For baptism, gospel and faith alone make men religious. (Luther: An Appeal to the Working Class, 1520)
In Christianity, baptism (from the Greek baptizo: "immersing", "performing ablutions") is the ritual through which an individual is admitted to full membership of the Christian Church and, in the view of some, as a member of the particular Church in which the baptism took place.
Christians consider Jesus to have instituted this sacrament and Baptism has been a rite of Christianity from its earliest days as seen in the many references in Acts and the Epistles.
Some Christians, particularly Quakers and the Salvation Army, do not see baptism as necessary. Among those who do, there are differences in the process of baptizing and in the theological significance of the rite. Most baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", but some, such as Charismatic groups baptize in Jesus' name only, citing Peter's preaching of baptism in the name of Jesus only, as their authority (Acts 2:38). Most baptize infants, others do not. Some insist on submersion or at least partial immersion of the individual, others consider that any form of washing by water is sufficient.
The liturgy of baptism in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist traditions makes clear reference to baptism as not only a symbolic burial and resurrection, but an actual supernatural transformation, which draws parallels to the experience of Noah and the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea.
Thus, baptism is literally and symbolically not only cleansing, but also dying and rising again with Christ. Catholics believe that baptism is necessary for the cleansing of the taint of original sin, and for that reason infant baptism is a common practice. The Eastern Churches also baptize infants on the basis of texts, such as Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of heaven belongs”. (NRSV) which are interpreted as supporting full Church membership for children. In these traditions, baptism is immediately followed by Chrismation and Communion regardless of age. Orthodox Christians also believe that baptism removes what they call the ancestral sin of Adam.
Anglicans also believe that Baptism is the entry into the Church and therefore allows them access to all rights and responsibilities as full members, including the privilege to receive Holy Communion. Most Anglicans agree that it also cleanses the taint of what in the West is called original sin, in the East ancestral sin.
Eastern Orthodox Christians usually insist on complete threefold immersion as both a symbol of death and rebirth into Christ, and as a washing away of sin. Latin Rite Catholics generally baptize by affusion (pouring); Eastern Catholics usually by submersion, or at least partial immersion. However, submersion is gaining in popularity within the Latin Catholic Church. In newer church sanctuaries, the baptismal font may be designed to expressly allow for baptism by immersion. Anglicans baptize by submersion, immersion, affusion or sprinkling.
Baptists argue that the Greek word βαπτίζω originally meant "to immerse". They interpret some Biblical passages concerning baptism as requiring submersion of the body in water. They also state that only submersion reflects the symbolic significance of being "buried" and "raised" with Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Baptist Churches baptize in the name of the Trinity. However, they do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation: instead it is an act of obedience.
In the context of the above, then, it is possible to argue that all churches are distinctive in their approach to Holy Baptism and that it depends where one stands how one interprets “distinctive”. This will be true of all the categories under consideration in this essay.
What we can say is that the majority of Christians accept Baptism as a Sacrament, by which we mean an outward and visible expression of an inner and invisible conviction to paraphrase Augustine of Hippo. It is a rite in which God is believed to be uniquely active.
Turning to a more specific look at Lutheranism, we see in the development of Luther’s thinking the rationale which gives our church its particular flavour. In a climate where there are many different teachings about being reborn – particularly in charismatic denominations where there is much emphasis on being “born again” – we need to remember that Luther made it clear that baptism grants the new birth by the mere act performed in the community of believers, but without faith it is meaningless.
Lutherans with Luther can talk about “born-again” experiences, as long as we keep the emphasis on God as the source of that experience and servanthood as its ongoing result .… Unlike those denominations that tend to tie the experience of renewal to evidence of a person’s spiritual development or special encounter of faith, Lutherans with Luther can appreciate the ongoing effect of the sacrament as an external God-given means of grace at the root of faith-based spiritual living. 1
In the time of Luther the function of the sacraments was to impart grace, but this happened simply by virtue of their use and the believer’s participation (ex opere operato): there was no personal religious response or disposition. Indeed Luther complained that the power of baptism had been reduced
“to such small and slender dimensions that . . . it had now become entirely useless.’’ 2
For Luther the transforming power of baptism had disappeared because it effectively eliminated the role of faith. By “faith” here we are not talking about an intellectual assent but about a trusting relationship with the living God.
Luther’s understanding of the sacrament is based on his sense of God’s word as “promise” thus God’s word is directed at, and conferred on the recipient of the sacrament and not the elements of the sacrament, in this case water. God’s word is something powerful, active and creative, working faith itself in the believer. This is the distinctive element in Luther’s teaching. In a sermon from 1537 Luther makes this connection:
If God is able by the word to create heaven and earth and fill the world, that is, everything we see with our eyes, why is it not possible to take water and baptize, saying ‘‘In the name . . .’’ and so be washed from all sins in body and soul? 3
Luther saw baptism as having significance beyond the brief rite at the font. For Luther, baptism influences the whole of the believer’s life.
In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings - victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts. In short the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could all be true. 4
Thus we can see that the main factor that influences Luther’s theology of baptism is the importance of identifying the sacrament with the central tenet of the reformation movement: the doctrine of justification. After his rediscovery of this understanding of New Testament texts, Luther viewed all theology through this lens. Baptism must now signify “full and complete justification”. 5 Luther rejected any sense that salvation requires any co-operation between the human and divine wills. Baptism quite simply brings about a death and resurrection which makes any incremental or progressive understanding of justification impossible.
However, we are not to misinterpret the significance of this. Although baptism is administered only once as a sacrament, it has, nevertheless to be spiritually repeated on a daily basis: “It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.” 6
Perhaps the most significant of Luther’s justification for infant baptism is its foundation in the will of God. God has made a covenant with all people and baptism is a sign of that bond. Since the covenant is for everyone, the church must baptise everyone, and that obviously includes children. God will take care of faith: Christians have done enough when they preach and baptise. 7 Central to his detractors was the argument that because children have no reason they can not believe. To Luther God is able to create faith in human hearts despite reason. Thus infant baptism can be called the surest and most certain baptism. 8
However, there are those who argue that Luther’s baptismal theology of God’s Word
which met each person with the choice of life or death, has been lost when the Lutheran Book of Worship describes scriptural people from the flood story as “chosen” or “wicked” rather than as “believing” or “unbelieving”. 9
We have already seen (p2 above) how baptismal theology uses the experience of Noah and the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea to stress the ideas of cleansing and dying and rising again with Christ and it is a shame that the LBW omits Luther’s references to the Pharaoh and Israel where he analyses the religious problem of choosing life over death.
The Holy Communion
The Holy Communion, also called The Eucharist, The Mass or The Lord's Supper is a Christian sacrament, Most Christians consider Holy Communion to be a commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. The consecration of bread and a cup within the rite recalls the moment at the Last Supper as recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels when Jesus gave his disciples bread, saying, "This is my body", and wine, saying, "This is my blood."
Amongst Christians there are different interpretations of the significance of the Holy Communion but The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that “there is more of a consensus among Christians about the meaning of the Eucharist than would appear from the confessional debates over the sacramental presence, the effects of the Eucharist, and the proper auspices under which it may be celebrated."
The majority of Christians recognize a special presence of Christ in this sacrament, while often differing about the mechanics of how, where, and when this special presence takes place. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach that the consecrated elements truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The term used by Roman Catholics to explain how this transformation occurs is Transubstantiation. Many Roman Catholic churches practice Communion on “one kind”: that is while both elements are consecrated only the bread or wafer is distributed to the congregation whereas the priest consumes both. The rationale here is that the bread is changed in the Eucharist into Jesus' body but, because Jesus, risen from the dead, is living not only his body is present but Jesus as a whole, body and blood, soul and divinity. Thus the communicant recieves both body and blood in the form of the wafer.
Orthodox Christians believe the change takes place at the epiklesis – the point at which the Holy Spirit is invoked and the consecration of the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ is specifically requested. Lutherans believe that the body and blood of Jesus are present "in, with and under" the forms of bread and wine, a concept known as the sacramental union. The Reformed churches which follow the teachings of John Calvin, believe in a spiritual (or "pneumatic") real presence of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and received by faith. Anglicans adhere to a range of views although the Anglican church officially teaches the real presence. Some Protestant churches, such as the Baptist and Methodist Churches, have a moral objection to the use of alcohol and so use grape juice instead although there is no official restriction on the use of wine. Wesley, the founder of Methodism and originally a High Anglican, would presumably have followed the Anglican position in other respects to the communion. Generally Baptists hold a memorialist view of Eucharist in the tradition of Zwingli. They would not adhere to the view of any change in the substance of the bread and wine. They would see it as a means of grace.
Some Christians, regardless of denominational allegiance, privately reject the concept of the real presence, believing that the eucharist is to be best understood as a memorial of the death of Christ or as a symbolic act of remembrance.
Turning more specifically to the Lutheran understanding: as we noted in the section on Baptism, Luther rejected the Catholic notion of ex opere operato: grace is not imparted to the believer merely through participation in the sacrament. We noted too how Luther saw the sacraments as part of God’s word: God’s word as “promise” and how, when the sacrament is empty of a religious response or disposition to faith, then the gap is easily filled by the theology of works.
The Communion is a promise we receive, not a work we do. As with Baptism we see again the linking of an existing sacrament with the key plank of Reformation theology: justification by grace through faith alone. We see nothing here of Communion as mere remembrance. Nor do we see Communion as mere symbolism – ideas which, as we have noted, some other denominations emphasise.
What we have instead is the difference between communion which is purely a testament, a gift or promise in which we merely receive by faith but contribute nothing, and the service of the sacrament as a whole, (not just during the rite itself but through what follows as a result). This includes thanksgiving to God through which we are clearly doing something but we must avoid confusing the two. Holy Communion is not something we do but we must be aware of the sacrificial aspect of the sacrament because the apostles and the ante-Nicene Fathers saw the offertory as a spiritual sacrifice.
If the mass is a promise, as has been said, it is to be approached, not with any work or strength or merit, but with faith alone. P149 10
The only worthy preparation and proper use of the mass is faith in the mass, that is to say, in the divine promise. P151 11
Luther also analyses what he calls the “three captivities” of Holy Communion.
• He argues that denial of the cup to the laity is a gross abuse. It was in direct contradiction of the words of Christ that participants were to partake of both kinds. (That Catholic position continues to be strongly defended.)
• Luther denies the doctrine of transubstantiation which taught that the elements of the Eucharist were changed into the body and blood of the Lord by the priest's act of consecration. Luther boldly stated that the doctrine of transubstantiation had not been taught in the church for the first twelve hundred years of its existence. To Luther the bread and wine remained fully bread and fully wine while also being fully the body and blood of Jesus Christ: the real bread and wine in union with Christ’s real body and blood. “This is my body …. This is my blood” rather than “This represents my body .... This represents my blood”. Within the Eucharistic celebration the body and blood of Jesus Christ are objectively present "in, with, and under the forms" of bread and wine: this is what is known as sacramental union. Lutherans place great stress on Jesus' instructions to "take and eat", and "take and drink", believing that this is the proper, divinely ordained use of the sacrament.
This opinion, though approved by pope and council remains opinion. For what is asserted without scripture or approved revelation may be held as an opinion but may not be believed. P137 12
The main point is the issue of who has the authority to make articles of faith: popes and councils or scripture alone?
• Luther’s main target, as we have already seen, is his rejection of the contention that the Communion is a good work and a sacrifice.
For in that word, and in that word alone, reside the power, the nature, and the whole substance of the mass. All else is the work of man, added to the work of Christ; and the mass can be held and remain a mass just as well without it. P144 13
In conclusion, while we can certainly understand ideas of remembrance and symbolism the Communion for Lutherans is principally testament and promise. We receive Christ fully in the elements through faith and the Communion is not something we participate in or do. Our only response can be a thanksgiving born of that same faith and our service to God and our neighbour which follow the sacrament, are acts of obedient discipleship.
Theology is what we do when we reflect on the world and our own human existence in the light of Faith in God. To do this requires knowledge of tradition, especially of the scriptures and how they have been understood down the centuries. The trusted public role of the clergy in preaching, presiding at worship and exercising pastoral care requires them to be trained and equipped as theologians who can speak for the church. 14
This quote from Michael Sadgrove sums up for me the essence of ministry: change the first word from theology to ministry and there is a working definition. Luther similarly talked about the responsibilities of the pastor: to teach, to preach and proclaim the word of God, to baptize, to consecrate or administer the Eucharist, to bind and loose sins, to pray for others, to sacrifice and to judge all doctrine and spirits ... But the first and foremost of all, on which everything else depends, is the teaching of the Word of God. 15
Sadgrove goes on to talk about the pressures both inside and outside the church to “construe it in terms simply of taking positions.” (P 55) Such positions might be on such issues as women’s ordination, abortion or issues of human sexuality. Sadgrove’s argument here is that in poor expressions of ministry these can become a pretext for easy - even lazy – speeches that rehearse established positions without leading to an intelligent or serious conversation either between the church and the world or between Christians who differ.
In terms of the distinctive nature of the Lutheran position we need to recognise that Luther’s was a Reformation of pastoral care as much as it was of theological thinking and church practice.
Luther’s early understanding of the priesthood had been shaped by a belief that ordination gave the priest a special status, power and authority in the church, both over God’s dealing with believers and over the life of those believers. Through ordination priests were given a special quality that enabled them to do things no others could do and their standing before God gave them special standing over their parishioners; their power to dispense God’s grace gave priests special power over them. However, as his own understanding of the way God works in the world changed and developed, Luther realised that the power of God is expressed through the Word, not through priests with special power, authority and status. He came to see that God’s Word gives believers a power to serve one another: a power that has nothing to do with dictating or dominating. 16
We need to understand that Luther’s teaching on the public ministry of the Word rests on two principles. The first is that the Christian lives in two relationships, distinct but inseparable: one is with God; the other is with our neighbours. 17 The “vertical” relationship, with God, is a relationship that God establishes through the Word of God’s promise, which believers respond to with faith. (We have already discussed this idea in more detail in our discussions on Baptism and the Eucharist.) The “horizontal” relationship, with our neighbours, is a relationship defined by the principal that human life is to be experienced as God wills it to be experienced. God’s Word of gospel establishes the first relationship; God’s Word of law regulates the second. All believers are equal in God’s sight: there is no “respect of persons” (Acts 10:34, KJV), no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female (Gal. 3:28).
The term “priest” for the one who ministers the Word was considered inappropriate and had arisen out of custom and common usage and its association with Catholicism was unhelpful in distinguishing the new role Luther was envisioning. Much better he believed, to use New Testament terms such as minister, steward, pastor, presbyter or servant all of which emphasize that it is not the order and status but the office and function he wanted to uphold.18
Pastors are not responsible for converting anyone. They are not responsible for maintaining anyone’s faith. The Holy Spirit does that through the Word. The pastor’s task is to apply God’s Word faithfully and aptly to God’s people.
To carry out this ministry of the Word, pastors must use the Word themselves: “It would be fine if every morning, noon, and evening they would read, instead, at least a page or two from the Catechism, the Prayer Book, the New Testament, or something else from the Bible, and would pray the Lord’s Prayer for themselves and their parishioners. In this way they might show honour and gratitude to the Gospel” 19 because, as he stated later, “Not only do we need God’s Word daily as we need our daily bread; we also must use it daily against the daily, incessant attacks and ambushes of the devil with his thousand arts.”
Luther also championed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers
Martin Luther spoke of all Christian believers as sharing a common, spiritual priesthood in Christ, the High Priest. Based upon 1 Peter and Revelation 1, all Christians are priests (hieroi) through faith alone by the spiritual rebirth given in baptism and lived out in witness, intercession and service. God’s grace and salvation make all Christians equal before God and prevent their separation into distinct estates or classes. The office of public ministry, because of its origins and authority in God’s word, serves all of God’s people. 20
It is clear from the above how Luther’s ideas on ministry are distinct from that of Roman Catholicism. When it comes to discussions with my Anglican and Methodist friend in training, the distinctions are far less clear. Having read extracts of this analysis to some of them, they seem to assent to it all. I am left wondering to what extent we have misunderstood the others’ teachings.
The Lund Statement also speaks clearly of the ministry of Bishops: Episcopal ministers shall “provide forms of leadership that are truly shared, facilitating collaborative styles of ministry.” They are called to “demonstrate humility and simplicity of life. The profile of their ministry is not one of domination, but of service, showing clear awareness of those on the margins of society.” In the exercise of their ministry they “must set aside the necessary time and space for their own prayer, study and recreation, thereby also setting a much needed example for all the ordained and lay persons as well.” 21
If then, much of what Luther developed in his reaction against the Catholicism of his day now seems generic in terms of Protestant ministry, it seems fair to ask whether there is anything distinctive in the Lutheran position at all. My conclusion would be that there is but that it lies more in the practice of ministry than in its descriptors or levels of ordained ministry.
The way the Lutheran church is organised, with its autonomous national churches and synods, without the sort of central authority seen within Catholicism and Anglicanism, allows a greater degree of flexibility in responding to specific issues. Lutherans in different parts of the world are able to stay in a more comfortable communion with each other despite being at different stages in both understanding and practice on various issues than the more centralised churches. On issues of human sexuality, for example, there is not common agreement but there is diversity of response. In the United States the Missouri Synod remains more conservative than the ELCA. The Missouri Synod perceives homosexuality to be sinful whereas there is currently more debate in the ELCA. In Europe the LCiGB is approaching an understanding already reached in Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark but opposed in Latvia and Finland.
To many this might seem a weakness but I perceive it to be a strength because there remains a greater opportunity for theological debate and change in practice where some national churches can move ahead of others rather than being held back by centralisation. This means that the smaller churches can take a lead in championing new perspectives which may ultimately result in movement elsewhere. In terms of ministry I feel such debate, though difficult, holds out the hand of Christian fellowship and God’s love to many who have historically felt marginalised by a theological position which has been harder to challenge in more centralised denominations. That does not mean that everything is up for grabs: far from it. All Lutherans need to remind ourselves of Luther’s underlying principle of sola scriptura: Christian doctrine can not be formulated from non-biblical ideas. But in coming to fresh understandings of biblical texts (such as in the ordination of women both to the priesthood and to the Episcopate), 22 and in doing so moving away from accepted wisdom, the Lutheran Church seems to me to be leading the way, and in the implications and impact of this on ministry I would want to argue stands the distinctive nature of Lutheranism rather than in organisational issues such as the lack of an ordained diaconate.
The ordination of deacons is an open matter in the Lutheran communion globally. Likewise, there is diversity in the understanding of how the ministries of deacons, pastors and ministers of episkopé may relate to each other with reference to the one ordained ministry of the church. Some Lutheran churches have moved far in recognizing one three-fold ministry, whereas others do not see this model as appropriate for them. Generally the Lutheran tradition does not view the diaconal ministry as merely a stage on the way toward pastoral ordination but as a distinct and often lifelong service. It can be a lay ministry or, as is the case in some Lutheran churches, an integral part of the ordained ministry. 23
In Christian theology, justification is God's act of declaring or making a sinner righteous before God. Broadly speaking, Catholics and Orthodox Christians distinguish between initial justification - which in their view occurs at baptism - and final justification, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God's will. Protestants believe that justification is a singular act in which God declares an unrighteous individual to be righteous because of the work of Jesus. Justification is granted to all who have faith.
Justification is seen by Protestants as being the theological fault line that divided Roman Catholic from Protestant during the Reformation.
For Luther this doctrine was “The proposition of primary importance”. 24 Where it is missing there can be no true foundation for faith and men will turn to other doctrines for their ideas and develop a mishmash of theological thinking. “This article is the head and cornerstone which alone begets, nourishes, builds, protects and preserves the church: without it the church can not subsist one hour.” 25 This doctrine is the knowledge of saving grace and in Luther’s view, if the doctrine of Justification by faith through grace should fall so would the church:
On this article rests all that we teach and practice against the Pope, the devil and the world. Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubts about it, otherwise all is lost. 26
For Luther the doctrine of justification through faith alone could never be just one of a series of doctrines. For him it is the one fundamental article of faith on which everything else depends:
As I often warn, therefore, the doctrine of justification must be learned diligently. For in it are included all the other doctrines of our faith. If it is sound all the others are sound as well. 27
When Luther insists that justification is through faith alone, sola fide, he is clear that this faith is not something that man can will himself into: that faith is itself the gift and activity of God. “When God creates faith in man, that is as great a work as if He were to create Heaven and Earth again.” 28
One area of misunderstanding is the position of “good works” in the Christian life which Luther was regularly criticised for wanting to suppress. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Luther makes it clear repeatedly that good works are the marks of obedient discipleship and he accepted the teaching of the Epistle of James: “For, just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” James 2v26. (NRSV)
[It is] a perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them, for that makes them appear good outwardly, when in truth they are not good. They deceive men and lead them to deceive one another. 29 When I exalt faith and reject such works done without faith, they accuse me of forbidding good works. The fact of the matter is that I want very much to teach the real good works which spring from faith. 30
Clearly, by the time of the Second Vatican Council the stage was set for a formal re-examination of the Doctrine of Justification which has been such a central feature of reformed protestant thought. Subsequent to this council the dialogues which have been undertaken by the Roman Catholic Church with Lutherans, Anglicans and Orthodox churches have borne fruit in a number of agreed statements. Significant in this regard is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. This document provides a common understanding of the Doctrine of Justification:
"...the post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue has led to a notable convergence concerning justification, with the result that this Joint Declaration is able to formulate a consensus on basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification. In the light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today's partner." (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 2. 13) 31
In essence this statement demonstrates that the Lutheran formulation of justification by faith through grace, (which also relate to articles x and xi of the Anglican 39 articles), can now be viewed as entirely consonant with current Catholic doctrine. In addition those articles that relate to the good works of the justified (xii, xiv) are also brought into agreement. It is interesting to note that in the process of producing the agreed statement it is Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) who is widely held with 'saving the Lutheran pact' by 'untying the knots.' 32
What is also becoming clear about the Lutheran Doctrine of Justification by Faith (alone) is a growing unease in non-German speaking Lutheran nations, particularly Finland, where there is currently a wave of new theological thinking.
Following dialogue between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church, Finnish scholars conclude that the Orthodox idea of theosis - participation in God - is at the core of Luther’s theology.
The Lutheran understanding of the indwelling of Christ implies a real participation in God and is analogous to the Orthodox doctrine of participation in God. 33
In that context, Dr. Simo Puera is one scholar who questions the adequacy of the predominantly German reading of Luther’s theology which in turn has influenced American Lutheran theological thought: modern research has been reading Luther’s texts through the eyes of neo-Kantian epistemology which has not taken due consideration of the ontological concepts in Luther’s thought. In a theology which mirrors theosis, Puera integrates the doctrine of Justification into Christology. The justifying act of God by grace alone through faith alone means nothing apart from Christ alone.
The Christ by whom those who have faith are justified is not only extra nos but also in nobis, not only an external cause of change in God’s attitude to sinners, but an internal condition of the possibility of the sinner being changed from a state of unbelief, sine fide, to one of faith. In the words Puera takes from Luther, the righteousness of God in Christ is both “grace” and “gift”: a Real Presence in whom sinners participate through faith empowered by the Holy Spirit. 34
According to Puera, Luther’s stance is that while “grace” and “gift” must be properly distinguished they must not be separated. Both communicate the righteousness of Christ but occur simultaneously. The gift – the effective aspect of justification as the renewal of the sinner, is not a mere consequence of the grace – the forgiveness of sins: it is only on this basis that it is possible to stress both aspects of justification, while observing the proper distinction between the gracious mercy of God as the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, on the one hand, and the lifelong process of renewal and sanctification in the Holy Spirit, on the other hand.
Thus we can see that grace and gift together constitute the donated righteousness of a Christian. 35
Or put a different way:
Here we have a connection with Luther’s definition of the Christian as being a man who is simul justus et peccator – both saint and sinner. Man justified by faith still remains a sinner in daily need of the forgiveness of sins. 36
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (on Baptism)
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (on Holy Communion)
1 Stjerna, K: No Greater Jewell: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. P57.
2 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
3 Luther’s Works
4 The Book of Concord, 441/2
5 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
6 Long, R: Luther’s Understanding of the Word of God. P34 (Quoting the explanation of the third article of the Creed in the Shorter Catechism).
7 Concerning Rebaptism, 258
8 Grönvik: Baptism in the theology of Martin Luther, P167.
9 Riggs, John W: Baptism in the Reformed Tradition, P14.
10 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
14 Sadgrove M: Wisdom and Ministry, P45
15 LW 40.21
16 Althaus: The Theology of Martin Luther
17 Lectures on Galatians, LW 26.7
18 Concerning the Ministry, LW 40.35
19 LC Preface, 3, Book of Concord 358
20 The Lund Statement (2007) point 19
21 Ibid point 65
22 Ibid points 40 & 42
23 Ibid point 39
24 L.W. IV, P400
25 St L, XIV, P168
26 BC, P292
27 L.W. XXX, P14
28 L.W. XXX1, P363
29 L.W. XLIV, P34.
30 Joint Declaration on The Doctrine Of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.
31 Allen, J.L: (1999) 'Ratzinger credited with saving Lutheran pact', National Catholic Reporter, 10 Sept., 1999.
32 Rowland, T: Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. P98
33 Mannermaa, T: Union with Christ (The new Finnish interpretation of Luther) P25
34 Braaten, C: Ibid. P73
35 Puera, S: Ibid. P43
36 Long, R: Ibid. P34.
Friday, 7 August 2009
Saturday, 1 August 2009
The Younger Son
You’ve probably already heard a version of my story: it’s wrong. The general shape is right enough but it’s been seriously misunderstood. In fact the only thing I really like about it is that it’s about me: I like that in a story!
I’m Dillon: some people say I’m a bit of a Chav. Whatever. I live here in this God forsaken dump with my Dad and older Brother. We are what you might describe as a dysfunctional family. My Dad is an idealist – he doesn’t have a realistic notion in this head. His mantra is “The family”. And he’s such a soft touch - talk about naïve. I’m thinking of a phrase that includes the words “wind” and “little finger”.
My brother’s called Roger. Roger the Righteous. He looks down on me but that’s easy what with him occupying the moral high-ground all the time. He’s got religion, you see; sanctimonious pillock. It’s not so much that he’s anal only he gives “arsehole” a whole new dimension.
Anyway, I’d had enough of living in this shit-hole: not enough excitement and then Banquo’s ghost wailing and groaning every time I put a foot wrong – which admittedly is fairly often but…get a life Roger. OK, there was that unfortunate incident with the stockman’s daughter, but hey – I never said I was a saint.
So I hatch this plan to get out: simple really – I ask the old boy for some dosh. I couldn’t believe how easy it was: I started high – you know, ready to bargain down and he agreed to the first figure. I wish I’d asked for more now. Anyway I was out of here before he could change his mind. Or, maybe more to the point, before Roger could change it for him.
So now I’m really set up: nice flat; a bit of this (sniffs) you know? Wine, women and song they say. Well who needs to waste time singing? And it was good for a while and then the credit crunch hit and what with me not being very good at budgeting . . . anyway, all gone. Zilch, nada: the friends too. Not that I blame them. I’d do the same – drop losers like a shot. You can’t party with no-hopers hanging on.
Now I need a job. Me! A job! So, now I’m not having so much fun. No contributions, no benefits. Now I’m an illegal, black economy and all that. I don’t recommend it. And the irony is that I end up working with pigs. What a laugh: I can just hear Roger now. “Pigs? PIGS! What were you thinking?” Yeah, yeah, yeah yadiyadiya! Whatever. I could’ve got better work but I’m not a great fan of effort.
OK. Plan B. Head for home. If I play this right, it’ll work out to my advantage. Look I can do penitent. “I’m so sorry. I realise I’ve made mistakes. I’m so sorry. Please take me back. I’ve learnt from my mistakes. I’m a different person – a better person. Look, I’ll just work for you, OK?” I can be very persuasive you know. He’ll just hear what he wants to hear: give it a few weeks and things’ll be back to normal.
Worked like a dream, silly old sod. Oh but I was good, tears and all. I tell ya – it was worthy of a BAFTA and he bought it hook, line and sinker. The next thing I know there’s welcome home party. A Party! I know! Me and Party go so well together. Oh yes humble is very good in its place but things are picking up now. Mind you, I’ve not seen Roger yet. No doubt he’s walking around whining with a face like a smacked arse. “It’s not fair”.
A result all round I’d say.
The Elder Son
My name’s Roger. I live here with my Father and younger Brother. My Father’s a good man really but he’s far too trusting for his own good. He’s well respected around here but my brother – well, my Father can’t see it like I can. Sun shines out of his backside, walks on water. Oh, he’s charming enough when he wants to be but it’s all “me, me, me”. He’s always been the favourite. Now don’t misunderstand me: I’m not jealous or anything – it just gets on my nerves that he’s always been the favourite and he’s done nothing to deserve it. He’s a manipulative little shit, actually.
I don’t approve of his life style or attitude at all: he’s heading for a big fall and I, for one, would like to be around to see it. Charmed life so far but his luck’ll run out.
If I was in charge – and I will be one day - I wouldn’t let him get away with anything. He needs discipline and values. He needs to understand the importance of hard work and he needs to learn respect for his elders! He needs to be more like me actually. I’m reliable and hardworking and I’m always there for my Father. I don’t cause him any hassle or worry and I certainly don’t cause embarrassment to the family. I mean, Dillon thinks he’s God’s gift to women – and it’s me that usually has to smooth over the problems. No moral standards you see. He thinks I’m a geek because I’m religious but that’s exactly what he needs to put some shape and purpose in his life to say nothing of morality. But no, with the great arrogance of youth, he knows best.
He’s back now you know, after all he did. Nearly broke my Father’s heart and he’ll do it again given the chance. I wasn’t there when he came back. Bold as brass I’m sure with some outrageous sob story. I can imagine how it went: “I’m really sorry, honestly. I’ve changed. I’ve grown up. I won’t make the same mistake again. Please forgive me.” Puleeze! Change? As if! He’s not capable of change. It makes me want to puke. I’d have sent him packing with his tail between his legs.
My father was devastated when he left. I was outraged: he just threw money at him. I don’t know how he had the nerve to ask for it in the first place. I work here all this time, rarely a word of thanks no obvious appreciation; in fact I’m pretty much taken for granted, but do you hear me complain? No. I don’t do resentment – it’s not a nice quality. But I’d be within my rights. You know, I don’t ask for much. I don’t need constant attention and affirmation: I’m not a spoilt child but that little waster comes along and sweet talks the old man and bang! He’s got a wad in his back pocket and you don’t see him for dust. But I’m not bitter. Good riddance I say. I’ll miss him but not a lot!
So, I’m starting to get used to it being just my Father and me, getting some attention and long overdue appreciation. You know I really wasn’t putting the knife in for Dillon but I did think it was only right and proper to set the old man straight on one or two things about Golden Boy . . . and he breezes back - broke of course.
They’re having a party now. A party for goodness sake! My Father will be all teary-eyed and Dillon’ll be chasing some little slut round the storerooms.
Me? Go in there? Hell’ll freeze over first.
They say that parenthood is hard and they’ve got it right. I’ve two boys you see and they couldn’t be more different. My oldest is called Roger: Reliable Roger I call him. He’s a good lad and he had to grow up quickly when his mother died. He’s a plodder. Give him a job and you know it’s in safe hands: he’ll do it well and he’ll do it conscientiously. It seems to be important to him that he is seen to be capable and independent. He gives the impression of being emotionally self contained but he’s not: He’s built a wall around himself and he can’t break out. He’s desperate for affection but he doesn’t know how to express it or receive it. He likes to think he’s the adult, but you know in today’s parlance he’s what they call “critical parent”. His default position is judgemental and he’s taken that into his religious expression too. And he’s very jealous of Dillon, my younger son. He has no reason to be but there it is.
Now Dillon’s no angel: quite the opposite. Sometimes he’s quite a hard lad to like, let alone love. In his own way he’s just as screwed-up emotionally as Roger. He just expresses it differently. He’s a hedonist and he’s deeply self-centred. Chalk and cheese. Critical Parent and Free Child.
Roger thinks I indulge Dillon too much. Dillon thinks Roger’s a . . . now what was the term? A nob! He also thinks I’m a senile old git who can’t see through his little schemes. He thinks he’s so clever and he thinks I’m stupid.
Maybe I need to be firmer with them both, but they’re fully formed. I might be able to modify them a bit round the edges but I can’t change them substantially. They can only do that themselves … or God, maybe. The thing is they are my boys and I love them unconditionally: they’re all I have and when I’m gone they will have to be there for each other. Family is the most important thing there is and I need to get these argumentative boys to recognise that and value it. It’s a constant struggle and a balancing act between two competing egos.
Dillon’s just come back from his little adventure all crocodile tears and false promises and Roger’s in a big sulk. Kids eh? Who’d have them?
Dillon thinks he pulled a fast one. He thinks he made off with a small fortune. He has no idea. I was surprised how little he settled for and that he didn’t ask for more. I got away very lightly and I gave him just enough to last for a few months. I knew he’d fritter it away and then would come the learning: I could have told him how it would end but he needed to learn it for himself. The school of hard knocks they call it. Of course he came back just like I knew he would but I don’t think he fully realises yet just what he has learnt: he’s been taken down a peg or two and that’s not a bad thing. He’s a lot less full of himself right now.
And of course I was pleased to see him. Why not have a party? The problem is that Reliable Roger is now Resentful Roger. He didn’t want Dillon back basically and now he has to deal with that. He needs taking down a peg or two in his own way too, so he can sit outside and sulk. He’ll come in of course, when he feels he’s made a point. He has no idea how much I value him, how much I love him: he can’t hear it. It doesn’t fit with his persona of strong and capable.
Being an adult isn’t just about age is it? Sometimes it’s a struggle being the only grown up in the family.
The question of the authorship of this gospel remains unclear: it is traditionally attributed to the Beloved Disciple in much the same way as other books in both Old and New Testaments are attributed to authoritative figures as in the book of Psalms. Consequently the date and location of the writing remains largely guesswork: somewhere between 90 and 100 C.E. but most likely in Palestine. Kanagaraj argues that John was written following the calamity of 70 C.E. for a group of Christians who were following a form of Jewish mysticism called “Merkabah mysticism” based very much on the themes of Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7. (P 179) which was common in Palestine.
It is suggested that this gospel was written at a time when Christians were being forced out of the Synagogues and that the writing reflects conflict with the Jewish communities. Shnackenburg goes as far as to suggest that the gospel is sectarian (P36). John 1:10 speaks of Jesus’ own, the Jews, not accepting Him, whilst others do. “The Jews”, probably a term referring to the ruling class in Jerusalem, the very people who were supposed to be waiting for the messiah, repeatedly fail to believe in Jesus. This fits neatly into Merkebah mysticism where the secrets of God are revealed to the chosen while others misunderstand them.
What is clear is that John does not contain a great deal of material found in the Synoptics: there are no narrative parables and no account of the transfiguration or temptations. At the same time John contains a great deal of material not found in the Synoptics including much private instruction to the disciples. Only in John is Jesus explicitly identified with God and only in John do we find the “I AM” statements. (egô eimi)
There is some discussion – Bultmann particularly - that John may have come from a pre-Gnostic background: with fully formed Gnosticism not appearing until the second century there are suggestions that pre-Gnostic and mystic ideas were current in first century communities such as Qumran. Kysar argues that without accepting its theological worldview, John engages with it and uses the developing language of Gnosticism to subvert such theology as he writes about the intimate relation of the self to the transcendent source of all being. However, there is a tantalising hint about the nature of the gospel in the writings of Clement of Alexandria who argued that John had composed a “Spiritual Gospel”, an idea supported by both Origen and Augustine. This certainly does not mean spiritual as opposed to historical and is likely to refer to an understanding of John’s Gospel as allegorical or symbolic. (Wiles P13-14).
Others argue that John is heavily influenced by Hellenistic thinking, particularly Platonism and Stoicism which emphasised the Logos and is found in the Hermetic literature of the second and third centuries. The Logos was God but it became seen as the ideal man who is the image of God. What current thinking appears to argue is that John’s theology was based on a Judaism in ferment and going through a deeper process of rethinking and searching. The gospel of John was written, therefore, with certain Jewish assumptions, but also in response to and reaction against other Jewish ideas.
The Judaism we are seeking to unearth behind the gospel was rooted in the Old Testament and related to the rabbinic movement, but also swayed by sectarian features which might have included apocalyptic, mystical and Qumranic characteristics. Kysar P 242
It seems that John has filtered and synthesised virtually the whole spectrum of Jewish contemporary writing and thought which itself in turn contributed to developments such as Gnostic and Hermetic literature.
John was aware of the starting point of the Synoptic Writers in relation to Jesus’ baptism and the descent of God’s Spirit which were to prepare the reader for understanding the following narrative: Jesus can only be understood as Messiah and Son of God. But to John that starting point seems to have been inadequate:
John alone gives the narrative about Jesus an absolute theological framework … The only perspective in which the work of Jesus, and his relation to the Father, could be truly seen and estimated was that of eternity. John’s use of a cosmogony as a background for his message of salvation is paralleled in other Hellenistic literature. Barrett P149
John’s opening verse is intended to echo the opening to the book of Genesis: what is beyond the world and time is known in Jesus. “Logos” was a familiar word in the Greek rendering of the Old Testament: “The Word of the Lord” is the means by which God communicated his message to his people (Jer 1.4: Now the word of the Lord came to me”). John asserts that the timeless word became an incarnation. In the New Testament the Word of God is frequently the message of salvation: the gospel Paul proclaimed was nothing less than Christ himself. John’s Christology is condensed in the word “Logos” – The Word: The Word incarnate.
Merkabah mysticism seems to be particularly important in understanding John’s Christology. The goal of this form of mysticism was to encounter God on his heavenly throne: John taps into this kind of mysticism by depicting Jesus as the doorway to Heaven (Jn 10.7-9 – an echo of Gen 28.17). It is by seeing Jesus that one sees God (Kanagaraj P188-189). For John, the place where Jesus is exalted – his throne – is the cross. Jesus’ death then becomes his exaltation and the effective means of communicating God’s love and saving power. The place in which God supremely shows his glory is the cross of the King of the Jews just like Ezekiel’s chariot-throne is the seat from which God revealed his glory before.
John’s Logos Christology holds together Jewish, Hellenistic and primitive Christian strands in a new unity.
The “I AM statements”
One of the most characteristic forms of speech in John’s gospel is the egô eimi (I AM) sayings. At frequent intervals the Johannine Jesus employs the self-authenticating formula but there are seven specific I AM statements with predicates that I wish to examine:
• "I am the bread of life" (6.35)
• "I am the light of the world" (8.12)
• "I am the door for the sheep" (10.7; cf. v. 9)
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
• "I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25)
• "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14.6)
• "I am the true vine" (15.1; cf. v. 5)
One may presume here a classic oral principle in operation according to which the speaker of words is as important as the message he delivers. In a comparable, though extravagant sense, Jesus of words of revelation acquires the status of revelation himself. Woll P 150
In the early Christian tradition it was primarily prophets who employed this self-authenticating form of speech. It is fair to assume that the egô eimi style in John carries similar implications. The Jesus who legitimates himself by way of egô eimi speaks not only authoritative language, but specifically prophetic language. This formula designates him as the prophetic representative and mouthpiece of God. In prophetic fashion he acts as spokesman of the One who sent him, and as dispenser of the divine Spirit. Those who hear his words are invited to believe not only the speaker, but the One who sent him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life” (5:24).
It was not enough for John to portray Jesus as mere prophet, however. In his discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus articulates his own authority in the following manner: “And no one has ascended into heaven, except he who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (3:13). The God of the Old Testament, the God of the universe calls Himself I AM. In Exodus 3:14, we read, "And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM .... Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you." (NRSV). In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the same expression, "I AM”, seven times. This is a deliberate strategy on John’s part to reinforce his belief in Jesus-as-God. The “I Am” statements must thus be seen as an integral part of John’s Christology. Early Jewish Christians were certainly familiar with the Septuagint's pronouncement, "Ego eimi ho on," and likely would not have missed the symbolism of the Gospel of John's use of "Ego eimi," when spoken by Jesus John.
• I AM the Bread of Life (John 6.35)
The first of the "I AM" sayings, in John’s Gospel, is "I AM the bread of life" (6:35). This statement is found in the passage which follows the feeding of the multitude. Jesus says to the crowd, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (6:27). Here Jesus is building up to the key statement and is leading the crowd to the point where they may recognise his divinity and come to faith. The sceptics in the crowd, not unreasonably, ask for a sign: “What work are you performing so that we may see it and believe you?” (v30) adding "Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from Heaven to eat'" (v31). Jesus responds by pointing out that God provided the manna "My father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (v33). This is not something which happened in the past but is something which is continuing to happen in the present: indeed Jesus himself is that bread from Heaven. How far at this stage the crowd have fully understood is not clear but there seems to be some spiritual awareness as they ask “Sir, give us this bread always.”
It is in response to this request that Jesus makes the claim, "I AM the bread of life, he who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (v35). This is, in effect, the summary of Jesus ministry and it is deeply personal, referring as it does to human yearning which Jesus will fill – and it will be universal because it “gives life to the world” (v33). Morris, interestingly, points out that the definite article, before the word bread, indicates the fact that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who is the bread of life (P 110). While Milne states that, "the bread of life also points to the satisfying nature of Jesus." (P 111) as can be seen in the supplementary phrase, "never be hungry … and never be thirsty." Jesus alone supplies the spiritual needs of his hearers: this is not about mere physical hunger, where bread leaves people dissatisfied and wanting more. Indeed this idea can be applied in a wider spiritual sense where other approaches to God leave the supplicant ultimately empty: a direct challenge to those who are already seeking. Jesus is making a plain statement about his Heavenly origins here: in the following verses Jesus refers to a descent from Heaven (a Merkabah motif) and explicitly states that “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.
• I AM the Light of the World (8.12)
The theme of light is another Merkabah motif which would have had resonance for at least some of John’s audience. Shining light represents the glory of God and it is the source of the destruction of the enemies of God (Dan 7.11).
John begins his prologue with a reference to the Incarnate Word as "the life," and "the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (v4- 5). That this I AM of Jesus is placed during the Feast of the Tabernacles is no coincidence: at this feast several large candles were lit as part of the ritual. The metaphor of Light for Yahweh is found throughout the Old Testament: Isaiah 49.6, for instance tells us that the Servant of the Lord would be appointed as a “Light to the Gentiles” that he might bring salvation to the ends of the earth. Carson argues that "In the context of such powerful ritual, Jesus' declaration must have come with stunning force" P 338. What is important to grasp here is the universality of the statement. Jesus is not just the Light of the Jews but of the world and this Light is not just physical or moral: it is spiritual. It is in the context of this understanding that we need to read a later statement of Jesus: "Those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them" (11.9-10). In short, Jesus is the only Light and therefore a response is required.
• I AM the Door for the Sheep (10.7)
This I Am arises out of a dispute with the religious authorities who had ill-treated a man Jesus had recently cured of blindness. Jesus contrasts himself with them who he refers to as “thieves and robbers”
The tradition of the shepherd of the ancient near-east was to use a pen with one entrance where he would sleep: he was effectively the doorway. Jesus therefore states that he is the means by which the “sheep” may enter into the promised fullness of life. Again this is THE door, not A door; it is exclusive. There is no other door. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus also said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture" (v9). Although He does not explain what He means exactly by "saved", we can take it as meaning having "eternal life." For we find the two concepts of being "saved" and having "eternal life" linked in Jn 3.16-17, therefore, hermeneutic consistency requires a similar understanding here.
"Once again we encounter the thought of an exclusive salvation, exclusive in the sense that it can be entered only through the door, Jesus Christ. If there is one door for all the race, then once more we are reminded of something very important about Jesus. Like the other I AM sayings, this one leads us to think of deity." Morris P114
It is, nevertheless, interesting to speculate whether, while this is the theology of John, it represents a faithful recounting of the theology of Jesus.
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
This I AM” is, of course, closely linked to the preceding statement: the metaphor of sheep, sheepfold and shepherd continue and is developed further. In a further contrast with and challenge to the religious authorities Jesus is not just the Shepherd but the GOOD shepherd. Those same religious authorities are dismissed as “hired hands” (v13) who’s sense of responsibility for their sheep is limited. They do not “care for the sheep”, a statement which must reflect Jesus’ sense of their stewardship of the people of God thus far. The Good Shepherd, on the other hand, protects, leads, guides and nourishes the sheep. Jesus is also referring to His mission: on three occasions he speaks of "laying down" His life for the sheep (v15,17,18). The Shepherd, who protects the sheep, will protect them to the point of death. It was not just for the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" for whom the Shepherd would die, but also for the "sheep of another fold" (10:16), the Gentiles. John puts a mission to unite the peoples of the world under one Shepherd into the mouth of Jesus and this too is in the context of a prediction of his death. The impact on the hearers must surely be inescapable: this can only be another signpost to Jesus’ divinity.
• I AM the Resurrection and the Life (11.25)
This I AM is delivered in a much more intimate setting. Jesus has arrived at the house of Lazarus, only to find that he had died. Jesus consoles Martha, telling her that Lazarus would rise again. This is not, as Martha supposes, the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Rather Jesus is referring to something far more immediate. Before raising Lazarus to life Jesus explains to Martha that “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha, and presumably a number of other witnesses to this conversation, comes to understand this strange assertion of Jesus in the light of the subsequent sign: words and actions together to underline the point - death is no obstacle to Jesus because he has ultimate power over it. Again the conclusion John seeks in his audience is inescapable: this man must be divine.
• I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life (14.6)
This statement is also intimate: it takes place at the Last Supper where Jesus is meeting with his closest friends and is, in effect, part of his farewell speech. To some confusion among his disciples Jesus talks of the path he must follow: “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (v4) They clearly do not, which causes Jesus to rebuke them: “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me?” (v9) Jesus’ statement “I am the way, and the truth and the life” is followed by: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In talking of “the way”, we see in the way John uses Jesus’ words that there is another challenge to those who are seeking through other approaches. It is an overt challenge, followed by “the truth” which has in it echoes of the Logos section of the prologue. John piles on the pressure: his evangelistic aim is very clear. As Carson points out,
Jesus is the truth, because he embodies the supreme revelation of God - he himself 'narrates' God (1.18), says and does exclusively what the Father gives him to say and do (5.19ff; 8.29), indeed he is properly called God (1.1, 18; 20.28). He is God's gracious self-disclosure, his "Word", made flesh (1.14). P491
Thirdly, Jesus states that he is “the life”. This, as Morris states:
..takes us into the same area as the saying, "I AM the resurrection and the life". (18) Once again we observe Jesus associating very closely with life. "It is he alone whose life is unique, self- existent like the life of the Father (5.16). He is the life and the source of life to others (3.16). P119
In how many other ways are John’s readers to understand this statement?
• I AM the True Vine (15.1)
The image of the vine serves the 'mission' theme in two important ways. In the first place, it was the supreme symbol of Israel. A great golden vine trailed over the temple porch, and the coinage minted during the revolt against Rome (AD 68-70) also bore a vine symbol. The Old Testament has many pertinent allusions. Possibly the most important in connection with Jesus' claim, I am the true vine (v.1), is Psalm 80, which blends talk of Israel as 'the vine out of Egypt' (v8) with 'the son of man you raised up for yourself' (v 17). Milne P219
During the Last Supper Jesus twice makes the statement that He is "the vine". On the first occasion he links Himself with the Father, when He says “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower” (15.1). On the second occasion He links Himself with the believer, when He says, “I AM the vine; you are the branches” and relates this to the mutual indwelling of the Saviour and the saved (15.5).
John is very keen to show that the only preparation for entering the Heavenly Realm is a life transformed by the Spirit rather than aesthetic types of practices as performed in the mystical circles of his day. The revelation of God’s character in John is very much bound up with Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus John seems to strengthen Christian belief on the one hand while attempting to persuade the mystics on the other to come to faith by showing that communion with God is possible through Jesus as both Son of Man and Son of God: Jesus who, for the very purpose of bringing people to faith, reveals God in his Kingly Glory on the cross.
In many ways John’s context is not so different from our own: we too deal with people who have a spiritual hunger but who, like the seekers of John’s day express it in other ways. The Christian’s aim is to present the uniqueness of Christianity but uniqueness alone is not enough: all religious expressions claim uniqueness. What the Christian needs to assert is the exclusive nature of Christianity, not just as one of many faith systems but as the only way to approach God in the confidence of salvation. John's Gospel sheds a unique light not only on the ministry of Jesus Christ, but also on the nature and his relationship with God and this is particularly achieved through the I AM sayings.
While the rest of the New Testament speaks more to those who recognise Jesus as Lord and Saviour in the fullest sense of divinity, John has in mind those that do not. He is not known as John the Evangelist for nothing: he selects and presents the most convincing words and works of the man who claimed to be the Son of God to those who need eternal life: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name." (John 20.30-31)
There are no more universalistic sayings in the New Testament than in the fourth Gospel: ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12.32). In these passages John is identifying Jesus with the eternal realm and specifically with God Himself.
One might hope that John’s Gospel had included the famous “Who do men say that I am?” question of the Synoptics in relation to his own I AM sayings: nevertheless, while that link is not available within John it is a valid approach for the one who seeks to share Jesus with others. If these extraordinary statements that Jesus is reported by John to have made are true, then the conclusion that Jesus is God would seem inescapable. It is the role of the evangelist to help others to see that they are.
It takes little stretch of the imagination to see that there is a spiritual hunger in many we meet. Grace Davie talks about spirituality in a “post Christian” age. That hunger is still there, just not expressed in a Christian context. Equally there are many who feel they have lost their way; who feel in the dark, alone, on the wrong track in life and so on: each of the I Am statements could be a simple lead in to a conversation. But the nature of these statements is, in itself, a pointer to the need for responsible evangelism: to use them effectively a Christian would have to have heard a person’s story in order to recognise a need. This is about the knowing-and-caring-for approach to evangelism as true personal work: the approach so often despised and dismissed as “friendship” evangelism by those who prefer the hit-and-run approach to evangelism. “Don’t waste time building relationships. They may die before you get to the meat and then their spiritual death would be on your conscience.” No, this approach involves the core conditions of genuineness, empathy and respect and is most certainly part of relationship building.
Evangelism is a vexed issue but Jesus’ own model of working with individuals was personal. He built relationships. He got to know people. In the end it is not the Christian who convicts and converts but the Holy Spirit. It would seem to me totally appropriate that the I AM statements of John’s Gospel and their obvious resonance in the experiences, needs and aspirations of many today would be a channel for the Spirit to use.
Kanagaraj J.J: Mysticism in the Gospel of John, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998
Kysar R: John, 1986, Augsburg Press.
Wiles M.F: The Spiritual Gospel, the Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church, Cambridge University Press, 1960
Schnackenburg R: The Gospel According to St. John, Burns Oates, 1982
Barrett C.K: The Gospel According to St. John, Westminster John Knox Press, 1978.
Woll D.B: "The Departure of 'the Way': The First Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John," Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980):
Morris L: Jesus Is The Christ (Studies in the Theology of John), Eerdmans 1989
Milne B: The Message of John, Intervarsity Press, 1993.
Carson D.A: The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 1991
Davie, G: Christianity in Britain sinc1945, Blackwell, 2006
I no longer believe in evangelism. To be post evangelism is to live our lives in Christ without a strategy but with compassion and the servant posture of Jesus Christ. (Karen Ward) Discuss.
We are finding multiple and layered pathways for 'home coming' for those who may not have known they had one. 1(Ward: 2005)
The first challenge, it seems to me, is to establish exactly what we mean by “evangelism” and exactly why this definition may no longer seem appropriate today.
Simply put, evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. The evangelistic activity of the early church, however, was not limited to preaching for it informed and involved everything the church was called to be in its worship fellowship and service.” 2 (Richardson: P192, 1972)
It is interesting and encouraging that this definition includes reference to the practices of the early church. My observation is that the modern emphasis, not just limited to those churches which call themselves evangelical, is on proselytising: to actively attempt to convert another person to a different belief system. The above definition in its full version would seem perfectly valid in relation to the introductory quotes: in its reduction, far less so.
I come to this topic, of course, as a Lutheran: Lutheran Missiology is moulded by its radical critique of the medieval Roman Church. St. Paul’s proclamation of the saving power of the crucified Christ received by faith became the heart of Luther’s theology as he rejected the tradition of acts of merit and Papal indulgences as a means of salvation. The community we call church is a gospel-created, gospel-proclaiming people. (Augsburg Confession VII) The whole community is a priesthood responsible for declaring the wonderful acts of God (1 Peter 2) and the whole church is responsible for the mission outreach of the church. Human activity responding to God and having eternal consequences includes feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting the lonely (Mat 25.35ff). This is my understanding of “post evangelism” mission. Lutherans are encouraged to respond to “the least of these” and in compassionate involvement with the secular world. Here is the essential dimension of praxis. Of course the Reformation mission paradigm was very much tied into the exegesis of scripture, but that is not the same as evangelism, or more correctly proselytising, as we understand it in the twenty first century.
As a Lutheran, however, I primarily have the experience of Lutheranism within its British context where it is a tiny and struggling denomination which relies for its survival on small, gathered congregations. The mission approach of the British Lutheran structure is hard to define although it is most easily characterised, unsurprisingly, by the “Herald” model of the Reformation with its emphasis on proclaiming the word of God. Post-modern it most certainly is not, although it is clear from our dealings with the continental Lutheran Church that post-modernism is a significant element of this denomination’s approach to mission. (I discovered for instance some interesting correspondence from the Swedish Lutheran Church relating to a liturgy for same-sex blessings which arose as a response from the church to the concerns of the gay community and not as a proactive mission of the church.)
For Luther, mission is always pre-eminently the work of the triune God (missio Dei) and its goal and outcome is the coming of the kingdom of God.
Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate. 2 (Bosch: P393, 1991)
Yet, nowhere does the reformer make evangelism the starting point or the final goal of mission, as more recent models of mission have tended to. It is always God's own mission that dominates Luther's thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God represents its final culmination. Luther bases his idea of mission on the Golden Rule
Both as a Christian person and as a secular person, man has to act on one and the same basis: love. The difference in the way love works in the two cases is due to a difference in the situation, in what has to be done for the sake of one’s neighbour. 4 (Eberling: P208. 1970)
As Karen Ward comments:
Missionary impulses in today's culture are great, but such impulses are best answered, NOT by hiring missionaries, but by supporting native initiatives. True mission, someone with wisdom has noted, is 'finding out what God is doing and getting behind it'. I advise you not to waste missional energy and scarce financial resources trying to 'create' something for others, but instead look around and 'open your eyes' so you can see when God is already doing something native amongst emergents near you, and support them, then those folk will grow a native mission that is for and by emergents who can expand outward and 'reach their own. 5 (Ward: 2005)
Within my own experience I can relate a number of instances of attempts to reach out to local communities in this sense of following Jesus into the world, and dealing with people as if it were Jesus himself who is in need. It is worth noting, though, that only a church with the capacity for cultural and systemic change and adaptability has the potential for being an instrument of the missio dei and the small Lutheran Church in Great Britain has not seen itself to be in a position to take advantage of this potential, preferring instead to be reactive in serving the needs of the Lutheran faithful. In addition there have been those Lutherans who have seen any attempt at mission as a return to the theology of good works and have argued against it. As the Lutheran tradition is focused on justification by faith it has tended to avoid participation in the world of God with its hints at a mission theology. It is therefore with a sense of disappointment that I am not able to relate examples from a Lutheran perspective in Great Britain.
In the context of post modernity, I will refer instead to the radical-liberal Anglican congregation of All Hallows in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, where my wife worships. This congregation fits well one of the principles of post modernity/post evangelism in what we can observe as inculturation:
…the necessary practice of all churches in mission within their own cultures”, 6 (P90, 2004) where “…the agents of this inculturation process are not professionally trained missionaries, but the Holy Spirit and the local converts, especially the laity. 7 (Nusbaum: P112, 2005)
This congregation, with its strong ethos of lay ministry, had agonised over its status as a gathered congregation worshipping in a church building in a significantly deprived area of the city. After a number of false starts aimed at engaging and welcoming members of the largely unchurched local community, the Priest and Ministry Team decided to meet the local community where they were. A number of social projects were started of which the Community Café has been the most successful. It has been described as All Hallows Monday to Saturday. In addition to the café the church space is now home to a wide variety of events, clubs and education initiatives identified by members of the local community as areas of need. Without wishing to sound grandiose, in its own small way this would seem to fit the definition of the missio dei.
Jesus exemplified the missio dei in all its richness, serving and forgiving in his first century Palestinian context. The Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus, seeking to implement the Kingdom of God on earth. 8 (Gibbs and Bolger, P59, 2006)
Another example from All Hallows is the ministry to the Lesbian and Gay community (which has done nothing to alienate the local community who rallied round when the church was the focus of homophobic threats from the BNP).
This was never a church initiative but was possibly an inevitable consequence of All Hallows’ growing reputation as a safe place for the marginalised, particularly those who had been damaged by the institutional church and were clinging on to Christianity by their fingertips. That the congregation on one level felt a little taken by surprise to find a steady stream of lesbian and gay people attending services regularly and felt, therefore, reactive rather than proactive did not stop them recognising God at work and seeking to join Him. Out of this grew a worked theology on issues of human sexuality which asked why laypeople, used to taking responsibility in other areas of life, and having to argue their case if they are to persuade others to take their views on board, should passively accept the pronouncements of bishops who, they felt, had not done their homework on the topic, especially if this undermines local mission and ministry? But out of it also grew a determination not be sidetracked into becoming a single issue church. Lesbians and gays were welcomed as full members of the congregation and given space and a voice but the expectation was always that they would integrate into the congregation’s wider sense of purpose and mission.
Christian mission, then is about the church laying aside its own power and becoming open and vulnerable to the world, giving itself to serving the needs of others, locating itself where they live and only then, finally, seeking to communicate the meaning of the gospel.. 9 (Spencer: P170, 2007)
Quite recently the congregation of All Hallows set out to create a community garden. Once more this was not a proactive move, but a reaction to ideas expressed in the local community which set about the task with great enthusiasm and commitment. The garden abuts the church at a point where there is a narrow, full length window which seems to symbolise the link between church and community. This small place is very much a place of reflection and is well used by local people who often create small personalised shrines within it. That there has been little damage or misuse is a testament to how the church is viewed locally.
The crucial point to grasp is that some sort of religiosity persists despite the obvious drop in practice. The sacred does not disappear – indeed in many ways it is becoming more rather than less prevalent in contemporary society. 10 (Davie: P43, 1992.)
The vicarage at All Hallows, a church now in interregnum, has housed three asylum seekers for some time. The congregation is in negotiations with the diocese to ensure that these vulnerable people are able to stay. It is unclear how these negotiations will be concluded but at a time when asylum seekers and refugees are marginalised and abused in wider society, supported by elements of the right-wing tabloid press, All Hallows is making an important statement about its Christian witness.
We could also talk about this church’s other overt stances on issues of poverty, justice and peace in the name of Christ, such as its overt identification with the Stop The War campaign and Third World debt remission, but I think the point is now well made. As Gillett notes, commenting on the 1998 Lambeth conference:
The privatisation of significant sections of economic life has meant that ownership and control of major agricultural and production enterprises has been put into the hands of international companies controlled in the West….instead of concentrating on the production of food, clothing and shelter for the local community, economies are having to satisfy the needs of international markets. This has increased the divisions between rich and poor, between the nations and within nations. 11 (Gillett: P104, 2005)
In a time of globalisation small congregations like All Hallows are well aware of the issues and the difference concerted lobbying as part of the wider church body can make and of the significance of that witness as a powerful statement of belief which is worth any number of “mission” meetings.
The key issue here is that none of these initiatives have been undertaken with the fanfare of “mission”. There have been no inspirational speakers or special meetings to bring in the unchurched. There has been no “evangelism” in its simplistic understanding, but there has been evangelism in the context of the Dictionary of Christian Theology’s definition because “The evangelistic activity of the early church, however, was not limited to preaching for it informed and involved everything the church was called to be in its worship fellowship and service.” The church has listened, responded and gone out to the community and the community in return holds the church in the highest regard.
While there is little overt church attendance, All Hallows Church is recognised by its local community as a church of integrity which has put its money where its mouth is. It is the church of choice for marking right-of-passage events and has become a non-threatening space for a wide range of people who nevertheless recognise its quiet spirituality and there are many local people who talk in terms of their contact with the church as being life changing. Have they been evangelised, the target of an overt mission approach? No. They have come to the church and its leadership, I would suggest, largely because they have not been door-stepped by glib Christians, and because the church speaks to their wider needs.
The best evidence of this was to be seen at the most recent incumbent’s last service which was overwhelmed by members of the local community, including a significant number of Muslims, who had come to express their gratitude both to the Vicar and to the congregation for what the church has come to represent locally: a congregation which is outward looking and has sought to support the people where they are rather than by imposing alien ideas of church upon them.
Briefly put, the process of God’s love involves our first experiencing his love and then going on to love the neighbour. The Christian’s action flows out of the experience of God’s own love. The love, too, is spontaneous, free, voluntary, happy and eager. It possesses a spontaneity that changes the “thou shalt” to an inner “I must”. The imperative is set aside through the indicative worked through God’s Holy Spirit. 12 (Althaus: P19, 1972)
In the parish’s Section 11 document there is a statement about the church’s relationship with the Muslim community.
After 9/11 we had little choice in the direction we went. The strengthening of spirituality that flowed from the relationship with our Muslim sisters and brothers could never have been planned. (Also) we never planned to be a community of activists. We thought the next ten years would be a time of quiet reflection, but it seems unlikely that the Spirit will let us go that way.” In the same document the PCC outlines its mission priorities and concludes: we will “continue to let the Spirit guide us and move us forward in our commitment to the marginalised, both in and out of the parish. 13 (PCC secretary: P18, 2007)
Are we not talking about a working out of the Parable of the Sower here? “…and some fell on good ground and sprung up and bore fruit…” (Luke 8) We do not know what the future effect on these people of their positive experience of the church will be but “…the Spirit blows where it chooses…” (John 8)
What has been interesting about the All Hallows experience has been how the church has grown. As already identified this has not been in any significant way from within the local area, but the reputation of this congregation has made it a place where Christians from elsewhere often come. (I have no explanation for this at this stage save to say that the church has a mission to the churched as well as to the unchurched: why a particular church attracts other Christians may be a topic best saved for another occasion.)
Nevertheless, Eddie Gibbs sums up the All Hallows situation very well:
Those who embark in such initiatives have to be prepared to be involved for the long haul. Short-term “raiding parties” are ineffective and counter-productive. In theological terms, the approach is incarnational in emphasis, which means a long-term commitment, the building of deep friendships, the sharing of pain and discerning the signs of God’s presence within the cultural context. 14 (Gibbs, 2002)
The symbolism, in Biblical terms, of All Hallows being on a hill has often struck me. Mat 5.14/16 says “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden….let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” This is the missio Dei and not a word about evangelism.
In terms of my own context, this Post Modern application of missio dei has been something of an encouragement to me as one who for many years struggled with the concept of mission as principally evangelism and who, consequently, as someone who was uncomfortable with evangelism, felt inadequate and guilty. I wonder now whether I ever truly believed in evangelism in the way it was presented to me as a teenager - proselytising. Against the prevailing attitudes of other Christians I began to dare to develop a sense of my own mission as simply being who I am, where I happen to be and with whom I happen to be, although others laid on the guilt by telling me I was avoiding a Christian obligation.
As the San Antonio meeting of the WCC put it: We affirm that witness does not preclude dialogue but invites it, and that dialogue does not preclude witness but expands and deepens it. 15 (Bosch: P487, 1991) This sounds very much to me as missio dei in its post modern sense.
Of course I sense that my one to one conversations about Jesus are important, but to my mind I have increasingly to earn the right to speak and I can only do that when relationships have been developed. When relationships have been developed those I talk to can judge what I say by the life I lead and the life I lead is increasingly simply being with people where they are and does not involve me promoting my ideas of faith, religion or church. It also involves my own recognition and acknowledgement of the fact that I am by no means the best example of Christianity in action.
Even if Luther argues that, because of the self-giving of God we will have a spontaneous impulse to gladly do God’s will, Christians still do not find it an easy task to love neighbours purely and unselfishly. God’s love mediated through us is always imperfect. 16 (Peura: P94, 1998)
I work in a secular environment where I am in regular contact with a number of the unchurched, Agnostics, Atheists, Sikhs and Muslims. There I have been described as being the sort of person who oils the wheels of social interaction, which is very affirming. Pretty well everyone knows that I am a Christian and also that I am in training for ministry. I do not initiate conversations about personal faith, but I am involved in many such conversations initiated by others partly, I guess, because I do not do glib answers and partly, I am now realising, because this is where God is at work and I am joining in with as much integrity and congruence as I can muster.
It is about inviting someone to walk with you relationally and it takes a while to demonstrate this Gospel. 17 (Gibbs and Bolger: P56, 2006)
To conclude: my favourite, but often irritating, character from The Simpsons, Ned Flanders, has got this right. He is:
…a good neighbour, his basic role in the series. Marge admonishes Homer. “You shouldn’t be so hard on Ned. He’s been a good neighbour ever since we moved here.” Homer is unmoved and asks, “What has he ever done for us besides lend us things, do us favours and save our children from the occasional house fire?” It is only by repeatedly returning to Matthew 19.19, Jesus’ injunction to love your neighbour as yourself, that Ned is able to survive this largely one sided relationship. 18 (Pinsky: P 51, 2001)
Living “…our lives in Christ without a strategy but with compassion and the servant posture of Jesus Christ.” I think so.
1) Ward, K: Post Missionaries: an Easter letter published in Emerging Church Info, April 2005. INTERNET)
2) Richardson, A: A Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM, 1972.
3) Bosch, David J: Transforming Mission. Orbis, 1991.
4) Eberling, Gerhard: Luther, An Introduction to His Thoughts, Collins, 1970.
5) Ward, K. As above.
6) Mission–Shaped Church, Church House Publishing, 2004.
7) Nassbaum, Stan: A Reader’s Guide to Transforming Mission, Orbis, 2005.
8) Gibbs, Eddie and Bolger, Ryan K: Emerging Churches, Baker Academic, 2006.
9) Spencer, Stephen: Christian Mission, SCM, 2007.
10) Davie, Grace: Religion in Britain since 1945, Blackwell, 1992.
11) Gillett, Richard W: The New Globalisation, Pilgrim Press, 2005.
12) Althaus, Paul: The Ethics of Martin Luther. Fortress, 1972.
13) Hill, Andrea (PCC secretary): Section 11 Document for All Hallows Church, 2007
14) Gibbs, Eddie: The Bible in Transmission, published in Emerging Church, 2002, The INTERNET.
15) Bosch, David J: As above.
16) Peura, Simo: Union With Christ – The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Edited by Braaten, Carl and Jensen, Robert W, Erdmans, 1998.
17) Gibbs, Eddie and Bolger, Ryan K: As above.
18) Pinsky, Mark: The Gospel According to The Simpsons, WJK Books, 2001.
Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Exegesis of Psalm 118
The Context: The Book of Psalms reached its present form quite late and the process of completion took several stages from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.E. Religious tradition depicts the Psalms as being the work of King David but the Psalms were not written down in Hebrew before the sixth century BCE, several hundred years after the generally accepted dating for the reign of David.
Critical analysis lends strength to the belief that the Psalms are more likely to be the combined work of several writers or schools of writers. Brueggemann gives a helpful analogy when he describes the psalms as being rather like negro spirituals
…that have no author or identifiable place of origin, but simply arise in the life and practice of the community and are found to be recurringly adequate to many different usages over time. W. Bruggemann, p279
Various collections of psalms were compiled over time to be used in liturgical settings by those responsible for worship, rather like guilds of liturgical performers, and that what we are left with is what Bruggemann calls a “long editorial-traditioning process” (p278) as these various collections were moulded and shaped for use in a variety of liturgical contexts until they settled into the form which we know today.
In addition there are clear patterns or formats to the Psalms. Hermann Gunkel pioneered Form Criticism and sought to provide a new way of interpreting the Psalms. He concluded that GENRE, rather than the individual psalm’s context within the Psalter was the key. According to Gunkel three conditions needed to be met for a psalm to fit into a genre.
• There needed to be a similar basis of worship or cultic setting.
• They were characterised by common thoughts, feelings and moods.
• They required a shared style or structure. H. Gunkle and J. Begrich, p16
Gunkel identifies six genre: hymns, enthronement psalms, communal laments, royal psalms, individual laments and individual thanksgiving, together with a number of smaller genre.
Psalm 118: Turning to Psalm 118: what we have, in Gunkel’s classification, is a psalm of individual thanksgiving. However Gunkel recognises that some psalms fit more than one category and Psalm 118 is also found under his list of Psalm Liturgies.
Here the form within the Thanksgiving Genre is:
• An expanded introduction expressing the intention to give thanks to Yahweh. (v1-4)
• An outline of the problem to a congregation which will encompass: the lament, the call to God and the deliverence. (v5-19)
• A public declaration of Yahweh’s acceptance. (v20 – 25)
• A thanks offering. (v26 – 29)
From the very outset, in verse 1, we have an echo of the ancient covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel in the idea of loving-kindness or hesed as the priest invites the congregation to repeat the liturgical statement that is common elsewhere in the Psalter: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, His love endures forever.” What is interesting about this psalm is the possibility that some of the original liturgical instructions may have become incorporated into the text of the Psalm. We can imagine the people standing outside the gates of the Jerusalem Temple and being required to repeat a creedal statement in some form of antiphonal response. It might be possible to identify the three groups represented by the designations, Israel, The House of Aaron and Those Who Fear Israel as the regular faithful, the Priests and the proselytes. G.A.F. Knight argues that from the outset we have the key as to the liturgical purpose of this Psalm.
It covers an act of worship in which a pagan is received into the fellowship of the people of God. He is welcomed by the priest of the day. G.A.F. Knight, p206
While Knight’s is not the general view, it is worth considering and it easy to see how he has reached his position: such converts were not uncommon in the community of Israel as those from other tribes who were attracted to the Law of Moses, were accepted into the covenant. In terms of dating this Psalm, however, the clue is little help: in the pre-exilic period many Canaanites were absorbed into the People of Israel, their very survival conditional upon their following Yahweh while in the post-exilic period Israel saw its role as welcoming in the nations as reflected in the themes of second Isaiah. Attempts at dating are further confused by the use of the term The House of Aaron to identify the priesthood. This would suggest a post-exilic dating as “Aaron” becomes the designation for the priesthood from the period of Ezra. Alternatively one could speculate that the line “Let the House of Aaron say….” is merely a later editing of the text to acknowledge a change in liturgical terminology and shows a traditioning process at work.
So if, as is likely, Knight is wrong, and this is not a psalm of conversion, whose is the primary voice of Psalm 118? In Israel there was a real corporate identity where the first person pronoun could authoritatively be said representing the community. If this is a psalm of Cultic proceeding, as Gunkle would argue, then the primary voice becomes a representative of the people. The military language in v 10-12 and 15-16 suggests the King who, in speaking about his experience of “God’s steadfast love” is, in fact, delivering a word of testimony on behalf of the nation (and there is some suggestion that this may be an annual event). Now that the King has Yahweh on his side his faith is strengthened, as is that of the people. “What can man (now) do to me?” he demands as he goes on to outline those generic things which used to overwhelm him (the nation) or perhaps a generic failing that equates to confession.
Whether the thanksgiving which follows is a new convert’s or the King’s the source of thanksgiving is the same: Yahweh is on his side. At this point the text lends itself to a form of response with the lead voice, either the new convert or the King leading the congregation.
Voice : All the nations surround me
Response: But in the name of the Lord I cut them off.
Voice : They surrounded me on every side
Response: But in the name of The Lord I cut them off.
Voice : They swarmed around me like bees
Response: but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of The Lord I cut them off.
Given that the Psalms, we now realize, are less private reflection and more public liturgy, this would not be unusual. In the Psalter there are 150 Psalms. Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that each had its particular niche as a liturgy? Some would be part of regular public worship while others would be occasional liturgies depending on the circumstances. “Depression, sir? You’ll be wanting the liturgy of Psalm 22 then.”
At verse 19 there is a change of mood. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the voice we now hear is the voice of the Priest. “Open to me the gate of righteosness” becomes a literal instruction rather than merely a spiritual aspiration. In this understanding, the liturgy of Psalm 118 is very much a drama. We see the Priest leading the congregation in procession from one temple court to another in an act of great symbolism. This is theatre in promenade and a liturgical drama managed by the Priests. It is a spiritual transition acted out.
It is the Priest who, in verse 20, makes a statement of authority on the status of the petitioner, new convert or chastened King: he is now Righteous in the sight of God and can therefore move deeper into the temple, closer to the Holy place. This is God’s saving love acted out as a public witness of faith. Does verse 21 now reveal the petitioner’s response? His statement “I will give you thanks, for you answered me: you have become my salvation” is a strikingly humble recognition of the working of God’s grace. It is God and God alone who has brought him to this point. Here we have jutification by faith not by good works Old Testament style.
What for many Christians is a statement about Christ in verses 22-24 is revealed as having an altogether different emphasis. The petitioner, whether former pagan or penitent King, is recognized as having been brought close to God. He is a new creation and we can “hear” the voices of his supporters in a formal response as they acknowledge his acceptance (or reacceptance) into the community of the faithful, perhaps in unison or perhaps in three groups:
• The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
• The Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes.
• This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The one who was nearly rejected has been reinstated. The use of the idea of cornerstone would seem to strengthen the argument for the petitioner to be the King. The King is restored: all is well with the community.
In Christian understanding this is taken as a clear reference to Christ and verse 24 “This is the Day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.” is a wonderful statement for Easter Day. Thus Christianity has taken this Psalm and used it to support the doctrine that God has acted to bring life to mankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
That Christianity sees itself as the heir to the theology, history and traditions of Israel has always been a part of its self-understanding. In seeking to re-evaluate a past in the context of a man who has been accepted as the promised Messiah, Christian apologists have re-read the writings of the Tanakh in search of passages which can retrospectively legitimize their claim that Christ is indeed God’s Chosen One “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8.58).
However, regardless of Christianity’s view that Christ is the word of God both forward and backwards, the same yesterday, today and forever, there was a pre-existing understanding of this Psalm in the Jewish tradition which has value in its own right.
The Christian understanding of this section, while it may be valid, is not the primary understanding. While it is, in its broadest sense, a Psalm of David and therefore might be interpreted as having a Messianic element, it is primarily a Psalm of “fresh start”. The petitioner’s new acceptance by the worshipping community reflects back to the earlier sense of abandonment of verses 5-9.
The final section of the Psalm is one of thanksgiving and the symbolism and sense of theatre continue. Is the voice we now hear in verse 26 – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” - that of another priest, one who has a different liturgical responsibility in the new temple court? We can picture this priest standing at the door of the shrine building and inviting the now forgiven and justified petitioner to approach the altar of Yahweh to make an offering of thanksgiving. The petitioner follows what must have been this deeply moving and spiritual moment with an exultant cry of gratitude: “You are my God and I will give thanks; you are my God and I will exalt you.” To which the gathered congregation responds “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”
What we have in Psalm 118, then, is not the private reflections or meditations of “the psalmist” but a vibrant piece of active liturgy, taking the petitioner from the status of outcast, through confession and penitence to grace and acceptance by God into thanksgiving and full membership of the worshipping community: all witnessed by, and with the active participation of, that same worshipping community. We have a tantelising glimpse of the religious practices of a lost world. How exciting is that?
Knight, G.A.F: The Daily Study Bible – Psalms (Vol 1), St. Andrew Press, 1982.
Bruggemann, W: An Introduction to the Old Testament, WJK Press, 2003.
H. Gunkel and J. Begrich: Introduction to Psalms, Mercer University Press, 1998. (German edition 1933)