Four Branches June 2017

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Exegetical Theology: The How of Old Testament Communication

In his address to the Society of Biblical Literature (1969), James Muilenburg described the way exegesis can be enhanced by heightening our sensitivity to the literary forms of the Old Testament: “The more the [critic] concentrates on the ways in which thought has been woven into linguistic patterns, the better able he is to think the thoughts of the biblical writer after him.” This is a call to pay attention to both form and content – the how along with the what – of biblical revelation. These verbal patterns, to name a few, include: chiasm, poetic centering, and the repetition of key words within a narrative to exploit their full semantic range or to bring remote stories into conversation with each other.

We begin this three-part series by recognizing a humble Hebraism, a simple figure of speech. The reading for Pentecost 3 (Supplemental Lectionary Year A) transports us to Mt. Sinai, the scene of the Burning Bush (Ex 3:1-15). When Moses inquires into the LORD’s name, the enigmatic reply, ’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh [I Am who I Am] involves a verbal pattern we have come to recognize, for example, “If I die, I die” (Est 4:16), or, “I have written what I have written” (Jn 19:22). These expressions may seem like tautologies communicating nothing at all. However, the figure of speech idem per idem means that, for the speaker, either the willingness or the ability to say more is absent. If we ask, “Why are some saved and not others?” the LORD’s, “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex 33:19; Ro 9:15) may seem to contain no information, but the relational message is clear: “This is mine to know, not yours.” So we flee the hidden God and run to Christ.

Moses saw something on the mountain that flashed in the night and drew him closer in and higher up – the cohortative ’asurah-na’ [let me turn aside now] expresses Moses’ inward deliberation (Ex 3:3). It was curiosity more than anything else, a spontaneous impulse to climb. It is just this way with the Old Testament. A book on a table with coffee rings on its cover does nothing to overwhelm. Yet there is a fire within the leaves. As we yearn to know his name, our God in flames answers with a verb, not a noun. The simplest sentence that can be uttered – I Am – is a rolling ocean. It comes from the timeless, sublime Christ in a form that whispers, “Be still. Content yourself with this. It is all you will ever need.”

I Am who I Am.

Recommended reading:

Robert Alter provides perhaps the most useful introduction to the way exegesis can be enhanced by literary analysis. Be aware that he does not have a high view of Scripture as revelation. However, his admiration for the stunning sophistication of biblical prose and poetry is unparalleled.

Alter, R. (2011a). The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Alter, R. (2011b). The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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



Systematic Theology: The Conscience Sees Cut Corners

It was the smallest of cut corners. David’s razor-sharp knife stole the least piece of fabric from Saul’s robe. That action quickly revealed an even sharper weapon within him. David was literally heart struck or conscience stricken [1 Sa 24:6]. The impact of that searing sensitivity led him to change his course of action. He winsomely guided his soldiers to stand down, allowed an oblivious King Saul to escape, then diplomatically engaged the King.

Years later, the same David somehow imagined he could cut an even larger corner away from the God of Israel and still sheathe the internal weapon of his conscience. He couldn’t. While he was successfully able to ignore and evade it for a time, he couldn’t stop it from testifying and holding him accountable. His own poetry would later admit: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long…my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” [Ps 32:3,4] The internal weapon of the conscience was still working.

Luther describes the activity of conscience: “Conscience is not a power designed to act but a power designed to judge, one that judges acts. Its proper work is as Paul says in Ro 2:15, to accuse or excuse, to charge with guilt or to absolve from guilt, to make fearful or secure. Its office, therefore, is not to do but to sit in judgment on what has been done or is to be done.”

Conscience then is a witness to God’s existence. It lets us know how our relationship with God is at the current time. It evaluates our past thoughts or actions, present happenings, and future plans. Then it judges us vindicated or guilty.

Carrying around such a judge can easily weary the most seasoned Christian. When our conscience won’t quit, keep in mind the Christian appeals through Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the gospel of Jesus to the highest court and Judge. God himself through the means of grace reverses the verdict of the lower court, passed down by our conscience. All our sins – for cutting small or large corners like David – are forgiven.

For further reading, read Daniel Deutschlander’s Grace Abounds, especially pages 7-14. Another good read is The Voice of Conscience by Alfred Rehwinkel.

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


Historical Theology: An Introduction to the Anti-Semitic Writings of Martin Luther

I was a 21-year-old living in Tel Aviv for the summer.  I’d struck up a friendship with an Israeli student.  She was friendly, well-read, and not particularly religious.  She asked me what I was studying.  When I said, “To be a Lutheran pastor,” her response was one of shock and betrayal: But Martin Luther hated the Jews!

I was a 38-year-old pastor speaking at an interfaith forum on “religion and politics” in Montana.  One of the panel members was a Reformed rabbi.  He’s friendly, well-read, and not particularly religious.  I was given a chance to speak on the unique Lutheran perspective on “the two kingdoms.”  As the panel wrapped up, the rabbi casually commented to the group: Of course, everyone knows that the Holocaust was just Hitler bringing Luther’s vision to fruition.

As the world takes note of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, there’s little chance that we – or our members or prospects – will escape such sentiments.  They call for an honest, clear answer that’s increasingly difficult to give in an age of soundbites, tweets and sensationalism.  I’d encourage you to see preparing yourself and your members to give an answer as a non-negotiable responsibility this year.

Take these next three months to refamiliarize yourself with the writings of Luther at the heart of the controversy, to understand how both sides of the debate have framed the matter, and to form an answer that deals accurately and clearly with a part of our history and heritage.

Though it will not be the most joyful preparation for your Reformation celebration, I’d encourage you to read the following this month:

  • “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew” (Luther’s Works. Vol 45. 199-229.)

Written in 1523, this essay is an example of an “early Luther” on the subject.  In the writing, he sympathizes with the Jewish people and argues against the inhumane treatment they often received. It showcases Luther’s earnest desire for their salvation and brotherhood.

  • “Against the Sabbatarians” (Luther’s Works. Vol 47. 65-98.)

Fifteen years after his 1523 essay, Luther’s tone is considerably different.  Frustrated by counter-reformation efforts led by Judaizing gentiles (in which he perceived the handiwork of Jewish agitators), Luther spoke aggressively against the religious teachings of the Jewish people.

  • “On the Jews and Their Lies” (Luther’s Works. Vol 47. 137-306.)

This is the work you can expect to find quoted often this year, unfortunately.  An embittered Luther spoke polemically against the Jewish people on both religious and racial grounds.  The writing was displayed during Nazi party rallies in Nuremburg.

Next month, if God permits, we’ll consider the various ways these writings have been represented.

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



Practical Theology: I Love Meet-ings

I have yet to meet a brother in ministry who says, “I love meetings.”  But what about meet-ings, i.e., times that we get to meet our leaders on a personal and spiritual level?  Five years ago, our congregation restructured how we conducted the business of the church.  We decided to meet more often.  Yes, that’s right… more often.

We used to meet the second Tuesday of the month.  After what seemed like an obligatory devotion, we’d move on to the “real” business so the exhausted guys could get home at a reasonable hour.  So what did we change?  We took out the devotion.  What?!  Yes… we kept the meeting to an hour and restricted it only to the business.

But we also added the third Saturday of the month.  Fresh to face a new day, we meet at 7:00AM in a completely different setting.   My gifted-with-hospitality admin assistant greets the Leadership Team with fresh-brewed coffee and homemade treats.  Then we spend the next two and a half hours doing anything but the day-to-day business of the church.  No finance reports.  No building updates.  Only uplifting stuff.  Edifying stuff.

What does the morning look like?

  • Coffee & Conversation (15-20 minutes) In the past this has included planned conversations or team-building exercises (in case you haven’t figured it out, guys like competition).
  • Bible Study (Up to an hour) What a joy to spend a full hour digging into the word with the spiritually-mature men of your congregation.  Sometimes, Bible study may be based on a book they had to read (e.g., we just worked through the Large Catechism) or we’ll work through sections of Scripture over the course of time (never rushed).
  • Break (15 Minutes) – Allow for some natural relationship-building.
  • Vision Building (Up to an hour) Most of the time this includes reacting to something we have read or watched. For example, we have gone through secular materials such as Lencioni’s Six Critical Questions  or other videos of his The Advantage or Five Dysfunctions of a TeamOr we look to implement thoughts from books such as Larry Osborne’s Sticky Teams, which was reviewed by Grow in Grace’s Shepherd Study some years back.  In fact, it was Osborne’s suggestion to have a “shepherding” meeting to build unity among church leadership.

I can personally say this opportunity to meet my leaders on a personal and spiritual level has become one of the highlights of my month and I’d encourage it for your personal and congregation’s ministry.

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