Four Branches – June 2024

Jump to:

Exegetical theology: A Case Study in Why You Should Retain Your Hebrew: Psalm 110, Part 1

Sainted Professor Daniel Deutschlander was fond of warning his students that when they were pastors, the busyness of ministry would prompt them to look for timesaving shortcuts. He was convinced that the pastor’s own private devotional life would be first on the chopping block. After all, since a pastor is constantly working with the Word, why would he need to spend additional time with it all by himself?

Professor Deutschlander’s warning is meet and right for pastors of all ages. However, after 15 years in the ministry, I will respectfully disagree with him. I am convinced that the first thing to go is not your private devotional life, it’s your Hebrew. After all, since a pastor has spent more years learning Greek, has read more Greek, preaches more often on a text written in Greek, and has access to quality English Bible translations, why would he need to keep up with his Hebrew?

Although you could read a book that answers this objection [1], you could also just open your Hebrew Bible to Ps 110, since it is a case study in the necessity of knowing Hebrew. English translations paper over its difficulties but reading it in Hebrew will make you very aware of them. The Old Testament is replete with such issues. While keeping up with your Hebrew will not solve them all, it will make you a more careful student of Scripture.

The first issue in Ps 110 is not a difficulty but an interesting detail easily missed in translation. The psalm begins: נְאֻם יְהוָה לַאדֹנִי, literally, “the declaration of the LORD to my lord.” The Tetragrammaton is instantly recognizable, as is אָדוֹן, the common Hebrew word for “lord.” אָדוֹן can be used as a divine name when it ends with qamets and yod (אֲדֹנָי).[2] Based on Jesus’ use of the verse (Matt 22:41–46), that is what you would expect here. Instead, אָדוֹן ends with a first person singular pronominal suffix.

In other words, the lord of David to whom Yahweh is speaking does not necessarily have to be divine. We know that he is from Jesus’ exegesis of this phrase, but the Masoretic pointing makes it difficult to prove solely on the basis of the Hebrew.

Next month we will wade into the deep end of the pool.

Rev. Noah Headrick serves at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.

  1. Such as Why Read the Bible in the Original Languages? by Takamitsu Muraoka (of Hebrew Grammar fame).
  2. As the divine name, אָדוֹן is pointed as a plural of majesty with a first person singular suffix that has an emphatic qamets (נָי) instead of the expected patach (נַי) to make it obvious that it refers to God. The possessive value of the suffix has been lost. See Joüon §136d or Brug, A Commentary on Psalms 1—72, p. 221.

Systematic Theology: Natural Law: Natural to Scripture

“How do I navigate life, even when God’s Word does not tell me exactly what to do?” “Is Christian morality truly good, wise, and beautiful?” “Are these truths worth holding out to the world, even if it comes at great personal cost?”

Natural law may well be a critical theological locus of the next century. This topic, however, does not come naturally to 21st century Lutherans. Discussions of natural law in modern confessional Lutheran circles, if they happen at all, are often sequestered to anti-Catholic polemics,[1] apologetics,[2] or political philosophy[3]. While the next article will show that natural law is more foundational than peripheral to confessional Lutheranism, we will begin by establishing that natural law is native to Scripture.

First, some definitions:

Natural religion: The false belief, whether implicit or explicit, that reason, nature, and the human conscience are sufficient for salvation.

Natural knowledge of God: Knowledge of God based on nature and the human conscience that is evident to human reason apart from special revelation.

Natural law: The law of God written on the human heart, which is universal, objective, and evident to human reason apart from special revelation.

By analogy, one might think about God’s law, broadly speaking, as a network of roads that he has built into his creation. God implanted a roadmap onto human hearts, and he demands that all humanity perfectly follow these roads. Since the fall into sin, humanity is completely incapable of perfectly navigating these roads, and the roads are obscured by dense fog. Nonetheless, humans can dimly make out a path forward. This is natural law.[4]

The sedes doctrinae for natural law is Rom 2:14-15: “…for when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them…” The Gentiles had God’s divine moral law imprinted on their hearts, and, to their condemnation (Rom 3:23), failed to fulfill it.

Other examples are found throughout Scripture. Prov 8-9 discusses natural law explicitly, and natural law is implicit in much of the rest of the book.[5] The pagan king Abimelech justly condemns Abraham for doing what “ought not to be done.” (Gen 20:9) Pagan nations are to be drawn to Israel when they recognize the wisdom and justice of the Mosaic Covenant (Deut 4:6-7). The nations are also condemned for failing to live up to the natural law (e.g. Amos 1-2).

Next time, we will see how natural law has been articulated by pagan philosophers and confessed by Christian theologians, especially Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

Rev. Scott Henrich serves Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran – Knoxville, TN

  1. Lange, Lyle, For God So Loved the World (NPH), 175.
  2. Quist, Allen, The Reason I Believe (CPH), 150-169.
  3. Maas, Korey, “Natural Law, Lutheranism and the Public Good,” The Lutheran Witness.
  4. God’s revealed law functions like occasional, brilliant streetlamps for those who have faith. It gives them clear reference points for the true path forward, and it reveals just how far off this path humanity has fallen.
  5. Ecclesiastes is a helpful foil against placing too much stock in natural law.

Historical Theology: It’s not just any day; it’s our Church’s anniversary! Let’s delve into why it matters.

As our synod approaches its 175th anniversary (Dei gratia!), it is a privilege for pastors to be on the frontline as learners, caretakers, and transmitters of Church history. We must first consider the issue itself before we can properly “think” and “thank” during this anniversary opportunity, understanding the weight of our responsibility in preserving and sharing our rich heritage.

Church history is important and incredibly valuable. Studying Church history is not just a task but a journey that helps us trace the development of important doctrines and be more prepared to recognize and intercept heresy. Church history is a path that leads us to understand how our spiritual forefathers learned to apply scripture to real situations in the past, enhancing our pastoral care for our members and congregations. The Church’s history is a treasure trove of models and examples from the saints gone before us, an encouraging and unbroken record of God’s faithfulness to his promises for his people. Church history is a record of continuity that connects believers with the historic Church, fostering a sense of belonging and rootedness.

However, to get to the value, we need to study and move past superficial anecdotal knowledge, shallow assumptions, and negative stereotypes of our forefathers too often repeated. 

Let us first use our synod’s anniversary as a prompt to get ourselves and our people interested in learning more about how God brought us through history to where we are today. As one German philosopher said, “We belong to history, not it to us. We do not stand over it; we are its present result.”[1]

Above all, anniversaries are regular occasions to prompt us to “think” about (remember) and “thank” God and his work. As another philosopher said, “Real thinking, thinking that is rooted in Being, is at once an act of thanking and remembrance.”[2] This leads us all to proclaim to new generations what the Lord has done. 

I fondly remember my first formal Church history lesson as an 8th grader in catechism class. It was my pastor who first instilled in me a particular interest in the history of my congregation and synod.  Sure, I liked history as long as I can remember, but that was the George Washington, Gettysburg, and Saving Private Ryan type. My pastor began catechism class by having us learn about Martin Luther and the Reformation and then quickly drew the dots to lessons on the Wisconsin Synod (using 150th anniversary material) and our own congregation. Just as he helped me to think about my spiritual family and ancestors and to give God thanks for them, may you also be inspired to lead your people to think about and be thankful for the specific acts of God among us in our synod and congregations.

Here are three options if you would like to further your knowledge of Church history for yourself and the members of your congregation:

Rev. Ben Phelps serves at St. Matthew Lutheran in Marathon, WI.

  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer Quotes., BrainyMedia Inc, 2024. His quote is printed in The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained.
  2. Barrett, William, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), 235.

Practical Theology: The Pastor’s Impact on His Congregation’s Evangelism Efforts Part 1 – The pastor personally evangelizes

Every minister is unique. Each has his own set of gifts and abilities. While every pastor’s task is the same (to proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments), the way each pastor carries out this task is specific to him and his gifts.

Every ministry setting is unique. Each has its own set of circumstances. While every pastor’s task is the same, the way each pastor carries out this task is specific to the time and place in which he serves.

Regardless of his ministry setting and his gifts, for a pastor to significantly impact his congregation’s evangelism efforts, it is critical that he is regularly involved in evangelizing the lost. This will be easier and more natural for some pastors than others and in some settings than others. It is simply the case that if we want our congregations to personally evangelize, we pastors must be personally evangelizing.

This was one of Rick Richardson’s findings in his research on what factors impacted the evangelism efforts of the fifteen hundred churches he surveyed.[1] Three of the top ten predictive factors of conversion growth in congregations had to do with the pastor’s personal involvement in evangelism.[2]

That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, sheep tend to follow their shepherd. When he is regularly sharing stories from his evangelism encounters (whether in sermons, bible classes, or casual conversations) he creates evangelistic energy, excitement, and education. They follow his lead and the evangelistic efforts of the congregation multiply.

Carving out time to personally evangelize will be more challenging for some pastors than others. I served as the sole pastor in a congregation of two hundred souls and in a congregation of nearly six hundred souls. It was certainly easier to evangelize while shepherding two hundred than it was shepherding six hundred. But whether it is challenging or not, the reality remains that for a congregation to excel in evangelization, the pastor must be personally evangelizing.

God’s blessings to you brothers, as you capitalize on opportunities to personally share Jesus with those who do not yet know him and as you share those stories with your people. You can be confident that the Lord of the Church sees those efforts and will bless them as he sees fit.

Rev. Eric Roecker serves as the Director for the WELS Commission on Evangelism

  1. You can read more about his findings in Rick’s book You Found Me (available on and elsewhere).
  2. The study was not interested in churches that grew as a result of transferring Christians from one church to another, but rather, those that grew by reaching lost souls with the gospel.