Monday, December 11, 2006

Amazon review: 'The Word of the Lord": Liturgy's Use of Scripture' by David N. Power

A good, if uneven, survey of the meaning of the Scripture Being God's Word

The book's strength is in dealing with the history of the scriptures in the liturgy, and in the extra-liturgical uses of scripture. It's also good when dealing with comparative uses of the scriptures in churches around the world (the picture of the Mass in pps. 78 and 79 is a beautiful snapshot of the church is a particular community, far removed from that of most of us).

The weakness I see lies in several areas. First, the writer seems to try too hard to present a "relevant" take on contemporary problems such as AIDS, which -- only 5 years after it was published! -- has a dated feel. Secondly, the writer tries to survey non-Roman (specifically Lutheran and Anglican, and to a lesser degree, Reformed) liturgical use of the scriptures, and these attempts don't seem to have a lot of depth.

All in all, the book is weak at the beginning, but improves toward the end.

I also must warn that the author uses a turn of phrase that I cannot find warranted by history or theology. On p. 105, the author refers to Christ as a "Theotokos." Traditionally, this term, meaning "bearer of God," is used in reference to the Virgin Mary. I have NEVER heard of this term referring to Christ, who does not "bear" God (a phrase that sounds adoptionist, at least at first hearing) but IS God. I'm not sure what the author is meaning by the term, or if it was simply a mistake, but I would encourage readers to be wary of the author's theology.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Weekly Guide to Prayer

My wife and I have been working through various aspects of the new Lutheran Service Book, and I continue to find it helpful and good.

I was heartened to see the compilers suggest (on p. 294) a weekly pattern for prayers: in other words, prayer concerns for each day of the week.

It's easy to think that we should pray every day for all concerns, but that's not realistic for most people. This is a compromise: concentrate on particular areas of concern on each day of the week.

Their suggestions:

"Sunday: For the joy of the resurrection among us; for the fruit of faith nourished by the Word and the Sacraments.

Monday: For faith to live in the promises of Holy Baptism; for one's calling and daily work; for the unemployed; for the salvation and well-being of our neighbors; for schools, colleges, and seminaries; for good government and peace.

Tuesday: For deliverance against temptation and evil; for the addicted and despairing, the tortured and oppressed; for those struggling against sin.

Wednesday: For marriage and family, that husbands and wives, parents and children live in ordered harmony according to the Word of God; for parents who must raise children alone; for our communities and neighborhoods.

Thursday: For the Church and her pastors; for teachers, deaconesses, and other church workers; for missionaries and for all who serve the church; for fruitful and salutary use of the blessed Sacrament of Christ's body and blood.

Friday: For the preaching of the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the spread of His knowledge throughout the whole world; for the persecuted and oppressed; for the sick and dying.

Saturday: For faithfulness to the end; for the renewal of those who are withering in the faith or have fallen away; for receptive hearts and minds to God's Word on the Lord's Day; for pastors and people as they prepare to administer and receive Christ's holy gifts."

These are very good, very helpful and fine suggestions. I would perhaps encourage a slightly different list. These are not my suggestions; I stole them from the late Kenneth Korby. They are a bit more concentrated than the above, and might be easier to remember. These center -- like the above ideas -- around a theme for the day's prayers.

Sunday: Resurrection, preaching, preachers, hearers, and for faithfulness in preaching.

Monday: Work -- workers, schools, students, unemployed.

Tuesday: Temptation

Wednesday: Parents, children, families. (Korby also encouraged prayers on Wednesday for those suffering from ennui. Ennui is that enormous spiritual problem of thinking that one's work, one's calling is of no value. It sometimes comes in the middle of our lives, and Korby thought Wednesday -- the middle of the week -- to be a valued time to remember that. Likewise, that ennui can come in the middle of our lives as parents, and members of families).

Thursday: Eucharist -- faithful teaching, faithful participation, and correction of false teaching.

Friday: Suffering -- Jesus' suffering, those who suffer, those who are persecuted.

Saturday: Death -- Jesus in the grave, faithfulness unto death, learning to die, rest, sleep.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reading for the Christmas Season

OK, I'll confess. I'm one of those people who thinks fondly of a time when Advent was Advent, and Christmas didn't begin to intrude about the time of All Saints Day.

But the other reality is that we live in America in 2006, and I don't expect that we'll stop hearing "Jingle Bells" on the radio in late November any time soon. So what to do?

One way, perhaps, to re-capture some church year grounding is to do some special reading during Advent. Some reading that we wouldn't do some other time of the year. Some reading to prepare us for Christmas, which is after all what Advent is for.

So I'm reading Johann Gerhard's 'Seven Christmas Sermons.' I'm not a big fan of reading sermons: sermons are for preaching, not for silent reading, but like all man-made rules, this is a rule that can be broken when the right occasion arises. And Gerhard is a good reason for breaking this rule.

Johann Gerhard is one of those treasures of Lutheran theology. Like most such treasures, Gerhard is ignored by most Lutherans of the early 21st century. We ignore him at our peril. I encourage reading his deeply theological and sweetly devotional works. Repristination Press is to be thanked for re-publishing much of Gerhard's works.

(Don't confuse Johann Gerhard -- theologian -- with Paul Gerhardt, hymnist. Gerhardt's hymnody is rich and wonderful, and many of his hymns can be found in most Lutheran hymnals and service books. Encourage the use of those hymns, but that's for another post. Read a bit about Paul Gerhardt here ).

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another Review: 'The Lord's Supper,' by Martin Chemnitz

"Like every one of Chemnitz's books I've read, this is a masterful work about a specialized area of Christian theology that's central to our faith: the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. And while Chemnitz works through the dogmatics of the topic, his approach is at the same time pastoral, showing obvious concern that all Christians (not just pastors or theologians) understand what they are receiving when partaking of the Supper.

This book ties in closely with another of Chemnitz's books, 'The Two Natures in Christ,' as the two topics are closely related.

Also helpful: the English translation in this book is well done, not wordy, but smooth-flowing and easy to read. Highly recommended."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My Review: Martin Chemnitz's 'Two Natures in Christ'

(This is an online review I did for of Martin Chemnitz's 'The Two Natures in Christ.' As you will see from the review, this one gets high praise from me, as it should.

My taste in books is, well, eclectic, as anyone can tell by looking at my library, or reading my reviews. Because I have somewhat unusual taste, I usually don't recommend everything I read, even books that were helpful to me, because you might have different tastes.

This book is different. Because a thousand years from now, this book will still be relevant: both to Christians on earth, and to those of us who will be gathered with the saints. I know of no one who would not benefit from this book. Read it, and marvel at the Savior who took on your nature, became one of us (except without sin) and who gives us His own human nature in His Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar).

"This book was recommended to me in 1989. I bought it in 1990, and have read it a number of times since then, with greater insights coming from it with each read.

If I had to grab a handful of books because a flood was coming, this is one I'd take. This is the finest Christology book I've ever read, and there is no competition. I would argue that in a real sense, it is one of the top 5 theology books I've ever read at all.

A couple of suggestions:

1. Get a good copy. I'm all for buying used books from Amazon, but this might be one where you'd want to get it new, just because you will -- I hope -- be reading it over and over. And you'll very likely never sell it, because this book is so good that you'll feel like hogging it to yourself.

2. Read it slowly. I'm not a fan of devotional books (they're often junk) but this book teaches you about theology, while nurturing your spiritual life. When I'm reading it, I read 2-4 pages a day. Of course, that means it might take a year to get through, but what's the problem with that? When you're finished, you'll feel like starting over.

3. Most errors in Christian theology stem from one of 2 areas. People get messed up on either the PERSON of Christ (who He is) or the WORK of Christ (what He does). This book will inoculate you against both errors.

4. This is NOT a book "just for pastors." Any thoughtful layperson can read and learn from this. A few terms are in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew; most of those terms are translated.

Martin Chemnitz is a master. Get this book (and anything by him) and learn from it. You will be a better Christian for it, and your church will benefit, too."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

My Recommendations for the Use of the Lutheran Service Book

Our congregation will begin using the Lutheran Service Book (LSB) some time in the following months. Since the church council has instituted a worship committe to assist with this (and other matters) and since I'm (as head elder) titular head of this committee, I thought it a good idea to set forth my thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions as to where we should go with the Divine Service of God.

God has not called us to either creative or innovative in the Service of His house. Instead, we are called by God to be custodians of that Service, and to provide faithfully for it. We have been given a liturgy, which gives God's word and His means of grace to His people. We use that liturgy, and seek to faithfully pass it on to those who follow after us.

1. I would encourage us to consider returning to the church's historic use of the one-year lectionary (scripture readings in the Divine Service). My reasons for this:

a. the one-year lectionary is the historic use of the church. The 3 year series is of very recent origin (from the late 1960s). The purpose of the lectionary system is two-fold, to give the full counsel of God (compare Acts 20:27, " For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God") and to teach God's word to His people. I'm not competent to discuss whether the 3 year series meets the first criteria, but I think we have failed God's people on the second. (By "we," I'm saying the whole church; I'm not picking on Redeemer). One of the arguments given in the 1960s for use of a 3 year series was that it would provide for a greater Bible knowledge, by exposing the church to a much greater range of texts. Have we succeeded in this? Are God's people more biblically knowledgable now than they were, say, 50 years ago? Obviously, I think the answer is no. I'm not blaming our biblical ignorance only on this, but I suspect it has had a part in it.

b. the one-year series provides a continuity in the Service. In this series, the readings are the same on a particular Sunday each year, and so, for example, people who are in church, year in and year out, come to know that, say, on Easter Sunday, the gospel reading will come from Mark 16: 1-8. People come to know those passages well, and learn them, and can associate them with the hymns of the day from year to year. This is far less likely when a particular lesson will not be used again for another 3 years.

c. Finally, the one year series' historic usage means that there are helps and resources available for use in study, learning, and sermon preparation that stretch back further than the Nixon administration. For example, there are inexpensive books of Luther's sermons which are a wealth of information, devotional help, and sermon preparation help, but these are completely tied in with the historic one year series.

2. I would encourage us to consider using the LSB's Divine Service, Setting 3, as our exclusive service for Sunday mornings. St. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, "To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe," (Phil. 3:1) and that's a safe and good thing to remember for us as we consider how the Service is to be conducted. I am opposed to the use of several different settings, as it seems to promote confusion ("which service are we using now?," "what's the response in this service?") where we should aim to avoid confusion.

What's more, I think it's a worthy goal to help folks internalize the service, knowing it from the heart, and not being so tied to having to carefully study what we should be saying in the next minute.

Next, some specific reasons for this particular service.

3. The Divine Service setting 3 is the church's historic service, and flows from German and English church usages from the last several centuries. If, say, Luther were to come in (apart from his having to learn English!) he would be able to roughly follow this service. We don't worship alone. We are together with those in the room, but, just as important, we are together (see Hebrews 12:1) with all the saints of all time, who are gathered together with us in spirit. It's important that we recognize that, and follow what our fathers in the faith have provided and given to us.

4. The confession of sins: LSB's DS 3 provides a good and faithful confession of sins. In the service we're using now, we confess that we "are by nature sinful and unclean," and while that can be understood correctly, the biblical teaching is that by nature we are created in the image of God. Sin is not a part of our human nature. If it were, Christ -- who was at the same time fully human and divine -- would be a sinner, but he correctly asked the Pharisees, " Which of you convinceth me of sin?" (John 8:46) (The usual explanation for the meaning of "by nature sinful" is that it means, "I am a sinner from birth," which is correct (Psalm 58:3), but far better to provide -- as does LSB DS 3 -- a clear, unambiguous confession).

5. The Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy") and the Gloria are given as the church has prayed for centuries. We have not used the Gloria ("Glory be to God on high") for many years as we have used the "This is the feast" song in its place. It's time to put that to rest, and the Gloria is what we should be singing there.

6. In the Salutation before the Collect ("The Lord be with you"), DS 3 gives the historically correct response from the congregation, "And with your spirit." Our response is not (as what we're using now) a "back to you, man!" kind of response, but a recognition that the Pastor, in praying the Collect, is praying with and for us all. The same response is properly given in the Preface to the Sacrament, where "and with your spirit" recognizes that what the Pastor is doing there is doing there is of the utmost gravity: that he will be handling the very Body and Blood of Christ.

7. The Offertory is again the historic, "Create in me a clean heart," and not "Let the vineyards," which should have been retired a long time ago.

8. Finally, in the Pax Domini (where the Pastor says, "The peace of the Lord be with you all") the proper response given is "Amen." In the Pax, the Pastor is serving as the mouth of God, giving God's peace to us. We don't give that peace back to the Pastor; that's not our job. Instead, DS 3 properly provides our response: "Amen!" In other words: "That's true! Let that peace be with me!"

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Doctrine of a Calling for Politicians in a Time of War

This is in response to a piece in the LCMS Reporter (9/06 edition, cover), "In Times of War: The need to heed the calling," by Uwe Siemon-Netto, found here .

"Uwe Siemon-Netto invokes the Lutheran doctrine of calling when discussing politics. Those in political offices are there by God’s calling. But perhaps Mr. Siemon-Netto doesn’t go far enough with questions about callings.

The president is not particularly powerful. He is the administrator (hence, we speak of “the Clinton administration”) of the executive branch. And while the presidency may be better known, he’s merely the head of one of three equal branches of the federal government. Senators and Representatives (in the legislative) and judges (in the judicial branch) share governing power and authority.

Sharing power helps to undercut possible tyranny in America. It’s the job of, say, senators, to be a counter-balance to presidential claims. When senators do this, it’s part of their calling: not somehow an illegitimate violation of Romans 13. I don’t know, for example, Sen. Clinton’s reasons for questioning George Bush, but as much as I dislike her, she’s doing her job. Sen. Lieberman’s support of this administration does not give him a free pass. The electorate is doing their job if they wish to remove him.

Those who appreciate the doctrine of calling should remember that governmental leaders in other countries also have a calling. This includes Saddam Hussein, who was the legitimate president of Iraq, whether we were happy with that or not. For the US-led armies to invade and occupy Iraq -- an act for which there is no constitutional command or precedent, and a country which had neither attacked the US nor shown itself to be an imminent threat to the US -- and overthrow a legitimate head of government sets a very bad precedent indeed. There were, of course, no “weapons of mass destruction,” and Iraq was -- at the time of the invasion -- and is now -- well-known to have had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 events.

A government leader’s calling holds whether the person is a bad leader or not. God through St. Paul commanded obedience to Caesar when Nero was persecuting Christians. Any allegations of atrocities against President Saddam Hussein did not give the US government the biblical or Constitutional right to remove the Iraqi president from office.

Politics is a complicated and hard business. It requires difficult, non-emotional analysis of the relevant biblical and theological texts, the relevant Constitutional texts, and the history and current events of our world. Whether American occupation forces should be withdrawn from Iraq is a complicated question that must be carefully analyzed to seek both to do the right thing, and to prevent further damage to the Iraqi nation. But criticism of George Bush or differences in opinion among other political leaders rightfully exercising their callings is both legitimate and right, and Lutheran Christians must defend the free exercise of the callings of all political leaders: those we agree with, and those we don’t."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Some thoughts on

When I read about small beginnings like these folks, I think about I Kings 19.18 Or Gideon, in Judges 7.7

Because the issue seems clear, that the LCMS is on a downhill spiral, has been for some 50 to 60 years, and is probably not getting better. So these good folks try to do something different. It is small. It may remain small. But it might grow. That -- growth -- contrary to what the "church growth" hucksters tell us, is not our business. The prophet Zechariah (4.10) cautions us against despising the day of small things. Smallness itself is no problem. Unfaithfulness is.

A former LCMS vice-president sneeringly told a reporter, "What's the good of a synod of 14 congregations?" But the issue, of course, is not 14 congregations, or 2, or 10,000. The issue is whether the synod in question is faithful to the word of God. If it is not, small or large is a vastly secondary concern.

The reality is that our fellowship is with those who faithfully preach the word and administer the sacraments. The way that fellowship works out on earth is not always done perfectly. But those who are faithful are in fellowship with a great cloud of witnesses, the saints of all time. In reality, the Christians walking around now on earth are vastly outnumbered by those -- beginning with blessed Adam, Eve, and Abel -- who now pray for us while beholding the face of their Savior.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

On Leaving the LCMS

(A note of explanation: in an online discussion, some were criticizing those who have left the LCMS to become Roman Catholic or a variety of Eastern Orthodoxy. This is my response).

And perhaps there are those who are weary of church being a place to fight. And perhaps those same people have realized that leaving the LCMS is not the same as leaving the church.

It should be pointed out that -- regardless of what some wish to say -- the LCMS is a heterodox church body, in which there is no unity in worship. In which those on the clergy roster can believe whatever they wish, and there will be no consequences. I bring up the tiresome examples of Paul Bretscher and Ted Strelow. It was known for many years what Bretscher believed and taught, and no one did anything until finally in 2003 -- after some 30 years of open, published heresy. And I had the unpleasant task of listening to Tim Fangmeier (on the evening of Dec. 14, 1998, in the adult classroom at Redeemer Lutheran Church, in Burlington, NC, to be specific), then "Mission and Ministry" coordinator for the SED, argue that Bretscher's unitarian poodle Ted Strelow, who -- just incidentally -- denies that Christ is God, denies that the Bible is the word of God, and teaches that we work our way to Heaven -- that Strelow should be allowed to remain on the LCMS clergy roster because his family was "third generation LCMS"[!]

Perhaps those leaving the LCMS are just weary of dealing with the constant, non-stop bilge of the LCMS, and suspect that it will not change for the better, but rather for the worse. Those who leave for the "old and venerable" might be doing so out of conviction, rather than some supposed seeking refuge.

The reality is that the LCMS is fraught with errors: of doctrine, of worship, and of practice. Perhaps it is less festooned with error than Rome or Constantinople, but in that case, we're just arguing numbers, and that's hardly the unity that supposedly is at the heart of the LCMS. The LCMS no longer tolerates error; it celebrates error. Our triumphalism over against other erring Christians is hardly becoming. I suspect that many who leave the LCMS do so because seeing it is pointless to stay and fight with people who no longer recognize what makes them Lutheran (i.e., confessional subscription). So these folks leave. They leave for a place that -- while imperfect, like the LCMS -- is a movement away from being one of the whining people who increasingly spend time grumbling about the LCMS's errors. The "leaders" in the LCMS no longer care about what the synod's Lutheran minority believes. As long as people stay -- and pay -- they will happily tolerate our whining. The only thing these people understand -- given their propensities -- is money. Leave, stop paying, and -- while they won't change -- we will thereby help to prevent them from propagating more error.

For those who think the LCMS is going to "turn around," more power to them. I would only ask that they carefully consider history, and ask themselves which religious body has EVER "turned around." If they can't think of one, perhaps it's time to consider leaving this one, too. Rome is a bad choice. So is Constantinople. But there are other choices. And because some of the choices are bad doesn't mean that the LCMS is good: only, perhaps, that it is less bad. Perhaps. It used to be said that the LCMS didn't tolerate persistent error. That hasn't been true for a very long time. Pretending that it is true doesn't change anything.

Monday, August 21, 2006

How to Read Your Bible

Let’s say you have a neighbor who knows nothing about Jesus. Nothing about God. Nothing about the Christian faith.

And you get into a conversation with this person. Maybe lots of conversations. And you’re telling them about your faith. And you’ve quoted a lot of Bible verses to them, and your neighbor tells you, “You know, I’ve never read the Bible. I don’t know anything about it, but I’d like to read some of it. Where should I start?”

This is the hard part. It’s good that your neighbor asked, because some people just pick up a Bible, and start reading at the beginning.

And that’s good. They’ve made a start. But the Bible is not just one book -- it’s a lot of books. Actually, it’s a library of 66 books. And while all of the Bible is given by inspiration to us (II Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God”) some parts are just easier to read than others. For example, it’s OK when people start with Genesis. Genesis tells us how the world began, about the fall into sin, about the promise of a coming Savior (Genesis 3:15), about Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Exodus is good, too, telling us about the people of God in Egypt, and about God’s deliverance from their bondage.

But most people who’ve gone this far run into problems when they hit Leviticus. Because Leviticus is important, but most people who are new to the Bible find it hard going. And often they stop right there. And stopping there, they miss out on all the wonderful stuff that follows -- especially the story in the gospels of the Savior who died to take away their sins.

So here’s a plan. If your neighbor, or a friend, or your nephew -- or whoever -- wants to start reading the Bible, here’s a study guide that will help them through the incredible story of God’s word, of God’s deliverance, of God’s love for us.

First, start with the story of Jesus. The rest is important, but the gospels are the crucial part of the Bible. The gospel of Mark is a good place to start. It’s only 16 chapters, and it’s a fast-paced, action read. After reading that, read the other gospels: Matthew, Luke, and John. Encourage them to read carefully, but not get bogged down. Reading a chapter a day isn’t too much, and reading enough keeps the story flowing.

After the gospels, go to Genesis. Then back to the New Testament: this time to the book of Acts, which is the exciting story of how God’s church grew after Christ rose from the dead.

By now, our reader should be getting a feel for God’s word, and it’s time to hit some of the heavier stuff: Paul’s letters. Start with Romans, read 1st and 2nd Corinthians, and then Galatians, and the short letters to churches that Paul wrote from prison: Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Continue on with the other New Testament letters.

Now that our reader has gotten this far, he’s well into understanding the Bible, and can go on ahead with what happens to interest him -- perhaps the Psalms (although it’s important to remember that the Psalms are primarily written to be prayed, rather than simply to be read), the Old Testament history books (such as Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel) or some of the books of prophecy (such as Daniel, Isaiah, or Revelation).

And what’s the most important thing to remember when reading the Bible? Well, the most important thing is to remember that this is the word of God, and not the words of men, and as such, it’s different from any other book we will read. (Perhaps praying from Psalm 119: 18 would be good: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”) But the best bit of advice for your friend?

It’s the same advice I’d give to someone who’s eating fish. Eat the meat, spit out the bones. In other words, enjoy what you can understand, and keep going when you get to passages that don’t make sense. Don’t stop, just because something doesn’t make sense. Keep going. And that’s good advice for us all. We can spend a lifetime reading and understanding God’s word. Every time we read it, we’ll find new treasures there. Just keep reading. And thank God for the gift of his word to us all.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Keeping Hucksters Out of the Church

I've been self-employed for some 25 years. I say that to let you know that I have nothing against sales, marketing, or making a profit.

But there are certain areas of life that are outside the arena of sales. Family, love, children. And church. Within the Divine Service (the Mass) there should be no hint of selling, of trying to persuade us of anything outside of what God's Word tells us.

Practical implications? No politics, unless it is something with a clear (think, say, abortion) mandate from Scripture. Especially no politicians there to speak. No nagging about environmental issues. (A local minister preached a sermon on which car he thought Jesus would drive. He concluded that the vehicle in question would be a Volkswagen bug. No comment).

This is one of the reasons why I'm opposed to "patriotic," national day celebrations or recognitions (e.g., Independence Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day) within the service. Not that it is necessarily wrong to recognize these days, but because they have been hijacked in the last few years in the service of politics. This is a problem that comes and goes in American history. In the last few years, the right has come to use patriotism in the service of electoral politics, while the left has done so at other times. But this just doesn't (for a number of reasons) belong in the Service. Not even close.

Debates About the Faith

I think it is important that Christians not be intimidated by the errors of unbelievers, at least in the sense of feeling like they have to answer every error put forth by someone.

We are commanded (I Peter 3.15: "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear") to be able to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ.

But giving a reason for our hope is a far different thing than having to be able to debate the nuances of whatever is the error-of-the-day currently put forth.

Not to mention that many of the errors will scarcely be remembered even 10 years from now. (Who much remembers the "death of God" movement of the late 1960s?) It's important that theologians be able to answer error. But most Christians do not need to be that familiar with error. (It's often dangerous to be too familiar with error: the error can start to look attractive). For 99% of Christians, it's sufficent to be able to tell a false teacher, "I can't exactly give the reasons, but I know you're wrong." If we know the Creed well, most errors will not pass the smell test.

St. Augustine (cited in Martin Chemnitz' The Two Natures in Christ (p. 304) said it well: "It helps the faithful heart to know what we must not believe, even if a person cannot refute error in a debate."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

What Makes Us "Worthy"?

In reading Matthew 22.1-10, I was struck by what should be fairly obvious, but something we often stumble over.

"And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.
Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: and the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests."

Who were the worthy guests?

The parable answers this in the negative: the bidden guests were not worthy because they refused the invitation.

The other sins (including killing the King's servants) stem from their "making light of" the invitation given to the wedding feast.

I think it's one of those felicitous words of the gospel that those gathered together at the wedding included bad and good: bad that we might not despair of our sins keeping us from receiving God's invitation.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Church Without Christ

While traveling in New York (to be at my niece's wedding), I was in an art gallery, and saw paintings of this church, the "Nieuwe kerk" ("new church") in Holland.

I was struck by this painting. How barren and lifeless and Christ-less is the building! It could just as easily be a synagogue or mosque. There is no sense of Christ's presence, or of the presence of the saints surrounding those there to receive God's blessings. No sense that this is a house of prayer, or that it is the house of God.

I have heard the usual arguments, that it's not "necessary" to have icons or crucifixes, and of course, that's true. We can have a church without any of those. Of course, we could attend church naked, too, and it would make about as much sense.

I'm wondering why "necessity" has come to define the worship of the LCMS, as if what had to happen in an emergency seems to define what should happen in non-emergency situations.

Of course, we can worship without the Icons of God and the Saints. Christians under persecution have done so. But we are not under persecution. Why should our houses of God look as though we were? (I'm struck by something I read a while back about old churches in Cairo. The Moslems tolerated Christian worship, as long as it was not visible, so churches blended in, looking -- on the outside -- as though they were apartment buildings or houses. But on the inside, even in those times of duress from unbelievers, it looked like a church).

It's not "necessary" to kiss my wife, to talk to my children, to play, to laugh, or whatever. But whoever thinks in those terms? And why do we in the LCMS think in terms like that about our receiving the gifts of Almighty God?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Tradition and Scripture

The question came up (in Bible class this morning) about the role of tradition. A few thoughts about tradition.

1. The sense I get (from my extremely limited, and open to correction reading) of the early Fathers is that tradition primarily centers around the Mass.

2. By the Mass, I'm thinking of a whole array of factors: the liturgy (including, of course, the Supper, Baptism, and confession and absolution), the creeds, hymnody, preaching, the lectionary, iconography (including, of course, crucifixes) and the church year.

3. None of these exist alone, and they're all tied together. All of them are things given to us, and as such, are not -- without strong evidence of error from the scriptures -- open to our changing them.

4. I think that many pastors become bored, and project this boredom on to the congregation, which sometimes leads to liturgical innovations. Many of those innovations are without any historical precedence, and are often just silly.

5. The liturgy stems from Christ's command ("this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me": I Cor. 11.25) and as such is not open to change. Period.

6. The creeds are statements given by church Fathers, ecumenical councils, and were done in periods of utmost gravity in the church. Tampering with them (and this includes writing "creative paraphrases") is a travesty.

7. The use of orthodox hymns is an essential aspect of orthodox worship. Without extremely strong reasons for variation, hymns should only be those in an approved hymn collection.

8. The lectionary is ancient, and it's there for good reason. The ancient church could just as well have permitted preachers to pick pericopes. They did not. Neither should we. Use what you are given.

9. Churches which don't use icons and crucifixes are going to use something in a worship space. Those who don't use icons are telling us something about the worship. Usually, I suspect, it's a saying that we no longer believe (see Hebrews 12.1) that we are surrounded by the saints. If we think we are isolated Christians, we will think that we can do whatever we want, since they are -- so we think -- no longer with us in worship.

10. The church year is likewise ancient, and there for good reason. It is a way of understanding the gospel. When we toy with the church year, we're telling something about how we now believe. This includes "special" Sundays (e.g., "Seminary Sunday") and plain sillinesses such as celebrating or commemorating, say, Christmas in the summer.

Seeing the LCMS as a "template"

Most of us are familiar with a template: a blank frame or set-up that allows us to fill in material.

I am coming to view the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (the LCMS: the church body I'm currently affiliated with) as a template, at least in the sense in which I have been seeing it.

I think it's a template in that people who believe as I do (defined as confessional, conservative, what have you) project our beliefs on to the LCMS, and think that it's like us, when in reality the LCMS has not been "like us" since I've been a member (1978) and probably not in my lifetime.

The LCMS is not confessional, if we define confessional as a material and liturgical adherence to the Lutheran confessional statements. It is a heterodox church body. When I say this, it's not in anger, it's trying to accurately define what's going on.

Confessionalists often defend the orthodoxy of the LCMS by saying that the LCMS has never renounced the confessions. Of course it hasn't. But -- speaking very bluntly here -- I think this is a satanic trick. Because the heterodoxy is not formal, in-your-face, we think it's not there. It is.

The other problem is that confessionalists tend to be educated, verbal, well-read people who view the world through a wordy paradigm. That's not bad in itself, but it can lead to a dangerous tunnel vision.

Because orthodoxy is a fully-orbed question. Orthodoxy is not just a question of statements approved by conventions, although those are important. We have to ask (about any church body) whether -- on the whole -- there's orthodoxy in the church's liturgy, the hymnody, preaching, and creeds. (Cf. the LCMS' 'Brief Statement' of 1932: "29. The orthodox character of a church is established not by its mere name nor by its outward acceptance of, and subscription to, an orthodox creed, but by the doctrine which is actually taught in its pulpits, in its theological seminaries, and in its publications. On the other hand, a church does not forfeit its orthodox character through the casual intrusion of errors, provided these are combated and eventually removed by means of doctrinal discipline, Acts 20:30; 1 Tim. 1:3.")

When heterodox hymns are being used in a church, it is not an orthodox church.

When heterodox preaching is going on, it is not an orthodox church.

When heterodox liturgies are used, it is not an orthodox church.

And when heterodox creeds are recited in the Mass, it is not an orthodox church.

All of the above are true in the LCMS. That I would like the LCMS to be different does not make it different.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Does the Bible Contain Errors?

A note about the following. It's a letter written early in 2006 in response to a man (a former LCMS pastor, I'm sorry to say) who challenged me after I wrote a piece in a local newspaper defending the veracity of the scriptures. I was not surprised to receive no response, save a note in which the man accused me of being "hostile." Others will have to judge whether I was being hostile; I have decided that unbelievers such as this individual must be challenged to put up, or shut up.

"I did not start this current exchange. You -- for reasons known only to you -- seem to feel compelled to keep it going. When you wrote me in December, I answered you kindly, because I feel genuine compassion for you. But when you make the blasphemous assertions you made in your letter, be assured that I will answer you. I am sorry that you cannot admit the sad and soul-damning errors which you have promulgated throughout the time you’ve spent in various congregations. But be assured that -- with God as my helper -- I will rather die than renounce the faith he has given me. I am a most unworthy sinner. I am not worthy to hold, much less defend the truths he has given in his word. But with the blessed Apostle (cf. II Timothy 3.16), I confess clearly that all scripture is theopneustos. And as such, that holy Word is profitable. That you feel somehow compelled to deny this reveals nothing about the word; it only reveals something about you. People who are “free” -- as you describe yourself -- don’t jump like Pavlov’s dogs just because someone happens to publicly defend the Bible. But -- as I expected -- your letter arrived, and here we are.

"A challenge for you. You opine that “The Bible, with all its historical, geographical, and grammatical errors, along with many words that have been mistranslated in various translations …” Instead of painting with a broad and fallacious brush, why don’t you list those “errors” of which you allude? I would like specific, detailed, tangible, verse-by-verse listings of the “errors” which you allege that God has put in his word, complete with the intra- and extra-biblical historical, geographical and grammatical information (and specific paginated listings of source note bibliographical information, of course) needed to substantiate your assertions. A list, likewise, of the substantive “mistranslations” you allege in English Bibles would be good, too. Especially ones -- and detailed information from the Greek, Hebrew, or -- when needed, Aramaic -- would be helpful here -- that supposedly change the doctrinal teachings of catholic Christianity. I am intrigued when people allege mistranslations in English Bibles, especially when folks who are able to read Greek and Hebrew don’t find the same “errors.” But you have claimed that they are there, so I am assuming that you can give me such a detailed list. No photocopies, no broad assertions, no suggesting I read something else: a detailed list, pure and simple, of the “errors” will work just fine.

"You frequently made vague assertions about the “errors” that supposedly abounded in the scriptures; now I’m offering you the chance to give -- in exact detail -- what those “errors” are. Since you say that the “errors” are so “numerous,“ a list of 50 to start off with would not be amiss. And since I’m giving numbers, let’s go with 50 substantive “mistranslations” (in my published piece, I didn’t deny that there are insubstantial ones) to which you allude. If I don’t receive such a list, I’ll know what I’ve suspected for a long time: you are unable to even substantiate what has been the very basis for your sad and pathetic reign of error. In other words, it’s all been a bluff. I’ll be waiting."

Catholicity and Specificity

We confess that we believe in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Catholicity meaning, of course, that the church is universal, that the church is not regional, not provincial, not limited to one ethnic, racial, or cultural group.

In America during this season, we're in the midst of a season in which the catholicity of the church is sometimes not clearly confessed. The reason for that problem is the occasional in-church celebrations of Memorial Day, Independence Day and other such national celebrations.

Such things don't belong in the church. Several problems spring to mind. First is that the church is an embassage of heaven, and as such, is not specific to any country where a particular Mass is celebrated. Faithfulness to the liturgy precludes such nationalism; there's no place in the Mass for it. Related to this is that the Mass is God's, and secondarily that of all God's people, and no one should be excluded. If the American flag pledge is recited in the context of the Mass, someone who is not an American cannot participate. (Leaving aside questions of whether it should be recited at all).

Bottom line: national celebrations are offenses against the catholicity of the church. They should not be part of the Mass. Having them prior to or immediately after the Mass also gives the obvious appearance that they are a part of the Mass.

How to deal with national celebrations? A couple of suggestions:

1. We are commanded (I Timothy 2.2) to pray for "kings and all in authority." So do it. Liturgical prayers for those in authority should be in every Mass. I'd also argue -- on the catholic principle -- that prayers should be included for rulers of other nations who are known to be dealing with serious issues.

2. Prayers should be in the Mass for those occasions when there are serious problems going on for one's nation.

3. American flags (and other flags, including the so-called "Christian" flag) have no place in the church.

4. Faithful, ongoing teaching should be done involving a right understanding of submission to governmental authorities.

5. It goes without saying that governmental officials should never speak in the church in their official capacity, which includes campaign appearances. It's the nature of politicians to use any forum possible for campaigning, but the church should have nothing to do with campaigns. If a politician shows up for the Mass, that's wonderful, but should be given no recognition that would not be given to any other person.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The following material is not original. Nor is it Lutheran. I have taken it wholesale from an Orthodox blog, and commend it to you highly -- with that reservation.

Prayer of St. Ephrem

After 15 years in the Orthodox Church, I have seen the prayer of St. Ephraim come up on the Lenten horizon and sink behind Pascha often enough to know it without looking at the cheatsheet:

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk,
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother,
For you are blessed unto ages of ages.

During Lent, it's prescribed for every prayer time and -- as if the Church Fathers weren't sure we'd really get it -- more than once at a lot of them. And, of course, there's no rule against saying it the rest of the year.

The words, especially of the second and third lines, always seemed to hide some profound understanding of the spiritual life, the way those 3-D pictures a few years back purported to show a hidden picture if you held the thing up to your nose and crossed and uncrossed your eyes.

I never did see a hidden picture, but I think I've found a pattern in the "Take from me" line: sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

  • Sloth is the idea that nothing I do matters. It's the sin of the parsimonious servant in the Parable of the Talents, the one who says to the Master, "What do you need me for? You can get everything you want by your own power. Here's yours back. Take it and leave me alone" (paraphrased).

    The Master is angry, not because of the small return on investment (he apparently didn't expect -- or ask -- much of the servant, if the disparity in the investment capital is any indication), but because of the servant's lack of commitment and lack of trust.

  • Which leads to the second item -- despair -- the idea that, in the words of the third Psalm, "there is no help for him in God."

    The servant not only believed he dare not do anything to increase the holdings; he also feared the master's hardness, expecting brutal treatment from him, and certainly not help, so he was left on his own, to handle his own problems.

  • Which leads to lust of power. One response to the frustration of having no meaningful role to play in life (the illusion that is sloth) and expecting no help from God (the illusion that is despair) is to try to take over the world oneself. It would be as if the faithless servant buried his own treasure in the ground and then tried to tell the other two what to do with theirs.
  • And if that doesn't work, there's always idle talk -- both outward and inward. It's the senseless chatter -- fruitless plans and imaginary arguments and self-justifications on the inside, meaningless bilge on the outside. (Some trivial conversation is part of the process of building relationship, so I'm not talking about that, but it's important, but not always easy, to discern the difference.) We use idle talk to shut out true thought, true understanding, which can be painfully revealing. In some ways idle talk is the opposite of lust of power; in other ways, it simply alternates with it, passive and aggressive reactions to sloth and despair.
Sloth is a sin we don't talk about much these days, because it's so often translated "laziness," giving us a picture of a man sitting in a hammock chewing a grass stalk and watching a creek flow. But we're too busy running around, making money, and controlling the world to be lazy in that way, and we're too full of inward chatter to be able to do nothing in that way.

So spiritual laziness is not rest -- the Psalmist also writes, in the same Psalm, "I lay down and slept. I awoke for the Lord sustained me." In other words, he gave himself over to the vulnerability of sleep, even in the midst of being under attack, and trusted in God to protect him. And God blessed his trust.

But if sloth is not rest but a belief that nothing we do matters, then it can lead to laziness -- being a couch potato, for example, is both sloth and idle talk -- or to horrible crimes -- armed robbery can be a combination of sloth and lust for power. It can cause someone to say, "I can't provide a million dollars to fund that school, so the $20 I have to give is worthless."

Or, "I can't be a great evangelist, so being a good cook is meaningless," or alternatively, "I can't cook worth beans (heh), so my gift for opening spiritual discussions with strangers is of no use to anyone." In other words, it can cause us to deny the value of our own talents (what is with that pun anyway? does it work in any languages beside English?) instead of seeing them as a unique and infinitely valuable contribution to the whole.

The Psalmist again (same Psalm) answers the whole line of the prayer: "But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head."

  • "You, O Lord, are a shield for me . . . ." The shield, naturally, is protection, specifically from the many enemies in the Psalm ("Many are they who rise up against me; many are they who say of me, 'There is no help for him in God'"). But the "shield of faith" comes up again in Ephesians: "above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one." The fiery darts of the wicked one include both inner and outer dangers, just as broadening the interpretation of the Psalm includes both inner and outer voices saying, "There is no help for him in God."

    With the shield of faith, the slothful servant would have overcome his fear of the Master's wrath, just as the Psalmist, tempted to despair, overcomes his fear that God might abandon him.

  • "You, O Lord, are . . . my glory . . . ." Glory is fame, respect, good reputation. It's exactly what the lazy servant refused the master in calling him a "hard man," reaping where he doesn't sow, and exactly what we promise -- and, at our best, give -- to God every time we sing,"Glory to you, O Lord, glory to you."

    So if God is our glory, it's a reminder that if our task seems small -- or our investment capital insignificant -- it's God who glorifies us. Or that our reputation doesn't depend on people, many of whom say, "There is no help for him in God," but on God's declaration that we are "good and faithful servants."

  • "You, O Lord, are . . . the one who lifts up my head." I try to be careful with drawing too much of a conclusion from biblical gestures, because they can be so dependent on languages and translations, and something that has a perfectly obvious meaning in one cultural context can mean nothing or exactly the opposite in another. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb here and guess that throughout human society and history, a drooping head comes with sadness or depression. When someone is "downcast," we might say, "Chin up," or "Things are looking up"; we gently lift a child's chin and tell her to cheer up.

    But the Psalmist says it's God himself who does this for his despondent children. This is not a master who is a "hard man," as the mistrustful servant says, but a God of lavish compassion.

The reality is that we do tumble through the sins of this line from St. Ephraim -- sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk -- which is why I prefer the translation "take from me" rather than "give me not," even though I've heard from people whose Greek is much better than mine that "give me not" is more accurate.

The answer, again, comes from the third Psalm -- a simple prayer: "Arise, O Lord. Save me, O my God." If it can save the Psalmist from "ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around," it can save me from my lone worst enemy -- myself.

God's answer to the Psalmist and to everyone who calls on him ends the Psalm: "For you have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; you have broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be upon your people."

The next line contains what I'm calling the positives: "Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant." I had expected to find that the positives filled slots left by departing negatives or that there would be some kind of neat parallel between the lines. Instead the reality is much richer and more complicated.

The word "chastity," in the way most people understand it, has come to be entirely sexual, and in the licentious general culture of our time, "chastity" even has a connotation of being unhealthy or ridiculous. But the Greek word is sofrosini, "wholeness."

To be whole is to "have it together," to be complete, integrated -- drawing on the related Latin root, to have integrity. St. Paul told the Corinthians that sexual promiscuity joins a person to various sexual partners, leaving him scattered, and we have a bit of understanding what that means when we say out our attention is scattered -- we're here and there, but not present where we are.

In this moment is the only place my life is happening, and I lose too much of my life by being elsewhere while appearing to be here. In Charles Williams' novel War in Heaven, there's a stone that gives its holder whatever he wishes for. One character thinks he can go into the future and make a killing at the stock market or something, and as a test, he wishes himself a half hour into the future. What really happens is that he moves his decision-making capacity out of the present time and spends the rest of his life reacting to what he's already done -- in this instance having killed a man. Williams' description of the character's vague memories of having done the murder exactly fits my vague memories when I've interacted inattentively.

My mind travels here and there -- off into fears and expectations about the future, regrets about the past, what I might have done, should have done differently, where I might be if I weren't here right now -- and then I come to myself and realize that I haven't been in the only place I have any influence over -- this moment. One of the Desert Fathers, I believe, talked about the mind being like a wheelbarrow full of monkeys, and that's a good description. He instructs us to keep collecting the monkeys and putting them back into the wheelbarrow, in essence returning our attention, our sofrosini, to the present moment, the now.

Or we could say sofrosini is like being a grownup driving a school bus. In the back, feelings and passions, fears and wishes and expectations, nostalgia and regrets vie for the bus driver's attention. They want to stop here or go faster or change direction. There may be a reason to stop, speed up or change direction, but I need to keep my adult decision-making capacity, in harmony with the Holy Spirit, as the driver.

Once chastity, sofrosini, is in place, the rest of the positives follow.

Humility makes its natural and sometimes painful appearance when I realize how often I've let the kids drive the bus. But beyond that, thinking through this line of the prayer, I made a list of the things that tempt me away from sofrosini. It was a short, unscientific survey, but I learned how often the voices in the back of the bus were saying, "I don't want to be [there]," or "I don't want to do [that]," or "I don't have time for [that]." Humility doesn't say, "I deserve better." Humility doesn't say a lot, in fact, except maybe to repeat St. Paul's description of love, "Love suffers long and is kind . . ." (1 Cor. 13:4-8). Humility doesn't keep us from working to improve our situation, but it begins here, in this moment, with the reality at hand.

Patience also follows sofrosini, and, oddly, not so painfully. Without sofrosini, the effort to be patient is a battle of will against hurry, a sort of teeth-gritting, watch-watching, "Will you hurry up?" on the inside and a tight smile on the outside. But when I do have the adult driving the bus, each moment has its own purpose, and having to slow down is a gift to at least one of the kids in the back of the bus -- so I can enjoy that short sense of leisure.

St. Paul's description of love is worth repeating here, because it captures the interplay of the positives in this line: "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." To be centered in the moment and to give my attention to the person before me is the place where love can happen, because if my mind is elsewhere, I'm not even seeing this person, but a concoction of my own mind.

Finally, a few words on the next line of St. Ephrem's prayer: "Grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother." Seeing my own faults is an aid to humility, but I've learned something new about judging.

I've always thought that warnings against judging one's neighbor have to do with negative judgments -- and misunderstanding the meaning and effect of "judgment," tended to narrow it to judging someone's eternal disposition. But my search for sofrosini has taught me that even positive or neutral judgments can damage a relationship. I heard a fairly famous author say, "You don't meet people at zero anymore. They think they know things about you, and they project things on you." This is not about the poor, misfortunate author -- she wasn't even complaining, just saying -- but an illustration of how even positive expectations can interfere with truly seeing a person.

In another example, I had classified a woman I know as "not very adept with mechanical things." I had put her in that box in order to overcome a tendency toward impatience with her mistakes with mechanical things, so it was well meant -- and possibly true -- but I was glad I happened to be working on sofrosini when she asked me a computer question one evening, because it reminded me to be still and listen to her question -- in other words, to open the box and see if she really fit in it. She didn't, actually, and the conversation was more interesting and profitable to both of us than it would have been if I hadn't bothered to open the box.

I suppose it's necessary to say that I'm confident that St. Paul and St. Ephrem are not asking us to deny history, to disregard proven dangers or to ignore the intuition that is one of the voices sofrosini should pay attention to in the back of the bus. But most of the time, what I'm afraid of is not actual danger, but rather discomfort or embarrassment or something that won't do me any lasting harm at all.

What I've learned from short forays into sofrosini is that it's not just a moral good -- "good for you," like some nasty medicine -- but an existential good -- adventurous, exciting, sometimes scary, and dotted with delightful surprises -- "life and more abundantly," as Christ said. Another thing is that it doesn't take years of disciplined practice; it takes only this moment and my undivided attention. I've been surprised to find that St. Ephrem's prayer -- rather than being something dour and self-flagellating -- can be a door into the richness and potential of the moment.

So here it is, a discovery that most people probably figured out the first time they read St. Ephraim's prayer. Apologies for the length of this post. I'm like a driver who learned how to get to a destination by a circuitous route and, when trying to give directions to the place, gives all the twists and turnings of that route because it's the only one I know.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

It's a Dog Eat Dog World: Jews, Dogs, and Unclean Animals

The Bible is not fond of dogs. Which is putting it mildly.

Out of the 40 references (in English Bibles) to dogs, most are decidedly uncomplimentary. Dogs are generally described as licking blood, eating vomitus, or consuming a carcass. When not doing these activities, they are described as being outside of God's city, or dumb (as in "unable to speak") or greedy. Ecclesiastes 9.4 ("a living dog is better than a dead lion") is the only passage that might even conceivably be complimentary to dogs, and that's a stretch.

Leviticus 11 is the prime passage about clean and unclean animals. Dogs are not specifically mentioned, but animals such as dogs are described in vs. 27 ("And whatsoever goeth upon his paws, among all manner of beasts that go on all four, those are unclean unto you"). Specifically, eating a dog or touching the dead animal's carcass are forbidden in Lev. 11.

Modern Jews have often extended this to include a prohibition of touching even a living dog. The question I'm posing is whether Jews in Palestine in the time of Christ would have felt that such touching was forbidden.

The reason this comes into question is because of references to dogs in Matthew 15 and Mark 7.

Dogs and humanity have a common heritage throughout most of recorded history. Unlike cats, which were not domesticated until relatively (historically speaking) recently, dogs are constant companions of man from early on. Dogs are beloved around the world, and this love transcends cultural barriers. Several examples: in Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture, he speaks of the fiercely dog-loving swarth that cuts across Ireland, Scotland, northern England, and southern France, and he connects that culture with that of the dog-loving southern US. Another writer, recounting the story of the Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1959, speaks of the horror felt by the dog-loving Tibetans when the Chinese invaders slaughtered Tibetan dogs wholesale. In other words, and dogs and man have shared domestic life throughout history.

What I'm trying to determine is whether dogs and man shared any life in Jewish Palestine in the first century, AD. I am arguing that they do, and that Jesus' interaction with the Syrophoenician woman (in Mark 7 and Matthew 15) specifically indicates that dogs were part of daily Jewish life.

Modern day orthodox Jews will usually not touch, much less eat unclean animals. Dogs (per Lev. 11) are certainly among those unclean animals. But there is no biblical commandment against touching a live unclean animal. Dealing with dogs (such as having them as house pets, or using them in herding) would be neither commanded or forbidden. To go further than the Bible commands, and claim that the Bible forbids touching a live unclean animal is to make a commandment where God has not made such a command. And it's not possible to accurately read 21st century orthodox Jewish observance back into first century Palestine, without doing violence to history and the text.

(Interestingly -- to me -- is that Job 30.1 speaks of shepherds using dogs. Of course, Job greatly predates the giving of the law, but such a use of dogs would be consistent with most of what we know around the world as far as the behavior and customs of shepherds).

Of the 40 references to dogs in the English Bible, the word Kunarion (which indicates "little dog," a small animal) is found in only 4 of the 40 references: in Matthew 15.26 & 27, and Mark 7, 27 & 28. All of the other references translated "dog" are (in Greek) Kuon, indicating a large animal, a wild dog, or a scavenging dog.

The Matthew 15 passage is as follows:

22And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

23But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.

24But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

25Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.

26But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.

27And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.

28Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Likewise, in Mark 7:

25For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:

26The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.

27But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.

28And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.

29And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.

30And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

The thrust of the passages is this. The woman -- specifically identified as gentile, "a Syrophoenician by nation" -- is praying for her daughter's exorcism. Jesus in turn puts her off, and finally brushes her aside, suggesting that it would be improper to take the children's (i.e., the Jews) food, and give it to the dogs. (The implication here is that any non-Jews are dogs). In each usage -- Jesus' statement, and the woman's response -- the word used is Kunarion -- the small dogs -- housepets?

The interchange between the unnamed woman and Jesus seems to indicate that the animals in question are known, familiar creatures. In other words, they are not speaking of, say, lions. They use a term that indicates familiarity and the manner in which they speak seems to indicate an event both are familiar with -- perhaps from childhood: small house pets under the table, eating scraps of food that children -- then as now -- inadvertently drop on the floor.

If modern-day Jews are correct in their observance (i.e., that even touching dogs is against the commandments) then having such animals as housepets would obviously have been sin for an observant Jew like Jesus. But if it's not wrong touch the body of a living unclean animal such as a dog, then it's very likely that Palestinian Jews of the first century would -- like families all around the world -- have had dogs as pets. (Of course, this would also indicate that dogs would likely have been used for shephereding -- as in the Job 30.2 passage -- and for protection, as guard dogs).

I'd also suggest that the presence of dogs is one of those things that people might have taken for granted, and therefore it wouldn't have been mentioned by the biblical writers, except perhaps in passing, such as in these passages. So we have to infer their presence, because it won't be explicitly stated.

I suggest that these passages -- Mark 7 and Matthew 15 -- indicate that dogs were companions of Palestinian Jews in the first century. Such a presence also tells us something about the nature and practice of their understanding of the law.