. In Philippians 3:8–14 St. Paul counts all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.
The parable seems to be based on the practice of absentee landlords who owned
rather large tracts of land in Galilee. The land was worked by tenant farmers who were
periodically visited by the agents of the owner to collect his share of the crops.
The problem of the killing of the son has puzzled many. What would the tenants
have gained by killing him except the wrath of the owner? The solution seems to be
something like this: when the tenants see the son, they assume that the owner is dead;
the heir is coming to claim his inheritance; by killing him the land would become ownerless; the tenants could claim squatters’ rights and press for ownership.
The destructive power of the stone is illuminated by the Talmudic proverb,
“Should the stone fall on the jar, woe to the jar! Should the jar fall on the stone, woe to
the jar! In either case, woe to the jar!” (Esther Rabbah, 7:10).
During Lent we are brought face-to face with God’s persistent love of the world
in the gift of his Son. The story of God’s love affair with the human race is punctuated
with man’s rejection and spurning of God’s love. When God sent his Son, he, too, was
rejected. In love, God gave him up for us all. In him God’s persistent love triumphed.
For his sake, God continues to pursue us with his love in word and sacrament.
This same persistent love which has triumphed in us to make us the people of
God by faith in Christ Jesus becomes the power and the motivation for lives which produce the fruit of the vineyard.
William J. Schmelder
Palm Sunday • Luke 22:1–23:56 • March 20, 2016
Passing from one divine feast to another,
from palms and branches,
let us now make haste, O faithful,
to the solemn and saving celebration of Christ’s passion
Let us behold him undergo voluntary suffering for our sake,
And let us sing to him with thanksgiving a fitting hymn:
“Fountain of tender mercy and haven of salvation,
O Lord, glory to you!”
From Byzantine Vespers
Great, Holy Week
The One
Through this liturgical text one senses the unified movement of participating
in Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, realizing the opposition cast before him, and recognizing one’s complicity in his suffering and crucifixion by rebellious creatures. So the
church enters into the Great, Holy Week of the Lord’s passion. The church should
celebrate Holy Week as one unified liturgical experience centered in salvation’s great
event, the Pascha of Jesus—the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Christ.
The week culminates in the liturgical remembrance of and participation in the triduum
(three days), of Jesus’s Passover from death to life. We participate in the passion according to St. John at week’s end on Good Holy Friday. We enter this great week on
Passion Sunday by participating in the passion of a synoptic gospel, this year St. Luke’s.
The church gathers as the people of Israel did, strewing palm branches (or branches
from indigenous trees representing our contemporary participation in the great procession of the Lord) to greet the King who comes in the name of the Lord. The goal, as St.
Andrew of Crete said, is that the baptized “may spread themselves under Christ’s feet.”
The Procession Gospel
As the week is one great liturgical event, so the Sunday of the Passion with the
procession of palms is a unified liturgical experience at the week’s beginning. The
palm procession found in the Lutheran Service Book Altar Book (502–504) serves as
the entrance rite for Passion Sunday. This procession replaces the preparatory rite of
Confession and Absolution (confession and absolution occurring on Maundy Thursday)
and the entrance rite of introit/psalm/entrance hymn, kyrie, and hymn of praise. We
are invited not only to praise the King and Lord who entered Jerusalem to establish his
reign through his cross, but to greet the one who will come again “with trusting and
steadfast hearts and follow him on the way that leads to eternal life” (Collect for the
Procession of Palms). The default processional gospel is John 12:12–19. As the rubrics
note, a gospel reading from one of the synoptics may be used: Luke 19:28–40 in series
C. This is not the chief gospel reading of the day, but a gospel for the procession rite.
Thus, normally one should not preach on this gospel exclusively. The passion reading
ought to give shape to the day’s preaching. If one were to give substantive attention to
the procession gospel, it should be in light of its leading the church into the passion
remembrance. At the center of the passion is the establishment of the rule and reign
of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection he will reign
victorious over those opposed to God’s kingdom, ruling in peace, mercy, and love.
As Jesus approaches Jerusalem the disciples acclaim, “Blessed is the King who comes
in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Luke’s procession
gospel announces that Jesus will establish his reign of peace, announced to shepherds
in Bethlehem, both on earth and in heaven through his Pascha.1 That reign only comes
through Jesus’s great offering of himself through suffering in mercy and peace for a
rebellious world.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
the Passion
Great Week immerses the body of Christ into the mystery of salvation: the
rule and reign of God that comes through the Lord’s Passover from death to life. The
reading of and meditation upon the passion stories, Luke on this great day and John
on Good Friday (with Matthew and Mark read during the week), should demand the
attention and participation of the church. The reading of the Lucan passion should
facilitate the people’s full participation in hearing the story of their Lord. Options
for reading the passion, with multiple readers, are provided in the Altar Book (505).
Serious consideration should be given to using one of these formats and the entire
breadth of the nave and chancel in the reading. Effective reading requires preparation,
practice, and attention to detail. While the reading of the full passion is desirable (Luke
22:1–23:56), the shorter version (Luke 23:1–56) may be used. The presider may omit
certain sections of the liturgy in order to allow the passion to give shape to this Sunday:
the Old Testament and/or second readings, the gradual and/or psalm, the creed, and
the post-communion canticle. Choral music may be limited. Distribution of communion may be done at stations. Finally, the sermon should be focused and abbreviated,
seven to eight minutes or less.
Preaching the passion demands opening the reading for the assembly’s full participation. The sermon should focus on the passion’s dramatic center: Christ and his
suffering so as to establish his reign and rule of mercy and peace. There are numerous
focal points in the narrative which the preacher might explore to open up the hearer to
the experience. One example would be Jesus’s words from the cross that are unique to
Luke. Ultimately, the preaching should focus on an aspect of the passion that allows
the hearers to hear Luke’s depiction of Christ’s suffering and death through the lens
of their own baptisms into Christ’s Pascha. For example, the preacher might form the
sermon around the response of the centurion to Jesus’s death: “In reality, this man was
righteous.”2 The preacher should lead the hearer into seeing that through the righteous
suffering of Jesus, God’s rule of mercy has come. Through baptism into the death of
Christ as depicted by Luke, the baptized are made part of Christ’s reign. In preaching
this way the words of the centurion are now spoken over the hearer: “In reality, you are
righteous . . . in the Lord Jesus.” In Jesus’s passion the reign and rule of God has come:
“the incarnation of God’s love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for all, including
God’s enemies.”3 Jesus’s passion is literally for you, the source of your story and life.
Follow the procession of the Lord through his passion to the city of God, the rule and
reign of God in the new Jerusalem!
Kent Burreson
Arthur Just, Luke, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 746–748.
Ibid., 923.
Ibid., 933.
The Resurrection of Our Lord • John 20:1–18 • March 27, 2016
Mary Magdalene as Determined Eyewitness
Here we have John’s account of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the report
of Mary Magdalene, and the response of Peter’s and John’s and Mary’s subsequent conversations with the angels and the risen Jesus.
General comments on the text: The text here is anchored in time and space by
many small details. This is not a vision, an allegory, or a dream but a true bodily resurrection. The time is specified: the first day of the week (Sunday), while it was still dark.
The strips of linen and cloth wrapped around Jesus’s head would indicate that a stolen
body was unlikely, and that death could simply not hold Jesus. To me, the cloths are
reminiscent of the passage of scripture, “surely he has borne our griefs and carried our
sorrows.” The time for sorrows is over, the resurrection has come.
The personalities of the various figures also present this as an eyewitness account.
John and Peter respond differently under the circumstances, with John running ahead
and stopping and Peter going straight in. John, as an eyewitness, would have been well
aware of these events. Then there is the steadfast person of Mary Magdalene, who,
unlike the disciples, would not leave and was ready to bury the body of Jesus once
again, quite a task for her. And it is she, the unclean one, who had taken upon herself
the task of seeing to Jesus’s body, a task of uncleanness according to the Jewish law.
And there is Mary’s weeping, her sorrow over not even being able to care for her Lord
in death. The question of the angels prepares her for what is to come. “Woman, why
are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where
they have put him.” Imagine seeing two angels in white. Her grief must have been
intense not to have stood in awe at the sight. Jesus’s question is to the point, “Woman,
why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Mary does not answer the questions,
but rather seeks the body once again. “I’ll take care of it,” her answer cries out, “it’s no
problem.” And Jesus undoes everything with one word. He calls her by name, “Mary.”
In this one word, all of her earthly priorities are undone. She has found the living Lord.
She recognizes him immediately, calling him “teacher.” Jesus’s relationship to her has
changed. He is not dead. He is the risen Lord, full of hope and love. He tells her not
to hold on to him, but to tell “my brothers, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your
Father, to my God and your God.’” Here Jesus makes the ascension an ongoing essential event. And Mary does what others would soon do, she bears witness through the
words of Jesus to the risen Lord.
Law and Gospel
There is not much law here. One could comment on how unimportant people
make the resurrection today, and how it is often not a priority in our own lives. It
would also be possible to speak about why we worship on Sundays, and how we can
celebrate the resurrection on each Sunday of the year. These ideas are not derived from
the text directly, but would provide some handles for discussion.
The gospel is obvious. Here we have Jesus risen from the dead, and here, in his
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
bodily resurrection, we have the answer to the penalty for sin that he paid for on the
cross. The resurrection means that the reign of sin and death is coming to an end and
that this veil of tears is but a passing matter compared to the eternal life we enjoy partially now and will soon enjoy fully with Jesus in heaven.
Two Kinds of Righteousness
Here I would focus on the determination and response of Mary. She will not give
up on the worldly task of burying her Lord and that determination makes her the first
eyewitness to the risen Lord. And having witnessed the Lord, she brings the good news
to the other disciples of Jesus. It is Jesus, who by his words has created and redeemed
this devoted follower, and now he renews her by his gracious words, and her response is
to immediately go out and take the message of her Lord to the other disciples. Having
been renewed by Jesus, we too, bring that great good news to others.
Timothy Dost
Easter 2 • John 20:19–31 • April 3, 2016
The Breath of God
“[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is
withheld” (Jn 20:22–23).
This is not the first time that God breathed on human beings. By breathing on
his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus is in effect re-enacting Genesis
2:7, where “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed
into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The sermon
sketched out here explores the connection between these two verses. How does our
knowledge of the Old Testament background enrich our understanding of John 20?
At first glance, the connection between John 20 and the creation of Adam is
not obvious. After all, the reception of the Spirit in John 20 is focused on the authority to forgive and retain sins. Indeed, in the fifth chief part, Luther’s Small Catechism
uses John 20:22–23 in support of the statement, “The Office of the Keys is that special
authority which Christ has given to his church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not
repent.” In Genesis 2:7, on the other hand, the breath of God gives life to Adam.
This is a puzzling connection because we often think of forgiveness of sins in rather
narrow terms. Forgiveness is about balancing our account with God. We need to be able
to check off every sin with a corresponding absolution so that there is nothing remaining
against us on the last day. But the fact that Jesus evokes the creation account in Genesis 2
when he institutes absolution forces us to reconsider our understanding of forgiveness.
In John 20 Jesus is, in a sense, re-creating the human race through the Holy
Spirit given to the disciples. We should therefore understand forgiveness not only to
balance our accounts, as it were, but to bring us into a new relationship with our creator, who gives us life. Forgiveness is God’s promise that whatever we have done in the
past, he is not going to let that separate us from his love.
The example of a human family may be helpful to illustrate the point. When
children do something wrong, they feel fear because they are “in trouble.” In their
minds, normal family life is suspended because their parents are angry with them. Will
they get an angry lecture? Will privileges be taken away? But most importantly, will
things ever be back to normal? When they hear words of forgiveness, those words are
a promise that family life will continue and they will continue to be welcomed in it.
Children do not run to a ledger and check off the sin. Instead, they relax because they
are comforted by this promise.
In the same way, God’s words of forgiveness assure us that we continue to be
welcome in his family, the newly created human race. Once again the Small Catechism
says it best. In the sixth chief part is the question, “What is the benefit of this eating
and drinking?” Luther says, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and
salvation.” With that in mind, it is not surprising that Jesus would evoke the creation of
life in Genesis 2 when he gives the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins in John 20.
David Maxwell
Easter 3 • John 21:1–14 (15–19) • April 10, 2016
Becoming a Disciple
Two striking contrasts appear in this Easter account of the third appearance or
revelation of the risen Jesus to his disciples (vv. 1–14). Each contrast represents a transition in the story from lack to abundance, from not knowing Jesus to belief in him.
At the center, Jesus appears as the one who, by his speaking, brings about this transition and change in the lives of those who listen to and heed his words. Peter remains
a representative disciple figure in the passage, even though seven disciples are also
mentioned. The extended passage (including vv. 15–19) illuminates how Peter himself
undergoes a transition from an unfaithful disciple who does not know Jesus (cf. Peter’s
denial in Jn 18:15–18, 25–27) to a restored disciple who finally hears his call to feed
the sheep and follow him.
From Lack to Abundance
Simon Peter gets ready to go out fishing, and the disciples who are with him
decide to join him in what turns out to be a failed venture (v. 3: “they caught nothing”). Then Jesus appears to them by the Sea of Tiberias, tells them to “cast the net”
and lack turns into abundance, since “now they were not able to haul it [i.e., the net]
in, because of the quantity of the fish” (vv. 8–9). An empty net turns into a “net full of
fish” for the disciples to drag ashore (v. 8). Peter hauled a net “full of large fish” (v. 11).
At first, we see a bleak picture of these fishermen, failing to supply their need in spite
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
of their best efforts. It is a picture of life without Jesus. When Jesus enters the scene,
and his disciples heed his voice (v. 6), we see these fishermen overwhelmed with God’s
abundant supply. Their nets are filled with food. Jesus makes all the difference.
From Not Knowing Jesus to Belief in Him
When Jesus stood on the shore by the Sea, the writer notes that “the disciples
did not know that it was Jesus” (v. 4). To use a Johannine turn of phrase: The disciples
are in the dark, and they have yet to see the light! (cf. 1:9–13). After Jesus speaks to
them (v. 5: “. . . do you have any fish?”) and they obey his word (v. 6: “Cast the net . .
.”), thereby seeing Jesus’s promise come to fulfillment in the amazing catch, the apostle
John recognized Jesus and tells Peter about it (v. 7: “It is the Lord!”). The light came on
in their minds, as it were, and they now knew Jesus—a picture of belief in the Son, in
whom there is abundant life. When the big catch was about to be pulled ashore, Jesus
speaks to the disciples again, telling them to bring some of the fish and invites them to
have a breakfast with him (vv. 10, 12a). By then, the rest of the disciples figured out
who they were dealing with, so that “none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are
you?’ They knew it was the Lord” (v. 12b). Here we see a transition from disciples who
lack knowledge concerning Jesus to their acknowledgment of him as Lord.
Signs of Life
What to make of these contrasts? In John’s broader narrative, the text invites us
to see in the sea a sign in God’s creation that evokes life in the Spirit. Such life directs us
to listen to the words of the Son, which are “Spirit and life,” so that believing in him we
might have eternal life in his name (cf. Jnh 6:40, 63; 20:31). In John’s symbolic Gospel,
lack of fish in the sea becomes a sign of a life without Jesus (a sign of death, as it were),
and the abundance of fish becomes a sign in creation of the overwhelming fullness of life
in the Son who through his glorification unto death gives us his Spirit (cf. 1:33, 7:37–39,
19:30). Another sign of such life in the Spirit, the life of faith in the Son, is having breakfast with Jesus, which gives us an image of fellowship with him (21:12–15). This picture
of fellowship and friendship reflects the Johannine church, the community of disciples
that gathers around Jesus to confess him as Lord and listen to his life-giving words.
Restoring a Disciple
As the life of Peter reveals, being a disciple of Jesus is tough business. Earlier in
the gospel, after the bread of life discourse, Peter stands as a model of the disciple who
puts his belief in the Son, when others turned their backs on him: “Lord, to whom
shall we go? You have the words of eternal like” (6:68). Later on, Simon Peter, who had
promised to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (13:36–38), denied him three times
as Jesus had foretold, stating that he was not a disciple of Jesus (18:15–18, 25–27). But
then, we see in the appointed text how Jesus transforms this Peter from a disciple who
cannot follow and does not know Jesus to one who confesses him as Lord and receives
his word to “feed my lambs/sheep” (21:15–17) and accompanying invitation to be his
disciple yet again (v. 19b: “Follow me,” cf. v. 22) even unto death (vv. 18–19a). In
language, by hearing the Son’s words and believing in him, Peter has indeed
“passed from death to life” (cf. 5:24). A wonderful image of restoration, which depicts
in Johannine terms the Christian life of daily repentance.
The Journey of a Disciple
The preacher can bring hearers into the story by depicting what the journey of a
disciple of Jesus looks like. It begins with Jesus’s call to follow him, or, to use another
Johannine picture, to be “born of water and the Spirit” (3:5). It is a journey of faith, a
life defined by belief in the Son, and thus by listening to his words of life—especially,
as these are written for us in Scripture (20:31). It is also a difficult and perilous journey,
where one may grow weary in the face of the attacks of the world against one’s belief in
the Son, and even be tempted here and there to deny knowing him as Lord and listening to him (cf. 16:33a: “you will be scattered . . . and will leave me alone”). Yet in the
midst of attacks (v. 33b: “In the world you will have tribulation”), and in spite of their
shortcomings, the Lord continues to gather unfaithful disciples like Peter (and yes, us!)
around himself for fellowship and the hearing of his word. The Lord does not leave us
“orphans,” but sends us the Paraclete to dwell in us in order to defend us from attacks
against our faith in the Son (cf. 14:18) by reminding us of his words (14:26). When we
lack faith, the Lord comes to us, supplies our need, and restores us to fellowship with
him. By his Holy Spirit, the Lord also sends his disciples into the world so that others
may see and believe in him (cf. 20:21–31). For Peter, this means feeding the sheep. The
preacher may paint a picture for the congregation of what such testimony about the
Son might mean today for Jesus’s disciples.
Leopoldo A. Sánchez M.
Easter 4 • John 10:22–30 • April 17, 2016
Our text follows on the popular Good Shepherd text, which speaks of the Son and
the Father’s care for their sheep. No one can snatch them out of their hands. This care
extends even to the point of laying down one’s life for the sake of the sheep (Jn 10:17–18).
This comforting word is followed by dissension among the Jewish leaders as to whether
Jesus is possessed by a demon or not—a seeming non sequitur, except that they no doubt
know he is claiming the Old Testament mantle of shepherd over Israel, and this is what
the Antimessiah/Antichrist would do, placing himself in opposition to God (Dn 7:25;
9:27; 11:36; Is 14:13ff; Ez 28:2,14; 1 Mc 14:14), which is what they believed Jesus was
doing. And so, the question arises as to how much longer he will keep them in the dark
about whether or not he is the Christ (Jn 10:24). The confrontation culminates in Jesus’s
claim that he and the Father are one, which the Jews interpret as the ultimate blasphemy in
“making himself God” (Jn 10:33). Thus, they pick up stones to stone him (Jn 10:31).
John paints a fascinating backdrop for this scene, the annual Feast of Dedication
instituted by Judas Maccabeus. The dedication of the temple and the cleansing of the
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
temple by the priests were both commemorated in this festival. This feast took place
in winter, perhaps descriptive of the chilly reception Christ was receiving at the hands
of the unbelieving Jewish leadership, as well as their dead faith in not recognizing
him as the Messiah. As Augustine notes, “It was winter, and they were chilled because
they were slow to approach the divine fire. For to approach is to believe: the one who
believes approaches; the one who denies, moves away. . . . They had become icy cold to
the sweetness of loving him, and they burned with the desire of doing him an injury.”1
Against this backdrop, the pericope focuses on the election of all who are sheep
in God’s flock. The Father has given the flock to his Son who himself calls his flock
into existence as his sheep hear his voice. The flock is guarded, then, by both Father
and Son—a formidable force against any who would try to steal away the flock from
either the Son or the Father. They are one, not just in solidarity with one another, but
also in essence, in the mystery of the Trinity—an even stronger bond. Both the words
one and are in John 10:30 should be noted for their significance regarding the Son’s
relationship to the Father. Augustine tells us: one delivers you from Arius (i.e., subordinationism); are delivers you from Sabellius (i.e., modalism2). The oneness of the distinct
persons is a core truth of the Christian faith that assures our salvation is secure. This is
the One who has chosen us.
The benefit of this election by our Trinitarian God is nothing short of eternal
life. The whole point of Jesus’s mini-discourse here is that our faith is guarded by no
one less than the eternal Godhead, Father, Son, and also the Spirit (the shy one of the
Trinity who is not mentioned here, but is behind the scenes throughout the gospel).
One’s preaching on election need not get into the mystery of why some are called and
others not. Not only is such a discussion unhelpful; it is unbiblical. The focus should be
on the fact that we are called and kept in the one true faith by the true Shepherd who
lays down his life for his sheep. He knows us and has called us by name.
Joel C. Elowsky
1 Augustine, “Tract on John 48.3” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Joel Elowsky NT
Vol. 4a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 355–56.
2 See Augustine, “Tract on John 36.9.”
Easter 5 • John 16:12–22 • April 24, 2016
This lection from John 16 shows how important it is to first interpret what a text
meant before one can take in hand the question of what it means. These words of Jesus
address his disciples in the upper room the night that he was betrayed, the day before
he was crucified, two and a half days (we might say) before he was forever raised as victor over death. Significant portions of the reading only apply to those who were present
in that original historical context. Note the following:
In verse 18, Jesus says, “With reference to a little [=in a little while] and/even you
will no longer see me, and again with reference to a little [=in a little while] you will
see me.” This refers exclusively to the fact that Jesus will leave the disciples in his being
betrayed, condemned, killed and buried—and then they will see him through his postresurrection appearances. I can think of no way in which these verses apply to me or to
other Christians today.
In a similar vein, in verses 19–22, Jesus responds to the disciples’ confusion over
what he has just said in verse 18. His words about their weeping and mourning, the
world’s rejoicing, and the disciples’ subsequent indestructible joy apply to the sequence
of his death, burial, and resurrection. There is no immediate or direct way to apply
these words to Christian existence today.
I encourage the use of this text, then, first to explain and teach it in its historical
context. I would suggest that even the words of verses 12–15 about the Spirit of truth
and his guiding and speaking applies to the original apostles and not (at least, not in a
direct way) to us today. That is why we confess our faith in one holy Christian/catholic
and apostolic church; the Una Sancta is built upon the unique and unrepeatable foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the only cornerstone (Eph
2:20). To be sure, the texts of Scripture always come to us through the lenses of historical particularity in one way or another. This one, however, especially manifests that hermeneutical reality that preachers and teachers might sometimes forget.
So, what shall a preacher do with these ancient words that meant something to
the apostles, but not to us? We remember, in the first place, that Jesus does have in
mind not only his original disciples, but also those “who will believe in me through
their [i.e., the apostles’] word” (Jn 17:20). A simple thematically driven sermon might
work with a declaration such as “Easter turns sorrow into joy.” In the first part, the sermon would expound on the utter necessity and impact of the first Easter on the original
disciples; this would be more of a didactic approach, even a doctrinal one. If Jesus only
dies, and they don’t see him alive again, then there is no joy, no hope, no gift of the
Holy Spirit to guide the unique apostles into proclaiming the faith that we today will
cherish. If Jesus only dies, then sin and Satan win because death has defeated Jesus just
as it has been defeating people since Genesis 3.
But Jesus does not only die. He lays down his life in order that he may take it up
again (Jn 10). Easter activates and renders powerful the events of Good Friday. And
risen from the dead, Jesus sends the Spirit to the apostles, and guides them into the
truth that becomes the Church’s faith and our faith today.
The second part of the sermon could make valid applications to ways that Easter
turns our sorrow into joy. One would begin, of course, by saying that our situation is
not the same as that of the original disciples. Quickly then, however, the preacher can
declare the good news of Easter, promising the congregation that the same Spirit who
guided the apostles now is at work in the apostolic proclamation. In this Easter gospel
proclamation, the focus (in view of the text) is on the ways that “the world” (Jn 16:8,
20) opposes and hinders and discourages us. The message of Easter is that God’s enemies did not win, and the world will not win. As is always appropriate (and especially
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
in the Easter
season), the promise of Christ’s return in glory and our bodily resurrection would be welcome good news. One might even use a bit of homiletical license and
stress the nearness of Christ’s return: “In a little while—when our own eyes see Christ
return in glory—our joy will be made full, and no one will take our joy away from us.”
Jeff Gibbs
Easter 6 • John 5:1–9 • May 1, 2016
At the beginning of his Gospel, the Apostle John inscribes one of his main
themes: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given
through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:16–17). This pericope
introduces the reader to the large confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders
found in chapters 5 through the end of 11. The contrast between law and grace is one
that the reader should be expecting, and indeed 5:1–9 delivers in some interesting ways.
Many commentators spend copious pages trying to solve the extensive text critical dilemmas in our short nine verses. Theodor Zahn suggests that some of the difficulties may have arisen when the apostle wrote his gospel first to an audience familiar with
Jerusalem, the location of the Sheep Gate, the language of Hebrew, and the tradition
surrounding our text’s location. Later, perhaps other readers less familiar with this background asked John to revise the text with explanatory notes. Zahn can say this because
he judges the variant readings to be quite early.1 Maybe. He more confidently asserts a
few things. First, the festival in verse 1 does not seem to play any obvious role in how
the scene plays out, and so we can safely leave its specificity undecided. Second, Zahn
asserts that the name of the pool was Bethesda, because John makes it clear that the
name was Hebrew and therefore likely was not just a name but also had a greater meaning or significance for setting the scene. Βηθεσδά comes from the Hebrew for house of
grace. Jesus comes into this house of grace but finds it full of the blind, lame, and paralyzed. There may well be people in your congregation who will readily and easily relate
to these people, people broken by the effects of our sinful, fallen world.
Augustine interprets this pericope figuratively when he explains the five colonnades of this area of Jerusalem as symbols of the five books of Moses and the water in
the pool as a symbol for the Jewish people. “That water, then—namely, that people—
was shut in by the five books of Moses, as by five porches. But those books brought
forth the sick, not healed them. For the law convicted, not acquitted sinners.”2 We
need not completely follow his figural interpretation in order to retain the main idea
that these people have not been well-served by the city of Jerusalem nor the Jewish leaders who were already exposed in chapter two’s cleansing of the temple.
But Jesus, the one who brings grace upon grace in John’s Gospel, comes into
this broken place and pours it out. You will help your hearers to focus not only on the
physical healing but also on the man’s greater problem that Jesus fixes. In verse 14,
Jesus makes a suggestive comment to this thirty-eight-year-old paralytic after he heals
him, “See,
you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Jesus
had not only healed the man (which showed Jesus to be the one who created all things
and could therefore renew all things) but also forgave him his sins. What might a true
Bethesda, one in which Jesus’s grace and forgiveness is continually poured out, look like
in the twenty-first century?
Ben Haupt
1 Theodor Zahn, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, Das Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig: Georg
Böhme, 1908), 276–77.
2 Augustine, “Tractate XVII” Post-Nicene Fathers I, vol. 7, ed. Philip Schaff, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson
Publishers, 2004), 111.
Easter 7 • John 17:20–26 • May 8, 2016
Our text is the end of Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer. The rest of this prayer, 17:1–
19, are texts in different years (Pentecost Eve Series A and Easter 7 Series B), so the
preacher may want to familiarize the hearers with the salient parts of the earlier verses:
Jesus’s hour has come to begin his passion. This passion will glorify the Son which will
glorify the Father and bring eternal life to all who believe. Jesus prays for his disciples,
that they will be kept in the Father’s name. Jesus has given them God’s word, and its
truth has made them holy. But the first nineteen verses imply that Jesus is only praying
for his immediate disciples, the ones there at that time. In our text, our Lord makes it
explicit that he is thinking about subsequent generations, including (thankfully) ours.
17:23: teteleiwmenoi eis en, from teleiow, “that they may be perfectly one.” But
teleiow can also mean completed, finished, or fulfilled. In the Revelation 22 text we see
not just the fulfillment in Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection, but the consummation, what will happen at the end for all those whom he has called to be his bride. The
Psalm 133 reading emphasizes this oneness of believers: “How good and pleasant when
brothers dwell in unity.” The Acts 1 text teaches that the apostles, along with Mary and
Jesus’s brothers and the female disciples were all of one accord and devoting themselves
to prayer. Jesus makes the reason for this unity explicit in the last part of v. 23: “that the
world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Possible Sermon Opening: Prayer
Many Christians are finding prayer a simple, less threatening form of sharing
the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. If you have a friend who is not a practicing
Christian, or someone who believes in God but is unaffiliated with organized religion,
and they have a crisis in their life, you can ask, “What can I pray for you about?” Now
some atheists may still react negatively to such a question, but surveys show us that
only about 5 percent of this country have that strong-willed, anti-Christian sentiment.
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
About 95 percent will either think your question is harmless or very much appreciate
your intervention for them before the God that you worship. Any civil, clear-thinking
person will, at a minimum, rationalize and think “Well it can’t hurt to have someone
praying for me, and it just might help. My friend seems to think it helps.” And fellow
Christians, whether or not they are Lutheran, will usually greatly appreciate that you
are desiring to fulfill your duty as one of the priesthood of all believers, to intervene, to
intercede on their behalf with God the Father in heaven. We are taught in James 5:16
to “pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous
person can accomplish much.” James goes on to point out that Elijah prayed, first for
no rain, and it didn’t rain for three-and-a-half years, then he prayed for rain and the sky
poured forth and the earth produced its fruit. In the Acts lesson (1:12–26) the apostles
and other disciples, including the women, and Jesus’s mother and brothers, were devoting themselves to prayer after his ascension.
It is comforting and inviting to others when they know you are praying for them.
How much more comforting and inviting to us is it that Jesus was praying for us, and
still prays and intercedes for us today. The timing of this is critical; he is praying for us
immediately before he goes to the garden and is betrayed by Judas and is arrested by the
soldiers. Jesus knows that he is about to take upon himself the full brunt of human sin
and abuse and torture and shame, yet he does not focus on himself, but prays for us.
He specifically says that it is not just for the apostles “only, but also for those who will
believe in me through their word” (v. 20).
Suggested Outline
1. Jesus intercedes for us in prayer, then and now.
2. Jesus interceded for us directly after this prayer, in his suffering, crucifixion,
and death.
3. Jesus interceded for us by conquering death itself that Sunday morning.
4. His resurrection brought unity among his disciples as they were praying
together (Acts 1).
5. We have the great privilege of continuing that unity and intercession in this
generation, calling others to hear Jesus’s words and praying that they will
know his resurrection is for them.
Rick Marrs
US: Immigration across Theological
Traditions. Edited by M. Daniel Carroll
R. and Leopoldo A. Sánchez M. Eugene,
OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015. 140
Pages. Paper. $19.00.
There is a new urgency for Christians
to use this excellent study tool as a primer
for how to talk to one another principally
about immigration, but other societal
issues also where the church’s voice must
speak to and inform the economic, political, and cultural powers. The preacher
knows that the context of writing the sermon is not necessarily the context it is first
heard in the congregation. We experience
that same reality in the historical context
of this book’s publication. Immigration
reform has been a thorn in our nation’s
collective conscience for many years, bubbling up and then subsiding as each particular crisis settles down and politicians
return home to celebrate their inaction. At
least in the months immediately prior to
Immigrant Neighbors’ publication on Ash
Wednesday of 2015, this work could have
been seen as another fine contribution to
a measured, quiet, scholarly conversation
specifically about immigration.
The specter of the refugee crisis resulting from the civil war in Syria, the images
of hundreds of thousands of people surging through Europe certainly should have
awakened the West to an entire world in
transition; homeless, transient and hungry.
The economic exploitation of refugees
became seared into the world’s consciousness as some seventy bodies were removed
from trucks found abandoned on an
Austrian highway in August. If that were
not enough the current United States presidential campaign provided the backdrop for
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
one of the candidates to inflame populace
fears of the immigrant, hurling epitaphs of
“rapists” and “robbers” to characterize the
Latin immigrant. During the same week in
October when Immigrant became available
for purchase Texas police were able to free
dozens of Mexicans and Central Americans
near death suffocating in a putrid, locked
semi-trailer near San Antonio.
Against these negative events is balanced the positive impetus for immigration reform articulated by Pope Francis
during his visit to the United States, who
affirmed his origins as the son of Italian
immigrants in this new world. This current framework of heightened “immigration conversation” moves the essays of this
small book from quiet scholarly ruminations to direct working principles for discussion and action.
At the same time that the book
focuses on the central theme of immigration, its method of writing from theological starting points hints at a broader range
of themes to be addressed. This single
theme of immigration has relationships
with other challenges. Immigration patterns affect the economy and vice-versa.
Immigration touches the family. Family
concerns motivate immigration. Questions
about sexual preference, marriage for
same-sex couples, abortion, duties to obey
or prioritize perceived unjust laws interact
with our conversations about immigration.
By using theological starting points in its
essays, Immigrant tangentially gives guidance in addressing some of these themes.
The format of Immigrant speaks of
the editors’ desire to teach and engage
readers on different levels. The book is
comprised of six essays by six Hispanic
scholars who have been asked one basic
question; “What starting points that
reflect your theological history could your
denomination bring to the table of immigrant conversation?” Each presentation
is followed by a short list of discussion
questions that help the reader internalize
the challenge. The book has a glossary of
immigration terms plus a helpful chart
that gives bullet point summaries of each
theological tradition. Of particular value
in this short work is an extensive ten-page
bibliography that leads the serious reader
into in-depth studies of Hispanic immigration and theological reflections from
a wide Hispanic-Latino spectrum. It is
particularly heartening to see names from
Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations who have been pioneer voices for
Hispanic American theologies.
Immigrant’s principle contribution
is its clear articulation of starting points
for conversation about immigration from
at least six historic theological traditions.
Each essay is a condensation of much
broader written input.
Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández posits
a Roman Catholic historical approach to
immigration precisely where we would
expect it to originate, namely in papal
encyclicals. These focus on the Holy
Family as archetype of the refugee family,
the principal of solidarity with the exiled,
the preferential option for the poor and
migration as a sign of universality and
hope moving toward ultimate unity.
Leo Sánchez brings classic Lutheran
doctrine to the challenge. We are justified by faith so that we can serve our
neighbor. In defining who is our neighbor Sánchez uses the biblical focus of
two kingdoms. Certainly Luther’s definition of vocation to the broadest and
sometimes most humble areas of human
endeavor gives meaning and dignity to
defining and serving our neighbor.
Rubén Rosario Rodríguez reflects his
Reformed tradition in his essay. Central
to understanding a Reformed approach
to immigration is to meet John Calvin
who, living out of his own experience
as persecuted refugee and immigrant,
articulated an ultimate confidence in a
just social order, the Christian’s duty to
do charity for the poor and to constantly
work toward a political government that
reflects God’s will.
Hugo Magallanes clearly articulates
the Wesleyan insistence on “the method.”
Methodists approach sometimes contradictory views of life’s difficult problems
in accord with the method for discerning
God’s will. This starts with an affirmation
of God’s love as motivation for all social
action. A Christian methodology to immigration would then start from the view
that all people are created in God’s image.
Sammy Alfaro’s depiction of the
varieties of Pentecostal response provide
a refreshing alternative to a sometimes
overly academic approach on the part of
mainline theological systems. Because of
confidence in the Spirit’s action to move
people’s hearts and change situations on a
highly individualist-local basis, it is difficult
to define a systemic articulated position
to immigration in Spirit-filled churches.
Instead, while mainline churches are busy
writing position papers, our Pentecostal
brothers and sisters are in the trenches
addressing individual problems one by one.
M. Daniel Carroll R. writes from an
independent evangelical perspective. He
establishes the loose parameters within
which general independent evangelical identity takes place, and then argues
for an expressly biblical foundation for
immigration action. He notes that the
of the diaspora is an identifying
exile life
quality of God’s people and integration
and adaptation as a goal and expression
of God’s children. One refreshing aspect
of this essay is the encouragement for
adaptation to the new land on the part
of the immigrant based on the biblical
narratives that show God’s people such as
Naomi and Ruth reflectively adapting to
the place where God has placed them.
Immigrant Neighbors among Us certainly speaks of the specific challenges to
Christian churches in the United States
and in general terms throughout the
world awash in people movements. We
should not think, however, that the starting points articulated in these six traditions are limited to the specific challenges
of immigration. Many of the painful
eruptions directly attributed to the need
for immigration reform are a smaller
expression of larger social structures. In
his excellent forward Juan F. Martinez
says that in one succinct paragraph:
Today’s migratory patterns
have a history that was often
created, or exploited, by the
receiving countries. And the
receiving countries often
benefit from maintaining the
status quo. Undoubtedly, it
is not enough for Christians
to seek justice for immigrants. They must also
confront the systems that
benefit from undocumented
migration and the limiting
the rights of migrants.
Immigrant Neighbors among Us is
a model of relevant theological scholarship from different traditions shedding
light on a common critical challenge in
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
an atmosphere of collegiality and trust
in the interest of God-pleasing outcomes
to the benefit of God’s most vulnerable
and needy. Theology in an atmosphere of
cordial respectful exchange of ideas does
not happen often in Lutheran circles.
In the safe environment of comfortable
retreat centers and high-end convention hotels we often find ample ways to
attack, belittle, and demonize those with
whom we disagree as though the church
had the time and luxury to celebrate and
relive past battles. Immigrant Neighbors
is a small contribution to understanding
how the real work of theology can take
place to meaningfully minister to the
“least of these my brothers” today.
Douglas R. Groll
LUTHER’S WORKS, Volume 68:
Sermons on Matthew Chapters 19-24.
Edited by Benjamin T. G. Mayes. Saint
Louis: Concordia Publishing House,
2014. 456 pages. Hardcover. $54.99.
LUTHER’S WORKS, Volume 77:
Church Postil III. Edited by Benjamin
T. G. Mayes and James L. Langebartels.
Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House,
2014. 500 pages. Hardcover. $54.99.
Martin Luther viewed sermons as
God’s tool for continuing his conversation with his people, begun in Eden, pursued by prophets and apostles, and carried on by the proclamation of the biblical message throughout the history of the
church. As such, there is really no such
thing as a single sermon. Each sermon
is part of this continuing conversation
that the Holy Spirit orchestrates through
the pastor of a congregation who knows
his people and addresses their problems
and temptations,
their joys and sorrows.
Thus, it is difficult to repeat or reproduce another preacher’s sermon since
the content must make the connection
within the specific context. Nonetheless,
proclaimers of God’s word have always
found value in observing sermons from
another time and place. Luther’s caution
regarding the use of prepared sermons in
the Small Catechism did not prevent him
from producing model sermons in his
postils and other published sermons as a
kind of continuing education program
for parish priests who wanted to begin to
preach in the Wittenberg way.
Luther commanded the highest
respect from many of his contemporaries
as an effective preacher. Readers of these
two volumes will notice how his sermons
are intertwined as he continues discussing
themes in successive homilies. His sermons also exhibit the boundness to specific time and place that always typifies
the best preaching, but observing how he
brought the timeless message of Scripture
to his particular hearers in Wittenberg is
a profitable exercise, as these two volumes
demonstrate. His preaching gives comfort
to other preachers, who notice in reading
his sermons that even masters of the trade
do not always succeed.
In the absence of his pastor,
Johannes Bugenhagen, Luther began a
series of sermons on the gospel according to Saint Matthew for the Wednesday
service in the Wittenberg town church, of
which the sermons on chapters 19–24 in
this translation were a part. The context
of the time reflects itself in dealing with
the plague that visited Wittenberg in
1539 and in Luther’s preoccupation with
the papacy, in view of rising tensions as
Emperor Charles V was developing his
plans for a colloquy between Evangelicals
and advocates of the old faith that came
to fruition in the colloquy at Worms and
Regensburg 1540–1541.
Luther paid careful attention to
Matthew’s narrative framework but concentrated on applying the texts to his hearers’ lives, delivering the gospel of Christ
“for you” and also offering them plenty
of instruction for living a God-pleasing
life, sometimes with direct condemnation of sin, often with positive admonition. His rich use of a retelling of the
story, sometimes with imaginative detail,
his lively and creative use of simile and
metaphor, his grasp of the realities of the
problems and temptations encountered by
Wittenberg citizens enriched his presentation of historical and linguistic aspects of
the biblical text and his catechetical foundation for application to hearers’ lives.
These same traits can be seen in the
sermons collected and edited by Luther’s
former student and then colleague, Caspar
Cruciger, in the Church Postil of 1544.
Volume 77 of Luther’s Works presents the
sermons from Easter to Pentecost, ranging
over the broad spectrum of topics afforded
in the pericopes of the Easter season and
Pentecost Sunday. The sermons were originally preached over nearly two decades.
Complaints that such works give us more
Cruciger than Luther miss the points that
Luther found his colleague’s rendering of
his message just fine—an improvement
on what he had probably said—and that
Luther found the only value in publishing
his sermons and lectures lay in the propagation of the Wittenberg message, not in
his own words.
Both these volumes provide helpful
annotations, explaining historical circumstances, defining terms, and identifying
figures to whom Luther refers. Although
Luther was probably not referring to the
work of Lawrence of Brindisi, who was
born thirteen years after the reformer’s
death (as suggested in LW 68:295, note
73), the notes are accurate, pertinent, and
informative (one mistake to make the
reviewer grin does not diminish the value
of the notes at all!). Translation is a delicate
art, and every reviewer finds an occasional
phrase over which to stumble. In describing the way in which financing the church
had changed, Luther said, in the translation
of his comment on Matthew 23:34 (LW
68:229), “that which flees is what we pursue,” when, “that which is fleeting” might
convey the sense better. But these translations read smoothly for the most part.
Spot-checking attests to their accuracy.
We do not preach to people with
sixteenth-century Wittenberg problems.
Nonetheless, Luther’s combination of
rehearsing the biblical narrative (sometimes with elaborations in his own storytelling, monologue- or dialogue-creating
style) with catechetical instruction and
expository detail (sometimes not as accurate as it seemed five centuries ago) makes
these two volumes delightful reading that
gives insight into Luther’s person and his
world and also encourages and enriches
the twenty-first-century preacher.
Robert Kolb
Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s
Protector. By Sam Wellman. St Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 2015. 362
pages. Paper. $25.99.
As we approach the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses,
Frederick the Wise would be a useful
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
character for Concordia Publishing House
to place time and energy into, as he falls
within the orbit of Martin Luther. And
so Sam Wellman has done well to wade
into these waters and subdue this topic in
English. Here I encountered a well-crafted
and scholarly presentation of many interesting issues in the life of a monarch, and
one of the most well-received and highly
praised leaders of the time.
Beginning with a who’s who and a
timeline, the book sets forth the family
line of Frederick and his political situation vis-a-vis both his inherited title as
elector and his various political rivals,
particularly his rivals in Ducal Saxony,
and outside forces that sought to invade
and appropriate the Saxon holdings.
While useful, this makes the first part of
the book the hardest to read, but once
through the drier political bits it lightens
up and becomes more penetrable.
Maximillian, the Holy Roman
emperor active during Frederick’s formation as a prince, looms large in the early
part of the book. Here we find both a
bane and blessing in that there is more
information than required to support a
work on Frederick, but it is indeed useful information for anybody interested in
Maximillian. It was Frederick, in his role
as second in command, who, like some
massive bilge pump, kept the reign of
Maximillian afloat. His court eventually
sank under the weight of hubris when
he offended Frederick so greatly that he
effectively cut him loose. This despite the
fact that Frederick was one of the few who
paid in full the Imperial Penny, a kind of
head tax of the day. Although painful, this
marked the liberation of Frederick as well
as providing a disciplined training experience for the now mature prince.
useful area of exploration is the formation of Wittenberg as
a center point of Frederick’s rule. This
white sand dune of a town had been
largely ignored by his predecessors, but
Frederick decided it should be the jewel
of his crown. It was here that he updated
the castle and the church and established
a new university. The elector’s court is
described in lavish detail, and the buildings compared favorably to those of his
rivals. Apparently the elector had no
compunction about impressive hospitality within his walls. I would have liked,
at this point, to see a bit more about his
relations with the people and how he
responded to them with largesse and how
they received it. Instead much time is
devoted to the position of Anna as a kind
of secret wife and Frederick’s offspring,
as well as the intricacies of jousting and
hunting in Frederick’s court (apparently
he had a hunting lodge of pan-European
The industry of relics—and how
Frederick got his hands on so many of
them—is well handled in the book. The
prince was owed many favors after a time
and became more or less a clearing house
of relics for the rest of Europe, garnering a display that sampled the displays
of many other regions. Many relics were
even sent on orders of the papacy, and so
one could eventually go to Wittenberg
and find there portions derived from
many other collections. Wellman spends
a good deal of time on some of the more
counterfeit aspects of many of these relics, but notes that far from being naïve,
Frederick, even if he knew of their late
dates of origin, still believed the piety
they engendered as well as their effect for
raising money for the poor.
Of course the treatment of Martin
Luther’s ascent under Frederick would
be key to this book, and here it shines.
Both Spalatin (Frederick’s chaplain and
spiritual advisor) and Staupitz (Luther’s
advisor) are brought aboard in their
political context. Luther is not really
brought up until well after he’s called to
the university. Here a paragraph specifically on Frederick’s sponsorship of Luther
by payment of his doctoral fees might be
helpful. Luther was, after all, in a certain
sense “Frederick’s Doctor of Theology.”
But much time is spent here on the various ways Frederick was useful to Luther’s
preservation and advancement, and also
the ways in which Luther restrained some
of the more hot-headed elements of the
reform and aided Frederick in his various causes. Eventually Frederick shutters
off his beloved relics in favor of scripture
and the gospel. (A slight irritation here is
the use of original German and French
spellings for names that have been commonly anglicized in other studies, i.e.,
Francois for Francis, Karl for Charles.)
Here we find Frederick supporting the
gospel, protecting Luther while maintaining a species of Catholicism to keep the
emperor at bay, and finally hearing the
gospel in German and receiving communion in both kinds but no unction when
close to death.
I would commend this book as a
useful read to those who wish to know
more about Frederick in himself as well
as his well-known relationship to Luther.
More on his relationship to his subjects
would fill in many gaps, but this book is
clearly well worth consideration.
Timothy P. Dost
CHRISTIANITY: The Thousand-Year
Golden Age of the Church in the Middle
East, Africa, and Asia—and How It
Died. By Philip Jenkins. HarperOne,
2008. 336 pages. Hardcover. $26.99.
ASIA, VOLUME I: Beginnings to 1500.
By Samuel Hugh Moffett. Orbis Books,
2008. 560 pages. Softcover. $40.00.
ASIA, VOLUME II: 1500–1900. By
Samuel Hugh Moffett. Orbis Books,
2007. 768 pages. Softcover. $50.00.
These words are written following the
destruction of eight thousand rare books
and manuscripts in Mosul, the smashing of sculptures from ancient Assyria,
the grinding to dust of historic Christian
churches in Aleppo, the destruction of the
tomb of Jonah, and many other ancient
shrines, churches, and tombs in Iraq. In
addition to the destruction of historical
artifacts, Christians are being systematically tortured and murdered, and many are
being expelled or are fleeing their historic
residences in Syria, Iraq, and other parts
of the world. These events emphasize
the relevance and importance of the historical record contained in Jenkins’s and
Moffett’s books.
Christians in the United States may
not be aware that the Christian church
ever existed in Tashkent, Merv, Kabul,
Basra, Baghdad, Babylon, Mosul, and
Tikrit. As for Western Christian pastors,
how many have been taught the history
of Christianity in Asia, China, India,
Japan, the Middle East, and Africa?
The history Jenkins and Moffett wrote
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
about has been lost to most Western
Christians. But the history of the Eastern
Christians—many who were identified
as Nestorian, Jacobite, Monophysite,
and Coptic—needs to be known in the
Western world.
These three books bring to light the
beginning of Christianity in the East. In
the early days of the church, Christians
brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to
Turks, Uygurs, Soghdians, Assyrians,
Persians, Mongols, Tatars, Indians, and
Tibetans. The gospel spread along the
Silk Road into China. It put down roots
in Africa along the Mediterranean coast
and the Nile River in Egypt, Abyssinia
(Ethiopia), and Nubia. By the year 1000
Asia had seventeen to twenty million
Christians, Africa had another five million, and Europe had twenty-five to
thirty million Christians (Jenkins, 70).
An example of the vitality of the
Church of the East is seen in Timothy’s
leadership. In AD 780 Timothy became
the patriarch of the Church of the East
and led the church until his death in
AD 823. From his home in Seleucia,
Mesopotamia—modern day Iraq—he
supervised nineteen metropolitans and
eighty-five bishops. He oversaw religious
sees in Yemen, Arabia, Iran, Armenia,
Syria, Turkestan, Turkmenistan,
Afghanistan, and on the shores of the
Caspian Sea. Under his leadership the
Church of the East thrived and grew.
There is much for modern Christians
and Muslims to learn from this history. The Church of the East existed in
a multi-religious environment alongside other established religions—Islam,
Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and
animistic and shamanistic religions. For
centuries Christians and Muslims lived
one another, learned from one
another, and exchanged ideas with one
another. The Christian faith was shared
in diverse languages—Syriac, Persian,
Turkish, Chinese, and Soghdian to name
a few. It existed in many different nonWestern cultures. It grew and spread
under numerous types of governmental
systems. The Church of the East possessed a passionate zeal for missions.
Difficulties arose when the church
failed to be part of the culture, or when
it was identified with the culture of
oppressors or invaders. The sack of
Constantinople by Western Christians
during the Crusades illustrates this conflict, and hostility continued as Western
Christianity spread into the Eastern
world. As Moffett writes, a prime difficulty experienced by the church of
the East was that it struggled to be an
indigenous church and for the most part
existed under never-ending “social and
political repression” especially after the
seventh century with Islam’s “complete
dominance of the Middle Eastern heart
and center of the Church of the East”
(Moffett, Vol. 1, 504). The chapters
in Moffett’s and Jenkin’s books which
recount the history of Christianity and
Islam in non-Western parts of the world
to 1500 AD and beyond are important
reading for Christians and Muslims today.
These books not only enlighten the
West about their lost Eastern Christian
history, and restore that history, they also
recount the loss of much of the Christian
faith from the Eastern world. That history has great significance today as the
persecution of remaining Christians especially in the Middle East and Asia is coming close to eliminating Christianity from
many of its historic lands.
The rise of Islam, and the ensuing
conflict between Islam and Christianity,
has given rise to a significant portion of the
intolerance, fear, and distrust that currently
exist between Christians and Muslims.
The term “genocide” was coined
after the massacre of the Christian
Armenians by the Turks in the early
1900s (Jenkins, 140, also 161‒164).
The massacre of millions of Armenian
and Assyrian Christians has been mostly
forgotten due to denial of this genocide. Attempts to offset this continued
denial is reflected in books like Geoffrey
Robertson’s An Inconvenient Genocide:
Who Now Remembers the Armenians? and
Fatma Muge Gocek’s Denial of Violence.
To chart a course to lessen or eschew
violence, Christians and Muslims would
do well to study a number of books written to improve relations between Muslims
and Christians such as Qamar-Ul-Huda’s
Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict
Resolution in Islam and Mohammed AbuNimer’s Nonviolence and Peace Building in
Islam: Theory and Practice. To gain greater
understanding of their Muslim neighbors,
Americans are encouraged to read John L
Esposito and Dalia Mogahed’s book, Who
Speaks for Islam?: What A Billion Muslims
Really Think.
Studying the religious and political history of predominantly Muslim
lands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is necessary so that past
errors are not repeated. This history will
help Christians understand that many
Muslims see ties between what they view
as Western colonial imperialism and
Christianity. Examining this history also
raises two points needing careful examination and study: (1) in predominantly
Islamic countries from the Middle Ages
to the present,
minority religious groups
often grow smaller and disappear through
violence; (2) in the non-Muslim world
a Muslim presence exists with very little
if any violence directed towards it, and
therefore grows and thrives.
Studying the history of Muslim/
Christian interaction before the Middle
Ages provides direction and instruction
for Muslim/Christian relationships. Part
of that direction is seen in the similarities between Islamic practices like fasting,
prostrating prayer, mysticism, pilgrimages
to shrines, and reverence for saints, with
practices of early Eastern Christianity and
Western Christianity (Jenkins, 194‒206).
Moffett’s second volume recounts
the resurgence of Christianity in Asia
especially during the nineteenth century.
Moffett lists five “debatable generalizations from that time.” (1) The nineteenth
century was a great success if the measure
of growth is the number of Christian
adherents. (2) The nineteenth century
was the Protestant century for they were
on a mission to convert the world. (3)
The nineteenth century was an evangelistic century for both Protestants and
Catholics. (4) The nineteenth century
was primarily one of Christian women
in mission; by 1900 Protestant Christian
female missionaries outnumbered male
missionaries. (5) The nineteenth century
Protestant mission was primarily a volunteer society (Moffett, Vol. 2, 635‒643).
The growth of Christianity in some
areas of the world contrasts with diminishing Christianity in other areas. Both of
these books provide springboards for discussing how and why particular religions
survive or disappear. Especially enlightening is Jenkins’s discussion of the survival
of Christianity in parts of the East. Some
Concordia Journal/Winter 2016
incorrectly believe that “the favor of God
is shown by worldly success” (Jenkins,
224). Ultimately only God knows why
the Christian faith thrives in certain
places and wanes in others.
Jenkin’s and Moffett’s books remind
Western Christians that to lose a thousand years of Eastern Christian history is
to lose part of their own religious history
and will lead to grave misunderstanding
about what is happening on the world’s
religious stage today. The Western
church’s rediscovery of that history is
an exercise in the chain of memory to
remember our fellow Christians, especially those who suffer for their faith (Acts
12:11‒12; Heb 10:32‒36; 12:1‒2; 1 Pt
4:13‒16). This regained Christian history discloses the reality that Christianity
is and always has been a world religion
and that it has a long continuous history
outside the West. These books remind
us that the church of Jesus Christ has
experienced opposition since the days of
Jesus (Mt 10:16‒25; 24:9‒11; Jn 7:7;
15:18‒21; 16:33). They also emphasize
the missionary nature of Christianity, and
the fact that Christ came as the Savior
of all sinful human beings. Even though
it doesn’t always look that way, God
reminds us that the gates of hell shall not
prevail against his church (Mt 16:18).
That verse is reflected in Moffett’s words
“Jesus Christ was born in Asia. Some
say that Christianity has failed in Asia.
Not so. The numbers tell us otherwise.
And the mounting chorus of voices from
Asia’s Christians should remind us in
the doubting West that God never fails”
(Moffett, Vol. 2, 849).
Armand J. Boehme
Trinity Lutheran Church
Northfield, Minnesota
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On the cover: Detail from Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich (1818). In a footnote to his article, Robert Rosin sees this work by the German Romanticist as a touchstone for the work of history: “Is the wanderer looking back to reflect on where he has been, or is he peering forward to reconnoiter what seems to lie ahead? Could be both:
history is Janus-like, looking both ways . . .”
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Concordia Journal
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Winter 2016
volume 42 | number 1
Winter 2016
volume 42 | number 1
In Quest of a Historical Angle
Three Myths about the Crusades
Scripture and Tradition in an Evangelical Contex