Friday, November 17, 2023

We know better. . .

Of all the pernicious attitudes of people today, the worst, by far, is the presumption that we know better than those who went before us.  It is not particularly a religious hubris but one common to all aspects of modern life.  We tend to look at the past with a critical eye, judging its sins according to the metrics of the moment, and smug in our conclusion that those who went before us were either evil, ignorant, superstitious, or fools.  Add to that the nefarious aspect of their stupidity and we assign to them guilt for the most precious of the modern sins identified -- phobes of one sort or another and prudes who cannot abide or tolerate joy.  How arrogant we are!

It might be tolerable if the same attitudes had not infiltrated the Church but they have.  The view of modern Christians toward Scripture is laced with the poison of presumption when it comes to everything from race to gender and does not shy away from the animus against the sexual mores of the commandments.  This is nothing less than the presumption that God is such a fool.  Even among conservative Christians this is a problem.  I have heard good and honest Christians insist that Jesus was somehow also locked into the ignorance of His day about such things as mental illness and demons.  Oh, how we love to flaunt our education and erudition over the Son of God!  If only Jesus had known what we know, Scripture might be different.  While we can all hear the progressive faction of Christianity echo this thought, the reality is that many conservative Christians are also so tempted to believe that Scripture suffers from a distorted view of evil, medicine, and sex.  All of them, of course, are the mark of a patriarchal society repressed in so many ways and unable to enjoy pleasure and freedom.  Yeah.  That is the ultimate rejection of the Old and New Testaments, isn't it?  Yet it is hard for us to admit that we do not know better than the apostles, prophets, patriarchs, and evangelists the Word of God but just may be struggling to know as well as they knew Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen.  Our calling is not to understand Jesus in terms of our modern understanding of humanity but to see ourselves through the lens of Christ.

The idea that modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality is not peculiar to our age but is the Achilles' heel of a people steeped in the moment and functionally ignorant of history and human nature.  Every age has vaunted its technology and education as the answer to the foolishness and superstition of the past and as the means to overcoming the injustices these have caused.  The problem for us today is that technological change is so rapid and the change in values and norms for society and culture come at us with the same dizzying pace that the past we are rejecting is hardly a generation old.  For Christianity this is an especially difficult problem.  Modern thought is given equal and perhaps superior place to Scripture and tradition in determining what is normative for Christian faith and life.  Gender identity is but one example of how fast and far things can change from fringe to norm.  While this is certainly true of the progression of sexual desire from aberration to mainstream, it is no less true in many other areas.  This is why liberation has taken hold.  The goal of humanity has become the liberation of man from all oppression, from the past and even from the Word of God, and it must be undertaken so that man has a true and authentic existence.

Christians presume our views upon Scripture all the time.  Even conservative Christians are so tempted.  The challenge for every age and for ours in particular is to retain truth, doctrine, and revelation without tainting these with the poisons of the day.  While the development of doctrine initially was concerned with how unchanging truth and dogma were passed on, it is now common for Christians of all kinds to presume that doctrine does actually change, morphing into something different than it was in another time.  Exegetes complain that we are reading the Trinity into Scripture, for example.  Others complain that we are reading a history of homophobia into the same Word of God.  There is no yesterday, today, and forever Word of the Lord but it is a living and moving reality that is both defined by and speaks to the moment.  The mark of Christian orthodoxy is that we do not invent, create, or countenance novelty.  Of course, neither do we fail to express the unchanging truth of Christ and His revelation in different but faithful ways -- yet what we confess remains forever the same.  

It is for this reason that the early church fathers were important to Lutheranism (and here I am not talking about the Reformation fathers or those who were the fathers of the Missouri Synod).  Our timeline begins at the beginning and we are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition.  No age is pristine or without error -- only Scripture -- but that does not agitate against the catholic consensus that was and remains the foundation of Lutheranism.  So it does trouble me when we as Lutherans are content being Lutherans -- even conservative and confessional ones -- for in so doing we are also doing exactly what we accuse the liberals and progressives of doing.  Lutherans wisely did not hitch their wagon to an infallible Luther but to the infallible Word of God and they refuted as being most repugnant the idea that Lutheranism was new about anything of the faith.  I fear that this may be forgotten in our own age and time when we gladly embrace a sectarian institutional identity over the catholic claims of our confession.  Do we know better?  Better than those who went before us?  The sins of modernity are an arrogance and presumption about how much more we know than those who went before us.  The mark of a careful orthodoxy is a careful and humble appreciation of those who went before us. 

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