Archive for December 2012

Silent Night, Holy Night — Merry Christmas Eve

“Silent Night, Holy Night… Christ the Savior is born!”

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McGrath: Church isn’t a club that keeps certain ideas alive, part 2

Now Luther’s approach, I think, is open to criticism. For example, a critic might point out that surely in dealing with for example suffering, it’s good to be able to offer a philosophical defense of the goodness of God in the face of evil, and I would agree with that. If we can’t offer some rational defense of the Christian faith at this point, then we’re in trouble. But Luther himself was somewhat skeptical about the capacity of reason to defend faith, taking the view that this could easily mislead as much as it informs the faithful. But the real point of Luther’s approach is the challenge it offers to purely intellectual approaches to theology and the Christian life. Luther’s theology of the cross offers a way of placing suffering within a greater framework, which allows us to discern how God is able to use suffering as a means of bringing about growth and maturity. God uses suffering, pain and so on as a means of stripping away our security so that we are left with nothing and nobody to trust other than God Himself, and that’s a disturbing thought because for Luther God destroys before he builds. He crucifies an individual’s pride and security before He raises them to new life. What we believe to be the foundations of a secure existence needs to be exposed for what they really are in order [that] they be demolished, and then replaced with something of God’s own choosing and something of God’s own building. Now, this strategy is central to Luther’s vision of the Christian life.


We must recognize that God humbles us if He is to raise us up. We may find ourselves redirected, demolished, but it’s all part of the way in which God is working out what he wants us, and our churches, to do in the world. For Luther, the cross of Christ is stabilizing and integrating the reality, the rock on which our house of faith may be built. The human faculties often point in different directions, threatening to tear our lives apart: our reason leads us in one direction, our emotions in another. And sometimes we find our faith being battered because there’s no firm anchor, no point of attachment to a deeper reality, which is able to weather the storms of the ambiguity of life. For Luther, the cross is a definitive disclosure of the despair that results when reason and emotions pull in separate directions. When God is believed to be present, but not experienced as present. And again, many of you will know that in contemporary American Christianity, experience very often is given the upper hand. I don’t experience God as being here therefore God is not here. Luther is offering us a framework that affirms experience, but critiques our interpretation of it. Luther’s approach recognizes the damaging tension that can arise within the life of faith when reason and emotion take us in very different directions. And what Luther is saying, in effect, is we must see this tension in its proper context and that is provided by the cross, a purely rational approach to suffering. Let’s make sense of it, in the end, can’t work.


Now let me explore this with reference to a case study. In 1961, as many of you will know, a short work by one N.W. Clerk appeared with the title “A Grief Observed,” and it consists of the painful and brutally honest reflections of a man whose wife had died slowly and in pain from cancer. In those reflections we find N.W. Clerk agonizing over the rational inadequacy of his understanding of suffering. Clerk tells us how his rational, cerebral faith took a battering from the emotional crisis that overwhelmed him when his wife died from cancer. Ideas that once proved anchors in his life turned out to be inadequate in the face of this catastrophe. Let me quote. “Nothing will shake a man or at any rate a man like me out of his purely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be not silly before he comes to his senses.” And he goes on to talk about how only suffering is able to bring us to our senses. The thoughts are very similar to Luther’s, but many of you will know who wrote those words. N.W. Clerk was a pseudonym for C.S. Lewis. Why is this so important? Because in 1940 Lewis wrote a book called “The Problem of Pain,” which is basically a rational defense of God’s goodness in the face of human suffering with the most famous line being “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Yet this was a purely rational, not an emotional, existential engagement with pain. It engaged with pain and sorrow at the level of ideas, not as experienced realities. And to its critics, Lewis’ approach in the problem of pain amounts to an evasion of the emotional reality of evil and suffering as experienced realities. They’re simply reduced to abstract ideas. And to read “A Greif Observed” alongside “The Problem of Pain” is to bring home how a purely rational understanding of God collapses in the faith of experienced pain and suffering. Let me quote from Lewis in his “A Grief Observed.” “Where is God? Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all of the help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and the sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” Austin Farrow wrote about Lewis’ experiences after his death and simply made the point that Lewis exemplified the intellectual who played down feelings and played up ideas only to find that in real life the ideas weren’t good enough. Now, you all know how this story ends. Lewis came back to faith, in effect he saw this experience as a way not in which he was testing God, but in which God was testing him.

The point I want to make is that it reveals something very significant, the inadequacy of a purely rational approach to theology. A theology that is untested against the harsh experience of the world will always be prone to doubt and to despair. As Luther pointed out, experience is ultimately what makes a real theologian. Luther’s theology of the cross, I think, is perhaps best seen as a critical theology, that is to say a theology which demands that we recognize the limitations under which faith exists in this world as it encounters the reality of experiences that simply don’t fit the convenient and cozy rationalities of Christian theology. Luther discovered this early in life. His theology of the cross was developed as he reflected on his own precarious and often seemingly hopeless situation during the years 1517-21. His later writings make little reference to the notions. But, it seems to me Luther assimilated those theological lessons that he learned in that formative period. Lewis, on the other hand, was forced to reexamine and ultimately to concede the inadequacy of at least some aspects of his early theology in later life. It seems to me that, in effect, Luther had sorted things out, whereas Lewis came to sort them out much later in life. From a Christian perspective, the life of faith is lived out under conditions of finitude and sin, in which we inhabit the world in which God often seems more of an absence than a presence. And Luther’s theology of the cross, it seems to me, poses a significant challenge to theologically inflated accounts of reality, which hold that we can see further and more clearly than our situation permits. Here, I think, is the critically important point. Luther’s theology of the cross recognizes the essential darkness in which faith finds itself. It points to the Christian contemplating a dark and misty landscape where little can be seen for certain, yet even in this dark and obscure world there are things that we can hold on to, above all, Christ. We may trust Him. More than that, we may entrust ourselves to Him. The cross, like Mt. Sinai, may be enfolded by clouds and darkness yet God remains present despite our failure to discern Him. The word of the cross provides us with enough light to see, even though it doesn’t illuminate everything. There are times, I think, when Lewis sees Christ as a candle projecting a flickering circle of light around it, allowing us to find our bearings and our way, but we must trust the one who holds that candle and leads us in the gloom. A quote from John 1, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” I think there is much to take on board here. I value Lewis enormously, but he needs correction and points, and Luther, I think, speaks words of wisdom and insight that need to be heard.


Let me bring Lewis into this dialogue one final time. This time I want to look at his notion of “Mere Christianity.” You all know this book was published sixty years ago and it remains a very influential statement of an approach to Christianity, which exalts in the essentials, is primarily lay rather than clerical and which sees denominations as useful, but not right at the center of things. Luther’s notion of “Mere Christianity” is not really about the rejection of denominational supremacy, it’s more about recognition of what lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Nonetheless, it does offer a critique of certain forms of Christianity. Those for example which see a specific denomination as being somehow entrusted with certain insights denied to others. Lewis, I think, is a very powerful witness to the ability of a writer to transcend the denomination of origin. Lewis was an Anglican, but I think hardly any of his readers realized that. He is a Christian who speaks to all Christians. I feel the same way about Luther. I want to say immediately that you Lutherans are in a very privileged position and I envy you. Nevertheless, I like Luther too and I find him useful. I want to say to you that many others do as well. Thank you for allowing us access to him. He is a very good thing for us to have. My plea to you this morning is simply that you, as a denomination, discover how rich and useful he is. He has enriched my ministry enormously in ways that affect my preaching, my pastoral care and my theological vision. I stand indebted to him. I haven’t become a Lutheran, which is probably just as well for you, but he nevertheless remains someone who seems to articulate a vision of Christianity that is of enormous importance to us all.

Lutheranism has a treasure in Luther, a source of theological richness and stimulation.

Let me conclude. Lutheranism has a treasure in Luther, a source of theological richness and stimulation, and I want to emphasize I fully concede Luther has his weaknesses. I haven’t talked about those. You all know what they are. For example his attitudes towards Jews, though representative of German culture at the time are very difficult for us today. I’m sure we could all make a list of things we dislike about Luther, but that’s not the point. The best theology being done today in my view could be styled a theology of critical re-appropriation, again a theology of critical re-appropriation by which I mean a willingness to engage seriously with the great and rich theological heritage of the past, with its giants such as Luther. Sure, we may say we leave certain things behind. For example, Luther’s attitude to Jews and peasants, but there are others we most assuredly are going to want to pick up and run with and exploit. In many ways, this lecture today is simply by one who has found Luther to be such a source of encouragement and enrichment, and who when translated into terms that can break down cultural barriers today seems to me to provide a powerful witness to the Christian Gospel, which can be of enormous value to us all. Therefore, I commend you as Lutherans in going back to this resource to enrich your present-day mission. You are not indulging in historical nostalgia, rather you are saying let us look to our family history and bring out the treasures and put them to good use. I just want to say to you there’s an awful lot you can do with Luther. I want to encourage you to dust off the books, translate them into the cultural vernacular and see where that takes you. Wherever it takes you, I want to pray for your enrichment and blessing as you move forward into your next phase of ministry in these uncertain and difficult days. They may be difficult, but as Luther reassures us, the same God who called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob calls also us and journeys with us, for us as we go. For me, that gives a very helpful perspective to all the issues we face. Thank you so much for listening.

McGrath: Church isn’t a club that keeps certain ideas alive

{Dr. Alister McGrath, King’s College, London, recently presented twice at the International Conference on Confessional Lutheranism, hosted by the LCMS. The first half of his first presentation can be found here and the second half here. The first half of his second lecture is found below.}

Well, let me say again what a great pleasure and privilege it is to be able to speak to you on Luther’s relevance for Lutherans and the wider Christian community today. And I do feel slightly awkward about talking about Luther like this because there is so much that needs to be said and there’s only an hour and a half in which to say it. So, I’m terrified of leaving out something that some of you will rightly feel to be integral to a right understanding of Luther. But I think it’s important to try and highlight why this great thinker from the past remains a living voice, not simply in contemporary theology, but in the contemporary life of the Church. So, let’s begin to tease out some themes.


The first theme I’d like to tease out is that Luther, I think, gives us very important resources for challenging our way of understanding the Christian faith, which is quite significant, particularly for many modern American evangelicals. But I think it goes wider than that. It’s an individualist reading of things. The Christian faith is about me. I don’t need to connect with a community. I don’t need to connect with the past. The way I see things is the way things are. And I know people like that and most of you will as well. And Luther, I think, challenges that on a number of levels. He makes the point that we are part of a community of saints, that our witness and understanding today is enriched by the vision of those who have gone before us, that those who have journeyed the life of faith before pass onto us insights, ideas and approaches which can help us as we make that same journey. And I think it is important, first of all, it’s about resourcing us. It’s reminding us that there is more to the Christian faith than any one of us can grasp, and therefore to engage with people like Luther is to be challenged, to be enriched and to be opened up to a greater vision of the Christian faith. And that seems to me to be an important point.

Let me add that this does not compromise the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. Luther is not proposing himself as an alternative to Scripture. Luther is simply offering himself as our servant as we seek to make sense of Scripture and to apply it to the way in which we live and the way in which we think. But also, of course, Luther is emphasizing the importance of the Church. I talked about this very briefly in the previous lecture. Luther, like many of those to follow him like Deitrich Bonheoffer, emphasized that the Church is the God-given community in which we grow together by reflecting on Scripture, by sharing our joys and sorrows, by journeying together to the City of God. The weak are being supported by the strong. Those are the firm grasp of their faith enabling those who are struggling to go deeper into their faith. And again I think we need to give careful thought to this whole question of how we interact with culture. Yes, we want to be able to speak to our culture in terms it can understand, but that doesn’t mean we buy into what our culture is saying. There may be some things that need to be said that are deeply countercultural, but nevertheless move us and our society and our churches in a better way. Now, earlier in my first lecture I put Luther in counter position with C. S. Lewis and I’ll do so at one or two points in the second part of the lecture as well. Lewis, as many of you all know, was a powerful critique of what he called “chronological snobbery” by which he meant the idea that simply because an idea is past, its moment is gone, that the novelty of an idea is a guarantor of its relevance. Lewis discovered for himself, and then encouraged us also to discover, that some of the best ideas go back a long way and we need them for enrichment and reflection, and I think that’s right. Luther himself would say much the same thing and although he would never say it, I will say it on his behalf. He is one of those that we can study with much benefit.


A second point I want to make in this second lecture concerns with Luther’s public vision of the Christian faith, and this, I think, remains of landmark importance for all of us. Luther stood at one of those transitional moments in history: the dawn of what we’d called the Early Modern Period. And Luther developed a doctrine of vocation, which in effect was not about leaving the world behind and going into a monastery in order to exercise a proper Christian life, but rather to go into the marketplace, to go into the cities of Europe and be a witness and enactment of the Gospel in those places. And, it’s a very rich vision, which needs elaboration. For example, Luther’s work ethic, which in effect argues that each of us can do what we do and do it well as an act of service and witness for the Gospel, and that seems to me to be very important. But, it seems to me that the key theme that Luther would urge upon us is this: we mustn’t think of the Church as a privatized faith; that is to say a faith that is detached from the world around us. We mustn’t think of the Church as a club that keeps certain ideas alive, but these are just ideas that just distinguish us. There are many other ideas that distinguish other such groups. For Luther, we need to recapture the idea that the Church is a society yes, but one that is grounded on the promises of God made in Scripture and that the Church brings this knowledge to the world in a way that may at times enrich it, but at other times will challenge it and therefore that difficult, though it may be the proper place, for the Church is at interface with the world. And that is uncomfortable, but Luther says that is where the Church needs to be. It has been called by God to be that point of juxtaposition between the Gospel and the secular world, and that means we need to be in the world not distanced from it in some kind of isolated disconnected community.

Now there’s much more we need to say about that. Luther himself found this a very difficult aspect of his own thought and many of us here today might suspect he may have gotten it wrong at points. Think, for example, of the Peasants Revolt of 1525. But even if Luther’s personal implementation of this vision may be imperfect, nevertheless the tasks he identified are right; namely the Gospel makes a difference to society, and the Church must in its life and witness embody, enact and articulate these distinctive and identity-giving characteristics. It is much easier just to withdraw and become a kind of pietistic club that doesn’t engage with anyone else and isn’t bothered by what’s happening around it, but Luther is a witness to the more uncomfortable truth that we need to be there at the interface where yes it is uncomfortable, but there are things that can be done in bearing witness to the Gospel.


That brings me to my third point. We’re talking a lot in this conference about witness and mission. And it may at first sight seem strange to talk about Luther in that specific context. Why do I say that? Let’s go back to early Modern Europe, where much of Western Europe was Christianized. Luther felt it needed to be reformed, but did not in one sense need to be made Christian. Luther’s vision for the Reformation was of a defective version of Christianity he saw around him, but he was always very careful to acknowledge that the Catholic Church was a Christian church. It needed, however, to be reformed. Therefore, for Luther, mission as we would now understand the term wasn’t very high on his agenda at all. Reformation, yes, but mission really did not connect up with the social realities of his day. And that’s why I want to re-emphasize the importance of the point I made in my first lecture. Namely, that to allow Luther to speak to us effectively and powerfully, we need to begin to make those transpositions. That is to say if Luther were here in a North American or contemporary Western European context, what might he have said and done on the basis of his theology? And all my reading of Luther’s theology, which I note is deeply rooted in the idea of witnessing to the Word of God, that faith comes about by hearing and many other themes like that, that Luther would urge us to see mission as a priority. He didn’t do it himself, but we can understand the social situation that has changed. With it, we need to rethink what Luther would say to those who see him as a theological load star in our own day and age. It seems to me that Luther’s emphasis on the role of witness can easily be articulated in terms of the mission of the church, in terms of evangelism, even though Luther himself did not make those theological moves.

In this second lecture, I really want to focus on Luther’s relevance for questions of personal faith and spirituality, because although Luther is a powerful voice to a public articulation of Christianity, he is of enormous importance pastorally, apologetically, spiritually, and we must make sure we do justice to this side of him. My own pastor experience was over a Church of England parish in the east midlands in a city called Nottingham, where I spent 1980-1983 making the transition from being a student of theology to being a pastor.  And, I have to tell you I found that quite difficult, that in many ways being forced into a pastoral context, to where people are asking questions about coping, suffering, the meaning of life and hope in the face of death. Those didn’t really connect up very well with the themes I’d been taught at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. And there was a sense in which a certain degree of theological realignment had to take place. One of those who helped me make those connections was Luther. I was studying him at the time and some of the things he said began to make sense in that pastoral context. Above all of his theology of the cross, which I will speak about in more detail presently, but the point I’d like to emphasize is that Luther is a pastor’s theologian, not just a theologian’s theologian. He speaks as a theologian from one who operated as preacher and pastor and social reformer. This is no academia detached from the life and concerns of the church. It’s a feeling many are worried about in modern day theology, that the theologian may have no personal faith, no ecclesial commitment, and no concern for the issues that so agitate many ordinary Christian believers. Luther is a theologian who theologizes, if I can use that word, from within the community of faith, addressing its issues, speaking its language and trying to build the faith of the people of God. And again that seems to me to be something that we can benefit from.


I’m going to read a short excerpt from the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in which Luther begins to articulate the theology of the cross, and I want to explain to you why I think this theology speaks so powerfully both to the church and to personal faith, and why it is one of Luther’s most interesting and significant contributions to Christian faith. “The man who reflects on the invisible things of God as they are seen through created things does not deserve to be called a theologian, but the one who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross, does deserve to be called a theologian.” Many of you know those words. They evoke the memory of Moses in the Book of Exodus seeing God disappearing into the distance and not being able to see his face. And in many ways Luther’s theology of the cross does speak very powerfully to certain issues in the life of the Church, but also in personal faith. Let me make one point immediately as a very easy one to grasp, Luther’s emphasis on the cross. That the cross puts everything to the test is a very powerful criticism of a type of theology that has gained a lot of influence in North America. And it’s a theology of health and wealth — that God indicates those whom he favors by giving them material and physical prosperity, that blessing is indicated in terms of wealth and health. Luther in effect stands as someone who sees that as completely misguided. For Luther, suffering is the greatest treasure that God can bestow and gives it as a favor to those whom He loves. And again, Luther turns to the image of the suffering Christ on the cross and sees that as an exemplar, a paradigm, of what it means to lead the Christian life. That is not about health and wealth — that is about faithful obedience, accepting whatever God gives. Now, Luther is not saying we must go and actively seek suffering, rather he is asking us to accept suffering if it is visited upon us as a means by which God is able to deepen our faith and commitment. And, many of you will have looked at Luther’s idea of Anfechtung, the idea that God strips away all our grounds of security until only one thing is left and that is God himself. And Luther’s point, which he makes very powerfully in a number of places, is that we trust in lesser things rather than God and sometimes we need to be helped to rediscover where our true treasure and true hope ought to be grounded.

In the Greater Catechism, Luther talks in these terms: “Wherever your heart lies, in whatever your security is grounded, that has become your God.” I think that’s an important point and it reminds us again of how easy it is to absorb our process-of-osmosis culture values, which get in the way of the Gospel. But I think for me part of the theology of the cross that remains most significant and most important is that it challenges the idea that we can somehow understand God, because for Luther to understand is to master, to have control over. I think Luther really does help us think about this in more detail. Luther forced me to realize that trying to be able to pin God down with theological precision in effect was trying to control or master God, and Luther insisted, and this surely is right, that theology is about God’s mastery of us, that our minds and our words are shaped by the Word of God. We bring our consciences captive to that transformative Word of God. Luther is trying to articulate the point that it is very, very easy for us to, in effect, define God in terms that suit us. We try to control Him, but in the end God is uncontrollable and our theological systems are inadequate to contain Him. And that seems to me to be a very significant point, which may cause inconvenience for some, those who want to be able to reduce God to the categories of a philosophy textbook, but nevertheless remain faithful to the biblical vision of God as the uncontrolled, yet faithful God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.


I began to realize through reading Luther that I wanted to imprison God within the conceptual matrix so that I could derive simple and neat answers to the questions that troubled me. Luther reminded me that actually I just couldn’t do that. I would have to engage with God on God’s own terms, and that means that human concepts, human words are going to prove inadequate to do justice to the way in which God actually is. Luther argues that to make legitimate statements about God it must involve submitting ourselves to mystery. And we see this especially in Luther’s notion of the Hidden God, the deus abscomditus, to use the phrase that many of you will come across in the textbooks. This points to a God who can be known yet ultimately is known through a form of unknowing, and I will explain what I mean by that. Luther’s appeal to the image of Moses glimpsing at the departing God from the rear, represents an imaginative critique of the fundamental human desire to seek God’s face and for Luther that quest needs to be checked, challenged, corrected and ultimately purged. And of course, Luther sees the cross of Christ as a central element, not simply in personal Christian devotion, but in theological reflection. I have often found very helpful a phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstein and many of you will know this phrase. I’ll read it to you: “A picture held as captive and we couldn’t get outside it.” And what Wittgenstein means is that very often a picture captivates us and we work its angles. It serves as a symbolic representation of the way the world is and for Luther the cross is the key to the mystery of life, to suffering, to trying to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguities that we see around us. Luther argues that our imaginations must be captivated by the haunting image of the cross of Christ as we work its angles and try to explore its consequences. So, it’s a very significant approach which, in effect, avoids theological abstraction, think of this idea, but rather asks us to look at an event, look here and let that be the gateway for your reflection on your own experience of the way the world is. Thus of course for Luther, a crucifix is of central importance for worship and personal devotion.

Why is this so important? Well, I think there are a number of ways in which this is important and I might open up one or two of them in this lecture. One of them is the insight it brings to the nature of faith. The other of course is the realism it brings to any discussion of suffering. So, let’s begin by looking at Luther on faith. Yes, Luther emphasizes that faith is about trusting a trustworthy God who has made promises to us, which are found in scripture and are proclaimed through preaching and symbolized through the sacraments. It’s a very important theme. But Luther is able to say that though we cling to this faithful God through thick and thin, this doesn’t necessarily mean we can make sense of everything that’s happening around us. And Luther is very good at accommodating spiritual bewilderment in his account of the Christian faith. For Luther, faith can coexist with thought with perplexity. One trusts God absolutely even though we still have difficulty in working out what is going on around us. Luther’s theology of the cross is all about seeing the cross as a lens or a filter which allows us to look at the world around us and even our own experience, and realize that God can be present even in situations of apparent abandonment, of despair, even though we cannot fully grasp what God is doing in these situations.

Prayer “While Reading the News” by Martin Franzmann

O God Almighty,

I thank you

for this net that sweeps all waters

and brings me news of all the daily life

of all my neighbors

everywhere in the world.

Make me compassionate,

O God of all mercies,

with all my neighbors’ sufferings.


Teach me to know and feel

that distant anguish is

as aching as my own.

Teach me to pray,

“Thy kingdom come!”

as widely as Your Son

has willed it and meant it.

Teach me to do

what I can and must do

for all men.

Teach me long-reaching charity.


Give me faith to know,

when news is black as ink,

that Your hand is guiding all,

obscurely and unfathomably

but surely, surely

toward Your goal;

that when the world shakes

and Satan triumphs with short certainty,

Your Son, Jesus Christ, is Lord of all,

that He, the Lamb slain for our sins,

is opening the seals of Your book

and is working out

Your good and holy will.


Remember in Your mercy

the gatherers and disseminators of the news.

Protect them from all harm.

Keep them

from cynical and cheap success,

from a single taste for disaster,

from considered or deliberate distortion

of the sad and wondrous face of man.

[From Pray for Joy, by Martin H. Franzmann (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970)]