Sunday, June 26, 2011

I'm My Own Grandpa Vs. The Obedient Rebels

Benjamin Kurtz was one of the leading promoters of a movement known as "American Lutheranism." "American Lutheranism" cast aside the historic teachings of Lutheranism and adopted the new measures of revivalism. "American Lutheranism" thought that what Luther did was good but that the "revolution" must continue. Benjamin Kurtz wrote:

"The Fathers--who are the 'Fathers'? They are the children; they lived in the infancy of the Church, in the early dawn of the Gospel day. John the Baptist was the greatest among the prophets and yet he that was least in the Kingdom of God, in the Christian Church was greater than he. He probably knew less, and that little less distinctly than a Sunday-school child, ten years of age, in the present day. Even the apostle Peter, after all the personal instructions of Christ, could not expand his views sufficiently to learn that the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles, and that the Church of Christ was to compass the whole world. A special miracle was wrought to remove his prejudices and convince him of his folly. Every well-instructed Sunday-school child understands this thing without a miracle, better than Peter did. Who then are the 'Fathers'? They have become the Children; they were the Fathers when compared with those who lived in the infancy of the Jewish dispensation; but, compared with the present and advanced age, they are the Children, and the learned and pious of the nineteenth century are the Fathers. We are three hundred years older than Luther and his noble coadjutors, and eighteen hundred years older than the primitives; theirs was the age of infancy and adolescence, and ours that of full-grown manhood. They were the children; we are the fathers; the tables are turned." --Benjamin Kurtz, "The Fathers", Lutheran Observer November 29, 1849 (original emphasis)

Throughout the New Testament the Old Testament saints are regarded as our "fathers" in the faith. But according to Kurtz they are the children. If you search the internet you'll find lots of people with Kurtz's attitude. They tend to regard church fathers like Augustine either as infants in the faith or perhaps even as unbelievers. They provide a list of short snippets from their works to prove how heretical and infantile these church fathers are that often reveals just how spiritually shallow the person making the list is and how much the person making the list is acting like a rebellious teenager who thinks he knows so much more than his stupid parents. The quotes are often taken out of context and do not teach what the person making the list thinks they teach. Often what the church father says is true but because the person making the list holds to false teaching they regard the truth as false. On a small number of occasions they actually find a false teaching in one of the church fathers. But finding out that your father makes mistakes hardly makes you his father.

A friend of mine asked a professor at a Calvinist seminary why the seminary did not study the church fathers very much. The professor said that Calvin had preserved all the good teachings of the church fathers in his own writings so we don't need to read the church fathers anymore. But this creates a rather strange situation where for all practical purposes Calvin becomes the more-mature one who is able to sift through the writings of the immature church fathers. Calvin becomes father to the church fathers. Then the favorite, more recent theologian of the particular group becomes father to Calvin. I heard a professor from another Calvinist seminary make the claim that if theology does not continue to grow and mature in a church body that church body will die. But this results in every generation essentially becoming "father" of the previous. This process of becoming fathers of the fathers is evident in every branch of the church.

In liberal circles, this "maturity" is used as a reason for the ordination of women and homosexuals. In pietist circles this "maturity" is used as a reason for why we don't think baptism and the Lord's Supper are what the church fathers thought they were. Rome is constantly maturing. Papal infallibility was rejected by previous popes but the church has matured and now knows better.

But when we start reading the early church fathers, they don't seem to exhibit the immaturity that we would expect if all this "I'm My Own Grandpa" language were true. Instead we find a depth of faith that is lacking in modern writings. The best of the theologians in our day do not compare to someone like Athanasius. Athanasius made mistakes but lived the Apostolic faith in a way that Christian writers today do not. The church fathers were willing to die for what they believed. What passes for worship in the average evangelical church hardly looks more mature than the historic liturgy but that doesn't keep people from thinking that modern worship is better--whether it's revival hymns or praise and worship songs.

Some in Lutheranism seem to understand Luther as a revolutionary. They envision a Luther who became more "mature" than the church around Him. But Luther was no revolutionary. He was not a father to the church fathers. He was a child of the church fathers. He came to realize that the Apostolic faith had been perverted by those who thought that they were more mature. Even when he gave his "Here I Stand" speech, he was quoting Pope Innocent III. He was calling the church back to the Apostolic faith. He was calling the church to repentance for thinking that they were the fathers and the church fathers were the children.

Although it appears on the surface that Martin Luther was not honoring father and mother, he most certainly was. "Fathers" in the faith are not limited to those who are still living. Luther was being obedient to the true Apostolic fathers and rejecting the innovations that developed in the generations just prior to Luther.

Even while the Apostle were still living, there were people in Corinth and elsewhere who thought that they had matured beyond the Apostolic faith that was handed down to them. They regarded those who did not accept their innovations as immature children. Soon the innovation becomes its own tradition. Such is the case with Rome and such is the case in evangelicalism. The altar call, belief the rapture, handing out tracts, street-corner preaching, and many other things not only are considered as acceptable but as being requirements for a "real" church regardless of the newness of these things. It's as if history begins when I am born and if something is happening in my church today that must be what happened in the church at the time of the Apostles.

The church is healthiest when it regards itself as being a spiritual child of the church fathers who faithfully handed down the Apostolic doctrine. The Apostolic doctrine is all about Jesus. The historic liturgy is all about Jesus. In the sacraments we receive Jesus. If we think that we are too mature for this stuff, what we are really saying is that we are too mature for Jesus. We have found something better than Jesus. It doesn't matter if it's papal infallibility, revival hymns, praise and worship songs, or the rapture. These are all innovations that leads us away from Jesus.

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