Thursday, February 26, 2009

No Creeds, Just Scripture!?!


Matt Jamison says...
"The idea that "I don't follow any creed; I follow the Bible" is fundamentally dishonest. The whole "non-denominational" movement is built on this conceit. If you ever want to try this out, ask a nondenom church to baptize your infant. When they refuse, ask them to show you the verse where infant baptism is prohibited.

I don't mean to argue infant baptism for the umpteenth time on WT [the Wittenberg Trail, a community for people interested in Lutheranism], my point is to say that such churches do, in fact, have doctrinal positions that they hold to, that are not literally found in scripture, but are based on reasoning from the scriptures. Lutherans have codified these positions into something called the "Book of Concord" that we can point to and say "this is what it means to be a Lutheran" in terms of doctrine. Nondenoms most certainly do have doctrinal positions, but often they are confused and contradictory, because they like to pretend to have no doctrine but what is literally in scripture.

My church has a Mandarin service, and I know several Chinese Lutherans very well. They have a terrible time overcoming the doctrinal confusion sown by missionaries who told them that doctrine was no big deal, and all they needed was the Bible. So now, having the Bible, they earnestly want to be Christians but can get no clear answers about what Christians believe, teach and confess because so many in foreign missions think that doctrine is divisive or man-made or unnecessary.

In fact, these Chinese Lutherans came to join our confessional lutheran church because of their exasperation with a pastor who continually told them that baptism and the Lord's Supper was no big deal. Having read their Bibles, they knew better, and wanted the solid, grown-up food of pure doctrine rather than the confusion that prevails among evangelical missionaries.

[He continues a while later with an illustration about what may happen in a cross-cultural setting to make life without creeds very confusing.]

Let's say that my Baptist friend and I (a Lutheran) agree that we must attempt to reach people in China with the Gospel so we decide to form an organization to distribute Bibles in China. I believe that infants should be baptized, my Baptist friend thinks they should not. But we decide that that is a point of doctrine that we should not discuss because of the importance of getting Bibles into the hands of the Chinese, and the benefits of working together across denominational lines. We decide, in this instance, that "doctrine doesn't matter" and we get busy distributing Bibles.

So lets say our mission is a success, and a new Chinese believer comes to us to ask "should I baptize my child?" I answer "I believe that it is critically important that you baptize your child." My Baptist friend says "you must not baptize your child until he reaches an age of accountability where he can confess his faith and ask to be baptized."

Naturally, our new Chinese believer is confused. He wonders if we (either of us) know what we're talking about. We insist that this point of doctrine is not important and only the Gospel matters, but having believed the Gospel, our new convert can't get straight answers about what Christians believe. The new Christian church divides along lines similar to the division that has long existed in Western Christianity over this question, and it appears that division now exists where it hasn't before.

In a nutshell, that is what I think has happened, historically, with Chinese missions. I think the answer is not to whitewash or bury doctrinal disagreements that exist in the church. The answer is to be upfront and clear about our doctrinal positions to begin with.


Divine Service 04 - Service of the Sacrament

It has been a long time since I have posted on my blog in any form.  It seems this world which is subject to the curse of sin is bringing forth thorns and thistles, though the weather of late has not had my brow sweating very much.  In light of that, talking about the divine service is very appropriate.  We now come to the portion of the service when we celebrate the sacrament of communion.  Continue to look at the downward and upward motion - things which are given by God, our response to them.

First off, why the term "sacrament"?  Within my Christian background people have consistently called the Lord's supper and baptism "ordinances" rather than "sacraments."  Lutherans, along with almost all other Christians prior to the time of Zwingli, view baptism and the Lord's supper in a sacramental manner.  In a nutshell, the difference between an ordinance and a sacrament is this.  An ordinance is an element of Law.  We do the ordinances in obedience to God's command.  There is no promise on God's part attached to the ordinance, but they are a testimony on our part.  Every year in one or more of the classes I teach, I have at least one student who blithely asserts baptism is "an outward sign of an inward change."  This is a typical view of an ordinance.  But historically, baptism and communion have been viewed sacramentally.  In a sacrament, God does something using some sort of earthly element, and accompanies that action with his promise.  A sacrament is effective.  So historically, again, prior to the radical Reformation which rejected sacraments, Christians by and large accepted that in communion God is feeding his people, nourishing them physically and spiritually, with his true body and blood, immortal food.

This idea is, no pun intended, a little difficult for our post-Enlightenment people to swallow.  We are used to the idea that our reason guides what we are doing.  In many ways we have cast off that "primitive" supernaturalism.  We know what we are tasting.  It's bread, normally the kind of bread you would never want to eat.  And it's wine.  (Don't get me started on the lunacy which has led to naturalist people purposely preventing the natural fermentation of wine in order to be more spiritual.)  That's what our reason tells us.  But what does the Scripture tell us?  Something which runs just as counter to reason as salvation by grace through faith, Jesus' bodily resurrection, the virgin birth . . . Jesus tells us this is his body and blood.  It is repeated in three Gospels and in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians.  How many times does God have to say it before we believe it?

Well, here we go then.  God's people are assembled to participate in communion, also known as the sacrament of the altar.  What happens?  God gives his promise.  The pastor and people proclaim God's word yet again, speaking of God's holiness.  We respond to the proclamation of God's holiness by a prayer of thanksgiving, then speak the Lord's prayer.  The pastor then goes on with the "words of institution" - normally a quotation of one or more of the four passages in which Jesus instituted the Lord's supper.  The promise of God and the statements of Jesus about what we are doing are made very clear.  This celebration is not a matter of personal interpretation.  It is something which originates in God's will and revelation.  Typically the congregation then sings a brief song, traditionally the "Agnus Dei" - Latin for "Lamb of God."  The pastor then gives the bread, presenting it as "the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" and the wine, "the true blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Once all the communicants have been served the service comes to a close rather quickly.  The congregation responds, usually in the words of Simeon from Luke 2.29-32, we all pray, and receive a final benediction.

See once more, the "w" shape of this part of the service.  It originates in God's promises.  God's word is proclaimed to (and by) God's people.  We receive something quite physical and obviously real from Christ.  What do we give back?  Our thanksgiving.  God is nourishing his people through communion.  What can we do but receive and give thanks?

So there we have it.  We've walked through the divine service in four installments.  We've seen how this traditional worship form has multiple elements, all initiated by God.  What a comfort to be reminded that from beginning to end, God is the initiator of life, salvation, and hope.  I pray we can all walk in that hope today.

Dave Spotts
blogging at and

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Commodore? Loner?

There are some wonders that words can't express.  One of them is the way our children grow up and how their lives change over the years.  It seems just a little while ago that I was taking a little baby around on big adventures to buy groceries, always an exciting experience.  Now it looks like one of my shipmates, Lizzie, is asking for a transfer to another ship.  If I can figure out how to post it, here's a picture of Lizzie, who will be taking orders to be first mate of Cap'n Justin's ship, exploring waters in the southern part of the United States.
So does this make me the commodore of a small fleet?  Does it mean that I just need to find a new communications officer?  Whatever the outcome we'll keep up our journey in search of genuine confessional Christianity, as I trust will Lizzie and Justin.  May the Lord be with them.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book Review - Journal of Early Christian Studies 16.1

Like most professionals I typically fall behind in my reading of professional journals.  In fact, I confess that many times when I receive a scholarly journal it sits at the bottom of my "read it now" stack.  Frequently the articles in these publications tend to be about as interesting and useful as the instructions for assembly included in the box for a bicycle made in China.  But when cleaning my desk in December and renewing my membership in the North American Patristics Society I decided I ought to move my copies of the Journal of Early Christian Studies closer to the top of the stack.  I am now finishing the volume from Spring 2008, before receiving the Spring 2009 volume.

Unfortunately the articles in this particular issue didn't pertain to my area of interest in the Patristic literature.  I really don't find the time period after Augustine as interesting as the time period before him.  And I am really not too interested in speculation about the attitudes held by people in the early Church pertaining to drunkenness, vegetarianism, or deviant sexual practices.  Speculation about attitudes is not very helpful in general, and speculation which is filtered through the eyeglasses of 21st century political correctness, contradicting the clear attitude of Scripture, while enlightening about the modern scholarly community is hardly worth the paper it is printed on.  

Yet I am not writing a blog post in order to prove to all one of my readers that I actually read something.  I found one of the articles I read to be fairly useful so wanted to reflect on it for a moment.  This was an article by Guy Strousma, a professor of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University, entitled "The Scriptural Movement of Late Antiquity and Christian Monasticism."  In this article, Dr. Strousma traces some of the practices in reading and journaling which are found in early monasticism.  He discusses two practices in particular from which I think we might gain something in our lifetime.

First, Strousma observes that reading, while historically an activity engaged in orally, took on an aspect of silence and individuality in attempts to engage in specific meditation and reflection on the content, normally Scripture.  In addition to the public proclamation of Scripture, monks took to reading the Bible and committing it to memory, striving to reflect on God's word throughout their day.  How powerful it would be if we took seriously both the mighty proclamation of God's word in public and the transforming power the Scripture has in the inner man!

Another observation Strousma makes is that members of the monastic orders were encouraged to write in journals.  What were they writing in these journals, often little books which they would carry with them, fastened to their clothing to be always at the ready?  These were not mere reflections on what the Scripture said, translations of passages, memory verses, but often reflections on the monks' sinful tendencies, their weaknesses, their temptations.  The journals were not for sharing, not even with a confessor.  Rather they served to help the monk in realizing his weakness, confessing his propensity to sin before the Lord, and seeking God's strength to wage war against sin so that he might guard his heart and his body.

How often do we publish our ideas, write emails, write blogs, search the Scriptures to know how to bring a good interpretation of a passage into a lesson or sermon, yet fail to heed God's gracious warning provided for our inner man?  All too often.

Maybe I'll try a bit of journaling now and then.  Not a bad idea, though it did come from the Nicene fathers rather than the Ante-Nicene fathers.

Dave Spotts
blogging at and

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Divine Service 03 - the Service of the Word

We've looked at some of the ups and downs of the divine service.  I realize looking at my calendar that it's been a long time since I posted here.  Time to move ourselves the rest of the way through the service of the Word of God.   We have seen our Lord speaking to us in a call to repentance.  We have responded with repentance and prayer.  Our Lord has spoken again through the pastor proclaiming absolution.  We then pray the Lord will have mercy on this world as we pray for a variety of issues.  We sing to proclaim God's glory.  We pray, committing ourselves to our Lord.  Now it's time to hear from the Lord in Scripture and a sermon.

The readings are from a schedule which is used year after year.  The same place on the Church calendar will have the same readings, chosen to reflect what is happening in the Church year.  You can generally assume if you walk into any sort of a Lutheran church you will hear the readings from Scripture which you would expect for that Sunday.  Sometimes we may doubt the wisdom of a plan like this.  It does mean that the pastor will not exercise as much choice in selection of Scripture passages and sermon topics as you might find in Evangelicalism.  But then again it means the pastor will be walked through the Scripture in a systematic manner and will not have opportunity to camp out on one topic or chapter of Scripture for ages.  We hear the appointed Scripture and we briefly return thanks to God.  Then the pastor will preach a sermon.

In Lutheran circles the sermon is built on a framework of Law and Gospel.  The Law, of course, is that which God has said we need to do.  The Gospel is that which God has done for us.  We find both Law and Gospel in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  If we think about it briefly we see that we are unable to keep the Law.  We can do some of the things of the Law in part, but we cannot do them with our whole heart all the time.  So God convicts us of sin through the Law and then he shows us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and has proclaimed us free from the Law by faith in Christ.  This is the Gospel.  A sermon needs both Law and Gospel.  If we confuse the two, if we present the Law as our friend that makes us able to live an abundant life, or if we present the Gospel as something we should do, we will lay an impossible burden on all our hearers.  We want to keep the two distinct and present them each clearly in all their power.  This, not the eloquence of the preacher, is where we see powerful preaching.

As the service of the Word comes to a close, the congregation normally proclaims one of the historic creeds of the Church - most congregations proclaim the Apostles' Creed on most Sundays but the longer Nicene Creed one Sunday a month.  We are speaking back to God the confession of our faith which affirms we believe what the Lord has just told us through the sermon.  We then bring our prayers before the Lord, trusting in the power of the Gospel.

So what have we seen in the shape of our service?  The service started with God's promises of forgiveness, our confession, and God's decree of forgiveness.  We respond with our proclamation of God's glory, then we receive communication from God to man through Scripture and a sermon.  We respond by confessing the Creed and praying the Lord will meet our needs.  The service started with God speaking and has continued with us responding and God speaking some more, back and forth.

In my next installment I'll take us through the final part of the divine service, the Sacrament of Communion.  We'll continue looking at this divine call and human response to the call.

Dave Spotts
blogging at and