Friday, April 30, 2010

First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew

Paraclete Press sent me a complimentary copy of The First Fruits of Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green. Overall, the book is an excellent devotional resource that would be particularly suited for the Lenten season. The bulk of the book is a lengthy prayer called "The Canon of St. Andrew" which has been divided up into forty sections by Frederica Matthews-Green. The Canon of St. Andrew is a prayer of repentance. It works its way through lots of Old and New Testament material. The prayer puts the one praying in his proper place--as the chief of sinners. The author provides lots of very helpful commentary--showing what passages of Scripture are being alluded to and what the prayer means in certain sections. There is also a short section at the end of each chapter that gives the reader something to think about in relation to the section. The book concludes with a short biography of St. Mary of Egypt.

I will add just a couple of caveats. The prayer does call upon various saints to intercede. However, the reader can easily make minor changes to the prayer to avoid this. While we receive no promise in Scripture that the saints hear our prayers we do receive the promise in Scripture that the saints do pray for us.

Also, the reader should keep in mind that Frederica Matthews-Green is a convert from Western Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy and on a few rare occasions it seems like she has an ax to grind and is emphasizing something in her notes that the prayer itself does not. The notes deny any kind of forensic salvation based on a particular section in the prayer that is not speaking of salvation forensically. However, later on in the prayer, the prayer does speak of salvation forensically.

Also, the introduction perpetuates the false notion that Martin Luther removed the Apocryphal books from the Bible and that all the Protestants after him followed suit. Martin Luther did question the authority of these books but he included them in his translation of the Bible as did Protestants until the late 1800's.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

It's still the Easter season. Don't let the stores fool you.

Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography

Paraclete Press was kind enough to send me a pre-publication complimentary .pdf of Hidden and Triumphant. The book is a translation of a Russian work. I don't read Russian and have no access to the original, so I cannot comment on how faithful the translation is to the original but the translation is written in good English. The bulk of the book covers the how iconography was preserved during communist persecution. Overall, the book is excellent and well-written. I did get a little bored in the middle of the book but if someone was more interested in Russian history than I am they probably wouldn't be bored at all. The introduction has one of the best introductions to icons that I have ever seen anywhere. The author does a good job of explaining the meaning of the various colors and symbols and why icons are painted the way that they are and the theology behind the icons. I am less willing to accept all the miracles attributed to the icons than the author but the author takes a pretty balanced view overall and is critical of some superstitious uses of icons. I also enjoyed the appendixes which contained some very interesting information about modern iconography. The book provides few examples of some very beautiful icons. I wish there were more but I'm sure that would drive the price of the book up significantly.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Long Prayer

I have spent some time trying to discover the origin of the "Long Prayer" in the Reformed liturgy with little success. In the Reformed liturgy it takes place prior to the Scripture reading and the sermon. The prayer goes on for a very long time and is composed by the pastor. One time I happened to bring my child back from the potty and into the nave during this very long prayer and an elder came and scolded me later for offending God by walking in during this prayer. This prayer is clearly viewed as a high-point of the Reformed liturgy and given a special place. It could be argued that the sermon is the highest point in the Reformed liturgy but nobody gets scolded for walking in during the sermon.

In the historic Liturgy (followed by the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others) the closest thing I can find is the "Prayer of the Church" which takes place after the sermon. The pastor offers petitions using form prayers on behalf of the church (sometimes with particular names added) and after each petition the congregation responds with something like "Lord hear our prayer." Zwingli seems to have taken this prayer, removed the responses, and placed it near the beginning of the service. Bucer places the prayer after the sermon but removes the responses. Calvin does the same. They all use form prayers or create form prayers but they remove the responses.

It really puzzles me why those in the Reformed tradition would remove the congregational responses. One of their complaints about the Roman Catholic church was that they limited congregational involvement by having choirs sing the hymns. But the Reformed have removed the congregational parts in the liturgy and given them to the minister alone. In the historic liturgy near the beginning of the service the pastor says, "Our help is in the name of the Lord," and the congregation responds "who made heaven and earth" but in the Reformed liturgy the pastor says all of this. In some very conservative Reformed churches the congregation does not even say any part of the Lord's Prayer--the pastor does it all. The pastor is praying on behalf of the congregation and so theoretically at least the people are praying along with him even if not verbally but I really don't understand the reasoning behind this. If someone knows what the reasoning is I would really like to hear it. The current Reformed liturgy seems to follow the tradition of Zwingli by placing the prayer near the beginning of the service but I have been unable to determine when it switched from being a form prayer to a prayer composed by the pastor. My current theory is that this happened in America just because it seems like a very American thing to do.

The Reformed liturgy tends to partition prayer out as a separate thing from the rest of the liturgy. The historic liturgy tends to function as one long prayer but with lots of congregational responses throughout. I spoke with someone who was used to the Reformed style of worship and the prayers with congregational responses just didn't seem like prayer to them.

In the historic liturgy there are a couple of high points where special reverence is given. One of these high points is the reading of the Gospel. The congregation stands and sings Alleluia as the Gospel book is brought out. Christ speaks to us through the Gospel. The entire historic liturgy leads up to highest point which is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist Christ feeds us with His own body and blood. In the Reformed liturgy there may not even be a Gospel reading and there is no special attention given to it. If you were to ask most people what the most important part of the liturgy is they would probably tell you that the sermon is. The sermon is definitely important but if the sermon is simply the pastor providing some sort of verse by verse commentary then the liturgy becomes all about the pastor. In practice the highest point of the liturgy really seems to be the long prayer in which case the focus of the liturgy is once again on the pastor and the prayer that he offered that day. It would seem much more Christ-centered to return to the historic liturgy where we hear Christ speaking to us and He gives us His body and blood.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Calvinism Vs. Lutheranism: Debate and Cook-off

I would be very interested in hosting a Calvinism Vs. Lutheranism debate in my backyard. If you live in the Grand Rapids area please let me know if you are interested, especially if you are a confessional Calvinist who is willing to debate. If you think that the presidential debates are actual debates please do not volunteer. I am willing to defend the Lutheran position unless someone more qualified volunteers to take my place. I am also open to another location if someone has a more suitable facility.

There seems to be a lot of misconceptions between Calvinists and Lutherans about what the other believes and this would be an excellent way to clear up those misconceptions. It would be good to have other confessional Lutherans and confessional Calvinists around who know their catechisms well to clear up any of the misstatements by the debaters. I believe the debate should start where it began--the Lord's Supper.

There should also be good food. It's summer and a grilling competition would be delicious.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Richard Miller on 1 John 1:1-3

1 John 1:1-3 Behold, how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called God’s children! For this reason, the world does not understand us, because it did not understand him. Beloved, we are already God’s children, but what we will be is not yet revealed. But when he is revealed, we know that we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is! Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

This morning I attended Dutton United Reformed Church in Caledonia, MI. The Pastor preaching this morning was Rev. Richard Miller and his text was 1 John 1:1-3. I thought it might be interesting to do a sermon review. I don't have the text of the sermon in front of me but I have a pretty good recollection of it. Lately, I've become convinced that the Epistles do not usually function very well as sermon texts. The Epistles seem to be sermons themselves that were distributed to be read as such to the various churches and so the pastor ends up preaching a sermon on a sermon which can be problematic. But I will ignore the choice of text for the sermon review and use the same criteria that I used in previous reviews.

1. Does the pastor explain the text correctly? Not really. The pastor's main point was that John is excited and so you should be excited too and if you're not excited you might not be a child of God. The last sermon I heard by this pastor had the very same point--if you're not excited you might not be a "real" Christian. The pastor has taken a text that objectively declares "you are a child of God, and look at what you have to look forward to" and turned it into "maybe you're not really a child of God after all because you're not excited enough." The passage is intended to provide comfort for those who are suffering persecution but instead it is used pietisticly to either drive people to despair for not being excited enough or make them self-righteous and think how much more excited they are than other people. (0)

2. Is the law preached lawfully? No. The law is preached as doable and the unbiblical law of being excited is used to bind the consciences of the congregation. The law really didn't seem to be used to bring people to repentance at all. It was talked about as a guide for the believers life but I just don't see "Be Excited!" in the 10 commandments. This church reads the 10 commandments at a point in the liturgy that is intended to show the need for repentance but a short explanation was given afterward that only mentioned that the law is used to curb the sins of the unbeliever and be a guide for the believer's life. (-1)

3. Is Jesus mentioned? Yes, Jesus is mentioned and nothing false is said about him. (+1)

4. Is the sermon about what Jesus has done for us? Not really. The sermon did briefly mention that our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus but it was mostly just about how we should be excited. (0)

5. Does the creation of a Wordle show a Christian focus in the sermon? Unfortunately I do not have the text of the sermon. If I had the text I suspect that it would receive a -1 since the sermon was not primarily about Jesus but about being excited. But since I do not have the text I will give it a 0. (0)

So the final score is 0 or 50%.

The current standings are:
William Cwirla (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) 100% A
Don Fortner (Calvinistic Baptist) 57.5% F
John Piper (Calvinistic Baptist) 35% F

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why Should We Attend Worship Services?

I recently had a conversation with a friend who happens to be a Reformed Pastor on the subject of saints days. He was uncomfortable with saints days and asked, "Is the church just allowed to invent any day to celebrate something?" And "Why celebrate the saints?"

The church should always be pointing us to Christ. Worshiping on a saint's day provides an extra opportunity to point us to Christ and to give us God's good gifts in Word and Sacrament. In some churches the day may be used just to tell us how nifty the particular saint was and how we need to live like him. This would be an improper use of the saint's day. Saints days should be used to show how these saints tell us something about Jesus. They are subject to abuse but so is everything in the Christian church. There are plenty of Easter, Christmas, and just regular Sunday services that are not centered upon Christ out there. If we got rid of everything that has been abused in the church we would have nothing left. The Scriptures have been abused more than anything else, should we get rid of them too?

My friends was also concerned that if the church decides to celebrate a saint's day then everyone in the church is required to come. He along with other Reformed folks believes that if the elders call you to worship you are being disobedient to them by not attending the worship service. This is based on a rather poor understanding of Hebrews 13:17 which gives the general command to obey those who rule over us. Aside from the dangers of basing a particular doctrine off of a disputed book such as the book of Hebrews, there are other passages that deal more directly with the issue of celebrating "special" days.

Romans 14:5-6a One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.

The Scriptures speak clearly of freedom in regards to these days. We cannot require others to worship on these days and we cannot forbid others from worshiping on these days.

What stands behind this desire to create these rules and regulations about worship is the false notion that worship is primarily a duty that we perform. If worship is some duty that we do for God then we better make sure we get it right and that the right people show up. There's even something wrong with the phrase "Worship Service." "Worship Service" puts all the emphasis on us and our works. It is a "Divine Service" in which God serves us with His good gifts. God does not need anything from us. We need everything from Him. If saints days and feast days are viewed as another opportunity to receive wonderful things from God then I think there are plenty of good reasons to attend. True worship is receiving God's good gifts by faith. Deep down we know that we are pretty crappy worshipers. Our minds wander and our voices suck. If it were all up to our worship we would be on the highway to hell. We might as well go camping instead so at least we can ignore how lousy we are at worshiping God. If we go to the worship service the best we could hope for is that God grades on a curve and we can think in our minds about how much better we are than that guy who didn't show up.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Best of Lutheran Theology

A friend and former co-worker asked me to comment on this article from the Kalamazoo Gazette. The article is an interview with "Rev." Paul Nuechterlein. Nuechterlein is the "pastor" of a "Lutheran" "church" in Portage, MI. He is a proponent of emerging "theology" and the article deals chiefly with the doctrine of the atonement. Nuechterlein believes that Christianity is going through a change unlike any that we have seen since the time of the Reformation. Nuechterlein is a universalist who denies justification by faith without having any understanding of what justification by faith actually means. He also denies "the standard kind of atonement theology" (perhaps "standard" as opposed to deluxe or limited edition). Basically, Nuechterlein is opposed to the satisfaction model of the atonement. In a textbook example of the Appeal to authority fallacy, Nuechterlein says that "the best of Lutheran theology is uneasy with that." This is on the same level as "studies show" or "experts agree." What Lutheran theology? Nuechterlein doesn't like what the Old Testament says about God. If you're a reasonably well catechized Lutheran you might read the article and think that this guy needs to go to catechism class. Much like N.T. Wright (who Nuechterlein also likes), Nuechterlein's understanding of confessional Lutheran theology seems to be based on some strange caricature. In fact by the end of the article we find out that Nuechterlein is more anti-Lutheran than N.T. Wright.

This isn't some new movement. This is just old mainline liberalism repackaged. Nuechterlein is a minister in the "Evangelical" "Lutheran" "Church" in America. There have been some good Lutheran scholars in the ELCA such as Gerhard Forde but for the most part the ELCA in its liberal leadership looks a lot like the ECUSA. Even the "conservatives" within the ELCA often sound more like Methodists than Lutherans. What is it that makes the ELCA Lutheran? What is it that makes Nuechterlein a Lutheran? Is it because he's German? So is the Pope. He denies justification by faith alone, sola Scriptura and all kinds of other things. The Lutheran confessions teach a satisfaction model of the atonement, so wouldn't "the Best of Lutheran theology" also teach that?

Unlike many confessional Reformed folks, I think confessional Lutherans have been more open to recogize the validity of some of the other atonement models. No single model is sufficient to teach about the atonement. It is a great mystery and can't fit inside of our heads. But you can't be a confessional Lutheran and deny the satisfaction model. You can't confess what Scripture confesses and deny the satisfaction model. What this article shows is that there are many poorly trained pastors out there who went to "lutheran" "seminaries" that didn't think that teaching historic Lutheran theology was important.

The ELCA, UCC, PCUSA, UMC and ECUSA are already in full communion. I can't see why they don't drop the labels and just become a single denomination. They could just become the "Mainline Liberal Church in America" or something. Or maybe they could all become part of the UCC. I'm guessing that they realize they would lose funding from some misguided donors if they did this but I can't think of any theological reasons for them remaining separate in any way.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Lately, I keep running into articles that attempt to refute consubstantiation in an attempt to disprove what Lutherans believe about the Lord's Supper. The big problem with this approach is that Lutherans do not believe in consubstantiation. Lutherans do not subscribe to any philosophical construct when it comes to explaining the Lord's Supper whether it be consubstantiation, transubstantiation, or any other kind of substantiation you can think of. Lutherans simply refuse to explain the ins and outs of how we receive body, blood, bread, and wine in the Lord's Supper. Consubstantiation is the teaching that the body and blood join together to form a third substance as do the blood and wine and that the body and blood are present in a natural manner. The Book of Concord clearly states: We “do not believe that the body and blood of Christ are locally enclosed in the bread, or are in some way permanently united with it apart from the use of the sacrament ...” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VII, 14; Tappert, p. 571)

As far as I can tell, most of the supporters of consubstantiation lived between the 9th and 12th centuries. One of the supporters of consubstantiation was John Duns Scotus (1265-1308). It seems that Calvin noticed similarities between the teachings of Luther and Scotus on the Eucharist and erroneously jumped to the conclusion that Luther taught consubstantiation. This error seems to have perpetuated itself through various Reformed systematic theologies.

Who does teach consubstantiation? I am unaware of any church body that currently teaches consubstantiation. There could be some Anglicans out there that teach it but no denomination that I know of teaches consubstantiation.

Another common belief among Reformed folks is that Lutherans teach the medieval doctrine of ubiquity. This is also explicitly rejected in the Formula of Concord: "We reject and condemn as contrary to the Word of God and our simple Christian Creed…that the human nature of Christ is locally extended to every place in heaven and earth” (Ep VIII, The Person of Christ, Antitheses, 10; cf. SD VIII 92).

If someone is interested in refuting what Lutherans teach about the Lord's Supper it would be better to at least gain some understanding of what Lutheran's actually teach about the Lord's Supper. The best place to start is the Book of Concord. It's never a good idea to attempt to refute a position based on rumors about the position.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Read St. John Chrysostom's Easter Sermon.