Four Branches August 2018

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Exegetical Theology: Old Testament Storytelling – Seeing Christ There

One of Kierkegaard’s parables has two art lovers discussing a painter’s depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. They work to impress each other with their comments about lighting, about line, and how the artist “achieved that effect with the blood.” It is a cautionary tale about becoming caught up in the beauty and artistry of the Scriptures – impressive though they are – as just another way of evading the true purpose and power of biblical revelation.  God forbid that a literary approach to the Bible should become the safest place to hide from what the Spirit means to do to us and for us by his killing, quickening Word.

Earlier we argued that the book of Ruth counts as beautiful. We linked to an essay that reveals Luther’s concern that the theologian learn, for the sake of the gospel itself, the love of literature. We discussed some reasons that the charming artistry of Naomi’s story matters and how it relates to the highest purposes of the book. Against its grotesque backdrop, especially the latter pages of the book of Judges, the book of Ruth shines with the faithfulness of God as it works itself out in the lives of his dear people. In the worst of times, here is a Shalom Story in its vivid depiction of the way things are supposed to be in the community of faith. Yet the believer’s struggle – against vulnerability, grief, and self-interest – is on vivid display in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.

Best of all, then, this is a Redemption Story, as all the best stories are, especially those that happen to be true. However fine-tuned our literary sensitivities may be, we can agree that “the beauty is deeper in.” We may give ourselves over to a contemplation of Christ our Redeemer in the particular mood of the book of Ruth that we are to catch like a contagion, like a disease.

To borrow from Luther, the book of Ruth illustrates the way certain Old Testament texts serve as “John the Baptists” pointing beyond themselves to Christ. There is One who shares our flesh and blood, one who shows up to take our personal disaster and make it his own. Boaz says, “I am not the one. I only point to him.” There is an affection, an intimacy, an ultimate connection with another. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz, like any Christian marriage, says, “I am not the one. I only point to him.” There is a place in the heart of God that will not be taken from you. Your name is there. The ancestral land of Israel says, “I am not it. I only point to it.” There is a truer and better Obed [Servant], the unlikely child-redeemer who by his very birth restores the hopes of his whole family on earth.

Christianity itself has a past. Inspired Hebrew storytelling can still deepen the interior and enlarge the experience of the contemporary Christian soul who learns to see Jesus there.

Rev. Mark Paustian serves Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN, as a professor of English and Hebrew.

Systematic Theology: The Mystic Union – God Strengthens Me

A walk through of Genesis 1 in the first year of WLS taught us that the Holy Spirit was doing more than statically ‘hovering’ over the waters (Gen 1:2). The verb involves dynamic activity: a searching, a preserving, and a readiness to do more. The partnership we have in the Mystic Union sounds similarly static at first in Ephesians 3:17: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith…” Hovering. Dwelling. Like God is merely sitting there. But like Genesis 1:2 it involves deeper activity. God’s presence participates with us and his dynamic power is at work in us through the means of grace to strengthen and ready us for more.

Joseph had this partnership in mind when he said: “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9) Stripped of both brothers and friends in a foreign land, Joseph’s true ally was the Lord. His outward circumstances draw out the dynamic depths of a divine relationship. God strengthened him to preserve and even promote their partnership.

This side of heaven is still foreign land. Scripture stresses our primary friendship and unity with God to strip us from acting on sin. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?…Flee sexual immorality…Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” (1 Cor. 6:15-20) The mystic union leans wholly on the grace of God for the development of soul stamina and spiritual practice. At the same time God sternly warns me there is no room for other partners in this union.

Jesus emphasized all these aspects in John 15. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Actively preserve the relationship (remain in me). I will graciously strengthen you (apart from me you can do nothing). This relationship brings godly results (you will bear much fruit). Our union with the Triune God is not static. The strength of God works with and within us to bring forth good works. (2 Peter 1:4)

The mystic union teaches us to keep our eyes of faith on our partner. Joseph did. The Apostle Paul did the same, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) There’s a simple reason for Christians to hover and dwell on the Lord. He’s the constant source of our strength.

For further reading, read pages 143-150 of Dr. Timothy Schmeling’s paper on the Mystic Union.

Rev. Aaron Mueller serves as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Howards Grove, WI.

Historical Theology: Iraneus’ Against Heresies, Book 3

“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced…more true than the truth itself.”

So wrote Irenaeus of Lyons, the disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who was in turn the disciple of the Apostle John, in the opening sections of his seminal work, Against Heresies.  The work is comprised of five books which were written in the latter half of the second century.  The heresies that Irenaeus is warning about in particular are gnostic ones.

Gnosticism was a large, amorphic system of thought that had many different forms.  It had both Christian and pagan iterations.  Essentially, the material was seen as evil and the spiritual as good.  God, the supreme spiritual good, spawned various emanations.  One of them created the material world.  It is only through a mystical knowledge, gnosis, that a person may learn how to shed the evil physical and ascend to the good spiritual.  For the Christian gnostic, Jesus was a dispenser of such knowledge to humanity.

Versus this system of thought, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies.  The first two books give us a close look at the Gnosticism Irenaeus and his flock were facing and the logical inconsistencies Irenaeus perceived in the system.  In book three, Irenaeus begins to show how Gnosticism is incompatible with Christianity.  Irenaeus gives us three ways that we are able to differentiate the teachings of the true, orthodox church from that of heretics: a) by recognizing that truth comes from Jesus and his apostles, b) that truth has been conveyed to us through careful transmission via succession (observable tradition), and c) by the testimony of the inspired Scriptures themselves.

Irenaeus’ appeal to apostolic authority and tradition makes sense in a world where personal “truth” was very popular (although havoc would be wrought against Christ’s Church through those terms in the centuries after Irenaeus).  It is in Chapter 9 and following where Irenaeus’ book really shines for me.  Here we see knowledge of the heresies, knowledge of the truths of Scripture, and a comprehensive showing from the word where the heresy is wrong and diabolical.  Irenaeus makes a systematic and dogmatic apology as he takes the gnostic thought head-on.  In his apology, Irenaeus shows the Scriptures were known, studied and learned.

Irenaeus’ defense versus heretics is a masterclass to us to know, study, and be comfortable with God’s truths in his word so that we are armed with the Spirit when we encounter any message that contradicts God’s truth which has been handed down to us from Christ and his apostles.

Consider reading Irenaeus’ book.  For more on Gnosticism and the Gnostic “Gospels” see Nathan Cordes’ paper, The Gnostic Gospels:  A River of Lies.

Pastor Robert Wendland serves as a professor of church history and homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary

Practical Theology: Something Old, Something New

To bring good fortune to their marriages, brides follow the advice, “Wear something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”  Minus the superstition, as the bride of Christ, can we learn something from this catchy phrase?

Something Old

About eight years ago, my current congregation built a new sanctuary.  While much thought was put into the new space, an equal amount of time was put into the adjoining “chapel.”  By housing the old furnishings, the chapel communicated to our old-timers, “We know how much that altar meant where you said, ‘I do.’  Or how that font conjures up memories of your child being made God’s child.”

In a world of constant change, it’s important to remember the old.  I’m not just talking about buildings.  Programming, worship, visitation, etc., all communicate how much we value the relationships and traditions that have stood the test of time.  Which is why one of my favorite parts of our new member workshop is a segment on, “Where did we come from?”  If the new member is going to connect to the old, let them know the joys and challenges that their fellow-pewsitters have gone through.  The business world labels this “customer loyalty[1],” our Savior simply says, “Remember the days of old” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

Something New

Are you a pastor with twenty years of experience or a pastor with one year of experience, repeated twenty times? Ministry has much variety, but there is also routine — another Bible Information Class, another hospital visit, etc.  God’s mercies are new every morning, so how do we prevent them from being “same old, same old” in our ministry?  Even though it may not seem the most efficient use of time, trying something new can prove to be the most effective use of time.  For example, using a new BIC curriculum may not convey new truths to this round’s participants, but you’ll be fresher as you teach it.  The field of education has long been trumpeting the value of trying something new, perhaps the loudest voice the past few decades has been Carol Dweck.  While she tends to be humanistic in her approach, her best-selling book Mindset and many other videos and journals stress the value of trying new things as you teach others.

Something Borrowed

The whole purpose of Four Branches is to help “iron sharpen iron.”  While we dare not plagiarize other people’s work, “borrowing” other people’s approaches and wisdom will only help us grow as we look to grow in our personal and public ministry.

What’s the Point?

While not anything deep, I pray that this starting point article simply encourages you to examine your own ministry.  “Am I praising God for the gifts of the past as I use something old?  Am I continuing to expand my ministry by attempting something new?  Am I cherishing the gifts of others as I use something borrowed?”   Also note, it doesn’t have to be wholesale.  But simply something, not all things old, new, or borrowed.  And as far as “something blue,” I’ve got nothing.

Rev. Joel Heckendorf serves as the coordinating pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI.

[1] While a business article, there are some things to easily apply.