Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Where is Charles Martel when you need him?

The Battle of Tours (10 October 732) took place between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in north-central France, close to the border between the Frankish kingdom and then-independent Aquitaine. It pitted Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles Martel against a much larger army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Surprisingly, the Franks were victorious. 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was killed, and Charles began to extend his authority and begin uniting a European kingdom that would withstand the challenge of Islamic military forces to the present day.

Some saw this as divine judgment in favor of Charles, nicknamed Martellus ("The Hammer"). Later , Charles Martel would be praised as the champion of Christianity, seeing the battle as the decisive turning point against the powerful Islamic empire.

The Battle of Tours came after two decades of Umayyad conquests in Europe beginning with the invasion of the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula in 711 and seemingly unstoppable military expeditions into Gaul (the former province of the Roman Empire).  The Islamic army had reached as far northward as Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Charles's victory came when Muslim rule was overrunning the old Roman and Persian Empires.

Charles surprised the Islamic forces who did not expect to find a large and well organized enemy.  For a full week they skirmished awaiting the arrival of the full Umayyad forces.  It gave Charles Martel time to organize and concentrate his forces for the battle plan.  Perhaps the most decisive maneuver was Charles raid on the Umayyad base camp threatening the bounty the army had accumulated in previous battles.  Charles so rattled the Umayyad forces that they left their tents standing and ran with whatever loot they could carry.

The army retreated over the Pyrenees.  In 735 another forey by the Islamic forces was repelled by Charles, putting an end to any of the Muslim hopes beyond the Iberian peninsula.  Charles’ grandson, Charlemagne, became the first Christian ruler of a mostly united Christian Europe.

Now here we are some thirteen centuries later, after Luther himself had wrote against the invading Muslim armies of the Turkish advance, and after terrorism has spilled over into the cities of Europe and the United States.  Here we are after a priest was murdered in his own parish church by an enemy more devious than the multinational, multilingual Ottoman empire and even more brutal.  Where are the voices of Luther in our day to rally us to organize together against our common enemy?  Where is the next Charles Martel who will face down the armies seeking to build a new caliphate more by terrorism than open conquest?  Where are those who both recognize and acknowledge that this is no mere threat to religion, though it is certainly that, but also a threat to the West as a whole and to freedom itself?

Luther initially feared that the Turkish invasion was a scourge from God against the sins of the Christians.  In 1528 Luther changes his mind and encouraged Charles V and all the German people to resist the invasion.  I am not prepared to say that the success so far of the jihadists is not in part due to the way we in the West have abused our freedom as license to cover our decadence, immorality, and licentiousness but we must battle on both fronts – fighting the common enemy and fighting for virtue, goodness, and truth in our exercise of the gift of freedom.  Where is the leader who can rally us to both?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The oldest, most complete Gospel book is in Ethiopia. . .

The oldest known bound, complete, and illustrated copy of the Gospels, the so-called Garima Gospels, has actually been kept safe and secure for centuries in a remote Ethiopian monastery.  The Garima Gospels are believed to be the earliest surviving example of book binding still attached to the original pages.

The volume is astonishingly beautiful.  They were named after a monk, Abba Garima, who arrived in Ethiopia in 494, from Constantinople. The story goes that he copied the Gospels in just one day when God delayed the sun from setting so the monk had time to finish his work. Whatever the legend, the truth of this incredible relic has lain upon the shelves of the Garima Monastery, near Adwa, in northern Ethiopia at 7,000 feet, ever since!

The books survival is most impressive when one considers that throughout its history, the country has suffered invasion after invasions and the monastery itself suffered a devastating fire in 1930 that destroyed the monastery’s chapel.  The carbon tests upon the paper in the book have given a date somewhere between 330 and 650, a date which fits with the time when Abba Garima arrived in Ethiopia.

Now this text is not a new discovery.  Travelers to the monastery mentioned this volume often -- even some well connected folks. But the date was wrong and most suspected this manuscript to have dated from the 11th century, at the earliest, and not as early as the mid-fourth century as carbon dating has posited.


So why does this matter?  Because the claim of the so-called scholars is often that the canon of the New Testament was not a given but the result of a conspiracy of folks from Constantine on to put a political and theological agenda above the truth.  These skeptics have suggested so often that the Jesus of history is far removed from the Christ of the Gospels to the point where many wonder if
we can have any confidence in the New Testament and in the Gospels in particular.  Every time we discover something new, rather something old, the evidence points not in favor of the skeptic but in favor of the claims of the New Testament itself.  Since everyone is prone to talk about the things which support this conspiracy theory and the idea that we can never know much about the real Jesus, it is important for us to herald and acknowledge such things that point us with confidence to the truthfulness of the Biblical record.  Besides, the volume is simply beautiful to the eye!  This is its own testament to the value placed by the monks upon the written Word of Christ.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Which Luther?

I have often suggested that the characterizations of Lutherans from many Roman Catholics, even those Roman Catholics who were once Lutheran, is a false characterization.  Just a few weeks ago I nailed Francis and others who read Luther wrongly or blamed Luther for the wrongs of Vatican II.  But Christopher Jackson, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Wisconsin, has written a great piece in the First Things Blog suggesting that those Roman Catholics who are doing this are following bad Lutheran interpretations of Luther.  In other words, the misconceptions of Luther began not with Roman Catholics but with Lutherans who do not always know or read their own namesake correctly.  This is most certainly true.

The sad reality is that Luther is often read by Lutherans through the lens of the modern day divisions of Rome and Wittenberg and with a view toward enhancing the divisions between us rather than a more objective read of Luther within the framework of his own words and time.  In addition, we often blur the distinction between the words of Luther that inform and shape Lutherans (namely, the few words of Luther that form part of the Lutheran Confessions) and the rest of Luther which has no binding force upon Lutheran doctrine or confession.  I am not suggesting that Luther is peripheral to the Lutherans but only reminding us that Luther's words (apart from the Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles) are important but not definitive.  Only the Book of Concord is.

Secondly, Luther is cherry picked for statements often used outside the context of Luther's time or intent to address issues and conflicts in our own day.  This is not necessarily wrong because Luther did speak to issues we face today but it is incumbent upon us to make sure that Luther's words are not torn out of context or some of Luther's words used to define all of what Luther said.  Finally, the words of Luther we often resonate with are not necessarily the most popular expressions Luther himself used in his preaching and teaching.  Again, this is not necessarily wrong but it does place the burden upon us to make sure we do not make more of some of these turns of a phrase than Luther himself did or we risk being unfaithful to him and to the Lutheran faith.

The young Luther or the old Luther, the catholic Luther or the protestant Luther, the firebrand Luther or the conciliatory Luther...  Which Luther is the real Luther?  Well, all of them.  Luther cannot be cut up and subdivided in ways that betray him and his words.  Luther with all his faults and with all his genius must be taken as a whole and not defined by one moment in time or one word spoken or written.

Pastor Jackson summarized his point with words I quote below but I would commend his whole article to you.  Whether you are Roman, Reformed, Evangelical, or Lutheran, we need to make sure we do not paint a picture of Luther that he would reject.  The temptation is great to abuse Luther but the value of keeping Luther straight is key not only to the future of Lutheranism but to the general ecumenical cause.

Catholics should resist importing from today's Lutherans a view of Luther that Luther himself would not have recognized. Instead, I suggest that Catholics—and Lutherans—consider a perspective on Luther promoted by many insightful Catholics. In Luther’s Faith, Catholic theologian Daniel Olivier portrayed Luther as one who was enamored of Christ, with a fierce love and loyalty that drove his theology. Pope Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment in a 2011 speech:
Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
That perspective on Luther does not well serve the polemicist, whether Catholic or Lutheran. But, it is the truth, and it is just that Christocentric spirituality, that intense love of the Lord Jesus, that I believe should be considered a hallmark of Luther’s theology, over and against “the Simul.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The decency of order. . .

While Luther was held in friendly captivity in the Wartburg, he was busy with work such as his Commentary on the Magnificat and then the translation of the New Testament into German -- an activity that occupied his restless mind until an event that compelled him to risk his own safety and mount a horse to head to his beloved Wittenberg.  Part of the concern that drove him was the attempt to hijack the conservative reformation by Karlstadt and turn it into a Zwinglian revolution.  Just as Elector Frederick was not about to sanction such radicalism, neither was Luther prepared to abdicate the catholic principle in favor of Zwickau prophets and the gnosticism of special revelation Muenster's threat of bloodshed to hasten the pace of reform.  It all finally came to a head and he had to choose sides.  The Peasant's War was one of the most difficult of Luther's decisions.  In the end his admonition to peace did not quell the revolt and issued a tract Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants.  What began as a theological concern, ended with an appeal to order.

This is not an insignificant event in the life of the early Reformation period.  Nor is it an isolated event limited to one moment in time and one space.  In essence, we find ourselves in a similar place today.  Many within the electorate have grown weary and fearful of the rapid pace of radical change.  How quickly we have gone from courts requiring gay marriage to bathroom debates over people who define gender by feeling instead of anatomy.  How quickly we went from a seeming recovery of a sense of security after 911 to the explosion of violence over Europe and the US -- violence we once thought confined to the Middle East!  How quickly we have gone from a presumption of common values to the question of what it is that does unite us and how it is possible for us to move forward without a tangible and common sense of right and wrong, good and evil.

In my own church body we have taken stands to guard the institution of marriage from the whims of the moment and a society unleashed from history and tradition.  We have hunkered down on the pro-life debate amid a culture seemingly intent upon imposing assisted suicide and the so-called compassionate euthanasia of the aged and inform.  We have fought for the ability of our colleges and universities to teach and practice in accord with the faith even while the government and agencies that accredit them are pressing us to turn these institutions into the mirrors of secular private and public schools.  We have adopted a convention resolution in support of the right of women to conscientiously object from draft and military service against their will.  We have a clear and consistent voice in the person of our Synod President, Dr. Matthew Harrison, but some among us are not so sure we should not try harder to accommodate and fight against the constraints less forcefully.

We have a conflict of both theology and order.  Lutherans are not typically those who agitate against the state.  We have in our history tried to go along and get along as much as possible with the rulers of government and with the mood of society -- as long as and unless they prevented us from being faithful (which was the cause for the little immigration that formed the Missouri Synod).  Yet the present and future seems to point us into a path of unrelenting upset as theology and order increasingly conflict and it becomes more and more difficult to be faithful within the boundaries of the law and the cultural values espoused by the majority.  In addition we find ourselves caught between the cultural divide of the ordinary citizen and the privileged elite of academia, money, media, and power.  We find ourselves seeing two different Americas and two different futures.

I believe that this is at least part of the reason for the rather strange political circumstance we find ourselves in today.  Trump claims to be the voice of those disenfranchised, those who see their America disappearing and who do not recognize the new America rising from the ashes of our once common sense of morality, common values, and common vision of the good life.  Whether he is or is not that voice for the angry, underemployed, frustrated, and fearful, it presents us with a conflict not only of theology but of order.  It is clear that many in Washington and many in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and many within the power centers of business and the media do not see this divide, do not sense the anger or understand its cause, and are quick to write it off as ignorance.

Lutherans historically confessed an unchanging Word of God and addressed doctrine as established and unchanging as well.  But we also have a predisposition to support order (perhaps our theme Bible passage is Paul's dictum that all things be done decently and in good order).  This is a time of testing for us.  How will we respond?  There will be no shortage of crosses to bear, no shortage of suffering to endure, no shortage of persecution to bear, and no end to the temptation to give up or give in.  I believe the future presents us with a great challenge and a great chance to, as Pres. Harrison put it, to conscientiously object on a variety of fronts in order to remain faithful.