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Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits… (Part 5)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

By Their Fruits… (Part 5)

My previous posts in this miniseries focused on specific things: my discovery that Christians could believe one thing and act in ways contrary to it, racism I encountered in the LCMS, misogyny I encountered in the LCMS, and homophobia rampant in the LCMS. This post will summarize several other aspects of practice and belief I found within the LCMS that drove me away. It comes from a wide variety of sources, but again, I focus on behavior from people who either were leaders in the LCMS (pastors, professors, teachers) or were studying to become those leaders. These are not stories of random laity, but trained LCMS people. Other examples are specifics about LCMS teachings, whether official or not. [1]

Growing up in LCMS schools, I learned to say not just the pledge of allegiance, but the pledge to the cross. Yes, the pledge to the cross. “I pledge allegiance to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the faith for which it stands, with mercy and grace for all.” We would stand and say the pledge to both flags, which were set up across from each other in classrooms and sanctuaries. It didn’t bother me until I was a young adult that we would say a pledge to both–as if our allegiance to a nation state should be as strong or on the same level as our allegiance to Christ. When I started to raise objections to flags in sanctuaries or unquestioning allegiance to our nation, I was told, basically that that was along the lines of a Jehovah’s Witness and because they were wrong about everything, I shouldn’t agree with them on this topic. That didn’t sit well with me.

It wasn’t until years later, when I read The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh (book review here), that I could better articulate my problems with the integration of nationalism and religion that remains entrenched in many LCMS churches. When I started to express those views, the reaction was almost entirely negative. Flags were in sanctuaries in part, I was told, because of a holdover from when the LCMS shed some of its outward associations with Germany, particularly during WWI[2]. But that didn’t explain why they needed to remain there, or why the pledge to the cross was said alongside the pledge of allegiance. The nation state, I kept pointing out, seemed to be elevated to the same place as allegiance to Christ. The flag in the sanctuary was and is very often next to and on the same level as the so-called Christian flag. The pledges were said in tandem. As a kid, the link between the two was impossible to miss. As an adult, no correctives were offered. Nationalism is frequently conflated with patriotism, just as it is in the general populace. However, reconciling my belief that our allegiance should be to Christ alone with the way allegiance to the nation state is assumed and even pushed within the LCMS became impossible.

Pastors in the LCMS are extremely inconsistent when it comes to practice related to the Lord’s Supper. Many speak with pride about the extreme doctrinal purity the LCMS pushes. In practice, however, maintaining that supposed purity gets complicated. As a kid, I remember not taking communion in other churches. It was because they believed differently from us, and so we weren’t supposed to participate in that. I specifically remember one time before I was “confirmed”[3], I was offered communion at a Methodist church. I was super excited to take it, but (as I recall-it was a young memory) my hand was physically moved from taking the bread or grape juice offered. I remember people being denied communion in our church, and some of them being upset by that. Again, I learned it was because of different beliefs about what communion was. When I got older, I learned that the reasoning behind denying others communion was because we didn’t want people to eat and drink destruction on themselves. This belief was backed by a rather idiosyncratic reading of 1 Corinthians 11:27: “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” This verse was used to justify virtually any reason for not allowing a person to have communion.

While the LCMS has produced documents about who should and should not be allowed to receive communion, from firsthand experience I can say that these documents are entirely ignored or applied whenever the pastor desires (or not). Ultimately, the practice of closed (or, a preferred term: “close”) communion, while given lip service as a way to protect people from grave sin, is wielded by many LCMS pastors as a totally arbitrary way to punish those with whom they disagree. Alternatively, refusing communion to people can enforce a pastor’s doctrinal whims. Indeed, the LCMS website itself renders many decisions to the “individual pastor’s judgment,” such as whether someone with Celiac disease can have communion with gluten-free wafers. Thus, it is entirely possible for there to be LCMS churches in which, because the pastor chooses not to use gluten free wafers, people with Celiac disease are effectively excommunicated not because of different belief but because of a chronic immune disorder.

The decision about whether or not to commune someone was totally arbitrary even in churches in which I found inserts about their beliefs about who could or could not commune in bulletins. One church had such an insert, and it said, essentially, that people who differed about the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine could not receive communion. I remain Lutheran, and affirm real presence to this day. When I was denied communion by the pastor of that same church, he justified it by saying that because I disagreed with the LCMS on other things, I couldn’t really share their belief on real presence, as all beliefs are ultimately tied together. Such a reach for what can or cannot qualify someone based on what is already a tenuous reading of Scripture effectively meant this pastor believed he could exclude anyone from communion for any reason. I told the pastor this, and he just smiled and said he wasn’t changing what he said.

In the LCMS, one of the strongest beliefs I was taught was the need to properly divide law and gospel. C.F.W. Walther, perhaps the single most influential LCMS pastor and leader, wrote a book on the topic. There was no question in my mind that the arbitrariness with which this pastor and others applied closed communion was a key example of mixing gospel (the forgiveness found in the Lord’s Supper) with law (attempts to punish people for disagreement or call out sin therein). This was not the first or only time I’d be denied communion for absurd reasons. Another time, while staying at a friend’s house on a trip, I was denied communion because I didn’t affirm young earth creationism. Indeed, that pastor’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:29 meant that I’d be unworthily receiving the body and blood because I disagreed about how old the planet is. At that stage, I was still a member in good standing within the LCMS and regularly attended an LCMS church, at which I was given communion. In spite of that, I was denied communion at this LCMS church based on the age of the Earth. The practice is, again, entirely arbitrary. LCMS documents and leaders give lip service to how it protects people, but show total disregard for the spiritually abusive way many pastors apply the practice to exclude Christians from participating in Christ’s body and blood.

I could illustrate this time and again with many, many firsthand accounts or accounts shared with me by others. Another Lutheran was denied communion when they were traveling as part of an LCMS choir because they weren’t a young earth creationist. At a different time, the same person was denied communion because they believed women could be pastors. In neither case was this policy stated, nor were others on the same trip queried about their beliefs on those same topics. The only reasonable conclusion is that LCMS pastors are totally arbitrary about when they apply the doctrine of closed communion. This should be seen as a damning indictment of the practice. After all, the LCMS teaches that closed communion is intended to protect people’s souls, or at least protect them from unknowingly participating in sin. If that’s the case, then why would something with such huge import be so subject to inconsistency about its application? And how is it possible that people like me could go to four different LCMS churches and experience 4 totally different practices about communion such that I received it without question in one, after a brief discussion with the pastor in another, and was denied it for totally different reasons in two others? Inconsistency is one of the surest signs of a failing belief or system, and it can be found all over regarding this practice in LCMS churches. The leadership of the LCMS has effectively handed individual pastors a carte blanche to use their office to arbitrarily withhold the Sacrament from parishioners for whatever reason they desire. It’s a recipe for abuse of the system.

In LCMS schools, I was taught to read the Bible. It’s a legacy I keep to this day, and one I hugely appreciate. When I got to college, I finally began learning more about how to read the Bible, not just to read it. The consistency with which the method was applied was impressive, as I found multiple different professors in the theology department (all of whom were pastors) emphasizing points that were, if not the same, then essentially interchangeable. The bedrock belief was that scripture interprets scripture. Another hallmark of the system was talking about the historical grammatical method of interpretation. The historical grammatical method includes attempting to find the original meaning of the text. I found this exciting, because it meant that for the first time, I was reading about history and archeology and seeing what they could teach me regarding the Bible. This was alongside my surging interest in Christian apologetics. I was (and am) fascinated by finding out about idioms in the Bible, or euphemistic language that explained why things were written in the way they were. It was truly an exciting time.

Then, it started to become problematic. The simplistic reading of passages that I grew up with started to make less sense. Some of this coincided with my turning away from young earth creationism. There was a distinct incongruity between what I was learning regarding what the original intent might have been for a passage and what I was supposed to accept it to mean. It culminated in one private discussion with a professor (who, again, was an LCMS pastor) in which I pointed out that it seemed like the Flood story had precursors in the ancient world, and that it seemed to be almost polemical in its intent rather than historical. That is, the Flood story to me read as an intentional reframing of existing stories to teach monotheism and about how God overpowered forces of chaos than it did as a sort of rote historical report. This reading, the professor pointed out, contradicted another aspect of the historical grammatical method, which is that the events depicted in the Bible are actually historical essentially all the way through. I would later learn that this was a distortion of what evangelicals broadly held to be the historical grammatical method, and that would be its own kind of revelatory gain. In the moment, however, I was a bit shocked. I was simply trying to apply the hermeneutic I’d been learning to the texts themselves. Instead, I was being told that I was undermining Scripture as history and, possibly, denying the Bible itself.

When I shared my thoughts with another LCMS pastor, I was told straightforwardly that the way to distinguish someone who believed the Bible or not was to ask them about whether certain passages or books were historical. Thus, this pastor said you should ask whether they believe Jonah was a real person who was truly swallowed by a whale (or, he conceded, maybe a giant fish instead). You should ask whether they believe Adam and Eve were real and whether they were the first and only humans. You should ask whether a snake literally did speak to them. Noah’s Flood was another example. This pastor wasn’t just implying that denial of any of these meant one didn’t believe the Bible, he straightforwardly said it. That meant that my reading had to be rejected out of hand. I was devastated, but for the moment I dropped my investigation of Ancient Near Eastern background for the text. It would take me years to get back into it, and to this day I’m still trying to find resources to learn more.

One thing I’d theorized for a while about the LCMS and other groups that push beliefs that are outside of mainstream science was that once someone starts to disbelieve scientists regarding one thing, it becomes much easier to doubt scientists in other things. I wrote about how, as a child, I learned that scientists weren’t just wrong but were actively lying about things like the age of the Earth. Once you’ve accepted that there is some kind of global scientific conspiracy to cover up something like the age of the Earth, it becomes much easier to accept that same kind of thinking in other areas.

I dove into the question of climate change entirely from the view of one who wanted to deny that it was occurring. Again, from hearing things like Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and other sources, I was convinced it was another example of scientists lying. In college, I continued to read on the topic, watched and listened to several debates, and read some books on either side. What I kept finding is that the numbers couldn’t be thrown out. When I explored the age of the Earth, I kept finding young earth creationists saying things like “We look at the same data, we just interpret it differently.” The same thing seemed to be occurring with climate change. I eventually brought this notion to one of my professors as we talked about what I was hoping to study going forward. We were in his office and I distinctly remember him saying “It’s such a shame that global warming [using the parlance more common at the time] has become a politically charged question. The data is there; it is happening! It’s okay to debate what to do about it, but to deny that it exists is like sticking your head in the sand. It shouldn’t be political.” He went on to talk about a number of other issues he saw as unnecessarily political. It was hugely refreshing to hear, and it helped free me to think about all sorts of topics in different ways. But this put me on the outside of many conversations with LCMS leaders or leaders-in-training, who frequently talked about the lie of global warming. It wouldn’t be a major factor in alienating me from the LCMS, but it would serve as another example of how teaching about scientists all lying in one area made it easier to accept the same elsewhere.[4]

None of these served as overwhelming reasons why I left the LCMS, but united with the reasons from the previous posts, they became a massive case for leaving. Next time, we’ll delve into one more major reason I left the LCMS.

Next: Points of Fracture- Women in the Church

[1] I’ve said before there are many things the LCMS has a de facto position in relation to without explicitly drawing out or spelling it out in doctrines. One of these is the de facto young earth creationism within the LCMS. While they have some documents saying there is no official position, the continued adoption of resolutions effectively teaching YEC makes holding other positions problematic at best and grounds for excommunication for some pastors. I say the latter from my own experience of being denied communion for differing beliefs on the age of the Earth.

[2] There is some of the history of the LCMS’s transition from a German-speaking church to an English-speaking church in Authority Vested by Mary Todd, which has a history of the LCMS.

[3] a broadly used practice in the LCMS to teach children what they supposedly need to know before participating in the Lord’s Supper.

[4] I didn’t include a longer aside about anti-vaccination beliefs in the LCMS. It certainly is not an official position within the LCMS, but I’ve found it to be more common there than in the general population, even before Covid-19. Again, I believe this is linked to a general mistrust of scientists and science. If scientists are liars about one thing, why trust them in others? It genuinely makes me concerned about what might happen in the future if more and more people I know start to refuse vaccines, despite demonstrable evidence that they work.

Links

Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Links Hub– Want to follow the whole series? Here’s a hub post with links to all the posts as well as related topics.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits…. (Part 4)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

For several posts, I have been writing about specific things that came up while I was within the LCMS–that is, at its schools, churches, and university–that made me start to think that the LCMS way of things didn’t align with some aspect of reality, what I learned in the Bible, or something else. Here, I continue a miniseries within that about the fruits of our actions and how they tell about who we really are.

By Their Fruits… (Part 4)

[Content warning: Homophobia across the spectrum and language related to it described.]

Homophobia was absolutely a given among pre-seminary students at my LCMS school. Denial of homophobia was also a given. The trite “well actually” type of discussion often seen online abounded in person. (Eg. people saying, as I heard, “I’m not homophobic, because that would mean I’m afraid of homosexual people.”) Calling things “gay” as a derogatory term was absolutely normal among pre-seminary students. The utter contempt for gay people was clear on a day-to-day basis. It should be noted that we had more than one out of the closet gay man on campus.

I’d lived in Massachusetts for a few years in high school. Before we moved there, I had a conversation with some adults about what it meant for someone to be gay. I genuinely didn’t really understand that the category even existed. Having grown up in LCMS schools and churches, I had actually never heard the topic discussed–or at least, not in a way that left me with any memory of the event. As an avid reader, I probably encountered the occasional gay character, but without the background knowledge to even understand the category, I can’t remember any specific instances of that happening. In other words, I was remarkably ill-educated regarding how people lived their lives. The discussion about gay marriage in Massachusetts before moving there was something like: some men think they love other men and want to marry them, which is obviously wrong, and Massachusetts is so liberal that they let them get married, which is wrong. I could understand the concepts when put so simply.

When I went to high school in Massachusetts, it was a bit of a culture shock. I learned there was such a thing as a “Gay Straight Alliance,” and I actually had to ask classmates what that even meant. I had no idea before moving there that rainbow flags existed or what they meant. One classmate I was friendly with asked me to hang out. I didn’t realize he meant it as a date, and had to awkwardly explain as we were hanging out that I was straight–a category I’d only recently learned about.

I remember in sitting in a prep period in high school in a circle with other students and one of them told us she was a lesbian. I barely even knew the word’s definition. For her to then share her story and her struggles as a lesbian in high school was eye-opening to the nth degree. I was, in a word, stunned. I know this sounds unbelievable, but before these experiences in Massachusetts, I really didn’t even know this was a thing. But the teachers in that high school, many of whom I respected, took gay students as a given and didn’t treat them any differently. I’m writing this from my position as someone who was totally ignorant. These experiences had a profound impact on me as I basically learned from these teachers how to treat others. The experience changed how I thought and acted about gay people.

That would be challenged when I got to my LCMS college and said that I didn’t really see the problem with gay marriage. People from all over corrected me, including phone calls from pastors to explain to me what the Bible said and meant about gay people and why letting them get married was wrong. In no uncertain terms, it was explained to me that it was better to not let them get married because although this would maybe make them sad in this life, it would potentially help prevent the eternal punishment they’d experience in hell. I remember pushing back a little, saying that didn’t make sense because other sins people committed don’t automatically consign them to hell, but the counter was that gay marriage was willful, unrepentant sin and so would lead to hell. I was never fully comfortable with this explanation, but at the time it made me silent about objections. I did not want to be responsible for someone’s eternal soul, after all.

I knew of at least a couple gay men on campus, and wanted to make sure that even if I didn’t necessarily support them fully, that they weren’t totally ostracized. I spoke to a few other pre-seminary students, telling them I thought the homophobic comments and jokes needed to be toned down. One asked me to explain, and I argued that if we really believed it was sinful and could put someone’s eternal life in jeopardy, that we should not potentially put up another barrier to their repentance by being jerks to them. This kind of convoluted reasoning never sat well with me. For years, I dealt with a kind of double life in which I struggled with what I thought was doctrinally correct–that it was sinful–and my ethical senses that the arguments against gay marriage and other ways to exclude LGBT+ people from various societal places and norms were discriminatory at best.

What I did not feel ambiguous about, though, was that everyone sins. One of the most frequently quoted passages of the Bible in my life was Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This verse still remains dear to me. No one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). The fact that everyone was a sinner was perfectly clear. Why, then, did we treat some sinners differently from others?

The contempt for gay men especially was strong among not just men studying to be pastors, but among many pastors as well. There were clear exceptions–one pastor with whom I had quite a lot of interactions wasn’t affirming to my knowledge but also never once condemned gay people of any sort. Those exceptions were just that, though, exceptions. Calling gay men derogatory names was extremely common, and, again, using the word “gay” as an insult was engrained into us. Transgender people were seen as especially sinful–not just because of the Bible passages interpreted to be against homosexuality but also because of prohibitions against cross-dressing (at least, as interpreted by many in the LCMS).[1] Lesbians were barely mentioned as a category, but when they were it was either in order to sexualize lesbians (often with a wink and a nudge) or to shoehorn them into already understood gender norms (women need comfort more than men, so lesbianism could be explained as such), or, when fully confronted, it was something like “If only she’d met a real man” (read: like myself) “she wouldn’t be a lesbian.”

The way so many LCMS future and current leaders spoke so strongly against gay men especially was difficult to reconcile with how they behaved around men they knew were gay. While I cannot speak for the lived experience of gay men on campus, when I saw interactions, it seemed these LCMS leaders-in-training would tone down their language and act almost meekly, as though they were afraid being gay might rub off on them. It sounds absurd, but that’s genuinely the impression I had.

One gay man on campus shared stories with me about how other men in his dorm told him they were concerned they might get AIDs if they washed their clothes in the same washer and dryer as him. Another time, a pre-seminary man accidentally took a drink from his cup and was worried out loud he would get AIDs from taking a sip. The pre-seminary men, he told me, were the people who were worst to him of anyone on campus. These overt examples could certainly be multiplied. The way that pre-seminary men and even LCMS pastors treated and talked about gay people was and is abhorrent. There seems to be more focus on maintaining an insular status quo than in reaching out and trying to love one’s neighbor.

Reflecting on all of this now paints an ugly portrait. While I can accurately say that the rampant homophobia within the LCMS was a factor in driving me away, I can also say that at times I stood on the same side. There’s a sense of belonging in thinking that you stand against “the world” when it comes to morality and ethics, standing strong upon a stance that is perceived as unpopular and may lead to your supposed persecution. I wish I had been better and done more to stand up for people who were often silenced and mocked. I pray that I can do more now. The total lack of love of neighbor was reflected in how LCMS leaders treated and spoke about all non-straight persons. By their fruits…

[1] I don’t want to get into disputes over how to translate passages, but many passages taken to be straightforwardly about transgender people seem to have different implications in the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Bible was written. I’ll talk some about some disharmony between how I was taught to interpret the Bible and how I saw the Bible being interpreted within the LCMS in a later post.

Links

Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Links Hub– Want to follow the whole series? Here’s a hub post with links to all the posts as well as related topics.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Links Hub

Photo by J.W. Wartick. All rights reserved.

I wanted to have a place to collect all the links for my ongoing series of why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in one post. Here, I share those links along with related reads.

Series

Finding My Voice– I wrote about why I wanted to write this series of posts, and why I thought it was time to do so.

A short history of my time in the LCMS– I go over my time in the LCMS and why I believe that makes my voice especially relevant in a critique of the Synod.

Points of Fracture (Part 1)- Science as a child– I begin to draw out the points of fracture I felt with the LCMS, starting with science I learned as a child.

Points of Fracture (Part 2)- Science as a young adult– Debates over science finally came to a head as fractures became faults in my faith.

By Their Fruits… (part 1)– I begin a miniseries that goes over a number of ways in which I discovered things within the LCMS practices that drove me away from that church body.

By Their Fruits… (Part 2)– I discuss the racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia I encountered in the LCMS.

By Their Fruits… (Part 3)– I observed and encountered quite a bit of misogyny in the LCMS, and document some here.

By Their Fruits… (Part 4)– Homophobia is rampant in the LCMS at various levels.

By Their Fruits… (Part 5)– Nationalism, inconsistent practices of close/closed communion, and more are additional problems with LCMS practice.

Related Links

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and Creationism: An Unnecessary Match– I quote from a resolution passed by the LCMS in convention in 2019 and analyze how it’s a problematic view to put forward.

Unchristian Nonsense: A microcosm of what’s wrong in conservative Lutheranism– I look at some of the controversy surrounding the selection of a new President at one of the Concordias (the universities of the LCMS).

“Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod” – A book from James C. Burkee that has me thinking about my former denomination– I take a brief look at an historical exploration of Seminex.

Book Review: “Discovering Biblical Equality” Third Edition edited by Ronald W . Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland

Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical Theological, Cultural, & Practical Perspectives is a massive tome defending the equality of women in the church and home from a Christian standpoint.

The book is organized around 31 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are broken up into four parts: Looking to Scripture: The Biblical Texts; Thinking it Through: Theological and Logical Perspectives; Addressing the Issues: Interpretive and Cultural Perspectives; Living it Out: Practical Applications. There are highlights in each section, and each essays has its own strengths. Linda Belville’s “Women Leaders in the Bible” goes through many names readers might be familiar with, but also dives into details about some of the specifics, such as the background info we can see in the text for the importance of Huldah (p. 73) and some surprising examples readers might be unfamiliar with (74-75). The discussion of both marriage and singleness with regards to mutuality in Ronald W. Pierce and Elizabeth A. Kay’s chapter (“Mutuality in Marriage and Singleness: 1 Corinthians 7:1-40) is refreshing because so often the discussion centers entirely around marriage. The so-called “clobber passages” of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 each get their own passage, as do many other related passages.

Kevin Giles’s chapter on “The Trinity Argument for Women’s Subordination” shows the lengths to which some have gone to try to ground women’s inequality. Jeffrey D. Miller’s chapter on gender accurate Bible translation was fascinating and shows how the issues that are often dismissed regarding translation issues can have real, spiritual implications. Mimi Haddad’s chapter on global perspectives and why gender equality matters helps demonstrate the real-life applications of theology.

The book is the third edition of this collection. I own the second edition, which I read some years ago. I compared the table of contents for the two editions, and there is in the third edition a significant overhaul of the included essays. There are 31 chapters in the new edition vs. 29 in the previous one. Several chapters have been entirely replaced, and several new topics are introduced in the third edition. For example a chapter on “Gender Equality and Homosexuality” by William J. Webb in the second edition appears to have been replaced by “Biblical Equality and Same-Sex Marriage” by Ronald W. Pierce in this third edition. The third edition also addresses race and gender, a topic that I don’t recall or see a chapter dedicated to in the second edition. In other words, readers interested in knowing whether it’s worth re-purchasing should rest assured that it very much is. This new edition has a huge amount of new content. I cannot comment on whether essays that appear in each are revised in any way from the original.

The chapter on “Biblical Equality and Same-Sex Marriage” is written by Piece, who is non-affirming in his stance on same-sex marriage. The thrust of the chapter seems to be that one can be a fully committed egalitarian while not affirming same-sex marriage. Such a topic is certainly of interest to the many people who are caught in the middle on these issues. For my part, I’d have liked to see another chapter from an affirming perspective, though I wonder if it wasn’t included because that’s a less controversial pairing. The chapter on race and gender is fascinating and shows how these topics often intersect and overlap.

Discovering Biblical Equality is unquestionably the standard text for those wishing to explore the basics of egalitarian theology on a scholarly level that remains accessible. Every chapter has something to add to the discussion. The depth and breadth of some of the chapters is truly remarkable. I recommend it extremely highly as among the best books on the topic.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

All Links to Amazon are Affiliates links

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “A Short History of Christian Zionism” by Donald M. Lewis

Christian Zionism is a major force in today’s political landscape. It’s especially powerful in the United States, but it’s also a global force. Donald M. Lewis’s A Short History of Christian Zionism gives readers a background for understanding what Christian Zionism is, where and when it came from, and how it impacts us to this day.

The book specifically deals with the time period from the Reformation to the modern day. Chapters cover a huge range of topics, largely in chronological order. First, Lewis’s helpful introduction deals with the competing definitions of Zionism and related terms. Ultimately, he settles upon this as a definition for Christian Zionism: it is “a Christian movement which holds to the belief that the Jewish people have a biblically mandated claim to their ancient homeland in the Middle East” (3, emphasis removed). Lewis notes how Christian Zionism has played a part in identity formation, especially for those in the dispensationalist movement. From there, Lewis moves into tracing the history of the movement itself. The first chapter does give a brief history from the Early Church to the Reformation, after which several chapters deal with different strands of Zionism emerging from various links to the Reformation. From there, links are forged showing Christian Zionism in American Puritanism, 19th Century British Evangelicalism, and how prominent a role the British Empire played in establishing some of the groundwork for later Zionist movements. The vision of World War I and II as vindications for Premillennialism and the correlating rise of Premillennial Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism presents a fascinating case study in the tenth chapter, and multiple developments in Palestine and global revivalist and Zionist activities form out the rest of the book.

Each chapter is filled with enlightening information. I was especially surprised to learn about the Balfour Declaration, a 1917 document in which the British Government publicly declared its support for a “national home of the Jewish people.” This, despite it being opposed by or ignored by many Jews of the time. The chapters outlining the rise of Christian Zionism in the British Empire laying the groundwork for this Declaration and how that declaration impacted later Zionism were absolutely fascinating.

Insights like those are present in virtually every chapter. The early is often cited by modern Zionists to support their reading of Scripture, but Lewis shows how many in the early church were largely ambivalent to ideas that would later form the basis for Christian Zionism. Lewis also is consistently even-keeled in his evaluation of Christian Zionism, rarely offering direct critique or support for any specific aspects of Christian Zionism. It makes the book invaluable as a reference work with little to bother readers about how it reports the historical information.

A Short History of Christian Zionism is a commendably fair evaluation of the Christian Zionist movement. Any readers remotely interested in the topic would be well-served to pick up and read a copy of this fine historical overview.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

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SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

A Dilemma for Bonhoeffer’s Martyrdom? – Conflicting views of Bonhoeffer as Martyr

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is widely viewed as a martyr, a view that has only become more prevalent as popular-level interpretations of his life circulate broadly. Though it may seem fairly straightforward to claim Bonhoeffer as martyr, there are a number of potential stumbling blocks when it comes to the specifics of this claim. Broadly, Bonhoeffer as martyr makes a kind of intuitive sense if one views him as being killed by the Nazis for religious reasons. However, once one begins to examines his life and the reasoning behind viewing his death as a martyrdom, it becomes more complicated.

Petra Brown has argued against Bonhoeffer’s status from a number of directions in her work, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception. The first way she argued against this status is that she believes viewing his activity as worthy of martyrdom leads to a number of dangerous outcomes (I examine this and related claims at length in my review of the book). The second claim is a more direct challenge: that naming Bonhoeffer as martyr is problematic because it is difficult to locate him within a realm of standard martyrdom accounts. More clearly, she argues that seeing Bonhoeffer as a martyr is a challenge because of the very reasons he may be considered as such.

Again, the first thrust of Brown’s argument fails, I believe, because taking Bonhoeffer in his own context and with his own theology undercuts her point. Though her point could be modified to an argument that Bonhoeffer’s theology may be dangerous when wrongly interpreted, this same point could be true of nearly any ethical or theological system. My arguments to this effect can be found elsewhere. Here, her second argument is worth drawing out. Brown pushes that Bonhoeffer as martyr leads to a somewhat unique dilemma, quoting at length (some formats of this site don’t show block quotes, so my quote from her will be in quotation marks instead of a standard block quote format):

“On the one hand, if Bonhoeffer is admirable because he exhibits qualities praiseworthy of a religious martyr in his decision to conspire [against Hitler in a plot to assassinate him], then… [this] provides an example of martyrs who are willing to kill in the name of religion for political causes. On the other hand, if the theological and religious justifications for Bonhoeffer’s political actions are avoided, and he is judged admirable because he embodied the cultural values that shaped Western civilisation, where civilised sensibilities, education, and reason led him to make a rational choice in the face of an irrational regime that usurped power, then he is a political martyr… There spans a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Bonhoeffer as martyr, who died as the result of faithful witness to Christ, and Bonhoeffer as political conspirator, who participated in an assassination attempt.” (Petra Brown, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception, Kindle location 302-313.)

My first set of ellipses there cuts out her reference to Craig J. Slane’s work, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment. Brown is attempting to show that, on Slane’s own attempt to portray Bonhoeffer as martyr, there are a number of problems. I believe, however, that Slane’s work does a better job answering some of Brown’s charges than it may appear. Additionally, there are other avenues the defender of the thesis of “Bonhoeffer as martyr” could utilize to avoid the horns of her dilemma. None of this is to say, however, that it is possible that viewing Bonhoeffer as martyr may be problematic. Again, this goes back to my critique of Brown’s primary point. It does seem clear that a misreading of Bonhoeffer or an intentional distortion of his reasoning could lead to disastrous and even violent outcomes. That alone is enough to urge caution to the Bonhoeffer scholar or fan.

Brown’s charges are a significant challenge. There are a few ways that immediately come up in avoiding them, however. One is to embrace a horn of the dilemma. For example, one may say that yes, Bonhoeffer may be viewed as a political martyr, and what is the issue with that? Indeed, Brown’s only apparent problem with that is that there are others just as (or more) deserving of being labeled a “martyr” for political resistance to the Nazi state as Bonhoeffer was. But that doesn’t constitute a problem for the Bonhoeffer proponent. The Bonhoeffer proponent could then move on to say that they still highly value and appreciate his theology and ethical system without falling into the apparent challenge of the first horn of Brown’s dilemma. However, it seems likely that most who wish to label Bonhoeffer as martyr would do so at least on some level for religio-theological reasons. Clearly, those reasons are what Slane has in mind in his monograph-length defense of that very idea.

Another way around Brown’s dilemma is to point out the first horn of her dilemma appears problematic itself. Bonhoeffer’s death as martyr is not, one may argue, an example of someone willing to “kill in the name of religion for political causes,” but rather is any number of alternatives. Those who use Bonhoeffer’s example to kill religiously for politics would then be distorting Bonhoeffer rather than following his example. Rather than elucidating this alternatives, readers could turn to Slane’s work for some of these examples, and certainly to broader Bonhoeffer scholarship for additional reasons.

Bonhoeffer as Martyr from Slane is at least part of Brown’s focus for her arguments and is quoted and responded to throughout her work. Slane’s own argument, however, is worth examining as I believe that it provides a strong reason to continue to see Bonhoeffer as martyr and shows that it is a misreading of Bonhoeffer to make him problematic in the ways Brown argues. Briefly, Slane surveys a number of Christian conceptualizations of martyrdom, looks at specific examples of Christians widely regarded as martyrs, and then utilizes a filter of a number of categories martyrs often fulfill to show that Bonhoeffer meets the common criteria. Some of these avenues are especially interesting, such as Slane’s deeper examination of Bonhoeffer and specific action related to Jews (see esp. chapter 6). Slane also notes the several streams of thought that see Bonhoeffer as primarily a political martyr (eg. 32).

However, when Bonhoeffer’s life is examined against a kind of standardized list of traits of martyrdom, it stacks up surprisingly well for theological-ethical martyrdom as opposed to merely political martyrdom. And this is, in part, because Slane highlights the reasons for Bonhoeffer’s death as less related to the plot to kill Hitler as it was to his work in the Abwehr with espionage, communication, and at least one instance of getting Jews out of Germany. This point also undercuts some of the thrust of Brown’s argument about politicized religious violence because if Bonhoeffer was martyred for non-violent action, it hardly justifies violent action. A deeper look at the specific reasons for Bonhoeffer’s murder by the Nazis is beyond what I’m doing here, but to my knowledge Slane is closer to accurate here.

Slane links Bonhoeffer’s theological-ethical-political acts with what he calls a “‘Formal Pattern’ of Jewish-Christian Martyrdom” (76ff). While the list of this formal pattern includes 24 points, Slane notes very few, if any, martyrs fulfill them all. What’s meant instead is a broad linking of this pattern to the martyr, and Bonhoeffer meets many of these criteria. Slane notes Bonhoeffer has a kind of foreknowledge of death (78ff), refuses to flee (80ff), refuses to retract (82), increases offense by repetition (here regarding Bonhoeffer’s continued illegal teaching as well as aiding and abetting Jews, see 82-83), comforts his disciples (83ff), pronounces his fate just (84-85), has strength, even gladness of soul (85-86), has last words, proclamation of immortality, and a death of a tyrant (86). Alongside all of this, Slane notes Bonhoeffer’s own theology is itself constructed in such a way as to leave open the possibility of martyrdom (87ff, but see especially 153-156 as well for a deeper look at this unity of thought).

The case for Bonhoeffer as martyr, specifically of the religious-theological-ethical variety, seems especially strong. Slane’s argument is sound, I believe, and it also pre-emptively answers some of Brown’s points despite the latter explicitly working after and even against Slane’s work. The dilemma Brown presents has several answers, but perhaps the most forceful is that Bonhoeffer’s resistance and martyrdom itself obviates against the utilization of his ethics in the very way she charges–individual violent acts apart from any kind of responsibility. Indeed, though Slane only briefly hints at this, broader Bonhoeffer scholarship (such as Christine Schliesser’s excellent Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty) provides means to see Bonhoeffer’s radical “state of exception” as being grounded very solidly in a Lutheran view of guilt, corporate responsibility, and certainly within his own project of seeing the church-community as central to any ethical act.

Brown’s Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception continues to prod at the edges of my thoughts about Bonhoeffer. It’s a powerful critique of wholesale acceptance of Bonhoeffer’s legacy. I believe it deserves wide reading and interaction from Bonhoeffer scholars. Slane’s Bonhoeffer as Martyr was written before it, and is critiqued by Brown, but I still believe it provides a solid foundation for viewing Bonhoeffer as martyr, especially when answering some of Brown’s charges as above.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer– read all my posts related to Bonhoeffer and his theology.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Spiritual Practices of Jesus: Learning Simplicity, Humility, and Prayer with Luke’s Earliest Readers” by Catherine J. Wright

It is rare to read a book that is not just insightful, but also formative and challenging. Catherine J. Wright’s Spiritual Practices of Jesus: Learning Simplicity, Humility, and Prayer with Luke’s Earliest Readers is one such book. Each part of the subtitle is deeply important to the contents of the book. Wright introduces readers to a number of early readers of the Gospel of Luke and provides their insights into how to read the texts. These insights often challenge modern readings and spiritualization of the text.

Each section–on Simplicity, Humility, and Prayer–features a chapter that highlights how the early church read the Gospel of Luke on these issues. That means readers will see how Augustine, Chrysostom, and many others read Luke on questions related to those topics. It’s deeply important to read about that, because those early readers have a different cultural context than we do. Their readings can therefore offer correctives that highlight the importance of the texts in ways that we may not think of otherwise.

The sections start with a chapter in which Wright goes through Luke highlighting where verses or stories reflect the theme at hand. For example, in the section on simplicity, Wright shows how frequently Jesus speaks about giving to the poor and highlights the plight of the poor and the difficulties and sinfulness in wealth. Pairing this with the second chapter in the section on how the early church read these verses shows how many modern readings that try to spiritualize these texts do not align with both the earliest readings and probably the intended meaning of the text. A second chapter in each section highlights the first-century context of the passages and how understanding the challenges of that time can lead to correcting our readings of the text as well.

Some of the content with simplicity has been highlighted, but each section has numerous parts worth interacting with. Whether it’s the challenge to live humble lives or how to read Jesus’s prayers and pray ourselves, Wright constantly brings applicable insights to the table throughout the book.

Wright’s Spiritual Practices of Jesus is a phenomenal read that could even change how readers live their lives. By reading the early church on Jesus, readers are exposed to challenges to our own culture that can cause use to rethink our reading of the text and the ways we live. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context”

Christianity is a global religion, yet many discussions of theology are dominated by American or European voices. In Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context, the editors Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo seek to provide a partial remedy to this problem.

The Majority World is sometimes called the Global South. It’s the part of Earth in which the majority of humans reside and includes Africa, Asia, and Latin America, among other places. The editors have focused on giving theologians from these places voices addressing several major topics in theology. The book is organized around six parts with multiple essays in each part. These parts are: The Trinity Among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World, Jesus Without Borders: Christology in the Majority World, The Spirit Over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World, So Great a Salvation: Soteriology in the Majority World, The Church from Every Tribe and Tongue: Ecclesiology in the Majority World, and All Things New: Eschatology in the Majority World.

The essays are each of interest. This reader read the book front-to-back, but it is clear that it could be read in parts, used for classes with individual essays, or in any number of other ways. One thing that readers ought to keep in mind is that each of these essays is just that–a single essay introducing one perspective on a huge topic. Thus, for example, the fascinating essay “The Trinity in Africa: Trends and Trajectories” by Samuel Waje Kunhiyop shows readers some ways in which African theologians are exploring the doctrine of the Trinity. Readers should not come away thinking that these are the only trends or that all African theologians are thinking along these lines. That said, Kunhiyop brings readers to engage with numerous lines of African theology. Each of the essays included in this collection is like that: it provides a way forward for additional exploration.

One example of an essay that provides many avenues for additional reading is “Asian Reformulations of the Trinity: An Evaluation” by Natee Tanchanpongs. Tanchanpongs Highlights several Asian theologians and the way they have discussed or reformulated the doctrine of the Trinity within their own contexts. It’s a fascinating read and one that allows Tanchanpongs to analyze numerous ways to take the Trinity in exploratory theology.

Majority World Theology is an excellent introduction to global theology. Readers can treat it as a reference book, read it front-to-back, or sample as they see fit. Most importantly, readers will be exposed to global perspectives on Christianity that they otherwise may not have ever experienced.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach” by Bruce Riley Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew

A systematic doctrine of creation is the core of Bruce Riley Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew’s The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach. The subtitle begs questions about what is meant by this specific doctrine of creation. First, the authors follow the theology of Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Reformed theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Second, the notion of being “constructive” means the doctrine builds upon itself, layer upon layer, making a truly systematic approach.

The authors pursue a broad approach, first discussing the historic Christian Creeds and their place in a construction of a doctrine of creation, then moving on to a broad historical overview of the doctrine itself. Next, they turn to God’s omnipotence and its bearing on creation, then move through biblical and theological discussion of creation to show a specific view of how Creation occurred and what relevance it has for today. Providence–God’s sustaining of the world–is a subject of its own chapter, followed by a chapter about Christ and the Holy Spirit in the New Creation, and the book ends with a application of the doctrine of creation to a few modern topics. There is a short appendix about missional neo-Calvinism at the end.

The way Ashford and Bartholomew build the doctrine of creation is infused with insight from Kuyper throughout, though it’s clear that calling it “Kuyperian” is more to designate it as along the Newo-Calvinist tradition than specifically or robotically following Kuyper. I am by no means an expert in Kuyper’s theology. My comment to this effect is based upon the extensive use of more modern citations as well as more generalized theological strands than simply adherence to Kuyper. Much as a Lutheran might call their approach Lutheran without explicitly following Luther in every regard, the authors are doing the same here.

It was interesting to see the first chapter begin with a discussion of the historic Christian Creeds and a defense of their use in helping construct a doctrine of creation. The book’s audience is clearly intended to be broader than Dutch Reformed readers, and this was perhaps included to show the authors have done their legwork regarding why we should see the Creeds as important to faith formation and theology today. As a Lutheran myself, it is just a given that the Creeds are of great import, and it was most interesting to see the authors engaging in such an extended defense of their use. Speaking of the book’s audience–this book is one that will largely yield fruits based on two things: the effort the reader puts into understanding and following the systemic theology therein; and one’s own theological biases. For example, the author’s discussion of the creation accounts (yes, the “s” is intentional) in Genesis was of great interest to this reader, but others might be inclined to see the accounts as a unified whole. More specifically on the doctrines of providence, omnipotence, and elsewhere, the authors’ Neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian view looms large and so will challenge readers who hold other positions.

I was somewhat surprised to see the focus in the chapter about God’s omnipotence to be so specifically focused on God the Father. Indeed, the chapter itself, following the language of the Apostle’s Creed, is titled “God, the Father Almighty.” But one gets a sense within the chapter that the other members of the Trinity are almost afterthoughts in this aspect of the doctrine of Creation. This is most clear when the authors use language that seems almost a concession in describing the role of the other divine Persons: “we know that the Son and the Spirit are also involved in the act of creation” (140). However, those Persons get little say until a later chapter discusses the New Creation (306ff). Many modern controversies are discussed, with views of omniscience and providence being at the center of a section about creatio continua (continued creation). Here, the authors wrestle with authors within their own tradition (eg. Barth’s resistance to philosophy p. 290-292 and elsewhere) as well as others like Molinists with competing views (they argue for an Augustinian view against the Molinist position, see p. 293-294, but also the discussion on 126).

Numerous intriguing insets are found throughout the text, such as an extended discussion of creation out of nothing (133-137) that includes some discussion of ancient Near Eastern literature. However, the authors focus much more upon Christian tradition and writings than on any attempt to understand the contemporary culture or meanings inherent in the text from an ANE perspective. Many other insets highlight important topics relevant to the issues at hand and present readers with more extensive looks at the authors’ arguments.

I was quite surprised in the final chapter to see the author’s application of their systematic theology to contemporary issues. I wasn’t surprised to see that application made–surely if a Christian doctrine of creation is true, it ought to be able to speak to many modern problems–but rather with the seeming lack of care given in this section to sources and argumentation. Specifically, the authors turn to the question of transgender individuals. They make a distinction between gender dysphoria and “transgender ideology” (360) and assert that “we must recognize transgenderism as deeply incoherent” (ibid). Beyond that, they agree with another writer that “it is a gnostic denigration of the material body that nonetheless insists that a trans person must transform his or her body in order to be whole…” among other things. Here we see the ugly aphorism that “If I don’t like a theological position, it must be Gnosticism” rearing its ugly head.

Beyond the utter historical nonsense that is the equivocation of modern transgender ideology to ancient Gnosticism without anything more than bald assertion, the authors themselves produce the very type of incoherent argument they accuse their interlocutors of performing. First, their definition of “transgender ideology” as the belief that “a person can be born into the body of the wrong sex and can be transformed into the other sex through gender reassignment surgery and/or hormone therapy” (ibid). This definition may reflect the beliefs of some people, but surely not a broad enough consensus as to lump all who go beyond mere acknowledgement of gender dysphoria into this category. Moreover, the authors themselves seem to totally miss one of the central aspects of an understanding of gender dysphoria–something they at least seem to acknowledge as a real difficulty–as they move quite swiftly from discussion of “sex” to discussion of gender. Just one page after their definition, they continue: “A person should not, and indeed cannot, change his or her gender” (361). This seems utterly confused, because the language they’re using reflects objectivity of gender standards which simply cannot be the case given how frequently throughout history those expectations have changed. Men in Elizabethan England were expected to wear ruffles and stockings, so according to these authors’ confused understanding, men today are either sinfully attempting to change their gender by not doing so, or the whole of societal expectations in that era and place were themselves mistaken and indeed impossible (referring to the language of “cannot”). Given the deep misunderstandings of the basic tenets and talking points of modern discussions of transgender topics (something I myself do not claim any expertise in), it seems the authors may have been better served if they’d let the topic lie instead of attempting a triumphant broadside that dissolves into silliness on the most superficial examination.

It is clear that readers of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach will be challenged on many levels as they read the book. It is an impressive look at what it means to build a doctrine of creation within a specific theological tradition. There are some stumbles throughout the book, but readers–especially those interested in Reformed doctrine–will find much of interest. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend some of the discussion of modern topics.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation” by Joel Looper

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in America has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. It is clear it had enormous impact on his theology, but what hasn’t been as clear is exactly what kind of impact it may have had. Joel Looper’s phenomenal, challenging work, Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation not only seeks to answer definitively what kind of impact Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States had on the man and his theology, but also shows how extremely timely Bonhoeffer’s words and warnings about American theology can be for us today.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “What Bonhoeffer Saw in America,” is Looper’s deep narration of Bonhoeffer’s life in America. Here, Looper delves deeply into Bonhoeffer’s coursework at Union Theological Seminary, who he interacted with, and what he himself reports about the situation with American theology. This part lays the foundation for the rest of the book. Here, Looper’s depth of knowledge and exploration of Bonhoeffer’s theology is on full display. It’s not just a report of Bonhoeffer’s time and words, but also an analysis that helps elucidate themes in Bonhoeffer’s writing from this time period that make much more clear what his issues were with American theology. Much of Bonhoeffer’s writing from his time in America is difficult to understand or comprehend without significant knowledge of contemporary issues, and Looper does an admirable job filling in those gaps, showing readers the background for understanding many of Bonhoeffer’s critiques. For example, some have utilized Bonhoeffer’s hard critiques of the social gospel to attempt to decry modern movements for social justice. However, Looper demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s critique of the social gospel is not because it seeks to bring justice, but rather because it displaces the very gospel itself–that is, it doesn’t center revelation in Christ in the Christian message (see, for example pages 41, 46, and especially 48-49). The problem is not the ultimate efforts to feed the poor, stand with the oppressed, &c. The problem is, rather, the starting point of theology and its abandonment of revelation as the ultimate grounds.

The second part of the book focuses on Bonhoeffer’s analysis of American Protestantism specifically. American theology, as read by Bonhoeffer, had a primary problem in that it was “Protestantism without Reformation.” The meaning of this phrase is complex, but Looper notes that for Bonhoeffer, it can be traced back to Wycliffe and the Lollards. This sounds like an obscure point, but Looper, making Bonhoeffer’s own arguments clearer, shows how and why one might take this to be the case, particularly in the circles in which Bonhoeffer ran. It is clear, of course, that Bonhoeffer was not exposed to all of American theology, but what he saw ran in this vein, and the more conservative branches of theology he encountered were, in his opinion, little more than the most blunt and un-nuanced attempts to enforce orthodoxy. The Protestantism of the United States is so influenced by the strands Bonhoeffer mentioned that even Jonathan Edwards, cited by many as one of the greatest theologians America as produced, doesn’t even mention the church in his discussion of what one needs to be saved (75-76). American churches gave up any kind of confessional standard, only enforcing them after splitting again and again, and, in doing so, abandoned the Christian confession (86). American Protestants, for Bonhoeffer, no longer had something against which to protest, because they had severed themselves so distantly from the one true, holy, catholic church (86-87).

Even more damning is Bonhoeffer’s analysis of secularization in America. The pluralism enforced in America led to a kind of secularization of the church and idolization of the individual to the point that the allegiance was given to the nation state rather than to the church and God (102-103). This can be traced, again, to English dissenters who formed the backbone of colonial America. The secularization of the church is not due to some outside force acting upon it, but rather due to the church itself abandoning the word and being, again, a Protestantism without any kind of Reformation. In America, rather than having state churches, secularization came into play precisely because of the focus on freedom and independence–the church then becomes a mouthpiece for the alleged freedom the state provides (106-107).

Bonhoeffer’s own oft-misunderstood theology of the two kingdoms is, according to Looper, central to his understanding of the Gospel as well. Here is where Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism is so central to his understanding of the problems with American theology and beyond. The call for “thy kingdom come” must include both church and state precisely because of the two kingdoms theology–the church and state are both necessary and linked to one another (113-114). Thus, the famous phrase from Bonhoeffer about “seizing the wheel” is not actually revolutionary but rather counter-revolutionary. Bonhoeffer saw the Nazis as the revolutionaries, and such an understanding fits well within the Two Kingdoms theology Bonhoeffer so ardently supported.

The third part of the book centers around objections to both Bonhoeffer’s view of the American church and objections that seek to counter this narrative. For example, much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s largely positive analysis of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Looper doesn’t downplay this positive theme in Bonhoeffer’s analysis of America, but he does contextualize it. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was, to our knowledge, the only African American church he encountered in the United States apart from perhaps one or two Sundays in the American south (131). Bonhoeffer has threads that sound like W.E.B. Du Bois in some of his analysis of the American situation, such as when he talks about what is “hidden behind the veil of words in the American constitution saying ‘all men are created free and equal'” (136). It’s clear this had a positive and even eye-opening impact on Bonhoeffer, and traces of this can be found in his theology. Bonhoeffer’s own discussion of Jews in Germany, such as in his “The Church and the Jewish Question” may have been somewhat influenced here. Looper analyzes Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the Jewish people and shows how, while at times it is couched in problematic language, it demonstrates a deeper understanding and concern than one could credit him merely given his background or upbringing. (The whole section on this is a fascinating read, showing clear analysis that’s well-worth reading. See p. 141-146 in particular.) Bonhoeffer’s theology, however, remained firmly German Lutheran, and his own life-risking efforts in behalf of the Jews were not traceable to some kind of vague Western morality of “equality of all” but rather, Looper asserts, clearly based upon his Christology (150). Thus, Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian church demonstrates a caveat in his analysis of American theology. Rather than a total rejection of all American theology, Bonhoeffer’s words ought to be seen directed exactly as they were, against the overwhelmingly popular academic streams of thought in contemporary American theology.

Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and his now famous Letters and Papers from Prison have led some to argue that he changed his views profoundly while in prison. Looper instead notes that his late-stage theology has continuity with that of his earlier life.

Looper’s work serves as a powerful challenge to many theologies of today. For those adhering to modern forms of the social gospel, Bonhoeffer’s warnings and critiques of that movement from his own time continue to apply: are these movements removing Christ from the center? For progressive Christians, Bonhoeffer’s critique of the social gospel can loom large–“Do such [progressive] theologies tend to respond to the critique of the word [revelation, Scripture] and think critically about their subjects in its wake? Or, rather, do they often begin with the (oppressed) self and work from the experience of that self and the non-ecclesial community with which it identifies? If the latter, are these theologies then only variants of ‘religious’ logic…?” (197-198). For conservatives, especially American evangelicals, Looper notes that the constant efforts to try to maintain a “seat at the table” in the larger world and their defense of their institutions, even to the point of, as many have said, voting while “holding their nose” for someone who, ethically, cannot be defended, would have been seen by Bonhoeffer as “Niebuhrian realism, pragmatism par excellence, and, in working from this script, evangelicals both brought the name of Christ into disrepute and forgot how the economy of God and of the church are supposed to work… Bonhoeffer would have called this evangelical struggle a cause of American secularization, not a buffer against it” (196). Bonhoeffer would see American theology today as a total abandonment of Protestant norms, exactly because of his theology of two kingdoms (joined with Luther’s) and because of the stark pragmatism of the right and the rush to de-center the Gospel on the left (198). Looper’s book thus serves as a blunt reminder of the dangers of our modern theological era and the need to offer correctives.

I have now read more than 70 books by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his theology, and the world he inhabited in order to try to understand more about the man and his theology. Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation easily ranks in the top 10 of those books. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Bonhoeffer’s theology should consider it a must read. More importantly, though, those wishing to have an understanding of American theology and its problems to this day should seek out this fantastic book. I highly recommend it without reservation.

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