Exegetical Theology: Old Testament Storytelling – Beauty
Luther’s eloquent appeal for the study of the biblical languages is well known. They are “a sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained.” Fewer may be familiar with his similar accents and parallel concerns for the great texts of literature, that is, should we ever forget how to read them. “I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure,” so he wrote, even referring to these “letters” as “John the Baptists.”
We can be confident that recognizing the literary beauty of the book of Ruth, and approaching it with sensitivity to its lovely form and artistic crafting, need not make us somehow suspect. Standing back in awe of its sophistication and genius can operate hand in velvet glove with our holding this sacred text in the highest possible view. We hold in our hands the divinely inspired Word of God, the Spirit’s own view of actual history as mediated by this timely narrative, the true account of where King David comes from. And if it’s David’s history, then it is the history of our Lord as well.
Virtually every line of argument about what constitutes literary beauty meets in the account of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Here is the harmony of a single story told well – the emptying and filling of Naomi – revolving like a sky around its gravitational center, the moment when hope woke up: “That man is our redeemer.” Here is a symmetry that delights the lover of words in the constant happy echoes in the final chapter of all things that broke our hearts in chapter one. Here is minutest crafting, chiasms within chiasms, such as Ruth’s speech at the border of Moab, an incandescently beautiful speech of commitment, one person to another, body and soul, arguably unsurpassed until John chapter 14. Here is constant tension and release, as when Naomi makes no comment on what Ruth has done, leaving the reader hungry for someone within the story to truly see her. This Boaz does in chapter two, when a little bit of kindness drops her to her knees, the hint of a bitter unspoken struggle.
This is a beauty that matters. It is an aspect of meaning. These moments bring us back. We do not only know what we know – that the LORD is faithful and he works this faithfulness out in the lives of his dear people – but even more we come to love what we know. It is this the writer, by the Spirit married to this Word, means to communicate by the full exploiting of his craft.
In his pre-Christian turmoil, St. Augustine missed the beauty that is there in the Old Testament. The entire corpus struck him as crude. It was only when that veil fell away and he recognized in the Old Testament a book about Jesus as God had revealed it to his soul. We can only sigh, “Amen.”
The beauty is deeper in. More on this next time.
Until then, consider this excellent article on Luther’s View of Literature and Meaning.
Rev. Mark Paustian serves Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN, as a professor of English and Hebrew.
Systematic Theology: The Mystic Union – God Comforts Me
Like predestination, the doctrine of the mystic union isn’t for our comprehension or figuring out. It is for our comfort. And comfort it does. Through the gospel the glorious God-man Jesus Christ proudly brings himself to you. He promised at the end of Matthew, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20] While that passage emphasizes Jesus is one with us, this union brings the fullness of the Triune God to us. That is why Peter can say, “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature.” [2 Peter 1:4]
The papers on vocation from the Seminary Symposium still reverberate with me. We are God’s masks. It is God who serves the child through the faith-filled mother, God who milks the cows through the maid, or God who visits the imprisoned through his people. Vocation grasps justification and lets love live in the moment. Or as a pastor remarked to a gathering of pastors, “Vocation is the triumph and celebration of sheer ordinariness.” The Reformation rejected the race to the monastery or convent in order to be holy and close to God. Instead, God works through every Christian and his ordinary work.
Do you see the difference? In vocation, God works through the Christian to serve his neighbor. In the mystic union God’s aim isn’t for others, but for me. His focus in this teaching isn’t to bless my neighbor, but to bless me. His very presence has my spiritual preservation on earth and even eternal glory in mind! The Psalmist strikes a raw nerve as he portrays the believer walking through the most uncomfortable valley of the shadow of death. But even there he finds comfort, because you are with me. [Psalm 23:4] When the forces of this evil world confront and challenge you in various ways, God points you to his partnered presence: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” [Matthew 10:19-20] No matter what the earthly perspective looks like, the Psalmist declares, “God is within her, she will not fall.” [Psalm 46:5]
For further reading, read pages 48-68 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: Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians
In his letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul wrote, “…I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (4:3). Eusebius, the church historian, states that this same Clement, the associate of the Apostle Paul, is the one who wrote this letter of The Romans to the Corinthians and who was, in fact, the third bishop of the Christian church in Rome. Origin had a high view of this letter and Clement of Alexandria believed it was inspired Scripture. Enough of the Christian Church read this letter as regularly as they did the rest of the Scriptures so that the letter, which came to be known as 1 Clement, was included in a number of early Biblical manuscripts, such as Codex Alexandrinus.
In addition to its popularity, this letter also has an early date, around 97 A.D., which makes it the earliest document that we have outside of our New Testament canon. This makes 1 Clement a treasure trove of evidence as to what Christian doctrine was in the generation just after the apostles of Jesus. It also gives us a glimpse into the ecclesiastical hierarchy that was developing but before tradition and ordinances had become entrenched to the point that they, rather than the inspired Scriptures themselves, became the rule of faith. These points make 1 Clement: The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians worthy of a look.
In short, what might you notice? First of all, 1 Clement clearly is not divinely inspired. There are clear errors (including use of the legend of the Phoenix as fact) and quotes from various apocryphal sources. That having been said, however, 1 Clement is a wonderful testimony and resource. For Clement, Scripture is king. As he quotes generously, Clement shows that even at this early date there is a corpus of Christian writings that are widely recognized as having been inspired by God. These include the Old Testament writings, the words of Jesus, and New Testament writings all of which Clement respects and honors as equally authoritative. He approaches Scripture with reverence and respect, and he clearly perceives that his thoughts are not on equal par. He also gives a clear testimony on the Trinity, the work of the members of the Trinity (including a forensic view of justification as opposed to a sanative one), and believers’ response to God’s redemptive work. What we see is very Christocentric, very apostolic, very evangelical and something that, in most aspects, we 21st century confessional Lutherans would be happy and comfortable with. All this from a 1st century brother!
Pastor Robert Wendland serves as a professor of church history and homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary
Practical Theology: Define Your Core Values
The term “Core Value” can be ambiguous. And if we’re honest, it can be scary. Aren’t our core values the three solas inscribed on the Seminary cornerstone? Are we flirting with “business values” vs. “biblical values” when we talk about “core values?” In a July 2017 Four Branches post, I referenced Geno Wickman’s Traction, and his Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS). This organizational tool is now being used by quite a few WELS departments and congregations. One of the more valuable exercises in applying Wickman’s EOS is defining your “core values” (Question #1 in Wickman’s eight questions to define vision.)
In no way is defining “core values” attempting to undermine what unites us as confessional Lutherans. But not every congregation, school, or organization in our church body is the same. That’s ok. In fact, that’s beautiful. In keeping with the “body of Christ” picture, that’s God’s design. Knowing we can be united, but not uniform, it is valuable to see what core values are unique to you and your organization. Patrick Lencioni helped our Leadership Team look at core values as behavior traits that lie at the heart of our congregation’s identity. There are numerous tactics to determine your congregation’s core values. In the end, pick one. Your values will start floating to the top.
After study and much discussion, our Leadership Team defined our congregation’s core values as the following (in no particular order):
- outreach-mindset; and
At first, I thought this might be an exercise that landed on a shelf somewhere. But I’ve been amazed how often these core values help drive and guide decisions. For example, no one asked our congregation to be a “model” congregation. Nor would we ever want to assume that role on our own. But inwardly, striving to be a model has affected our decision-making. For example, we applied for the “Principal in Training Program” three years ago because we wanted to be a model for a young man who could serve as a principal elsewhere. We encourage our pastors to spend at least 10% of their time serving in ministry outside of the congregation ministry (e.g., writing for Four Branches) because our Leadership Team considers that an opportunity to be a model. When our leaders felt their compensation for called workers had fallen behind, they quickly changed their strategy, citing they wanted to be a “model congregation.”
Not every congregation will have these six core values. The point is, the exercise in determining what your core values are, then reinforcing and applying those core values to your decision-making process, will prove to be a blessing.
Rev. Joel Heckendorf serves as the coordinating pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI.