(Not) In the News: Korea’s Christian Heritage

Flag_of_South_Korea.svgI’m a bit of an Olympic junkie.  Ever since completing a school project on the Olympics back in 4th grade (thanks, Mrs. Gamino!), I’ve loved the modern Olympic ideals: competing for self and country, placing fellowship above results, and pushing oneself ever faster, higher, and stronger.  Today, the Rio Olympics 2016 have just closed, meaning we turn our attention to the next Winter Olympics, to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea.  Since NBC holds the broadcast rights to both the just past and future Olympics, it’s not surprising that their news arm would put out an anticipatory piece in the wake of Rio.

However, I’m calling a minor foul on the piece, because while it brings up religion, it totally ignores South Korea’s Christian heritage, especially its growth in the last 100 years and its tendency toward enormous megachurches.  (You can read more at this summary piece.)  Since I was reading the item as an Olympic story, I was surprised to read the line “They’re certainly praying for success.”  But when I did, I thought, “Wow — they’re going to talk about one of the megachurches in Korea!”  Alas, no: it described a Buddhist temple high up in the mountains.  Sadly, it seems that the writer (whose career has mostly focused in Western Europe and the US) made the mistake that so many of us do: assuming that East Asia is full of folks who practice traditional Asian religion(s).  As it happens, Korea has more Christians than Buddhists… but sadly, there are more “nones” than either of these two groups.  When we take the “nones” out of the equation, we see that Christians make up more than half of those confessing a religion.

So, as you can tell, this news story maybe should have included Christianity — but now you know more about Christianity in Korea than you did before!  And if you want some more contemporary facts, you can check out this Pew Research link.

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Some Ways That Church History is Relevant

The primary goal of the CHEF network is to be a blessing to “regular folks” by enriching their knowledge and appreciation of the history of Christianity.  One of the ways I hope to accomplish this goal is by providing some extended reflections on various aspects of church history that I find particularly relevant for contemporary Christianity.

Now, you will not be surprised to discover that my own social and denominational context shapes the things that I see as particularly relevant.  As a result, there are posts about universities and their origins in the medieval church, and about the Stone-Campbell movement of which I’m a part and which arose in the early 1800s on the American frontier.  But there are others as well that reflect different traditions, like posts about contemporary Catholicism and about John Wesley’s influence on small-group practices in many Christian groups.  No matter which ones you read, I hope you’ll find them helpful and thought-provoking.  Please feel free to make suggestions for essays you’d like me to write in the future!

I hope that these reflections will be a blessing to you — happy reading!

Image credit: https://twitter.com/relevant (no endorsement implied, but a lot of their stuff is good!)

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 2)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  We are finishing up Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will in today’s post.  In the first post I introduced the text, described the person to whom the text was addressed, discussed a couple of issues related to the various translations of the text, and made some introductory comments on a variety of topics.  Today’s post will be more focused: in addition to making some miscellaneous comments, I’ll be looking at the overall message of the treatise, especially considering its theological ideas and the implications of Luther’s own position and the one that he is attacking.  Let’s dig in!

What Luther is Trying to Say

So, as I discussed in the first post, this text is quite long.  The length of the treatise, along with the amount of polemic embedded in it, can make it hard to really get to the meat of what Luther’s trying to say.  But, in a nutshell, it seems to be this: humanity’s “Fall” has so damaged us, that we basically have no such thing as free will at all anymore — unless you mean freedom to do evil.  Luther had begun to articulate this position in prior years, especially in his conflicts with the Popes, and it seems to grow from his sense of the importance of justification by grace alone.  For the believer, though, Luther says, “if God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion,” and we are thus able to do good.

Now, Erasmus had offered a moderate view in his initial response to Luther’s preaching.  He certainly acknowledged the problem of the “Fall,” but he said that it merely weakened our wills.  In other words, the problem of sin is that it makes it more difficult to do the things that God has commanded of us — not impossible, just more difficult.  But Luther rejects that position as essentially “wimpy” — as though Erasmus wasn’t willing to go “all the way” to a full rejection of free choice in any matter related to salvation.  Luther does occasionally allow for some amount of free will — but only insofar as it enables us to do the evil that is implanted in us by the “Fall” (see, for example, section 25).   If you want a MUCH more thorough explanation of both men’s arguments, you can check out this resource; it’s got a lot of great detail on both Luther’s and Erasmus’s texts.

Why Luther is Making This Argument

There are several reasons that Luther is making this set of claims.  Some are theological presuppositions that he holds, which I’ll get to in a moment.  But there’s a more pressing, historical reason: the medieval church had held a cooperative view of salvation for centuries.  Through a variety of means, the church had taught that God and humans work together for our salvation — God does God’s part (e.g., sending Jesus, giving us the church, etc.), and we do our part (being baptized, living good lives, etc.).  The most famous example is in the situation regarding indulgences that Luther had rejected so strongly.  And he was right about the danger therein: while millions of Christians today still hold a view like this, we can sometimes believe that we can “earn” their salvation in some way.  Luther was strongly aware of this danger, and he wanted to do away with it completely by making us depend entirely on God’s work in Christ for our salvation.

But beyond Luther’s own life experience, he also held some theological ideas really strongly — ideas that (in his mind) meant that humans couldn’t possess any amount of free choice toward their own salvation.  These included the following:

  • Scripture is abundantly clear in its pronouncements, and it doesn’t need any fancy interpretive strategies to understand it (see especially sections 3, 35-36, 38).  (Since Luther thinks that Scripture agrees with him, then Erasmus is [in Luther’s mind] kind of foolish for not being on board, too.)
  • God is unbelievably powerful and has an immutable will (see, for example, secs. 8-9 on God’s will, and sec. 93 on God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge).  Obviously, Luther is reading Scripture here, but he is also thinking of that “merit industry” that characterized medieval Christianity in the West.  If we can earn merit, then that might take away from God’s power to save.  If we want to emphasize God’s power, then it behooves us to reject any claims of power for ourselves.
  • As a result, God’s actions are efficacious — they get something done.  If we believe that God is working in the world, then that accounts for the good that the saved do, and it accounts for the evil that the unbelievers do.  (This is an interesting argument, found in section 84: when God acts, something happens, and if unbelievers are only predisposed toward evil, then God’s motive action will result in evil-doing… but it’s because of the unbeliever’s prior disposition, not because God is at fault.)
  • God chooses the church — we don’t choose ourselves.  One of God’s sovereign actions is to choose the saved.  Obviously (Luther would say), we don’t choose to be part of God’s family — that’s a gracious gift of God — and so it also must be true that we can’t resist God’s choice, weak as we are.  The result of this belief that is the members of the “true church” — the “elect” — are only known to God (sec. 34), and so we can’t try to earn our way in.
  • As the corollary of God’s magnificence and might, human beings are pretty weak and foolish.  We see this in sec. 38, where he argues that the reason so many intelligent people have misunderstood the Scriptures is that, because of sin, our hearts are darkened.  Also, in sec. 52, Luther follows Paul in rejecting the arguments of “human reason.”  We need to depend on what he sees as the clear pronouncements of Scripture, rather than leaning on our own weak wisdom.

What Luther is Rejecting

Holbein-erasmusDeep stuff, huh?  Let’s come at this from one more angle, and hopefully we’ll have a good sense of the overall picture.  One last way to think of this problem is to ask what Luther is rejecting in Erasmus’s ideas, and why.  As I see it, there are a couple of reasons that Luther himself keeps coming back to — Luther thinks Erasmus’s ideas aren’t found in Scripture, and he is working from a very “black-and-white” sense of the world, which leaves no room for ambiguity.  But what we find in the work much more often are what Luther sees as the problematic implications of Erasmus’s argument.  Here are just a few of them:

  • If we have free choice toward our own salvation, then that means we should do works that direction… which suggests that God’s grace isn’t enough for that salvation (section 7).
  • If we aren’t aware or certain of what God is doing for us and our salvation, then we miss opportunities to give God the glory and praise that God deserves (secs. 7, 12, 28), and we could suffer the anxiety of a guilty conscience, uncertain of our salvation (sec. 164).
  • If we have such a high opinion of ourselves, then we can think that God doesn’t care about our actions, thus encouraging us toward greater sin (sec. 23) — maybe even thinking that God is basically asleep while we sin (sec. 81)!
  • If we think our works help save us, then we are usurping the proper role of grace and the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (sec. 44, where he invokes the Pelagian heresy as a parallel).
  • If we aren’t deeply aware of our own sin, then Scripture loses its power as a beautiful source of comforting words (sec. 62).
  • And perhaps most troublingly: if we think that we are “good,” then we might be tempted to think that we don’t need Jesus as savior — or that maybe only a part of us needs Jesus as savior — then we essentially render Jesus weak, superfluous, or even unnecessary.

Some Reflections

This post is already pretty long, so I’m going to restrict myself to just a few evaluative comments.  First, when I read this text, I find myself attracted by the deep devotion to Scripture that Luther clearly possesses; that’s a feature of the movement of which I’m a part, too, and so I applaud that emphasis.  Second, I fully agree with his desire for us to lean fully on Jesus as our Savior; it’s way too easy for us to look to other things to save us, when Jesus is really the only one with power to save.  And finally, I need to hear his call to humility; if I depend on my own works (even just subconsciously), I can become proud and end up depending on myself.

That said, I have some quibbles with Brother Luther — a number of which have to do with his comments and ideas about Scripture.  First, while he does hold a very high view of Scripture (woo!), and while he does think it’s clearly understandable (errr…), he also has a very “flat” view of it — that is, he seems to think that all Scripture is essentially the same, and he doesn’t account for genre very well.  For example, he treat texts from the Psalms, Genesis, and Paul in essentially the same way: looking at what the writers said, without asking why they said those things.  Second, I think Luther is simply wrong that — at least on this topic — Scripture speaks with one voice.  Erasmus tried to make that point, and Luther brushed it aside, but I think that was because the latter had already decided his conclusion and was forcing the Scriptures to back it up.  For example, in section 46 and following, Luther considers a passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 15.  In my mind, this text is an excellent example of a passage that absolutely does tell us we have free will, and it must be considered alongside texts in Romans 9-11 that suggest otherwise.  But Luther brushes it aside, twisting the passage to make it say what it doesn’t say.  What’s frustrating is that that’s exactly what he accuses Erasmus of doing — in his whole section about “tropes” (secs. 77 and following).  Pot?  Meet the kettle.

If you haven’t guessed from the previous comments, I’m not convinced by Luther’s arguments.  Now, I grew up an Arminian, and I remain one today — but for more reasons than just preserving my heritage.  I believe we have free choice because of what I see in Scripture — the calls to repentance, the narratives of conversion, the commands to act in certain ways (even from Paul!), etc.  But I also believe because of my life experience.  Sure, some parts of our lives seem pre-determined (by “fate,” chance, our circumstances, social conditioning, etc.), but in so many other areas, we actually have choices.  I don’t think that’s a part of the “Fall” — I think it’s how God wants the world to be… because that’s how God’s world and salvation are arranged.  And unlike Luther, I think that’s good news, because it lets us choose to be in a relationship with God, rather than God forcing Godself on us.  Maybe that’s my American love of freedom talking, but I’d like to think it’s a theological position, informed by Scripture, theology, and experience

So (if you’re still reading by this point), feel free to do a couple of things.  First, if you want to go deeper on this text, check out this article, which contains reflection on the Bondage of the Will and also meditations on contemporary Christianity.  Second, weigh in!  What arguments have been most important for you in thinking about the difficult problem of free will and determinism?  I’ll look forward to your comments!

Image credits: www.cph.org (for the PlayMobil Martin Luther action figure), yovisto.blogspot.com (for the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger), and insideadog.com.au (for the Frozen meme)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

In the News: Christianity in Iraq

As most of you know, there has been ongoing, armed conflict in the Middle East, especially in Syria and northern Iraq, for at least five years (not counting the activities in which the U.S. has been involved).  Occasionally, the reports of that conflict includes the Christians who are indigenous to the area, as in this recent story from FoxNews.

Now, on reading it, you might be thinking a couple of things: 1) “There are indigenous Christians in the Middle East?!?”  And 2) “There are Middle Eastern Christians in the US?!?”  The answer to both questions, of course, is “yes,” and I’ve got some resources that can help you learn more about the situation there.  First, if you want a sense of the country-by-country picture in the Middle East, then you can check out this primer from the BBC; granted, it’s a few years old, and so with the situation as it is, the numbers have probably dwindled, as the link associated with the image below suggests.  But still, the resource is good.  Also, if you want more information about the various groups involved, this link from the OrthodoxWiki is a good beginning, and of course you can go from there as you desire.

Coptic Christians at funeral of Pope Shenouda III in Cairo

As far as Middle Eastern Christians in the United States go, the situation is rather diverse.  Not surprisingly, there are high concentrations of Middle Eastern Christians in places where there are a lot of people of Middle Eastern descent.  It may surprise you, though, that the place with the strongest concentration is Dearborn, Michigan.  But, as discussed in the article, California is another hot spot, as are major metropolitan areas like Chicago, New York, etc.  That said, there are whole swaths of the country with no Middle Eastern Christians at all — so if you’re thinking, “I don’t know any folks of this description,” well, you’re not alone.  But you can learn, right?

And never forget — you can Google.  Search for the different groups named in the links above.  Don’t start with what others say about them — read what they say about themselves.  You won’t regret it; these are vibrant communities with a strong sense of their own heritage and, often, their own history.

Image credit: www.pravmir.com

Suggested next click: Back to the In the News home page

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 1)

Greetings!  I’m so glad you’re here today, checking out another of the CHEF’s reading guides.  This time around we’ll be considering Martin Luther’s famous text The Bondage of the Will, in two posts.  I’ve already dealt with his 1520 treatise Freedom of a Christian in two other posts; the first one introduced us to Luther and that text, and the second one went into more depth and provided some supplemental resources.  Now it’s time to consider his 1525 work on free will and determinism.  Let’s dive in!

luther celebrating mass

Introduction to the Text

In terms of its content, this text is really fantastic in a lot of ways.  There’s TONS of meditation on Scripture, a lot of discussion about the nature of God and humanity, and some good thinking about the church.  You might have guessed those topics already if you know something about Luther’s common points of emphasis.  That said, I think there is also a primary theme here that is not obvious from the title of the text or from common perceptions of Luther.  Incidentally, this was also the case with Freedom of a Christian, which is certainly about freedom; however, a theme that is just as important there is the faith in Christ that gives rise to that freedom.  Here, the text capably considers our will’s bondage to sin, but I would argue that another primary theme is the sovereignty of God (cue applause from our Calvinist brothers and sisters). This theme is why I chose the image above from the excellent Luther movie, starring Joseph Fiennes (pictured) in the title role: we always want to keep in mind that, in this text, Luther wants us to have our eyes pointed “up to heaven,” so that we can find the God of our salvation.

The reason we need to keep this theme in mind is that other aspects of the text can be pretty depressing, because in it Luther engages in a lot of polemic, especially ad hominem attacks against his conversation partner, Desiderius Erasmus.  (In fact, if we took out all the polemical materials, the work would be a lot shorter.)  You see, the year before Luther wrote his text, Erasmus (incidentally, one of the smartest dudes of the whole Reformation period) had written a text called the Freedom of the Will.  There Erasmus had responded to some of Luther’s views, saying that the problem of free will is a seriously knotty one, and that there have been a whole range of views.  However, he says, based on Scripture, it seems that humans do enjoy at least some element of free choice, especially in turning away from sin and sinful things.  You’ll notice what many commentators have noted — that Erasmus accepted Luther’s standard desire to discuss the matter on biblical terms alone.  However, Luther was apparently shocked by Erasmus’s conclusions, as we’ll see.

The translation I am reading is a brand-new one by Volker Leppin, based on the one by Philip S. Watson in Luther’s Works, vol. 33.  This new translation appears in Fortress’s Annotated Luther series, as a single fascicle and as part of the second volume of that series.  I must here say that, unfortunately, this publication is only of an abridged version of the text.  Besides the shame of not having the entire text at our disposal in that one book, it is also unfortunate because Fortress does not indicate anywhere in their marketing materials that the volume is lacking a significant portion of the text.  The only place one learns of it is in a brief note at the end of the book’s introduction, where no rationale whatsoever is given for the editorial choice.

EDIT: Since the original writing of this post, I have had good conversations about this problem both online and at a conference with Will Bergkamp, Fortress’s publisher.  He graciously accepted the criticism while also sharing that he trusted the judgment of the series and volume editors — that the abridged version adequately represents the whole while remaining brief enough to match the other volumes in the series.  Hopefully, they will update their marketing materials to reflect that fact.  Regardless, if you want the entire text, perhaps this translation by Packer and Johnston would be better.  Alternatively, you can get this book by Rupp and Watson that has both Erasmus’s and Luther’s texts published together.  Or, in the meantime, you can do like I’m doing — fill out what you can get ahold of with this much older, online translation.  (Incidentally, I’ll be using the section numbers that are found there to indicate places in the text.)

Notes, Especially on the First Part of the Text

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not a Reformation specialist.  As a result, the things I notice in this text may seem a bit more random.  So, I’ll present them in the form of bulleted mini-paragraphs.  Feel free to add to them in the comments!

  • First, I notice that, as long as this text is, it seems rather well-organized.  That’s partly related to the conventions of the time, but it’s also because Luther is responding to a prior text by Erasmus.  In other words, a good part of Luther’s organizing schema is provided by Erasmus — answering (usually attempting to refute) him point by point, considering the same biblical texts, etc.  You can find a brief outline of the text at the bottom of this link, or a much more extensive one at this link.
  • Second, as I mentioned above, there is a lot of polemic in this text.  Some of it is directed at Erasmus himself — or maybe rather his text — which Luther calls by the term “Diatribe.”  Other critiques are directed at the “Sophists,” by which Luther seems to mean traditional Catholic theologians following the model of Scholastic theology.  If you’re a conflict-avoider like me, that feature of the text may put you off.  But I will say that Luther seems to really relish the argument, in that it forces him to put forward his best thinking.  Erasmus’s brilliance pushes Luther to really think through his views.
  • Another interesting feature of the text — not present nearly so much in Freedom of a Christian — is Luther’s repeated use of classical images and analogies.  The Fortress edition’s annotations point out a number of these, which is great for us non-classicists out there.  But just to give you one example, and a sense of the scope of things: in the introduction to the text, we already have references to Greek athletics prizes, Scylla and Charybdis, and Proteus. The translator says in his introduction that here we are seeing Luther trying to show off his humanist education by pointing to classical sources.  In other words, we might say that Luther wants to show that he can “hang” with Erasmus intellectually.  I don’t know if people thought he succeeded.
  • Not surprisingly, given what we know of Luther’s theology (and theological method), the text is completely suffused with Scripture.  While we see a Pauline focus (especially Romans and Galatians, which he knows so well) that is typical for Luther, we also see him interact with texts all across the canon — many of which were passages that Erasmus had discussed, which forced Luther to interpret them.  Many evangelicals today would consider this text a good model of trying to let the Bible serve as the predominant source for our theological discussions.
  • On a related topic: when I read the text, I get the sense that we are dealing with a couple of different theological “personalities,” if I might say it that way.  First, you have Luther, who clearly wants to base everything on Scripture.  Then you have Erasmus, who in sections 2-3 seems like he’s much more unwilling to simply give up church tradition; he’s wrestling with his rationality, Scripture, and the church Fathers (see this video primer on the “Wesley Quadrilateral” for the model of decision-making I’m referring to).  Further, Luther seems to want clear answers to a pretty deep question, while Erasmus is more willing to be “agnostic” about the topic in question — to not know for sure.  Luther reports Erasmus as believing that not all things in Scripture are clear.  While Luther rejects this premise, it seems that Erasmus embraces it.  In my opinion, these two differences made it really difficult for these guys to come to agreement.
    • Something I was surprised to find in the text is a whole series of what we sometimes call “false binaries.”  I was surprised to find them, because Luther is famous for rejecting the false binary of a human being as either a sinner or as someone justified — he said that we can both at the same time.  But, in the Bondage of the Will, we repeatedly encounter black-and-white views of a whole variety of things!  For example, in sec. 36, we hear that the question under discussion is either clear and Christian, or it is obscure and non-Christian.  WHAT?!?  In sec. 62, he diametrically opposes those who support free will and those who “insist on grace and the Holy Spirit.”  And then, as the text nears its rhetorical climax, the false binaries pile up on one another: secs. 120 (what is virtuous before humans is utterly worthless before God), 133 (supporting free will and supporting God’s mercy and justice), 147 (everything we do is either righteousness or sin — “righteousness if faith is present, sin if faith is absent”), and 163 (following the Johannine literature, there are two kingdoms in this world — one of God, one of Satan).  I gotta say: I don’t buy any of these false binaries, but Luther sure uses them a LOT!  There’s a lot that I admire in this text (as I’ll discuss next post), but this aspect is not one of them.

I think I’ll stop here.  The second post will be devoted primarily to the arguments of the text, so if you’re just getting started reading, I hope that this one gets you going.  In the meantime, something to consider: What is a Christian belief you hold that is mainly based on Scripture?  What’s one you hold that’s primary based on your experiences in life?

Image credits: badcatholicmovies.blogspot.com (the image — edited by the blogger — from the Joseph Fiennes Luther movie), fortresspress.com (for the book cover), and teachingthem.com (for the excellent icon representing conflict)

Suggested next click: Bondage of the Will, Part 2