Four Branches – September 2020

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Exegetical Theology: Tell Me Up Front – Focus

In Greek, word order doesn’t tell you the syntax like it does in English, but it still does tell you something. Default Koine word order puts the verb or predicate nominative at the clause’s beginning, but quite often speakers will move another word or phrase to the front of that verb or predicate nominative to tell you something you should know up front. There are two kinds of such fronting.[1] One of these is called focus.

Focus is when a word or phrase is moved forward to mark it as the clause’s most important new information. (English has focus too, but generally accomplishes focus via a strong stress accent, not word order, so read these foci with a strong stress accent.) We see two examples of focus-fronting in Romans 9:8 (CWS Epistle for Pentecost 18).

τοῦτʼ ἔστιν, οὐ τὰ τέκνα τῆς σαρκὸς ταῦτα τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ

That is, the children of the flesh, these ones, aren’t God’s children.

ἀλλὰ τὰ τέκνα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας λογίζεται εἰς σπέρμα.

Rather, the children of the promise are considered his offspring.

Think of the foci as being highlighted as the answer to the implicit question that their respective clause addresses, in this case, showing which kind of Israelite is really Israel:

Question: Who are God’s children?

Focus-Answer: Not the biological descendants of Israel.

Question: Then who is considered Abraham’s offspring?

Focus-Answer: The Israelites[2] reborn through faith in the gospel promise.

If, alternatively, these phrases were not highlighted as foci (and instead found in their default position after the verb or predicate nominative), or if we simply missed their focal status, then we’d think they were the implicit questions and it was the other information that was meant as the answers. In that case, we’d think the point Paul was making was what should be thought of these groups:

Question: Who are the biological descendants of Israel?

Answer: Not God’s children.

Question: What about the Israelites reborn through faith in the gospel promise?

Answer: They are considered Abraham’s offspring.

Getting the question and answer mixed around like that will still often (but not always) result in true statements. But the specific point the holy writer is making and his logic in arguing for it becomes much easier to follow if we catch when a word/phrase is fronted as the focus. Here we want to put the focus where St. Paul puts the focus, as he has us pondering not what the respective statuses of apostate and believing Jews might be, but instead considering that it is not a mere earthly connection but ultimately only the grace of God—operative in eternity and encapsulated in the gospel promise—that makes someone God’s child.

Blessings, brothers, as you point the saints to that same grace of God that has made them and you God’s child as well!

Rev. Aaron Jensen serves as associate pastor at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Adrian, MI.

[1] Keep this in mind, and don’t automatically assume everything pulled to the front is the focus. Next month we will look at a very different purpose for fronting something.

[2] While often the true spiritual Israel spoken of in Romans 9-11 is assumed to be a reference to all believers regardless of ethnicity, in many places (cf. especially chapter 11) Paul’s logic hangs together much more soundly if the true spiritual Israel is taken here to be specifically Israelite believers, as in, the subset of ethnic Israel that believes, onto which Gentile believers are grafted. However, speaking of Gentile believers as being the true Israel is also certainly a biblical thought (cf. Gal 6:16).

Systematic Theology: Preaching God’s Eternal Election: Let Scripture Set the Limits

I dare you!  Perhaps when you hear those words, your mind goes back to the playground at school or hanging out with friends in your neighborhood.  Those words usually go along with a challenge to do something dangerous and risky.  We may not be on a playground, but I would like to dare you to do something.  And I dare you to do it because it might seem a little risky and dangerous.  I dare you to take advantage of one of the upcoming texts in the lectionary to preach on the doctrine of election.

From the early church[3] to the present day,[4] pastors have at times hesitated to proclaim this wonderfully comforting doctrine of Scripture.  Maybe you are among them.  If so, over the next few articles we want to remember some truths from dogmatics that help us when we preach election to those we serve.

Preaching on election can be especially intimidating because of the many questions human reason poses.  From trivial to tough, theoretical to gut wrenchingly real, there are almost too many to count.  Why some?  Why not others?  Why did God choose this person?  How can I be sure I am one of the elect?  Better to avoid the whole topic rather than leave people in the pews struggling with unanswered questions, right?

No, the better course of action is to let Scripture set the bounds for our handling of this doctrine than our questioning human reason.  If you review Article XI in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord (roughly 3 pages), you will notice how many times in this dogmatic treatment of election the reformers highlight: “This election is not to be probed in the secret counsel of God but rather is to be sought in the Word, where it has also been revealed.”[5]  Take a master class on election from Augustine—the great theologian of the early church—by reading his treatise On the Predestination of the Saints.  There you will find him regularly paraphrasing Romans 11 as he writes things like, “But why He should have kept the righteous man here to fall, when He might have withdrawn him before,—His judgments, although absolutely righteous, are yet unsearchable.”[6]  Or just reread Romans 9-11 and notice how many quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures Paul makes in discussing election.[7]  Learn from these older brothers in the faith to let Scripture set the limits for your preaching on election.

When you let Scripture set the bounds for your preaching on election you do more though than keep reason’s questions in check.  You set the groundwork for finding the precious comfort in this doctrine.  More on that next time.

Rev. Joshua Becker serves Christ Lutheran in Saginaw, MI.

[3] Augustine. On the Gift of Perseverance. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 1: Vol. 5, p. 546-547.

[4] Becker, Siegbert. The Word Goes On. Milwaukee, WI: NPH, 1992, p. 68-69.

[5] Formula of Concord, Epitome. Article XI, par. 6.

Historical Theology:

A “Little Song”: Luther’s 1520 Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Near the end of his 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility, Martin Luther had promised Rome another “little song,” pitched “in the highest key!”[8] And Luther didn’t disappoint. This “song” became one of his most well-known and bombastic treatises: A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. At the time it was Luther’s most powerful attack on Roman church, and he hit them where it hurt—the sacramental system.

Luther exposed “captivities” specific to Holy Communion, such as, withholding the cup from the laity, transubstantiation, and the Mass as a sacrifice or good work. But he also demolished the scholastic definitions and wicked practices surrounding all seven of the church’s sacraments. Luther even rams home who was to blame: “I now know for certain that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod, the mighty hunter.”[9]

Luther attacked the system because it condemned faith and robbed people of the free forgiveness Christ had won for them. Luther was a pastor, concerned for his people and all the souls trapped under this tyranny. With this treatise, Luther hoped to win over other pastors and church leaders. This makes it especially applicable to pastors 500 years later.

A brief look at his discussion of Holy Communion and Holy Baptism bear this out. They are still refreshing and thought-provoking:

  • “Nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of Mass than a faith that relies confidently on this promise… Who would not shed tears of gladness, indeed, almost faint for joy in Christ, if he believed with unshaken faith that this inestimable promise of Christ belonged to him?”[10]
  • “The sooner we depart this life, the more speedily we fulfill our baptism; and the more cruelly we suffer, the more successfully do we conform to our baptism… For our whole life should be baptism.”[11]

The Roman system had arisen because doctrine and practice were not drawn from and shaped by Holy Scripture. Systems of thought and traditions often permeate a church. Whether beneficial or detrimental, they are difficult to change or uproot. Luther’s Babylonian Captivity gives us a good baseline for examining our own doctrine and practice when it comes to the sacraments. God is a multi-media communicator, but do we reflect that in our congregations? Are the sacraments an afterthought or part of the crown jewels? The undeserved promises of Christ strengthen our faith, not our actions and not simply going through the motions. Luther wrote, “Not the sacrament, but the faith of the sacrament, justifies.”[12] That’s a “little song” worth singing today.

Read the PAPER Pastor Schaefer delivered at this year’s Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary symposium on the 1520 treatises of Martin Luther.

Rev.Benjamin P. Schaefer serves at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Redding, CA

[6] Augustine. On the Predestination of the Saints. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Series 1: Vol. 5, p. 511.

[7] This three chapter section contains more quotations from the Old Testament than any other three chapter block of the New Testament.

[8]  The Annotated Luther (TAL) 1:465; cf. also LW 44:217.

[9]  TAL 3:15. Cf. LW 36:12.

[10]  TAL 3:43. Cf. also LW 36:40.

[11]  TAL 3:72. Cf. also LW 36:69-70.

[12]  TAL 3:68. Cf. also LW 36:66. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession makes the same point using this quote from Augustine: “Faith that uses the sacrament, and not the Sacrament, justifies.” See Article XIII, para.23. The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 222.

Practical Theology: Conflict Management

Has your leadership been criticized lately?  Have people disagreed with a decision your church made and perhaps even left because they didn’t agree?  If so, you are not alone.

In a survey conducted by Lifeway Research in July, they found that the top pressure point for pastors was maintaining unity with so many differing opinions.  We hear, see, and feel the divide all around us.  Our members may have the same heart of love for God and love for their neighbors and be on very opposite wavelengths.

And into this dynamic we hear the words of our Savior, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:19).  You and I have an opportunity as leaders in the church to be peacemakers.  What follows are considerations for us on the topic of conflict management.

  • Seek first to understand, before being understood.  Scripture reminds us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19).  A wise pastor realizes that many times people simply want to know they’ve been heard.  If someone makes it clear they disagree with a decision you’ve made or that the church has made – schedule time for a discussion.  Hear them out.  Do your best to put yourself in their situation and to see where they are coming from.  By doing this you may have an opportunity to clear up misconceptions and answer questions.  By doing this you may model what it is to see and understand both sides
  • Always strive for a personal approach.  When you receive that 2000-word email against you or a decision you made – what should you write back?  Nothing.  I’d advocate you pick up the phone and find a time for face-to-face conversation.  When there is a conflict you need the ability to look the other person in the eyes and read body language or hear their tone of voice.  Much is missed in written and text communication.  Realize any negative or conflicting word in email or text weighs 1000 pounds.  Consider how God calls us to be gentle in our responses whether confessing our faith or restoring a brother. (1 Peter 3:15, Galatians 6:2)
  • Avoid divisiveness on social media.  Consider these words from the Pastoral Epistle Titus, “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (3:9). This may not be an issue for you, but it is perhaps for your people.  How many foolish arguments are there on Facebook?  Too many to count.  How divisive can it be?  The reality is that in general Facebook arguments do not change people’s minds, rather they polarize and entrench.  Do you want to be free of those blood boiling moments of disagreement, and the felt need to respond and correct?  Consider limiting your time or not using social media.  Social media can have use in the Kingdom as we consider live-streaming etc., but we need to be aware of its pitfalls.  As pastors we understand and accept that the cross of Jesus may be an offense to some and cause division.  But let it not be that offense was given because we felt the need to express our personal opinions in an improper way.
  • Enjoy and implement Matthew 18:15-19.  God in his wisdom has given us principles for how to handle conflict well.  It starts when we see ourselves as forgiven, children of God.  As we daily repent, we have the opportunity to see Jesus’ sacrifice cover all our shame and our sin.  We approach others who have sinned against us.  Why?  So they might be restored to the same understanding.  So they too, see how Jesus’ sacrifice covers all their shame and sin.  And what is greater than saying on behalf of God that they too are forgiven!

This era presents some incredible opportunities.  Empowered by the Spirit may we model for others the way of a peacemaker.  May we point the world to the one who is the Prince of Peace.

 Rev. Dustin Blumer serves at Amazing Love Lutheran in Frankfort, IL.