Four Branches November 2016

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Exegetical Theology: Thanksgiving

Paul’s letter to the Philippians has inspired commentaries with titles like “Laugh Again” (Swindoll) and “God’s Guide to Joy” (Klug).  Bengel summed up the epistle with the two words “Gaudeo – Gaudete!” So when our Thanksgiving text (Philippians 4:10-20) begins with the word Ἐχάρην, we take note.  Your thanksgiving sermon will no doubt expound on why Paul could rejoice while in prison because of his attitude and the Philippian’s concern, but don’t pass by the first phrase too quickly.

Ἐχάρην δὲ ἐν κυρίῳ μεγάλως.  “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly.”  You’ll notice I didn’t translate the transitional  δὲ (Lenski),  as Paul moves on to a new subject from his encouragement to consider the good things and follow his example.  This aorist passive form is the normal way the verb shows up in the aorist, but I wonder if that gives insight into its meaning.  I rejoice because I am the recipient of what causes joy, passive.

The prepositional phrase certainly adds to that thought.  Paul rejoiced ἐν κυρίῳἐν is one of Greek’s most used prepositions and this specific phrase occurs at least 48 times in the New Testament, 9 times in this letter.  I vividly remember Professor Kuske describing the “bubble” that ἐν creates, talking about the sphere in which something happens. Paul’s rejoicing, his happiness in what he received happens entirely ἐν κυρίῳ.  It is the same for us, his readers.  In other words, since every situation (well fed or hungry, plenty or want) happens for me inside of my relationship to the Lord, inside of all the blessings he gives and the love he guaranteed by sending his Son, because of that I rejoice.  The rest of the text then describes specific causes of that rejoicing – the Philippians’ concern, the secret of contentment, and the confidence that God will supply all your needs.  So this thanksgiving, rejoice!

Pastor Jonathan Scharf serves Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington, GA.

He also serves on the Scripture Committee for the new hymnal project, and is sharing Greek insights from three proposed pericopes.

Systematic Theology: Pondering Providence (p. 3)

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:36). This topic sprung from a discussion among brothers who maintained that the Lutheran doctrine of providence hadn’t really advanced much since the days of the Reformation. True statement, or, is there simply nothing more to develop?

Luther held a very simple view of providence: all things take place by necessity. (Read more about Luther’s view of God’s “restless logic” in The Providence of God, B. Farley) In His writings on this topic, Luther was sola scriptura and did not lean on philosophical support as did Augustine. In The Bondage of the Will he rejects the philosophical implications between contingency and necessity.

The founding fathers of Lutheran theology followed this same sola scriptura hermeneutic. Their focus varied, Chemnitz on God’s power, Selnecker on his presence, Quenstedt stressed God’s activity. But these early dogmaticians never spoke according to empirical or philosophical categories. Through all their advanced systematizing beyond Luther’s simple necessity, they wrestled with some pretty tricky questions: The cause of sin, balancing God’s providence and man’s freedom on the fulcrum of contingency, evil and concurrence.

Did they at times systematize masterfully and yet still avoid answering the hard questions? Yes, because they refused to speculate beyond the Word. Providence is not a developing discussion among us because there’s nothing more left to be said on the topic. . . provided you restrict yourself to God’s Word. But the application of these truths to the lives of your flock, now there is a vast variety of application to be developed! For a masterful discussion on the history of this doctrine’s development by the early reformers read The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, vol. 2, page 198ff, R. Preus.

Our Lord’s richest blessings as you apply these truths for the comfort of God’s people, pondering God’s providence together!

Pastor Harland Goetzinger serves the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Ottawa, and is the president of WELS-Canada.

Historical Theology: The Bondage of the Will

We have now made our way to the final work of Luther in this series, The Bondage of the Will. For decades after its appearance, this work revealed some key differences of theological emphases and orientation among those who shared (or claimed to share) Luther’s theology. After his death a number of controversies over the content of this book, especially original sin and free will, threatened to tear Lutheranism asunder. Thankfully, the Formula of Concord carefully summarized Luther’s very biblical teaching and unified much of German Lutheranism.

Erasmus of Rotterdam published his On the Freedom of the Will, or Diatribe, against Luther in 1524, a very busy time in Luther’s life. He was moved to do so by pressure from Roman Catholic parties who wanted him to show once and for all that he was not a supporter of Luther or his reformation. Erasmus thought he had picked a rather tangential matter, one that might not raise Luther’s ire, free will, or free choice. He was wrong. Luther commended him for his jugular, for cutting to the heart of his theology.

The Bondage of the Will is best read backward. This is because of the method of the time for disputation, to which Luther adhered, summarizing his opponent’s argument and then poking holes in it, before then setting forth a summary of his own position. The Bondage of the Will is also best read after having read Erasmus’ diatribe. In it you will encounter some very common themes and arguments. Dare I say, in it you will encounter some very American themes and arguments. In short, Erasmus argued that God’s commands and exhortations imply choice to respond to them, that there is no merit or reward without choice, and that God would be cruel to demand of us what we cannot to some extent will. I will let Luther answer these arguments for himself (read it!), but central to the Bible’s teaching with respect to free will is that our will is only free with regard to things below us: Big Macs and Whoppers, Fords or Chevys, Microsoft or Mac. In spiritual matters, human beings have no free will. They are dead in trespasses and sins. God’s Word must give them life, His promise faith. Salvation is a gift, not a reward, through Christ’s merit, not our own.

To his grave Luther considered The Bondage of the Will to be one of his most important works (together with his catechisms), perhaps the clearest expression of his theology of justification by grace through faith. As the Luther year approaches, consider pulling it off your shelf and working through it again. You will be a better preacher for it and you will find a peace that only the gospel, unleashed and unpolished, can give.

Rev. Wade Johnston serves as an Assistant Professor of Theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College and received his Ph.D. from Central Michigan University and Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.

Practical Theology: Diverse Learning Styles (p. 3 of 3)

In the previous two issues we’ve been thinking about four different types of adult learners: Talk Learners, Research Learners, Create Learners, and Step Learners. The basic premise is that it’s helpful to recognize that people learn things in different ways so that we can teach them more effectively.

But what if you’re perfectly comfortable teaching Bible class the way you do it now? Is trying a new approach or two really worth your time and effort?

Some points to ponder:

  • We tend to teach in the learning style that makes the most sense to us. But that style may not be the way that many other people learn. For example, I may be comfortable with a lecture-heavy teaching style. Some people in my class may like it. But by sticking almost exclusively to that style, am I making it more difficult or unpleasant for lots of other people to learn?
  • Each member of the body of Christ is unique. We recognize that’s true when it comes to different gifts and talents that Christians possess. Can’t it be true also for learning styles? By recognizing that different people learn in different ways, we can grow in our appreciation of the diversity within the body of Christ. By teaching in new ways we can show love for those who may learn things in a way different from the way we learn.
  • Teaching is more than just presenting material. We’ve probably all found ourselves on the receiving end of a “data dump,” where someone gave us more information than we could process. As we think about how people learn, we’ll look for ways not only to present correct material, but also to people take what they’re learning to heart, think about it, remember it, and apply it. The content of what we’re teaching is still paramount, but the way we teach it is important, too.

The Spirit guide you as you seek, in love, to teach his unchanging truth in new ways!

Pastor Jon Micheel serves Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, UT.  He also serves on the Rites Committee for the new hymnal project.