Know Your Enemy: What is Critical Theory?

I’ve been writing a lot about the tragedy unfolding in the LCMS lately: the false teachings included with Luther’s Large Catechism along with President Harrison’s response of blaming criticism on the “alt-right” all of whom he has declared worthy of excommunication. Since then, the story has been picked up by media outlets like Rolling Stone, who was eager to jump on the bandwagon in condemnation of the “white supremacists” lurking among us. Even Occupy Democrats took the time to praise President Harrison for his bold stance against the “alt-right.” The narrative is quickly solidifying that everything tearing my denomination apart is connected by a shadowy demonic ideology which our church body must come together to oppose.

Predictably, many conservatives are buying this story. Like Charlie Brown kicking Lucy’s football, they hope against hope that this time, when they prove their deep and abiding hatred for racism and fascism, people will finally believe them. With that settled, the left will finally become reasonable again, and conservatives might even be in a position to address a few other minor issues like our children being groomed by pedophiles, our teenagers cutting their bits off, and our entire society burying God’s Word in a steaming pile of nihilism.

Well, fools they may be, but conservatives are right about one thing: There is a shadowy demonic ideology driving this conflict. But it’s not President Harrison’s “alt-right” bogeyman.

What truly ties this controversy together from beginning to end is a philosophy called Critical Theory. And unlike the alt-right, which is shadowy primarily because it doesn’t yet  understand even itself, Critical Theory is shadowy only because conservatives never really took the time to understand it. Though confronted by it constantly, we were so busy becoming as innocent as doves that we never bothered to become as wise as serpents.

It’s time to rectify that. We need to be able to know our enemy for what it is and understand how it works. Accordingly, my next few posts will be an attempt to explain Critical Theory in terms even a conservative can understand. So we’ll start with the basics:

What is Critical Theory?

Put simply, Critical Theory is a philosophy whose purpose is to tear down any and all barriers to human progress. Like so much other wickedness, it was inspired by Marxism and emerged out of the Frankfurt School in the early 20th Century. But rather than asserting any particular belief, this philosophy focuses on undermining other established beliefs along with any social structures and institutions built on those beliefs. That’s why it’s called Critical Theory; it clears the way for what they see as the advancement of mankind.

Now, one might naturally ask, “if it asserts no inherent beliefs, what does it mean by ‘progress’ or ‘advancement?'” Well, being inspired by Marxism, it should be no surprise that progress is understood in terms of liberation from oppression. However, there is no single sense in which liberation or oppression are consistently understood. Critical Theory is centered more around stories of good guys and bad guys than around a straightforward belief, system, or ideology. As a result, there are many “flavors” of critical theory out there–each centered on a different narrative of oppression.

Marxism is the obvious example, as it was the prototypical critical theory (preceding the Frankfurt school by quite some time). In its narrative, the oppressors are the “haves,” the oppressed are the “have-nots,” and classism against the have-nots is the greatest sin. Its purpose is to liberate the have-nots from the haves by seizing the means of production and thereby tearing down even the idea of private property, which kept the rich rich and the poor poor.

But whereas Marx focused primarily on economic oppression, his intellectual descendants continually “discovered” new forms of oppression getting in the way of progress. Naturally, they felt the need to apply Marxism’s approach to matters of culture besides economics (which is why Critical Theory is often identified as “Cultural Marxism.”) And so Feminism is another example of Critical Theory, in which men are the oppressors, women the oppressed, and sexism the primary sin. In Critical Race Theory, the narrative is that whites are the oppressors, people of color the oppressed, and racism the primary sin. Queer Theory, of course, spins yarns about the alphabet people needing to be liberated from the chaste (those of us who are “cishet” and monogamous) and establishes homophobia and transphobia as the great sins. And there are numerous others–a wide panoply limited only by the imaginations of tenured professors.


With the different pairs of oppressor/oppressed assigned by narrative, the work of being “critical” begins. Every facet of society–politics, religion, economics, culture, art, education, and so froth–is examined through the lens of the narrative and is judged as either aiding the oppressor or the oppressed as humanity progresses to liberation. Of course, anything found to be aiding the oppressors must be removed from society.

One of the most common methods of doing so is to declare such things to be “social constructs.” In other words, instead of being some kind of transcendent value or natural good, it is merely an invention of a certain class of people (usually the ‘oppressors’ in the narrative) and imposed on the rest of society for the advantage of the oppressor.

For example, both Christians reading Scripture and scientists reading nature recognize “male’ and “female” to be real and incontrovertible facts of the created world. A Queer Theorist, however, would declare these to be categories invented by humans and assigned (rather than observed) by society at birth in order to impose heteronormativity. After all, it is precisely such categories which identify sexual perversions for what they are and therefore stigmatize the perverts. Liberating the perverts from stigma therefore requires the removal of these categories.

So the social construct must then be “deconstructed” through many and various ways in order to liberate the oppressed. This approach is facilitated by reducing any “oppressive” facet of the world to a matter of mere power dynamics. Wherever we might see authority, they would only see a power disparity. They likewise reduce hierarchy to entrenched power, delegation to power over slaves, cooperation to manipulation, and so forth.

For example, you might think of marriage as the foundational human relationship from which all society proceeds. You may recognize it as natural–maybe even designed and ordained by God on the very same day He created Man. You may easily observe that it’s far and away the best way to raise children, protect women, civilize humanity, and so forth. However, through a feminist lens, marriage is reduced to a tool that men have used to oppress women throughout history. The God-ordained headship of the husband is reduced from authority to power–a mere vehicle for abuse. The observation that men and women complement each other by providing things that the other lacks is recast as men manipulating women into oppressive gender roles. And so, some of the greatest blessings God has bestowed upon us are transformed by this simplistic reductionism.

And the efforts do not stop with the present. All of history ends up being reduced to flat conflicts between oppressor and oppressed as well. Naturally, the past always belongs to the oppressor. After all, they were the ones who invented and imposed all these so-called social constructs in the first place, and the nature of “progress” is to deconstruct them. That’s why they’re always tearing down statues, editing old movies, putting trigger warnings on old books, and either retroactively cancelling historical figures or trying to reinvent them as members of an oppressed group. Left alone, Critical Theory ends up corroding everything good about civilization.

A Pragmatic View of Truth.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of Critical Theory, however, is that it takes a pragmatic approach to truth. Natural law and human reason both make it clear to us that truth is a matter of a belief corresponding to the real world. As Aristotle put it, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” This is what every competent philosopher has believed until the past century or two.

Critical Theory, however, departs from that understanding, instead teaching that truth is a matter of “what works.” When explained from certain angles, this approach can appear to make sense at first blush. For example, if you were asserting the laws of aerodynamics as “true,” the pragmatist would say that it’s irrelevant whether or not those laws correspond to reality (they may even say it’s impossible for a human to know whether they do.) Instead, what’s important is that following those laws will help you make your plane fly. According to pragmatism, that utility is what makes the laws of aerodynamics “true,” and they would cease to be true as soon as they cease to be helpful.

But while most of us can appreciate the practicality of engineering over and against pure science, we can also recognize the obvious pitfall of pragmatism: it consistently passes off lies as truth whenever those lies are deemed helpful. Any toddler can figure this out, for when mom asks about the broken vase on the floor, it’s very useful to the little boy to say that the dog did it. It’s very useful for the negligent student to say that the essay he bought was his own work. It’s very useful to the adulteress to tell her unknowingly cuckolded husband that her baby is also his. This is why you can never trust an epistemological pragmatist.

That’s also why you can never trust a Critical Theorist. In Critical Theory, truth and falsehood are always a matter of “what works” in liberating the oppressed.

For example, older conservatives may remember the days when “racism” was an umbrella term referring to a variety of race-based animosities and prejudices in America. But that was an abstract ethical question. By that understanding, some people are deemed racist and some are not based on their observable behavior. A white person could be innocent of racism and a black person could be guilty.

But if your entire purpose is to liberate people of color from white oppression, that kind of objectivity is not always helpful. And so the definition of racism was changed. Even a quarter of a century ago when I first went to college, I was taught that racism was a matter of being born white in an historically white country. (This was done during freshman orientation because they wanted to make sure everyone learned this. They made us all play a game called “Archie Bunker‘s Neighborhood” to drive the point home.) “Privilege” language wasn’t in vogue yet, but the fundamental concept was the same, encompassing every white person who benefits from the structures of “white privilege” built by our ancestors for the benefit of their descendants. That way, every white person is ipso facto guilty of racism and no person of color could possibly be called racist.

That’s a much less useful definition if you’re looking for any kind of moral truth, but it’s very useful for undermining an “oppressive” society. After all, you might notice that privilege in that sense is literally every parent’s job. I teach my children to read so that they’ll be able to learn more effectively throughout their lives:  privilege. I support school environments and traditions that help manage their education:  structures of privilege. I teach them to behave in ways that will help them to live moral, healthy, and fruitful lives:  even more privilege. And it’s not a coincidence that my children and I share the same race, so this is all clearly white privilege as well.

As a moral condemnation, this new definition of racism makes absolutely no sense–it is not immoral to have been simultaneously born a particular skin color and loved by your parents. However, if your goal is to tear down evil white oppressors in order to liberate the poor oppressed people of color, it’s quite useful indeed. And to the Critical Theorist, that makes it “true.” And it’s worth noting every expert in the field of “racism” has long been using that new definition. The dictionaries are already updated. The definition you grew up with is obsolete no matter how often you use it.

It’s Worse Than Hypocrisy

A failure to appreciate the twistedness of this pragmatic view of truth is at root of conservativism’s tendency to dismiss this sort of thing as hypocrisy. We’ve all heard the line, “if it weren’t for double-standards, the left would have no standards at all.” While liberals chanted “believe all women,” we remembered all the women who accused President Clinton and how the left never cared about them because President Clinton was useful to their agenda. We hear all the time that things like wearing blackface or using the N-word are considered racist in the extreme. But when they see pictures of Justin Trudeau wearing blackface to a party or hear audio of Joe Biden using the n-word, the left never cares because those men are useful to their agenda.

When conservatives see that, they dismiss it all as hypocrisy–that liberals proclaim these principles but have no interest in living up to them. And so we get all the lines about liberals being the real racists and hear every conservative ask in unison what would happen if the situation were reversed. And every last one of those efforts falls completely flat because conservatives are still thinking in terms of the correspondence view of truth and because of Critical Theory, liberals are not.

These things are not principles to today’s left. They are tools which are picked up when useful and put down when they are not. When you watch a man explain in the same interview that A) race is a social construct which produces racism once its imagined and B) you’re racist if you don’t immediately recognize a person’s race when you see it, the obvious contradiction is not hypocrisy. He’s simply using lines that “work” according to his narrative in different contexts. It’s no more hypocritical than putting down a hammer and picking up a screwdriver. That’s why conservatives who perpetually hope to provoke first shame and then repentance by denouncing liberal “hypocrisy” never accomplish anything.

Critical Theory is practiced almost exclusively through expedient lies. When you read crazy stories about how America’s preference for white meat turkey at Thanksgiving is racist, or that it’s transphobic when a normal man doesn’t find a mutilated man pretending to be a woman sexually attractive, it’s not because anyone actually believes such things (apart from a handful of truly broken and deluded souls.) The point is to create confusion and put opponents in a constant state of defensiveness—constantly trying to prove that they’re not racist, sexist, homophobic, and so forth. And while conservatives scramble to defend their good name to people who couldn’t care less, “progress” marches on unimpeded.

And it has worked amazingly well because conservatives never bothered to learn. They just keep taking the bait and allowing themselves to be manipulated through arguments about principles. But the only “principle” of Critical Theory is fighting for the oppressed against the oppressors. Their presumptive narratives govern all. There is no good faith present in this conflict except when a show of good faith is deemed temporarily useful.

But this is just the beginning, for we have only scratched the surface of this topic. Our considerations thus far have mainly been a matter of politics. But the true danger of Critical Theory is a spiritual one. In the next post, I will explain why Critical Theory is not simply an undesirable brand of politics, but a false religion claiming for Hell the souls of those whom it deceives.

Posted in Feminism, Lutheranism, Natural Law, Politics, The Modern Church | 2 Comments

Excommunicating the Alt-Right

In an age of squishiness from most church leaders, many rank-and-file Christians are eager for the day when their leaders take a clear an unequivocal stand on God’s Word. Nothing is more disappointing than when that day comes and the clear, fiery denouncements are made on behalf of the world rather than the Word.

So it is in a recent letter  from President Harrison of the LCMS. Shortly after finding nothing of consequence in an official catechism that contains blatant false teachings and adopts the framework of today’s most prominent anti-Christian ideologies, he has mustered remarkable zeal to rally against the real danger to our church body: “a few members of LCMS congregations have been propagating radical and unchristian ‘alt-right’ views via Twitter and other social media.” And he takes this “danger” very seriously indeed, threatening (and encouraging) excommunication for anyone who will not repent of being “alt-right.”

Given the gravity of this threat, it behooves us to consider carefully the content of Harrison’s accusation.

A Nebulous “Sin”

The Word of God certainly stands in judgment over worldly political philosophies and movements, the alt-right included. And while the LCMS has not, to my knowledge, threatened our proponents of explicitly anti-Christian political philosophies like Marxism or feminism with excommunication, Harrison minces no words in condemning the alt-right in the name of God “in toto.” But it’s curious how poorly he defines this supposedly grievous sin for which we must expel people from Christ’s church unless they repent.

The alt-right is a nascent political movement that, by nature of its youth, has no firm definition yet. It’s a right-wing ideology that despises progressivism, but also possesses a great contempt for mainstream conservativism’s failure to conserve anything of value. It’s also willing to question many of the ideals of modernity–equality, democracy, pluralism, multiculturalism, and so forth. But broadly-shared specifics are fairly hard to come by because there is little consensus on what will replace those ideals.

The most prominent definition I know of (that was developed by someone who actually identifies as alt-right) is political commentator Vox Day’s attempt to help define the movement back in 2016 with his 16 points. It hardly caught on or became representative, but as radical as most Americans would consider Vox Day, it’s worth noting that there’s still no overlap between his points and Harrison’s list of supposed alt-right beliefs: “white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide.” How can anyone in good conscience declare the damnation of everyone bearing a label which you cannot even properly define?

But even leaving aside the likelihood that Harrison’s characterization of the alt-right is entirely slanderous, there’s an even bigger problem here. Harrison’s letter is quite explicitly about excommunication–publicly declaring men & women to be brazen unbelievers and barring them from the Sacraments to assure them that they must repent or be damned for all eternity. How can a label as nebulous and non-Biblical as “alt-right” be used in such a serious public condemnation? I don’t advocate for anything on Harrison’s list, but I am a right-winger who has rejected mainstream conservativism and questions the ideals of modernity. “Alt-right” isn’t a label I embrace, but it wouldn’t be unfair to apply it to me either. Must I therefore repent of these views or be damned?

The specifics on Harrison’s list aren’t any better. In contemporary usage, white supremacy, Nazism, and fascism are all practically meaningless. For instance, I’ve personally been called a Nazi simply for believing that marriage is between a man and a woman–a view officially taught by Synod. And yet, here is our President using a spurious label with which I’ve been slandered and deeming it worthy of excommunication.

White supremacy is another label that’s been applied to everything from opposing reparations to preferring white meat on Thanksgiving. One prominent Lutheran pastor recently suggested that there’s a real definition “somewhere between the woke left’s ‘shoelaces are white supremacy’ and the anti-woke’s ‘it’s not white supremacy to think non-whites are gross and should be imprisoned on a volcanic island.'” But when I asked him to provide that real definition, he simply blocked me–this despite him personally harassing at least one LCMS pastor in regards to a specific target of Harrison’s excommunication. Such unseriousness is all too common, which is why these labels no longer mean anything beyond “someone progressives don’t like.” They have no business being applied seriously in any theological context without a specific definition.

The inclusion of “Pro-slavery” and “death for homosexuals” is problematic in an entirely different way. They are at least specific, but both of them can be plausibly applied to Scripture as well in some senses.

Now, I’ve said my piece on a Biblical view of slavery at length elsewhere. I believe it’s a product of the Fall; I’m glad it’s no longer part of American society; and I have no desire to reintroduce it. Nevertheless, can we truly proclaim being “pro-slavery” to be an undeniable sin worthy of excommunication in the absence of repentence? After all, the Bible gives instructions specifically to masters, and while it requires good treatment of their slaves, demands for unilateral emancipation are conspicuously absent. Must Paul therefore be excommunicated for his pro-slavery “oversight?” Should he have, in fact, threatened Philemon with excommunication rather than urging Onesimus’s freedom in love? Must the Old Testament patriarchs and kings be sentenced to eternal hellfire because they all committed the pro-slavery act of owning slaves? Must Walther and other early fathers of the LCMS be excluded from the Church because they refused to go all-in on abolition? If not, then why would we attach such a penalty to being pro-slavery today?

“Death for homosexuals” is an even clearer matter. God himself gave that very law to ancient Israel. Now, that is certainly part of the Old Testament’s civil law, and therefore it is not binding on Christians today because we aren’t ancient Israelites. We are under no obligation to enforce the death penalty against those guilty of the sin of homosexuality. At the same time, Scripture contains no prohibition against supporting such a civil penalty. Biblically speaking, this is adiaphora, plain and simple. What’s more, that penalty was explicitly commanded by God himself for a specific place and time. Are we therefore to join with the Marcionites and other heretics who posited an evil demiurge in the Old Testament who was opposed to the loving God of the New? By no means! Contending that this is grounds for excommunication is fundamentally anti-Scriptural and anti-Christian.

Now, let’s consider “Anti-interracial marriage.” As I understand it, some of Harrison’s targets do count that as a sin. I think they are wrong about that. There are certainly circumstances such as parental disapproval which would make some interracial marriage a sin and practical/medical concerns which could make it unwise. Nevertheless, I see no reason to consider it sinful in itself. But is error about sin truly the issue here?

There is likely not a single person on earth with whom I completely agree about everything–including members of the LCMS. And in my experience, our pews are filled with people who openly hold to some error or another. I’ve seen men speak up in Bible Study to denounce the idea that a Pastor forgives sins in God’s name despite Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Those who think our official position on closed Communion is sinful are, unfortunately, legion. There are many who wrongly said it was a sin not to wear masks and not to take experimental vaccinations. There are even people among us who believe restricting access to abortion is a sin. But I’ve yet to see Synod broach the subject of excommunication over errors such as these. There, they are content to address the matters through longsuffering and patient instruction.

What’s different about alleging that interracial marriage is a sin? Well, the most obvious difference is that the contention is quite offensive in the eyes of the world, leaving many modern Americans up-in-arms. But do we excommunicate for open defiance of the world or defiance of God? I might not think they are correct, but it’s a position held in good faith that God never instructed me to be offended over. I can certainly see why those involved in interracial marriages would be personally offended over the contention, and I can hardly blame them for taking offense. But neither do we typically excommunicate over personal offense. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this error is being targeted with such extreme prejudice solely because of its opposition to the Spirit of the Age.

That just leaves us with “genocide” and “women as property.” I’m entirely comfortable dismissing the former as over-the-top nonsense cynically added to Harrison’s letter to raise the stakes rather than anything that’s seriously at issue here. I invite anyone to produce evidence to the contrary before I’ll say any more on “genocide.” As for “women as property”, I suspect the biggest problem there is that most Americans posses a child’s view of property: “It’s mine so I can break it if I want to!” We exclude any of the authority and responsibility inherent in true ownership, and so we find it fundamentally dehumanizing. Now, that assurance of misunderstanding is precisely why I wouldn’t describe women as property–our language is what it is at this point. But Christians nevertheless need to remember that Scripture describes us as God’s property, bought with a price. That does not dehumanize us or instrumentalize us in His sight.

Who Stands Condemned?

Having established the dubious nature of Harrison’s accusations, we must also consider just who he is accusing. Yes, at least one individual who is being subjected to church discipline for alt-rightism is common knowledge at this point (and I encourage you to consider his side of the story), but that’s not what I mean. The open question is who else falls under his condemnation made in the name of Jesus.

As Harrison writes, “These ‘alt-right’ individuals were at the genesis of a recent controversy surrounding essays accompanying a new publication of Luther’s Large Catechism.” But he also writes, “I am not speaking about the individuals who may have expressed theological concerns about the essays published alongside the Catechism. I’m talking about a small number of men who based their opposition upon racist and supremacist ideologies. The former we welcome. The latter we condemn.” So who is who in these two groups?

Part of the problem is the aforementioned nebulous nature of the accusation. “Alt-right” can mean a lot of different things. But then, “genesis” can mean a lot of things too. The true genesis of the controversy is the theologians who included false doctrines in their essays and the editors who invited false teachers to write for it.  Clearly that’s not what Harrison means, however, since he blessed the individuals and the project in toto.

So what then does he really mean by the beginning? There were concerns raised privately by pastors before it was even published. Was that the genesis of the controversy? Do they stand condemned? Or was the young man who most widely publicized some of the most egregious inclusions the genesis? My own commentary was pretty close behind, so do I get included as the beginning or was I too late to the party to be condemned?

And let me just take the opportunity to point out that when President Harrison quotes Luther’s Small Catechism as part of his grounds for excommunication (“hating, despising, or slandering other groups of people (prejudice, racism, and so forth)”)  he is quoting a recent (and dubious) addition that was not present in the edition I  was catechized with. It’s a very clear example of why Lutherans must be vigilant indeed about what gets added alongside our Catechisms. We therefore ought to be grateful to everyone who raised the alarm over the additions in the Large Catechism and its application of critical theory to our Confessions–regardless of any supposed motivations.

What’s more, Harrison’s two groups–the “genesis” and the “concerned”–are hardly mutually exclusive. I’ve certainly expressed theological concerns about those essays. But as I said, I did so early on and could plausibly be labeled “alt-right.” Do I therefore stand condemned here? Or is my critique welcomed? I’d wager there are many faithful critics of the new Large Catechism out there asking themselves the same question. When we’re just tossing about eternal damnation here, it might behoove us to be clearer and define our terms better.

But then, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that this ambiguity is precisely the point. Inasmuch as we ask ourselves now whether we are targets for excommunication, we will be asking the same question before we speak out next time Synod publicly embraces false teaching. If a pastor acts like Luther did and publicly stands against the official errors of his day, will Synod come for his pulpit? If a layperson talks about public teaching on social media, will he be getting a call from his elders if he gets too many views? Whatever the letter says about welcoming theological concerns, the clear and objective effect is to place a Sword of Damocles over the necks of any would-be critics.

Who’s Next?

That threat-point is something every Lutheran needs to take very very seriously today. Just as the meaningless labels used by Harrison make his current set of targets ambiguous, they also make it easier to move on to others. The first of the excommunicated are the easiest marks. They hold very extreme positions; they are very blunt about doing so; and they have triggered many people. It’s tempting to simply write them off as outliers because in many ways, they are.

But the labels used by Harrison to justify excommunication are not outliers. In America, they are being applied ever more carelessly and liberally every day. Is it easy to call the guy who opposes interracial marriage a “racist“? Sure. But how often have you been called a racist by a liberal media, by strangers on Twitter, or by real-life acquaintances over entirely innocuous matters? Like it or not, that is it’s own cottage industry now. And make no mistake: there are already Lutheran men at the heart of this controversy with the president’s ear who openly call people racist even for trying to be color-blind, the gold standard for every Boomer. There are groups like Lutherans for Racial Justice already trying to push Critical Race Theory in the Synod. Do you really think this will stop with the easiest targets?

Lutherans have a reputation for being behind the times, but surely cancel culture has been around long enough for us to be aware of how it works. Surely we have seen wokeism consume enough institutions by now to recognize it when it starts happening to our own. This danger is already inside our walls. Do you really think it won’t intrude into your congregation or your home as well if you just ignore it now? Do you think they won’t teach your children to fear fake sins to advance their activism? Do you think they won’t condemn you if you do your job and interfere those efforts?

President Harrison’s letter is exactly what an ideological purge looks like in its early adolescence. But the stakes are far higher than the mass graves filled by cultural revolutions of the past. The weapon that has been put into play is not the barrel of a gun, but separation from the life-giving Word and Sacrament of Jesus Christ. The battleground which may be reduced to ash is the rarest of church bodies–one where God’s Word has long been taught in its purity and the Sacraments administered properly. And if we simply accept the false-teachings among us, we face nothing less than the removal of our lamp-stand.

This Is Not The End

I have been a member of the LCMS my entire life. I was baptized, taught, and communed in her congregations. I was educated in her grade schools and seminaries. I want the same for my children. If there were nothing worth fighting for here, then Satan would not be attacking us like this. And that is why we ought to continue to publicly object to these travesties.

I do not know what the future holds for our Synod. I do know that God will not abandon his faithful. The Word of God which President Harrison misused in his letter does not return void:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:31–39).

Posted in Lutheranism, Politics, The Modern Church, Theology | 20 Comments

The Last Confession?

As a child, I never really “got” the Nicene Creed. It was basically just the Apostles Creed, but it took a million hundred hours longer to recite on Communion Sundays. And the second article was particularly egregious. How many different times does it have to say Jesus is God before finally moving on to “born of the virgin Mary” and so forth?

Naturally, that was just the attitude of a child who took basically every blessing for granted. But as an adult, one of my favorite classes in Seminary was Church History in which I was taught the story behind this creed. Of course, on one hand you have the orthodox Christians who understood the Trinity. On the other hand, you have the Arians, who taught that the Son was a subordinate deity created by the Father. That much, at least, I learned before seminary.

But what was most interesting to me was the third party–whom my professor called the Eusebians after the Nicomedian bishop who sheltered Arius (after he was first deposed but before his heresy became a Church-wide controversy.) Eusebius knew Arius as an opponent of modalism–the previous widespread heresy–which asserted that the Son and the Father are the same Person appearing in different forms. Well, the Arian heresy that posited two wholly distinct gods was certainly opposed to modalism. It doesn’t seem that Eusebius really embraced the full Arian program, but he did judge the matter according to the last controversy instead of the current one. It was more important that Arius was boldly anti-modalist than any allegations of error that could be written off as mere poor phrasing or overzealous rhetoric.

This misjudgment was facilitated by the fact that the Arians used slippery language to avoid directly stating that the Son was a lesser creation. They worked hard to give the Church’s useful idiots plausible deniability. That’s precisely why the Nicene Creed labors the point about the deity of the Son. The Arians were willing to accept “God of God” and “very God of very God” so long as the Son remained a true god created by God the Father. They were willing to accept “begotten before all worlds” so long as that just made the Son the first of the Father’s creations. They were willing to accept “begotten not made” language so long as the Father brought the Son into existence in time.

But what they couldn’t accept was “being of one substance (homoousias) with the father.” Homoousias was a word that’s not even from the Bible but nevertheless rightly describes what the Bible says about the Father and the Son. And the faithful Christians at Nicea used it precisely because the Arians couldn’t accept it. As odd as it may seem to modern ears, the purpose of our Creeds isn’t so much to unite the Church as it is to divide false teachers from her.

And the divisive nature of Nicea made it a very controversial decision. The conflict over Arianism raged for decades afterwards, with the Eusebians being far more willing to tolerate Arius than “divisive” rabble-rousers like Athanasius, the foremost Trinitarian bishop who was exiled multiple times over his refusals to make peace with heresy. For a time, it even seemed that Arianism would actually prevail.

Interestingly, it was precisely the Arians’ success that became their undoing. Their rapid progress towards toleration emboldened them, and they soon began to discard their slippery language. Rather than simply rejecting “same substance”, they began to assert that the Father and Son were of dissimilar substances. It became clear even to the Eusebians that what Athanasius had been railing against for decades wasn’t just a matter of poor phrasing or an innocent misunderstanding. They realized that the Arians were, in fact, effectively teaching polytheism. It was the Council of Constantinople that finally settled the matter using Nicea’s language in the 2nd article.

So the Nicene Creed was a hard-fought victory for the Christian Church–one which greatly benefits us whether we realize it or not. But a battle was necessary for that victory. Prior statements of faith like the Apostle’s Creed didn’t address Arianism specifically enough for the Eusebians who either couldn’t or wouldn’t discern the errors. (Yes, the official Apostle’s Creed was a later development, but there were many prototypical versions around prior to Nicea.) The Bible itself clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is truly God, and Athanasius worked hard to catalogue and promulgate just about every way that it does so. Nevertheless, a brief summary in an official creed proved an invaluable tool because most people don’t respond to theological controversy by doing a deep dive into Scripture.

Nevertheless, the Nicene Creed didn’t answer every potential heresy any more than the Apostle’s Creed did. On Trinity Sunday, we traditionally read the Athanasian Creed, which is even longer and even more repetitive because it addresses a number of Christological and Trinitarian heresies that emerged after Arianism. The Athanasian creed aspires to be completionist regarding the two natures of Christ and the three Persons of the Godhead in order to separate those errors from the Church.

But the Athanasian Creed wasn’t the last confession either. When the controversies of the Reformation came around, they centered on ecclesial and soteriological issues which the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds had no occasion to address. Once again, Christians needed clear exposition of the Biblical teachings at issue, so the Lutherans needed to pen the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, etc. (Here, of course, my non-Lutheran readers will look to their own councils and confessions coming out of that period. The absence of truly ecumenical creeds after the Great Schism is a tragedy. That said, the Augsburg Confession should be an ecumenical creed.) And as with Nicea, those confessions were highly controversial and divisive precisely because they delineated truth from long-held errors in the medieval Church.

When observing such a pattern, it’s hard to credit the notion that the Book of Concord was  finally the last confession we’ll ever need. Until Christ returns, we will always need new confessions because Satan will always be sowing new heresies among us.

The Church is now beset by a host of strange new errors that our ancestors in the faith had no real need to directly and decisively address. Instead of the nature of God or of the Church or of salvation, today’s errors assault the nature of creation. Satan has tricked us into abandoning the Christian understanding of man & woman, and so we descend into sexual and social anarchy. He has tricked us into dismissing the nature of family, and so we hate children and abandon our nations for the sake of strangers. He has tricked us into disregarding providence and creation in favor of a mythology that teaches us the universe is random and nihilistic. Our confessions may not directly address gay marriage, critical race theory, bottom surgery, or women’s ordination (though they address all of them indirectly), but that is only because the Devil is attacking different targets than he did 500 years ago.

And yet, I hear many Lutherans dismissing the current controversies that plague the Church because our Confessions don’t really address them. The Large Cataclysm was only the most recent example of this. By a combination of malice or incompetance, it contains many of these specific false teachings sown by the Spirit of the Age. Nevertheless, many Christians are unable to even discern those errors, and countless more think the entire matter is beneath their notice. When faithful Christians objected, we were opposed not only by the false teachers, but also by our new Eusebians who will happily tolerate heretics just to get along. They will fight the old and comfortable wars willingly enough, but they neglect their duties in the current one.

Christians need to dig in to fight another protracted battle for the Faith. Simply quoting those who came before us will not be sufficient for the task. Rather, we will need to truly understand & embrace the heritage of our ancestors in the Faith so that we may once again use it to creatively divide truth from falsehood. That is ultimately how we will place ourselves and our culture under the judgement of God’s clear Word rather than trying to make God’s Word adapt to our wicked culture.

In doing so, we will need to learn the lessons of the past.

First, don’t fear being divisive. If we do not divide truth from error in our theology and our institutions, we will have failed. This will cause a lot of unrest and hurt feelings. It will inevitably cause some people to leave. But you need only look at the world around you and at the fate of those who follow false teachers away from Christ to understand that there is much more at stake than unrest and hurt feelings. It is always the false teachers that are at fault over division. Separating the Arians from the Church was a victory. The same will be true for today’s false teachers.

Second, don’t be impatient in forcing good changes. During the Reformation, there were many men who, upon learning the extent of the errors with which they were faced, easily forgot the needs of the people who were still trapped in those errors. The vast majority of men and women in our own pews are likewise trapped. For example, they falsely believe that fake sins like racism and sexism are truly abominable. Their consciences have been malformed in this regard, but they remain consciences. As Luther famously noted, to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. They will need to be taught repeatedly that “sexism” is a good thing required by God before they can safely begin hindering women from teaching and having authority over men. They will need to be taught repeatedly that “racism” isn’t sinful before they can safely stop being ashamed of their heritage. Now, this doesn’t mean we attack our radicals when the boldness they possess is already in such short supply. It does mean that we direct our zealous youth to treat our congregations as true brothers and sisters in the faith that we must patiently guide in the right direction one step at a time.

Third, don’t expect it to be over in a day. When we read history, we naturally focus on the most interesting events. The side-effect is that we often overlook the time-scales involved between those events. Athanasius spent most of his life fighting against the Arians. He was a secretary in his 20’s at the first Council of Nicea where the anti-Arian language we’re used to was adopted. But the Council of Constantinople was almost 60 years later–almost a decade after Athanasius’ own death. In the meantime, he was exiled 5 times by multiple emperors (I believe over a third of his time as Bishop of Alexandria was spent in exile.) It’s easy to get caught up in the current victories and current defeats–treating each one as though it either ended the war or ended the world–but we can’t afford to be so impatient. Conflicts this large take place over a very long time. Those of us called to fight against today’s false teaching will therefore need to get used to the idea of fighting over the long haul and teaching our sons to do the same. This will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Lastly, don’t fear standing alone. God made men to be social creatures–we’re intended to influence one another. Naturally, being the one man standing up and telling the rest that they are wrong is a daunting proposition. And yet, when opposing worldly errors being imposed on the church, there’s no way out of that. When false teaching is the norm, true teaching will always stand out like a sore thumb and make everyone uncomfortable. But God has given the Church no shortage of men who did precisely that. Whether Elijah, Athanasius, Luther, or a multitude of others, we ought to know what standing against the world looks like by now. The sure and certain Word of God is a foundation that will outlast anything the false teachers are standing on. And when one does stand alone upon it, he often finds that God hasn’t left him as alone as he had assumed.

In the early 20th Century, people naively referred to World War I as “the war to end all wars.” Many actually thought mankind had finally gotten all that violence out of our system and could look forward to peace. The rest of the 20th Century brutally laid that notion to rest. It’s easy for Christians to make the same mistake and be tempted by the prospect of a final, perfect peace in this life. But we don’t get that luxury until the final trumpet sounds. Sometimes, Christians don’t even get the luxury of a temporary peace. We don’t get to choose the circumstances into which God has placed us; we only get to choose whether to take up our crosses and follow Him.

So it is today. The fact that the Book of Concord and the ecumenical creeds do not directly repudiate our current false teachers only means that we will have to take up that task ourselves, just as the authors of those confessions did before us. And we need not despair of that task just because Synod has chosen to resume its distribution of the Annotated Large Catechism without any changes. President Harrison’s one-sided condemnation of those who objected will surely embolden today’s heretics just like the Arians centuries ago. And just like the Arians, they will slowly start saying the quiet part out loud regarding their false teachings.

Lutherans need to be ready to use that–to continuously show it to our Eusebians and place it under the condemnation of Holy Scripture. And if our current set of confessions don’t speak to issues of Biblical anthropology, then perhaps the time is coming when we’ll need to change that. It’s not going to be easy or pleasant, but it’s the work we have been given. There’s nothing for it but to gird our loins and get to it.

Posted in Lutheranism, Musings, The Modern Church, Theology, Tradition | 3 Comments

Does Context Avert the Large Cataclysm?

Of all of the Lutheran Confessions, Luther’s Large Catechism is my favorite. Yes, the Augsburg Confession has more historical and theological significance, but as a layperson, the two catechisms were written specifically for the formation of my faith and as a tool for me to pass that faith on to my children. Having used the Large Catechism for both, it has a special significance in both my mind and my heart.

Considering how the Large Catechism was meant for the education of the laity, it’s quite fitting that faithful Lutheran laymen are the ones leading the outcry over the controversial edition of the Large Catechism recently released and then pulled by CPH–now being dubbed “the Large Cataclysm.”  We saw many short excerpts from it and were disgusted by what we read. But because we are laity, I’ve seen many defenders of the volume attempt to subject us to the cult of the expert. “Surely all these questionable quotations would be vindicated if they were read in context by the same experts who approved them in the first place!”

So are those quotes truly meet, right, and salutary once they have been read in context? Well, as a layman who has both studied at seminary and read the full essays from which those quotes were taken, it seems appropriate to examine two more of these essays with the context in mind.

First up is Joel Biermann’s “Lawful Lethal Force” on the vocational “exceptions” to the 5th Commandment. In it, he contends (correctly) that God and civil government are both allowed to use lethal force without necessarily breaking the Commandment. However, the essay concludes with this absolute stinker which has been repeatedly highlighted:

Finally, the recognition of a legitimate place for the use of the sword within God’s plan for His creation is not a license for any Christian to use the sword for any reason unilaterally deemed legitimate and necessary. And it certainly does not provide a scriptural foundation for a right to bear arms.4 Lethal force, Luther consistently taught, is rightly used only by the one placed into the Amt of authority in the state. It is never exercised for the sake of self, but always and only for the sake of the neighbor.

The plain reading of this paragraph is a repudiation of personal self-defense–condemning lethal force in defense of one’s own life as murder. After all, to defend oneself or one’s family against a violent attacker would be a unilateral decision in the moment borne out of necessity. Likewise, whatever else one may think of the 2nd Amendment, America’s right to bear arms undeniably gives ordinary citizens access to effective self-defense. And of course, most ordinary Christians confronted with a home invasion have not first been “placed into the Amt of authority in the state.” Taken together, there is no other reasonable way to read this paragraph as written.

So does the broader context of the essay help the matter? On the contrary, it only reinforces the normal understanding of the quotation. The essay as a whole is essentially about the distinction between murder and killing. God permits and even commands certain kinds of killing as part of certain vocations. But The last paragraph explicitly asserts that self-defense is not counted among what God permits or commands.

The greater context of the piece also explains quite well how Biermann came to his reprehensible error. In expositing government’s role in wielding the sword, he describes a progression from God to government to ordinary citizen, with the sword only being an allowance of the next higher authority. But this order is mixed up. According to Luther (in his explanation of the 4th Commandment in the Large Catechism ironically enough), the true progression of authority is God to parents to government. Luther recognizes the 4th Commandment as being the source of all temporal authority and civil government as proceeding from disparate fathers as they cooperate and delegate in the governance of their households. In other words, civil government’s sword is delegated from fathers specifically and God ultimately. And since the normal adult state of ordinary people is to be parents, the sword is by no means granted to us solely by a government that stands beneath us.

It is true that the sword should only be wielded on behalf of our neighbors rather than ourselves, but that’s entirely irrelevant in Biermann’s context. Love for neighbor is part of our explanation for why self-defense is appropriate. If someone tries to murder me while I’m walking down the street alone, my children would still lose their father, my wife her husband, my mother her son, and so forth. That’s to say nothing of being attacked while I’m with the people God has entrusted to my care. This is why violently defending myself would the appropriate course of action. When it comes to self-defense, “never exercised for the sake of self, but always and only for the sake of the neighbor” is a meaningless distinction because everyone is valuable to their neighbors, and even the hypothetical neighborless man is valued by God Himself. We are each likewise responsible for self-care, which is why suicide is counted as a violation of the 5th Commandment.

To reverse the matter as Biermann does and negate self-defense altogether is to teach Christians to count themselves as altogether worthless. The Bible does teach self-sacrifice, but it is always the sacrifice of something valuable–as any real sacrifice is. If a man chooses to relinquish the life God has given him, it is not done at the whim of a murderer, but for the sake of attaining something far more glorious in God’s sight. Without a God-given regard for self, Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” would be incoherent.

Likewise, we must remember the purpose of a catechism: to instruct ordinary Christians in the faith. The doctrine of vocation is all well and good. It must be taught to Christians. But when someone is breaking into your house, and you go to grab your gun, it’s not the time to be having an internal theological discussion about how vocation parses out or reflecting on whether your motives are truly selfless enough to be shooting the assailant. It is, instead, a time to do the job that God has given you. The appropriate way of approaching this in a catechetical context would be to first affirm that self-defense is valid, and then use vocation and love of neighbor to explain why. Biermann not only fails at this, but overtly denies the Lutheran Confessions and the Scriptures which they help exposit on this subject. Here, the context clearly condemns the essay rather than absolving it.

Next, let’s consider “Sexual Purity,” Andrea Schmeling’s essay on the Sixth Commandment, which contains this now-infamous line:

However, though some of us are burdened with homosexual lust, pornographic addiction, transgenderism, pedophilia, and polyamory, more often they are the speck in our neighbor’s eye rather than the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:3–5). For decades, if we didn’t wink at fornication we certainly turned our eyes from it, as long as the acts performed outside of marriage were heterosexual ones. We shudder in disgust when it suits us, forgetting that we, too, follow our hearts, that organ which produces every evil thought and sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22).

Now, before we start with the problems, there is actually a good point in here that the Church has been far too permissive about fornication. I’ve written about that at length already, so I won’t labor the point. Suffice to say that contemporary Lutherans absolutely deserve to be called on the carpet over it and need to repent. However, I will also note that in my experience, those who push this line are usually (not always) the first to object to any serious treatment of fornication. There are, for example, a number of specific Lutheran individuals I’ve seen defending this Large Catechism to the hilt who absolutely lost their minds even over the relatively mild “debt-free virgins without tattoos” observation from a few years ago.

So what are the problems that critics (including myself) have pointed out with this line?

First, why is this long list of sins–most of which are particularly grievous–being described as mere “burdens”? In a sense, these are burdens to anyone attempting to leave them for a chaste and decent life (with at least one exception, which I’ll get to in a bit), but is that really the most important category to put them in? It blithely adopts our culture’s ongoing destigmatization of sexual sin which has made these perversions so difficult to deal with.

Most Americans have a very stilted view of morality. The things we can control through immediate decisions and sheer force of will are counted within the realm of morality, but everything else is utterly beyond our responsibility and beyond any accusation of sin. This is why LGBT “born this way” rhetoric is so effective. We think there is no room between a conscious decision on one hand and meaningless circumstance–permanent and amoral quirks of psychology or biology–on the other. But this impoverished understanding ignores some of the most relevant parts of man’s moral nature–our characters, our virtues, our dispositions, our habits, and more. All of these aspects of a human being are ones which we build up over time. They are not a matter of immediate choice, but they are our direct responsibilities and proceed from a multitude of our past choices. All perversions and disorders found within them are our own personal sins. That’s why Christians have often used categories like concupiscence, besetting sins, and sins of weakness.

What’s more, this isn’t our first rodeo. Destigmatization of sin is a very well-worn path from “this is an unfortunate circumstance” to “don’t judge them for their orientation” to “acceptance would ease their heavy burdens” to “how dare you call it a disorder” to “we’ll be teaching it to your kids as a celebrated lifestyle.” With homosexuality and transgenderism having already travelled that road, why would we want to help pedophilia join them?

Anyone applying the 6th Commandment to contemporary circumstance should highlight and correct the shallow understanding which has lead so such debauchery rather than adopting and reinforcing it as Ms. Schmeling does. Yes, there can be aspects to homosexuality or pedophilia similar to addiction that can make the perverse desires a struggle to abandon in some cases. Yes, that’s burdensome. It requires time, hard work, patience, pain, and perseverance–all of which are hard to come by in our culture of instant gratification. But that is neither the whole story nor the most important part.

I also just have to point out: If all this “best construction” is really what the author meant by “burden,” then why is polyamory on this list at all? The desire to maintain a collection of willingly shared side-pieces instead of a spouse isn’t a besetting sin or a sin of weakness. It’s just an old fashioned matter of straightforward lust wrapped up in web of perverse rationalizations. I see no rationale to consider it a burden.

The second error the critics have highlighted is just as bad. All of these sins–including pedophilia, the most grievous one of the bunch–are quite explicitly described as mere specks in our neighbors eyes. Jesus tells us not to bother with such specks until we’ve removed the log in our own eye and that doing so is hypocrisy. But are homosexuality and pedophilia really sins which Christians should just ignore while we focus on fornication? Is it really hypocritical for us to address them?

Modern Lutherans may have shown ourselves inept at addressing fornication, but dismissing that sin has never been part of our doctrines. We have failed to live up to those doctrines, certainly, but that kind of failure is not what hypocrisy means. Hypocrisy is pretending to have a standard which you do not apply to yourself. We ought not wait upon perfection in lesser sins before we bother to place greater sins under the judgment of God’s Word. Rather, we confess our sins and continue to proclaim the whole counsel of God.

A statement like Schmeling’s implies an equivalency between all these sins and fornication. That is a heinous error. Different sins are by no means equal. Scripture makes it clear that some are worse than others in our eyes, in God’s eyes, in temporal punishment, and in eternal punishment. No reasonable Christian can compare the couple who fooled around in the back seat to that pair of gay activists who adopted, repeatedly raped, & pimped out two young boys and conclude, “It would be wrong of us to address the latter with any more ferocity than the former.” No morally sane individual should be referring to such as a speck in our neighbor’s eye.

Now, with the errors laid out, it’s time to ask: Does the greater context of the essay change our perception of the quote? Well, it actually does in one respect.

Although these sins are certainly not equal, they do share a few important characteristics. First, they are all paid for by the blood of Christ–even the worst of them. I communed alongside a convicted child molester for several years at one of my congregations. He knew the evil of what he had done; he continually repented of those sins; he did not return to those sins; and he willingly accommodated the fact that people needed to keep an eye on him to make sure of that. Based on what I knew of him, I expect to see him in heaven because even his pedophilia is forgiven.

The second shared characteristic of these sins is that they are all damnable apart from repentant faith in Christ. On Judgement Day, the couple who fornicated cannot save themselves by pointing to the gay men who raped and pimped out their adopted children. Yes, the latter will be punished far more severely in Hell in proportion to the sin, but that will not prevent the lesser eternal punishment of the fornicators.

And after reading the essay several times, I do think that this second shared characteristic is closer to what the author was trying to get across by lumping all these together. She  starts by discussing how Luther addressed the most frequent sins in his own society in contrast to those of ancient Israel. Then, immediately preceding the infamous line, she writes:

Like Luther, we also must address the most common unchastity among ourselves: that in the name of “sexual freedom” we feed our continual burning and honor neither virginity nor marriage. Our sin isn’t even secret: we speak of our lusts through crude joking and foolish talk, often naming ourselves by our sexual sin as no murderer or liar ever does.

So in the larger context of the essay, the point is that mundane fornication and divorce are more rampant than the sins in her list. Christians cannot allow the gross debauchery we see everywhere in our society to excuse us of those mundane sins rather than deliberately pursuing purity in our own lives. And both those things are true. So I’m pretty sure the author’s ultimate purpose was not to make pedophilia and homosexuality equivalent to mere fornication, to minimize them as mere “burdens,” or to destigmatize them. The context does indeed testify to that.

But all those errors are how she chose to make her larger point.

The context may clarify the author’s intentions about the infamous line, but that line is still there and it still says what it says. Context does not let the author, her editors, and her doctrinal reviewers off the hook. And it was an entirely unforced error because her point could have been made in any number of more appropriate ways. For example: “Homosexual lust, pornographic addiction, transgenderism, pedophilia, and polyamory may be more grievous sins that attract more attention. However, ordinary fornication and divorce are more common–so much so that many Christians turn a blind eye to them.” See how easy that was?

I’ve had editors warn me when its easy to take something I’ve written the wrong way. I also review my own writing with that in mind and frequently go back to fix it. How on earth did such bad phrasing make it to the final manuscript of a professional published volume? “It probably wasn’t the author’s intention to destigmatize pedophilia” is the platonic ideal of damning with faint praise. Is such a low bar really the best the LCMS can do for the Large Catechism? Because I’m pretty sure that a random nobody on the internet just explained her point better.

And so those who sounded the alarm on this quote were hardly in error or being uncharitable. Their understanding of this snippet was an accurate reflection of what the written words mean. The context does give us more insight into the author’s intention, but it doesn’t change the text. I’ll even go a step farther and say that the errors pointed out by critics are probably what a casual reader of this essay would walk away with. That kind of incompetence is inexcusable packaged alongside one of our Confessions as an attempt to explain it.

I’ve seen many critics defending the Large Cataclysm by treating errors like these as mere poor phrasing that doesn’t really detract from the volume as a whole. But this is like claiming that apart from the enemy soldiers inside, the Trojan Horse was a pretty amazing gift–or more famously, asking “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the opera?” Even if some of the problems did amount to (extremely) poor phrasing, they are still significant enough to overshadow the rest. If this were published as a collection of essays inspired by Luther’s Large Catechism, it would be a poor one because of problems like these that critics would be right to denounce. But publishing it as “Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications”–as one of our Confessions–is a travesty. The context does not change this.

Posted in Chastity, Ethics, Law, Lutheranism, Theology | 4 Comments

Subverting Luther’s Large Catechism

Christians living today are fortunate to have received such a treasury of theology from our ancestors in the faith. They may have departed this Earth to be with Christ centuries or even millennia ago, but they still have the opportunity to teach us through what they’ve left behind. Like Scripture itself, one of the advantages of these texts, creeds, and confessions is that they offer us a word of wisdom from outside the contemporary assumptions, struggles, and circumstances in which we are naturally buried. They can provide insights which could be all too easy for us to blithely overlook due to our own culture.

The challenge in receiving such words from outside is that it’s not always immediately clear how they apply to contemporary assumptions, struggles, and circumstances. God has not given us a flowchart determining how we each should live. And so, every age of Christians will also have to use the wisdom God has given them to discern how best to follow His Word. Those who do this well will apply Scripture and sound doctrine to their lives and their culture. Those who do this poorly will instead apply their own lives and culture to Scripture and sound doctrine, baptizing that which should be under judgment.

Though I have only begun reading CPH’s new publication, “Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications,” it is sadly clear that it contains a great deal of the latter.

This new volume quickly became the subject of controversy, and it has already been temporarily removed from CPH’s store. Upon its release, quite a few Lutherans took notice and started to catalogue some of its very questionable topics and quotations. So I began reading the included essays myself to see how representative those quotes truly are. Naturally, beginning with the ones which raised so many red flags doesn’t lend itself to a balanced review of the volume as a whole. Nevertheless, to borrow Luther’s analogy, the right amount of falsehood in your doctrine is like the right amount of rat droppings in your bread. The Large Catechism is one of the Lutheran Confessions; one cannot simply package it with doctrines of the Spirit of the Age and expect that to be overlooked. So let’s take a look at a pair of examples.

First up is “Encouragement for Christians with Gender Dysphoria and Homosexual Attraction,” Stephen Lee’s attempt to apply the 6th Commandment to the LGBTP issues that plague our society. And if ever there were a need to apply Biblical wisdom to a contemporary issue, transgenderism is certainly the right occasion. As far as perversion goes, it’s extraordinary even when taking a long view of history. And to be fair to Lee, the author does attempt to maintain Biblical conclusions on sexuality while still offering compassion to Christians who are entangled with these perversions.

The big problem with the piece, however, is that Lee takes many of the concepts of transgenderism and uses them as the tools of his analysis rather than the subject of his analysis. For example, the essay runs with the false concept of “gender identity” and consistently treats gender as something genuinely distinct from sex rather than recognizing that unbiblical distinction for the deception it is. He also describes the recognition of male and female as something that happens by Christian faith rather than by simple observations that even the pagans figured out. He perpetuates the idea that these perversions are inborn by describing natural sexual desire and self-recognition as gifts which God just doesn’t give to everyone. He repeatedly describes the transgender experience in terms of “sensing” themselves as the opposite sex, which I suspect is an attempt to affirm the experience–the genuine confusion, pain, and alienation–rather than dismissing it. However, that choice of words very much crosses the line into interpretation of that experience. “Sense” is what one immediately perceives–what we see, hear, etc– rather than what one, for example, falsely concludes based on shifting feelings of alienation.

But the worst example comes when he writes, “Christians with gender dysphoria generally continue to experience it, no matter how much they grow in faith and love toward God.” But from what do we dare to derive such certainty regarding permanence? From the “born this way” refrain of LGBT activists? From the despair of a teenager who thinks he’ll always feel that way because experience has not yet taught him the transience of emotion? Lee attributes this to a CTCR document from 2014, but that document only describes the condition (without evidence, I might add) as “what may well be a permanent, difficult reality.” It seems that Lee is the one establishing permanence as a norm rather than a mere possibility.

Yes, there are Christians who suffer illness, injury, or deformity until the very end of their lives here on Earth. Yes, they need pastoral care regarding these thorns in the flesh. But why should that be preached as the expectation or the default on this issue when we pray that God would heal everyone else? Why would we teach hopelessness as a doctrine? Why would we presume that even God Himself cannot stand before the might of sexual confusion or perverse desire? Has the Devil truly discipled us so thoroughly that we just take his word for it on the matter? Considering the rapid explosion of transgenderism which bears all the marks of a social contagion, it is foolish in the extreme to simply assume that there’s anything permanent about it–other than the damage they inflict on themselves because fools keep telling them there’s no other hope.

My first impression is that these problems aren’t malicious on the author’s part–merely naïve. As I said, the author works hard to maintain the Biblical conclusions about sexuality–that male & female are real creations of God and that homosexual sex cannot be legitimated. However, by adopting so much of the framework of LGBTP ideology and setting it alongside our Confessions, he does more to undermine those conclusions than I suspect he realizes. Even mere naiveté has no place included alongside our Confessions as an explanation of how to apply it to contemporary issues.

Another of the more problematic essays is “Justice For All, Exemptions For None” by John Arthur Nunes. But before I start listing the problems, I do want to give him credit for one of his good points. He writes:

Luther stingingly indicts those merchants who “defraud, steal, and rob us” through market practices and markups. I would include pawn shops laundering stolen goods, usurious credit industries, and the rent-to-own furniture sector in which low-income lessees resort to paying up to three times the sticker to furnish their home. There are attempts to legislate against or limit these predatorial corporate activities—for example, in the cases of “price gouging” and “payday loans.” After reading the Large Catechism, however, no Christian could defend these deeds as not rising to the Seventh Commandment’s prohibition against stealing, irrespective of the deeds’ permissibility.

While I think most of us would naturally look down on these industries, I want to highlight this part simply because so few contemporary Lutherans even remember that usury is a sin. It’s a shame that the indictment seems restricted to excessive interest rather than interest in general, but we have to start somewhere.

The big problem with Nunes’ piece, however, is not so much in the specific details, but in the fact that the entire thing is framed in the concepts of Marxism and Critical Race Theory. He begins his introductory paragraph with class warfare: “For middle- or upper-class Christians it is not uncommon to think that many commandments are most acutely relevant to the crimes found in poorer communities.” He then adds, “A transformative insight of [Luther] consists in applying God’s Law prohibiting theft to less-than-obvious perpetrators—the virtuous who possess economic and societal privilege.” Whereas covetousness is one of those sins which applies to virtually everyone, Nunes’ purpose is to single out the villains in the Marxist paradigm of oppressor/oppressed–a choice that can hardly be considered coincidental, couched as it is in the modern social justice terminology of “privilege.”

The further you go into the piece, the harder it becomes to plausibly chalk up this language to coincidence. Nunes continually interweaves Luther’s words with Marxist concepts. When Luther talks about those who steal with honor in the eyes of the world, Nunes connects it to “systemic deprivation of others.” Likewise, in his “Sins Within Structures” section, Luther’s statement that “God does not want you to deprive your neighbor of anything that belongs to him” is immediately recast as a matter of providing “access to goods and services” (access, of course, being fundamentally different than ownership.) One could make a case for such provision under the 5th Commandment, but to inject it here is to replace the Biblical view of property with an alien one.

Nunes then proceeds to follow this substituted concept of access to decry additional sins of “privilege” such as… networking. He explains, “For example, in our context, ‘minority’ business owners or newcomers to the United States might be excluded because of an inequity of connectedness.” But neither networking nor inequity are examples of covetousness. They could be leveraged as such, of course, but so could literally any facet of society. Nunes, however has a laser focus on the primary paradigm of Critical Race Theory: white (non-minority) oppressors versus oppressed people of color. He then attempts to project that paradigm back onto Luther’s words, associating the well-networked as Luther’s “great noblemen, gentlemen, and princes” who he, of course, labels as possessors of unconscious “nepotistic” bias. He then proceeds to work his complaints about “gentrification” into the mix as well. He always stops just short of outright saying “white privilege” and the like, but his purpose is clear.

In the end, what Nunes has produced wears the clothes of Luther’s analysis of the 9th and 10th Commandments. Wrongful gain with worldly approval is indeed precisely where Luther places covetousness and where Christians must be most on guard against it. But throughout the piece, these fine garments are placed onto the deceitful frameworks of Marxism and Critical Race Theory. These are poisonous, anti-Christian, and anti-truth philosophies–ironically rooted in covetousness–which Nunes is quite blatantly turning into stowaways onboard the Large Catechism. And unlike Lee’s piece, I can find no plausible reason to chalk it up to naiveté–especially considering the man’s history.

I could keep pointing out the problems with this tome. These two essays by no means account for all the red flags that have been raised. I’ve also read “Hatred as Murder” and “The Commandments and Social Justice”, which both include some obvious use of Critical Race Theory. “Lawful Lethal Force” attempts to delegitimize private self-defense and relegate the sword exclusively to the state–as though God had given fathers neither responsibility nor authority for their families’ safety. The book establishes even more women as authoritative teachers of men in our church body, which I’ve already written more than enough about. The inclusion of radical “Lutheran” Stephen “Christ sinned” Paulson in any capacity is indefensible. Perhaps I will continue later and critique some of the other entries. For now, however, these two examples should suffice to demonstrate that the red flags were not raised irresponsibly, and Synod was right to pull it down and review it. This volume contains some very serious problems–problems which faithful Lutherans cannot ignore when they come down to us from Synod and from CPH as an exposition of Lutheran doctrine.

Naturally, all this controversy has brought out our 8th Commandment Police who are determined to cast all public criticism of public error as a sin. I’ve seen a number of people claim that the critics are simply reading these essays in the worst possible light instead of putting the best construction on them. They try very hard to invent ways of interpreting them as orthodox and salutary. Then they claim that if such a way exists, the 8th Commandment demands that it must be read that way by any critic.

But as with all of God’s Commandments, we need to practice the 8th in the real world rather than an imaginary one. Could a world exist where these essays would be read innocently because the errors they promote don’t exist? Sure. But in the face of the widespread and well-defined errors with which our society is saddled, it is far more appropriate to ask whether these essays conform to those errors. Writers who were both faithful and competent at applying our Confessions to present circumstances would be aware of those errors and explicitly place them under the judgment of God’s Word. “Best construction” does not give anyone a pass on that responsibility–particularly if one accepts the task of explaining the Lutheran Confessions to God’s people.

Posted in Lutheranism, Theology | 7 Comments

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Say what you will about the brutality of dueling, at least it was a mechanism which reminded men that their words have value–that they can be worth fighting over.

As we sit and lament cancel culture, it may be tempting to think this is still the case. After all, we experience conflict over words all the time, and certain kinds of speech have once again become personally dangerous. But while we may think words are worth destroying another person over, we do not think they’re worth fighting over. The “beauty” of the duel was that it was a two-sided fight. When an insult was offered, both the target and the insulter needed to think it was worth shame, injury, or possibly even death in order to proceed all the way to a duel. Otherwise, one would simply withdraw either the insult or the complaint.

Cancel culture, in contrast, is entirely one-sided. A mob conspires to go after a man’s reputation, his livelihood, his family, his life, and anything else they can destroy. All this they do without any real threat of reprisal. That’s why the mob is far quicker to pull the trigger on violence than any duelist–they have no skin in the game themselves. Cancelling is no less brutal than dueling, but it provides cowards with a risk-free path to the violence they wish to inflict on their enemies.

Given such circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people who desire to publicly gore our culture’s sacred cows will use pseudonymous accounts on social media–they write under persistent handles rather than their real names. After all, there is no such thing as engaging the mob on equal terms. Public discourse is no longer a fair fight, and acting as though it were is a delusion that can lead to severe consequences.

Nevertheless, I’ve observed a great many Christians deride pseudonymity as cowardly. Some of them do so because they are too out-of-touch to truly understand the nature of cancel culture. Others, unfortunately, do so because they themselves are part of the mob. They allow the world to teach them when to be offended and react with all the fury of an SJW when it comes to non-sins like racism and sexism (though they usually try to create a false contrast with the radical left by appealing to “real” racism or “real” sexism.) Of these two types of Christians, only the latter desire to dox, but both join together in accusing the pseudonymous of cowardice.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of courage, and I’ve witnessed a number of exchanges recently that have made this plain. They’ve gone something like this:

1: Why don’t stop hiding behind an anonymous Twitter account and put your name on your words, you coward.
2: Well, why don’t you and me step outside and we’ll settle this like men, you coward.

By themselves, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about either of them. But what stood out to me was how many people would cheer on #1, but then immediately decry #2 as childish bravado. Making threats, you see, is beneath such fine, upstanding, and mature men.

This is nonsense. If you really believe such threats are just machismo, then there is no functional difference between the two statements in that respect. You should be condemning both. Make no mistake: “Step outside so we can fight” and “Dox yourself so we can cancel you” both threaten violence in 2023 America. Boomers might be oblivious enough to believe otherwise; but anyone else who would deny the equivalence is likely part of the mob trying to passive-aggressively obscure their attempted attack.

But while both threats are paired with an accusation of cowardice, they are differentiated by the aforementioned difference between dueling and cancelling: whether or not the proposed violence is entirely one-sided. Demanding a dox is a desire to be able to inflict violence on a person from a place of personal safety within a mob. Demanding a fist fight is a desire to be able to put oneself at risk in order inflict violence on your opponent one-on-one. So which of these threats really requires bravery? Demanding the abandonment of pseudonymity in cancel culture–to tell a man he must let you safely destroy him for the sake of his honor–is an act of cowardice, plain and simple. Though cowardice is the accusation on both sides, only one of them has thoroughly proven their own.

When Aristotle wrote about the virtue of courage, he found it to be more a matter of skill than of temperament. The veteran soldier, for example, was almost ipso facto more courageous than the new recruit because he had been through many battles in which his courage had been honed by practice. Many American Christians today have overlooked this aspect of courage because in the past few generations, bravery has seldom been demanded of us.

It wasn’t that long ago that I attended a Bible study in which we were discussing Jesus’ warnings about persecution. The teacher made an assertion which I have been taught by Christians my whole life: “We are fortunate to live in America where we don’t have to worry about such things.” That presumption is an echo of the America in which the Boomers grew up–a country which may not have been particularly faithful, but which could at least be called Christian without immediately provoking scornful laughter. This is no longer the case.

Jesus warned of even family turning against each other on His account. It’s hard to consider that merely hypothetical when half your family has disowned you precisely because you openly embrace Jesus’ teachings on controversial subjects. In our current age, Satan is most fiercely attacking the First Article gift of family–and all the sub-topics which orbit it like sexuality, education, headship, and nation. Any layperson who has publicly spoken out on those topics has learned the risks it entails from friends, employers, family, and government.

This reality on the ground is completely outside the experience of many of the aging pastors and members of my denomination. Those who can still can consider Jesus’ warnings hypothetical generally do so because they themselves haven’t had to pay for being faithful. When you haven’t experienced any significant repercussions, it’s easy to think that any talk of persecution is an exaggeration and that Christians are therefore “hiding” behind pseudonyms out of cowardice. And yet that assessment is merely their own lack of courage in the Aristotelian sense. They have not practiced. Nevertheless, that does not stop them from loudly decrying “anonymity” with all the self-righteous ferocity of a Pharisee. “If you were really witnessing faithfully, you’d embrace the consequences instead of hiding!”

Scripture has promised persecution to faithful Christians, yes. But Scripture and history alike have also taught us that there is both a time to embrace persecution and a time to put it off for another day. Paul escaped Damascus in a basket because he had better things to do than face the lethal consequences of proclaiming Christ in the synagogues there. Luther lived under the pseudonym of Sir George at the Wartburg to avoid his death sentence and continue his work of teaching the Gospel and translating the Bible. Jesus repeatedly slipped away from the Jews who were trying to stone him because his hour had not yet come; He had other things to do first.

None of these men were cowards. They were exercising their own God-given wisdom in deciding when to accept persecution and when to avoid it to continue their work. There are times when faithfulness demands our reputations, our suffering, our families, or even our lives. Christians must be willing to give up any of those for our Lord. But that doesn’t mean we eagerly jump on our swords at the first opportunity, as though our reputations, families, & lives were worthless or as though the vocations God has given us were of no significance.

Upon hearing this, some will try to paper over their own cowardice by stealing the bravery of others. “How *dare* you compare getting doxxed and cancelled to the real threats directed at men like Paul or Luther!” It’s true that there is (so far) a disparity in threat level, just as there is a disparity in response (being pseudonymous isn’t exactly as severe as fleeing a city.) But at what point does a Christian’s suffering for his faith actually become real to such men?

When the world merely mocks a man for being Christian, does his brother in Christ who lost his job for the Faith sneer at the pain? Does a third man who was beaten for Christ dismiss the first two as drama queens? As the martyrs beneath God’s throne cry out “how long, oh Lord” do they also call out “that’s nothing, you sniveling pansies” to all their brothers still on Earth? Nothing could be further from Christian love. Creating a hierarchy of persecution with which to dismiss those on the bottom is merely a conceit by which one pretends that him who assumes small risks is the same as him who assumes no risk whatsoever. In contrast, those who truly walk the same road are more likely to experience comradery than contention–even when one is further ahead.

Obviously, I don’t use pseudonymity myself. Considering what I’ve already written under my own name both here and on far larger platforms like the Federalist, what would be the point? But I decided against pseudonymity well over a decade ago in a very different world where cancel culture was not yet a thing. It was an act of naiveté rather than courage–one I suspect I’ve only made a down payment on. But there’s no taking it back now. Nevertheless, I will by no means judge another man for choosing differently. What gives any of us the right to condemn another for making that choice in their lives and according to their own God-given wisdom and vocations?

And those of you who are tempted to condemn the pseudonymous as cowards would do well to ask yourselves what price you’ve paid for faithfulness. If God has spared you all of this, you should devote yourself to gratitude rather than self-righteousness. And if the world does not even consider you enough of an enemy to bother hating you, you should consider which side of the Great Conflict you’re truly on.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Musings, The Modern Church | 3 Comments

Silencing God

Arguments from silence are generally recognized as being weak, proceeding as they do from a lack of evidence rather than an abundance. But the most pathetic form of this argument–the weakling among weaklings–is when you actually have to create the silence first by hiding, dismissing, or otherwise disqualifying all the evidence contrary to your position.

But weak or not, many Christians today are particularly vulnerable to such arguments. Many of us have been taught a hideously disfigured version of Christian freedom that says, “Do whatever you want as long as the Bible doesn’t forbid it.” Not only does such false teaching deprive us of God’s positive laws–the things He has commanded us to do–and replace His will with our own desire, it also provides us with a perverse incentive to find as little in the Bible as possible.

Satan, of course, does not neglect to take advantage of our idle hands. He has given us a surfeit of false teachers who try to silence Holy Scripture. If they can inject just enough uncertainty or just enough confusion, then the Bible no longer applies. To our poorly catechized minds, those troublesome verses just float away into the ether, leaving us “free.” From there, “do as thou wilt” becomes the whole of our law.

One of the most common methods the Devil and his thralls use is to create a mythology and place it alongside Scripture. They then use this mythology to determine what the Bible is “allowed” to say. And the most obvious way to recognize this tactic is when you notice that actually reading the Bible is irrelevant to their conclusions.

I ran into one example of this in the wild recently. According to this old saw, what we know as “homosexuality” today was unheard of when the Bible was written. They allege that it is therefore impossible for the Bible to directly address something which was so completely outside of its context. And since the Bible says nothing at all, dilapidated “Christian freedom” demands our silence as people simply do what they feel like.

This argument appears compelling to many because we have been so well-trained in shallow thinking. But once you take a closer look, it’s a very different story.

To be sure, the modern mythology we’ve constructed around homosexuality was not present in the ancient world. After all, “homosexuality” is a relatively new word. It was invented by psychologists in the late 19th century first to clinicalize and then to destigmatize sodomy. Antiquity did not consider “sexual orientation” to be cast in stone the way we (erroneously) believe today, nor did they consider it an identity. Neither did the ancient world have the kind of rigorous advertising campaign homosexuality now enjoys. Here, it’s advocated by activists, endorsed by law, celebrated in parades, normalized in mass media, and even taught in schools with truly obscene levels of detail.

But to assert that this mythology makes a difference is to perform a Biblical bait-and-switch. It presumes without warrant that when the Bible condemns sodomy, it is only condemning specific cultural incarnations thereof rather than the thing itself. “But sodomy has received a facelift since then! Today, sodomy is romantic! Today, it leads to lasting relationships!” Great. But your idea that serial monogamy and romance legitimize sex is wholly modern; it’s not Biblical. You might as well say that you can have sex with your dog because Moses couldn’t have been writing about Labradoodles. They weren’t bred until the 20th century, after all! “Missing the point” is an entirely inadequate phrase to describe desperately running away from Scripture’s point in such an obvious fashion.

The fact that this argument is pure presumption that deliberately disregards the Bible is made even more apparent when you realize that it makes its conclusion without ever cracking open the Good Book. It asserts that it is “impossible” for it to condemn sodomy based entirely on historical context. So no matter what the Bible actually says, it cannot say what they don’t want it to say. If your hermeneutic determines what the Bible says without having to actually read it, then it’s not a good hermeneutic. And yet, they actually think their wordplay has silenced God–and many Christians are foolish enough to agree with them.

Now, if I wrote for the sake of conservative applause, this would be a great place to stop. Most of the more conservative Christians would be completely on board with it. After all, they were never taken in by this deception.

Or were they?

Conservative Christians may still be loud and proud about opposing sodomy. They are, after all, traditionalists at heart, and sodomy has not yet become Western tradition. But other sins have, and many who consider themselves staunch, faithful conservatives have fallen for this same kind of deception hook, line, and sinker. Feminism has been embedded in our culture long enough to become a tradition, and many conservative men are quite eager to carry water on its behalf. This can be easily seen when it comes to the issue of women teaching men in the Church.

Here too, we have invented a modern mythology. As the story goes, there are many women today who have been called by God to teach men in the Church. They have been given exceptional gifts to this end–indeed, we are told that they are far superior in skill to any available male teachers. We are told that lazy and evil men have abandoned their posts, and so women must now pick up their slack. We are told that evil misogynists have been keeping these brave women down for so long that no Christian had even realized this sad state of affairs in the past 2000 years. If you should even open your mouth to stand in the way of their “divine” call, you must be a goblin, a Pharisee, or the like. So sayeth our modern mythology.

As with sodomy, this mythology is used to wipe away the clear Biblical prohibitions. When Paul wrote “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” he could not possibly have been referring to modern women called by God to teach! No, he must have been referring to something else. Women in antiquity were uneducated, so maybe he meant that women should remain silent only until they’re educated. Or maybe he was referring to one specific woman who was a troublemaker for Timothy, and that’s why it’s singular. Or maybe he was referring only to the very specific and narrow title of pastor and not to any pastoral responsibilities. Or maybe he only meant that wives shouldn’t be in authority over their husbands–unless absolutely necessary, of course. Or maybe it’s something else altogether. All of these different interpretations are deemed acceptable because it doesn’t even matter what the verse really means so long as it doesn’t mean what it actually says. All we know for sure is that it couldn’t be referring to modern, educated women because this is an entirely new situation which the Bible could not possibly address.

This is just as much a bait-and-switch as our mythology of homosexuality. Instead of the plain meaning of the text, the words must be so culturally conditioned as to become a secret code for something else altogether. It is true that our culture is different than Rome’s. Nevertheless, it is only modern convention which demands that skill is the only legitimate qualification for anything, that women be leaders, that they be counted as equal to men in every way, and that we must be offended at any suggestion to the contrary. The Bible demands nothing of the sort from us. If we take off our feminist glasses for a moment, we see that the “calling” they speak of is merely what these women feel like doing and their supreme qualifications generally amount to them doing well in school–a matter that is hardly surprising given how feminized schools have become.

And as with Sodomy, it is a conclusion which precedes anything they might read in Scripture. Many advocates of women teachers make this quite obvious:

Make no mistake, this is not a statement about what God says. This is a statement about what God is allowed to say. Jesus must measure up to the feminist standard, or he is simply unacceptable as a deity.

And it really should be no surprise that conservatives fall for this as well. We have imbibed the disfigured version of Christian freedom as deeply as anyone. Lutherans in particular seem perpetually terrified of actually teaching us the things God has told us to do. We’ve made it easy for Satan to take advantage of us.

But we need not simply lie back and accept this state of affairs. We have Scripture. We have theologians from outside of our time & culture who were far wiser than us. And any one of us can take a good long look at our own lives and aspirations and consider whether we are pursuing God’s priorities or our own.

So you have a dilemma on your hands, conservative Christians. Do you continue to follow the world–just 10 steps behind due to your traditionalism? Or do you instead recognize the world’s deception and repent of your having fallen for it?

Posted in Apologetics, Chastity, Culture, Ethics, Feminism, Law, Lutheranism, The Modern Church, Theology | 7 Comments

Who Told You to be Offended?

Back in the day, I spent about seven years living in one of America’s most comically liberal cities. It wasn’t Portland, but it was very much like Portland. It even had the same slogans about keeping the city weird and citizens affectionately referring to it as a “people’s republic.”

While I’m happy to be living somewhere saner now, it was still a positive experience. For one thing, it made me comfortable being controversial. As a conservative Christian, I essentially had no choice in the matter. After all, merely thinking that parents should at least be notified when their 12-year-old has an abortion would have been considered too right wing by many of the residents. Learning to take it in stride when I upset people didn’t take too long.

But other learning experiences came when I returned to the Midwest and actually experienced mild culture shock. The first time I pulled into a gas station near my next home and heard explicitly Christian music playing on the loudspeaker, I actually felt offended. This was in public, not in Church! What was wrong with them? I had the same feeling when I walked into a public hospital (built by Seventh Day Adventists) and saw murals of the six days of creation in the lobby. And there have certainly been other weird reasons for offense. For example, when I eventually moved out into the country, I once saw a neighbor walking down our dirt road with a rifle on his shoulder. How could somebody just casually stroll around with a deadly weapon like that?

These feelings were only momentary. They might have been very unusual sights and sounds to me at the time, but I quickly remembered that I was a actually a Christian or actually a Second Amendment supporter and realized that I had no good reason to be outraged. But my own knee-jerk reactions still bothered me. It took less than a decade of living “abroad” for me to be programmed to take mild offense at good and positive things.

It’s sad how easily the world can shape us, but for the time being, we have nowhere else to live. That’s why we must continually ask ourselves this question: Who told us to be offended?

Sometimes it is God who explicitly inclines us towards offense. Offense, outrage, and hatred are all on the same spectrum; and as I’ve written before, even hatred can be a Christian’s job. One cannot help but think of men like Christ and even Phineas whose zeal for God required outrage at the evils they witnessed. Clearly, like hatred, outrage is sometimes our business–a matter of vocation. Parents’ outrage over pedophiles grooming their children, for example, proceeds directly from the Fourth Commandment. Likewise, outrage over the way one’s people are being treated proceeds from our God-given responsibilities to our respective nations. Clearly, there is a time and a place to take offense: when God’s Law is being violated within our own domains.

But at the same time, being offended has become a way of life in America. Fueled by our civilization’s breakdown and facilitated by the nature of social media, outrage is simply the air many of us breathe. We are quite willing to act on our outrage, but very often, our offense proceeds from the Spirit of the Age rather than the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, when we continually feel offense welling up within us over some issue or another, we must remember our vulnerability and compare our standards to God’s–both through His Word and through natural law–to see how we measure up. Inevitably, we find that most of the world’s sacred cows were never established by God.

So what typically outrages Americans the most? In other words, what drives ordinary Americans to vehemently condemn their neighbors to the point of choosing to personally inflict punishment? Cancel culture has made the identities of our little tin gods quite clear.

Racism is probably the most obvious example. And yet, the leading experts on racism reliably inform me that it’s a matter of privilege–being born white in a civilization built by whites to the advantage of their white children. But there is no sin in being born a specific race in a specific place. What’s more, building an inheritance for your children–privileging them–is a Biblical command. And while conservatives love to appeal to “real” racism, that’s a pretty absurd approach to a neologism with less than a century under its belt. There are sins that can be justly called racist, but that’s not the same thing as racism being a sin. When in doubt, the rule of thumb is that if you cannot convincingly explain why something is sinful without resorting to the word “racist,” it’s not really sinful.

Sexism is another ubiquitous example, but it should be even more obvious to Christians that sexism is by no means a sin. It’s an even more recent neologism that has no weight outside of 20th century egalitarianism. God’s Word, however, is anything but egalitarian. God even explicitly and repeatedly requires sexism in some of the most important areas of life. When our feminist culture complains that the Bible is a sexist document, we shouldn’t attempt to affirm their terminology by explaining why it’s not. Rather, we should be forthright that men and women are not the same and ought not be treated the same.

And, of course, we cannot forget Liberal Democracy and its pantheon: equality, democracy, The Science, secularism, and so forth. All these things are (at best) tools with specific advantages and disadvantages. But anyone who points out the latter and considers using different tools knows how quickly one is accused of blasphemy. Even pointing out the failures of election integrity is ironically enough to make one an “enemy of democracy.” What the so-called Enlightenment presented to us as servants have instead become our masters.

These are the kinds of idolatries which fuel most of our outrage, but they do not proceed from God’s word or from natural law. And they suffuse our entire culture. Do not think that just because you are Christian or conservative that you are somehow immune to the world’s discipleship. Indeed, sometimes the worst offenders are conservative Christians desperate to prove to the world that they’re on its side–that they’re not one of those Christians.

You will know them by the way they dialogue. Many Christian conservatives will eagerly be winsome bridge-builders with anyone living in open sin by Biblical standards. After all, they would not want to appear as Pharisees. However, they will only do so when the sinners belong to culturally esteemed groups (sexual perverts, vehemently anti-Christian academics, etc). When it comes to our society’s true lepers and tax collectors, they make sure everyone knows how much distance they maintain. When the world’s standards rather than God’s standards are at stake, they will no longer risk such impious association with sinners. Sometimes, they will even eagerly serve as the world’s enforcers to maintain their reputations.

It’s easy to make these kinds of mistakes from time to time. Any of us can be lax and let bad company corrupt good character. Any of us can be self-righteous and lose an opportunity to serve a fellow sinner out of a false sense of piety. However, when you see that same pattern of steadfastly adhering to worldly standards while never sweating God’s, one can only conclude that such men are acting as foot soldiers of the Devil rather than as faithful Christians.

So beware. Don’t ignore your outrage, for your instincts and intuitions were given to you for a reason.  But allow your sensibilities be cultivated by God’s Word instead of abandoning them to the world’s discipline. When your God-given vocation requires your outrage, don’t wait for society’s permission to take action–Jesus certainly didn’t. But when it is only the this world and its Prince who require it, stay your hand. And when you see men who call you brother allying themselves with the world against you, learn to love them as enemies rather than as friends.

Posted in Christian Nationalism, Ethics, Feminism, Natural Law, Politics, The Modern Church, Vocation | 10 Comments

The War on Thanksgiving

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

We talk about the War on Christmas all the time–the ongoing effort by corporations and public institutions to maintain the pageantry while ignoring the One whom it was meant to honor. But despite all that effort, their warfare has only achieved marginal success. Not only are Christians still quite willing to point out the absence, the void they’re trying to create is so conspicuously Christ-shaped that it inevitably reminds everyone of the birth of Jesus anyway.

There is, however, another holiday in much greater danger. I am referring, of course, to Thanksgiving–far and away the greatest holiday Americans ever invented. It’s besieged on one side by the commercialization of Christmas. On our two extra days off work, more effort is made to participate in Black Friday–the celebration of unbridled greed that used to launch the Christmas shopping season–than to actually give thanks. On the other side of Thanksgiving, the growing tumor of Halloween is rapidly overtaking the entire season of Autumn. These days, October routinely sees Christmas and Halloween displays side-by-side, leaving no room in the landscape for anything else.

At the same time, Thanksgiving Day itself is under assault by the atomization of America. The core of our celebration is joining together with our families for a great feast. But more and more, that gathering is marked by strife. We’ve all been indoctrinated by film and television to see friends–those we choose for their similarity to ourselves–as our “real” family. We disdain the ones with whom we share our flesh and blood for petty reasons. Politics has also become the religion of many, which has lead to everything from meaningless contention at what should be a peaceful celebration to excommunicating family members for blaspheming political idols. And because the usual American rite of passage is to leave your family for college and move across the country for career, it’s become harder and harder to actually gather in the first place.

While the war on Thanksgiving may not be waged by government and corporation like the war on Christmas, it is certainly being waged by Satan. The devil would like nothing better than to remove thanks from our lips and gratitude from our hearts. This cultural shift away from thankfulness is a bad sign for America, for cultivating gratitude is of profound spiritual importance in any number of ways.

Gratitude is the antidote to entitlement. In reminding us that our blessings are gifts rather than our just rewards, we are saved from the bitterness of constant dissatisfaction when we feel we are given only or less than our due. The less grateful we are, the more we perceive the world as failing us personally.

Gathering to give thanks alongside our families works against the atomization wrought by American hyper-individualism. It reminds us that we never seized our lives and bodies for ourselves, but received them entirely as gifts from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who freely gave so much love so that we and our own children could live.

Thanksgiving moves us to acknowledge God. We do not thank the void or an impersonal universe; we only thank persons. And the Creator is the chief of these persons to whom we ought to give thanks.

Gratitude likewise reminds us of divine providence. God provides for our needs through means–through springtime and harvest, through parents, through workers, through everything which he created and still preserves. We do not live in the nihilistic worlds presented to us in modern fiction, but in a living world where goodness exists and in which God causes the sun to shine on us all. We are not simply abandoned to our own devices, but live in a world where the buck does not stop with us.

Feasting reminds us that there is good amidst the bad. Even when the world assails us with all manner of evils and privation, we can still take the time to remember the light we’ve been given in the darkness and that hard times come to an end by God’s grace. This will be all the more important as America descends into far greater hardships than we are used to experiencing.

The blessings of gratitude should propel us towards making sure that we give thanks within our own homes. The primary battleground of the war on Thanksgiving is in each of our households. Don’t let it end in defeat.

So go to church this Thursday and praise God. Gather with your family and tell them your love them. Enjoy their peculiarities. Host a meal or bring a dish to share with others. Pray together to join your voices in thanksgiving. Revel in everything good which God has showered upon you, and know in your heart that it is not of yourselves, but of the love your Creator has shown to you.

Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless you all.

Posted in Culture, Family, Musings, Tradition | 1 Comment

Spotting False Teachers 101

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

Scripture warns us repeatedly against false teachers who depart from the Word of God and teach their own words instead. With Scripture readily available in the West, it’s shouldn’t be that hard to tell the difference–we do what the Bereans did and compare the teacher’s words to a plain reading of Scripture to see whether they are in accord. Jesus said the same thing, for in His own warning against false prophets, he concludes by affirming the man who hears His words and keeps them, rather than those who hear but do not keep them.

And thankfully, we are not left to our own devices when we make that comparison. We were preceded by millennia of Christians who stood against the false teachers of their own day. They left us with creeds, confessions, and other writings we can use to help us discern whether or not a teaching conforms to Scripture. We therefore have the opportunity to read Scripture alongside of them and make use of their insights.

Satan, however, does not rest simply because we enjoy these advantages. The entire reason we have teachers is because many parts of Scripture are less clear to us than others. And because our own circumstances are not identical to our ancestors in the faith, we all must take steps of our own even as we are guided by the Holy Spirit and His Church. Accordingly, one of the Devil’s favorite tricks is to have his false teachers do a bait & switch. They claim that a clear part of Scripture is ackchyually obscure and “helpfully” provide you with a verbose secret decoder ring to tell you what it really means.

This can make life difficult because their quarrelling over words often delves into Greek & Hebrew, academic jargon, and other details most people aren’t equipped to parse. On top of that, faithful Christians want to learn from those who know more about God’s Word than they do. We need teachers who really do know the Biblical languages and have studied theology in depth. So how are we to defend ourselves against this trick? Or to put it more precisely, how are we to discern between false teachers deceiving us and faithful teachers correcting us?

When you are unable to tell whether a teacher is false from his argument alone, it’s time to start looking outside of that argument for your answers. Here are some factors Christians would be wise to consider:

Is the teaching novel?

This is the simplest test to perform, but that makes it no less important. The New Testament was written 2000 years ago, and Christians have been reading it ever since. If the teaching they’re trying to sell you on has never, in all that time, arisen out of the Church’s study of Scripture, that should make you extremely suspicious that it’s not actually coming from Scripture. It’s not impossible for a novel teaching to be correct, but it’s so unlikely at this point that you should default to deliberate skepticism.

The origin of an idea matters, especially when it comes to the Christian Faith. What we do and what we believe ought to grow out of what God has told us. Inasmuch as it grows out of worldly philosophies, fads, and customs instead, we are following voices other than God’s–very often the devil’s. That has no place at all in doctrine. And our doctrine must always stand in judgment over our practices. Even where adiaphora–things neither forbidden nor commanded–are concerned, it is always a matter of what is wisest rather than of what is convenient, desirable, or typical. We have no business allowing worldly wisdom to determine the course of the Church.

When a teaching is novel, it is far more likely to be a product of the changing wisdom of the world rather than the unchanging wisdom of Christ. Always be skeptical of a novel teaching, and always be suspicious of any teacher who isn’t bothered by his novelty. As for those who revel in it, simply mark and avoid.

Does the teacher show contempt for a plain reading of Scripture?

Sadly, there are some forms of stupidity of which only the intelligent are capable. So it is among those who treat theology academically.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with studying Scripture with intellectual rigor. All Christians are to love God with all their minds, but in every age, God has given some men more mental capacity than others. Accordingly, those men will inevitably take a more intellectual approach to studying the Bible. What’s more, it is wise for more intelligent Christians to gather together in their study, for iron sharpens iron. Over time, that’s naturally going to lead to some kind of more formalized study, whether in academies, seminaries, monasteries, public writing, or some other setting. And there is nothing wrong with that, per se.

But this kind of study poses a peculiar problem for those who engage in it. After all, a big part of how one learns among other theologians is through argument and discussion. And so when they see Paul warning about controversy, friction, and especially quarrels about words, they can get confused. After all, shouldn’t they always be looking closely at the words of Scripture? Shouldn’t they often argue about those words with other theologians? Surely it cannot all cross the line Paul describes, and so many end up discarding the warning altogether because they cannot make practical sense of it.

As a result, theologians often have a serious problem when someone compares their teachings to a straightforward reading of Scripture. “Plain” and “straightforward” are good, accurate, and useful labels, but they do not have the kind of precision men quarrelling about words prefer, and so they are often disdained. When ordinary Christians appeal to a plain reading, theologians are tempted to respond by implicitly replacing “plain” with the more precise but less accurate “literal.” And because Scripture, like any book, isn’t always to be taken literally, they arrogantly disregard these appeals that would save them from false teaching. After all, how can one even tell whether the words are meant literally, metaphorically, allegorically, typologically, or in some other sense without endless debates with other experts? When one proceeds down this path, it’s frightfully easy for the theologian’s primary question of “what did God say” to become the devil’s primary question of “Did God really say?”

But while this may be an easy mistake to make, it’s not a permissible one. Anyone who has difficulty telling the difference should give up their aspirations of being a theologian. It’s not for nothing that James warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The only way out of this trap is for theologians to constantly strive to cultivate humility; and it’s usually very easy to tell whether your teacher is humble. Do they sneer at “fundamentalists” for believing God’s word in simple way? Do they despise accurate but imprecise concepts like “common sense,” “plain,” “straightforward,” and so forth as somehow beneath them? Do they act as though reading solid translations typically leads ordinary Christians astray rather than feeding them? Do they go so far as to take offense that someone would steadfastly hold to a simpler reading than their own? If so, odds are good that you are dealing with either a false teacher or one who is teetering on the brink.

Why are they departing from the literal sense of the text?

As I already indicated, a plain reading and a literal reading are not always the same thing. A plain reading is a policy of departing from the literal sense of the text only when the text itself directs you to. Sometimes, Scripture does so quite explicitly. For example, oftentimes when Jesus tells parables, the Gospel writers label them as parables. Sometimes, they even record Jesus’ explanation of the meaning behind the imagery, so there’s no confusion that it is, in fact, imagery. The same can be said of Revelation, which wastes no time informing the reader that the lampstands are actually churches and the stars are actually angels of those churches. It tells you right away not to read the book literally.

Other times, it’s more implicit. For example, reading the text will usually make it clear what genre of literature you’re reading, and so you accept imagery accordingly. When Proverbs begins by calling itself “the proverbs of Solomon” you read the proceeding text as wise sayings. You likewise read the psalms as poetry. In contrast, when Luke tells you he’s writing a narrative about the things that have happened, you read it as an historical narrative. And these are only examples.  There are various ways in which Scripture lets us know that it’s being figurative.

There’s nothing magical or mysterious about this process. There are some ways in which the Bible is different from any other book, but it remains a book. Most of us read books that use figurative language all the time without much confusion. The Bible shouldn’t be generating much more confusion in this regard than usual. Biblical “interpretation” should always be a matter of reading comprehension first and foremost. Lutherans have historically referred to that as “ministerial” use of reason. It’s just the ordinary process of using our brains to understand language as best we can. Our reason is a servant to help us receive the text.

False teachers, however, have more dubious reasons to depart from the literal sense. Some do it for philosophy. Zwingli’s metaphysics, for example, told him that Christ could only be bodily present in one place at a time. He allowed this philosophical belief to override Jesus’ plain statement of “this is my body” when instituting the Lord’s Supper. Others do it for their culture; we can certainly observe those living in an egalitarian society always looking for what God “really” meant by all those different instructions to men and women. And of course, our sinful nature constantly seeks to lead us astray as well, as is the case when, say, we want to indulge in errant sexuality. The devil, the world, and our flesh provide us with no shortage of temptation to use our reason to subvert Scripture rather than to understand it.

This is what Lutherans have called “magisterial” use of reason. The difference is that our reason is no longer a servant content to receive God’s Word, but instead deems itself its master, deciding what the Bible is allowed to say. If you’re unsure whether a teacher is false or not, pay careful attention to what baggage he’s bringing to God’s Word. In America today, trying to “save” God from committing cultural “sins” (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) is one of the biggest red flags that a teacher is doing this (but it is by no means the only one.)

Is their explanation of the text deeper or is it entirely different?

There is always more to learn from God’s Word. You can read the same part of the Bible again and again but still receive new insights from it every time. But even as we deepen our understanding, we do not depart from the simpler understanding. The clearest example of this for me is Luther’s Small and Large catechisms. The former explains key parts of Scripture in a simple way appropriate for children. The latter explains those same key parts in a far more extensive fashion. However, it’s not as though the Large overturns the Small or that the Small overturns the Bible. Each merely exposits it at greater length. Scripture says “You shall not murder.” The Small Catechism says that means “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” The Large Catechism goes on at some length, applying the Commandment to both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of life. But all retain and are built upon that plain sense of “you shall not murder” as even a child would understand it. That kind of exposition is what we should look for from our teachers.

Contrary examples are unfortunately legion, but the recent controversy over 1 Timothy 2 provides a timely one. The Bible says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Here, God gives both a prohibition and the reason for that prohibition in a simple and straightforward way. One might not understand why Adam’s priority in creation or Eve’s deception matters with respect to teaching and exercising authority in Christ’s Church, but it’s plain from the text that it matters.

And, of course, if you want to faithfully deepen your understanding, you start with that plain understanding of the text and then delve into it more deeply. For example, you could go back to the stories Paul refers to. You open Genesis 2 and read about God creating Adam first and realize that God made woman to be man’s helper and that man was appointed as her head. You go back to Genesis 3 and read that God condemned Adam specifically for listening to his deceived wife–for knowingly prioritizing the word of the helpmeet God had made for him over the word of God Himself. And knowing that we are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve makes it clear to us that we are not different kinds of beings possessing less vulnerability than they. We maintain this order of creation in the Church because that is the kind of beings God has made us. That kind of explanation maintains the simple sense of the words while deepening our understanding of them.

Compare that to an alternative explanation I recently came across. His claim is that Adam being formed first and Eve being deceived is only a statement about Eve’s lack of instruction relative to Adam. And so what those verses “really” mean is that women aren’t to teach or exercise authority over a man until they have been adequately instructed. Forget for a moment how little sense this explanation makes on its own. Forget that Eve was instructed in the only way that mattered and that women in the early church were likewise being instructed from the beginning. What I want to call attention to is how this explanation subverts and replaces the plain sense of Scripture rather than deepening and expounding on it. In this explanation, the God-given reasons for this prohibition are deemed merely correlative to the “real” reason. As a result, the timeless God-given reasons rooted in Creation and Fall are deliberately put away and replaced with a different one: educational standards. From there, the entire prohibition is set aside wherever educational standards are considered met.

The upshot is that the plain understanding of the text is obliterated and an entirely different understanding is substituted–wearing Paul’s words like an ill-fitting skin suit rather than proceeding organically from them. That kind of substitution is another mark of false teaching. And it’s hardly a new one. That is, after all, precisely how the Devil deceived Eve into interpreting God’s command in the first place. It’s also the same trick Baptists pull when they deny the plain sense of “Baptism now saves you” and argue that it “really” means that something else which merely correlates with Baptism is what truly saves. It takes God’s word and provides a secret decoder ring where the ordinary sense of the text needs to be swapped out with whatever the false teacher prefers. Do not trust teachings based on this kind of explanation or teachers who regularly participate in it.

If a teacher or teaching fails any of these tests, you should be on guard. Take it as a reason to look even more closely. If they fail all of them (like the fellow arguing against 1 Timothy 2) you should mark them as a false teacher and treat them accordingly. That goes beyond treating it as a mere gentleman’s disagreement. Jesus likens false teachers to ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. The sheep does not have a civil discussion with the wolf and seek friendship. The sheep seeks protection from him, and the shepherd simply drives him off. You do not owe false teachers courtesy. You do not owe false teachers the benefit of the doubt. Jesus himself tells you they are dangerous enemies. When you recognize them for what they are, trust Christ’s warning enough to treat them accordingly.

Posted in Lutheranism, Musings, Sanctification, The Modern Church, Theology, Tradition | Leave a comment