Four Branches July 2017

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Exegetical Theology: The How of Old Testament Communication (part 2)

Consider how theology is communicated in the Old Testament. It may be through “narrative transportation.” In last month’s issue, we were whisked away to another time and place where mystery and transcendence singed the very atmosphere about the Burning Bush. Or we linger over an inspired metaphor to work out the “thisness of that and the thatness of this.” What does it mean, for example, that every child of God is the ’ishon [“little man”] of his eye? Or we experience the truth through identification – “the sharing of human stuff” – with a sorrowing prophet.

So it is as we meet the prophet Jeremiah in the reading for Pentecost 5 (Supplemental Lectionary Year A). Based on the Hebrew root, the rare noun mahpechet must refer to some sort of stocks that had Jeremiah bent over or turned upside-down for an entire night. Upon his release, the prophet stabs a rhetorical finger into the chest of Pashhur, his nemesis, and offers him a new name, Magur-missaviv [terror all around]: (20:4). Pashhur is speechless, and the reader might conclude that this Jeremiah is a man of steel. However, the text then switches abruptly from prose to poetry (without so much as a conjunctive vav) as Jeremiah pours out his anguish in twelve tear-stained verses. Multiple moods collide. “O Lord, you deceived me…his word is in my heart like a fire…the LORD is with me like a warrior…Sing to the LORD…Why did I ever come out of the womb?” (20:7-18).

As Mother Theresa once prayed, “What are you doing, my God, to one so small?”

It’s a matter of genre. And it’s not the only example in the Bible of having both an outer and inward view of the same event, and having the former come to us in prose, and for the latter, well, only a poem will do. Compare the kingly motif of John 19, Christ on his cross, with the holy inward drama of Psalm 22, two sacred texts that comment profoundly on one another.

Hebrew poetry is not merely a set of techniques for saying impressively what could have been communicated otherwise. Through the juxtaposition of poetry and prose, Jeremiah 19-20 offers to readers those outer and inward views, deeply complicating their involvement. The pathos of heightening intensity, line by line, brings us into close contact with the fully rounded servant of God under the dear cross. Not a man of steel. Just man. He receives his education, what can be learned in no other way. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Co 12:9).

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

(Missed Part 1? Click here)

Systematic Theology: Wire Knowledge Carefully

I had just wired up several basement outlets when the used fridge arrived. Someone plugged it in, and it worked beautifully. That wasn’t true the next day. The refrigerator never seemed to cool properly. Attempts to correct the problem failed. We concluded something broke in transportation and now was beyond repair.

The day before the unit was to be hauled away, we discovered the real problem. No consistent power was present to the outlets. It turns out the outlets were wired into a three-way light switch. When we came down into the basement, we turned the lights on. That immediately sent electricity to the outlet – and the fridge powered on. When we left the basement, we flipped the lights off, and in turn switched off the power to the fridge.

The conscience is impacted by knowledge in much the same way. God wired his natural knowledge to the conscience. He did it so that people would seek him and perhaps find him (Acts 17:27). After conversion, he amplifies that natural knowledge with the revealed law in his Word. Conscience acts on that knowledge, as Peter properly began to do in Acts 11. Then the Lord taught him to relieve his conscience by updating his knowledge in New Testament gospel (and dietary) freedom: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 11:9).

Conscience therefore is not a norm, also a response to a norm. Said differently, conscience is not a standard of knowledge, but a judge which responds to the knowledge a person has. An individual generally has a healthy conscience where the Word is accepted as truth. But where worldly knowledge is accepted to compete with natural or revealed law, that will warp how the conscience judges. Putting anything on par with God’s Word puts the Word second. Paul wrote, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen” (Romans 1:25). Truth and knowledge are switches which can be turned off. When they are, conscience will not function as God intended.

That’s why Paul persistently tries to wire us to God’s Word. Do a search in the New Testament and see how frequently he says to know. He’s not just passing along nice things. Instead he’s filling us with truth and knowledge so that our consciences are rightly informed, evaluating, and making judgments in Christ.

For consideration: see the attached basic drawing of knowledge and conscience.

For further research, read through the dogmatics notes on types of conscience.

For next time: How to sharpen the conscience. 

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

Historical Theology: Differing Perspectives on the Anti-Semitic Writings of Luther

Martin Luther warned against treating scripture like a wax nose – a piece of theatre costume that you can twist and bend until it looks however you want it to.  There’s a sad irony, though, that the Reformer himself often receives that same treatment.

Here are the two paraffin preachers you’re most likely meet in current commentators:

Luther, the anti-Semite who set the stage for the holocaust

In this view, Luther was “a racist, pure and simple”, whose demonization of the Jewish people was “more obscene than even Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’” (Weiss, “The Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany”). Luther both perpetuated racial hatred of the Jews and enshrined it as a Christian and Germanic value.

Luther’s secondary failing was to instill an unquestioning, blind obedience to temporal rulers.  He taught that even speaking out against a leader was a sin against God, and so set the stage for Hitler’s rise.

While many authors take this view, William Shirer (“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”) and John Weiss are notable.

Luther, the public figure who consistently applied his principles

Authors in this category generally acknowledge the anti-Jewish sentiments that dominated Europe in Luther’s day, as well as Luther’s repeated statements that Jews who confessed Christ should be welcomed as brothers.  They seek a more contextualized understanding of Luther’s statements.  Luther’s hatred of the Jewish practice of usury was fierce – just as he fiercely called for the excommunication and punishment of Christians who took part in the practice.  While Luther did call for Jews to have their businesses seized, houses of worship demolished and employment limited, he did so in a time when territories were not merely political designations, but religious ones.  He likewise acknowledged that Lutherans should expect similar treatment in Catholic or Muslim lands, and be ready to flee.

Certain moral, theological and secular principles were already in place, and Luther advocated their application to those in the Jewish faith and practices just as he applied them to Christians.  Frustration and bitterness later in life sharpened his words, but his principles were unchanged.  Tom Hardt (“Luther – Neither an Anti-Semite Nor a Lackey of the Princes”) and Neelack Tjernagel (“Martin Luther and the Jewish People”) fit into this category.

An unshaped Luther?

Every reader brings their own bias.  We guard against treating scripture as a wax nose by paying close attention to words and context; in the same way, it’s vital to do the same as we approach Luther’s writings.  While no writing will achieve this perfectly, Uwe Siemon-Netto’s book The Fabricated Luther and the brief essay Luther: Neither an Anti-Semite Nor a Lackey of the Princes not only strive earnestly to understand the context of Luther’s day and writings, but also reflect and address some of the more serious accusations against the Reformer.  I’ve found both to be helpful.


Rev. Joel Seifert serves Shining Mountains Lutheran Church in Bozeman, MT, and is the editor of The Four Branches.

Practical Theology: Form Vs. Function

‘How did you get on here?’  Ever ask that question about a person that sits on your church council or leadership team?  At times, such a question can be arrogant on our part, downplaying the variety of gifts that our Lord supplies to his body.  But at other times, it may be a legitimate question, being asked not only by us, but also by the designated “leader.”  And if he’s not asking how he got in his role, he very well may be asking what he’s supposed to be doing in his role.

Last month, I shared how a self-study led to a redesign of how often our Leadership Team meets to conduct the business of the church and to grow in God’s Word together.  That same self-study also took a closer look at the make-up and function of the team.  For years, we were restricted by a constitution that had an 11-man council.  Positions like, “Treasurer, Stewardship Chairman, Financial Secretary” made sense when there wasn’t a part-time bookkeeper in the office.  But did they still serve their purpose today?  Were the right men always in the right seats?[i]  What qualifications were needed to fill those seats?  Our form was restricting leaders from serving in positions that matched their God-given gifts.  Communication was difficult.  Terms were intimidating.  Form didn’t match function. Instead of letting our constitution be a guide that assisted ministry, it hindered ministry.

While there is no perfect structure, our congregation landed on a 7-man team, based on the present functions of our ministry.  But just as important as the revised structure was the flexibility.  Each leader could accomplish the function of his ministry area as he saw fit.  If the LES Coordinator felt comfortable working with a 5-man board to oversee the school, he could establish that.  If the “Go Coordinator” wanted to utilize 20 people for various outreach tasks, he could do that.  If the “Grow Coordinator” wanted to work alone with his wife and the Spiritual Growth pastor, he could do that.   Point?  Flexibility helps function outweigh form.

Rev. Joel Heckendorf serves as the Coordinating Pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI.

[i] Gino Wickman devotes a whole chapter to “Right People, Right Seats” in his book Traction.  The principles of Traction are being used by the WELS World Missions department, as well as the parasynodical Ministry Leadership Institute.  For helpful blogs and other resources by Wickman, click here.