A Life beyond Reason

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There are vitriolic debates these days about who does and who does not hold the status of “persons.” What makes someone a human “person” and worthy of being sustained in life? The pre-born? The severely disabled?

Chris Gabbard, an English Professor from the University of Florida, takes up this question indirectly but movingly in an article about his son who “lives with cerebral palsy, is a spastic quadriplegic, has cortical visual impairment (meaning he is legally blind), is completely nonverbal and cognitively disabled, has a microcephalic head, and must wear a diaper.” Gabbard reflects on what it means to be an “intellectual” and to work in an academic context where intellectual aptitude is prized, despite the fact that his son lacks some of the most basic intellectual capacities.

Most surprising to me was Gabbard’s insistence that Martin Luther held the opinion that a child such as Gabbard’s —”merely a mass of flesh, a massa carnis, with no soul”—should be drowned. Can anyone confirm this?

(To be sure, Gabbard rejects this view (as would I), though I’m not a Luther expert and can’t confirm whether Luther actually taught this, or whether this was some kind of out of context statement. I did find an excerpt from which this account is taken here, but I’m not sure that there is enough detail to know what Luther was really talking about…Any help from some Luther experts here?)

Whatever the case, this is WELL worth the read. Thank you for your reflections, Dr. Gabbard!

HT: Dustin Resch

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The right hand of God…changes everything

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I’m doing some study on the theology of illness. As I was reading what Barth had to say about the matter (I’m reading in CD III.4, pp. 356ff), I came across his appeal to Psalm 77:10.

The NIV renders Psalm 77:10 as, “Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.'” Yes, that could make sense in light of verse 11: “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” In other words, in light of my cry to God for help (cf. v. 1), I can appeal to the history of God’s dealing with his people, the years of his mighty deeds and his deliverance of his people.

But other translations take a different tack. The NRSV renders the verse: “And I say, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.'” The New Jerusalem Bible concurs: “And I said, ‘This is what wounds me, the right hand of the Most High has lost its strength.'”

That’s pretty different, isn’t it?

But what could the NRSV translation possibly mean? It may make sense if v. 10 an extension of the lament of v. 9, but the Selah marker of v. 9 seems to indicate otherwise: Verse 10 seems to be the start of a new section.

Part of the problem in translating this verse seems to lie in the word “shenoth” [שְׁנוֹת] which is could be translated either as the verb “to change” or the noun “year.”

But what caught my eye was Barth’s appeal to Luther’s translation of Psa 77:10, which reads:

“Aber doch sprach ich: Ich muß das leiden; die rechte Hand des Höchsten kann alles ändern.”

In English, this translates roughly as, “But I said: I must suffer this; the right hand of the Most High can change everything.”

Read in context, this would be paraphrased as:

“Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion? Selah. But I said: I must suffer this brute fact: The right hand of the Most High can change everything. Indeed, I will remember the deeds of the LORD, yes, I will remember your miracles from long ago.”

He changes everything!

Indeed, in Jesus Christ, the one who sits at the right hand of God, we can be confident: There is nothing present to our situation that God in Christ cannot change!

Have you been “baptismally throttled”?

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Your baptism is nothing less than grace clutching you by the throat: a grace-full throttling, by which your sin is submerged in order that ye may remain under grace. Come thus to thy baptism. Give thyself up to be drowned in baptism and killed by the mercy of thy dear God, saying: “Drown me and throttle me, dear Lord, for henceforth I will gladly die to sin with Thy Son.”

Martin Luther, as cited by Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 194.

I loved this quotation from Luther, though I wonder how in the world it fits with the conception of infant baptism that he sought to maintain? If baptism is an “invitation to be grace-fully throttled by God,” how does that fit with paedo-baptism? It seems to me that Luther’s prayer here is better suited to a theology of “believers’ baptism.”

95 Theses Rap

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Lyrics compliments of  Per Crucem Ad Lucem:

If you havin’ Church problems then don’t blame God, son …
I got ninety-five theses but the Pope ain’t one.

VERSE 1

Listen up, all my people, it’s a story for the telling
’bout the sin and injustice and corruption I been smelling:
I met that homie Tetzel, then I started rebelling
Once I seen the fat Indulgences that he been selling.
Now the Cath’lics of the world straight up disgracin’ me
Just because I waved my finger at the papacy.
My people got riled up over this Reformation …
That’s when Leo threatened me with Excommunication.
I warned y’all that Rome best agree to the terms.
If not, then you can eat my Diet of Worms!
You think you done something spectacular?
I wrote the Bible in the vernacular!
A heretic! [What?] Someone throw me a bone.
You forgot salvation comes through faith alone.
I’m on a mission from God. You think I do this for fun?
I got ninety-five theses but the Pope ain’t one.
Save me!

CHORUS

Ninety-five theses but the Pope ain’t one.
If you havin’ Church problems then don’t blame God, son …
I got ninety-five theses but the Pope ain’t one.

VERSE 2

One Five One Seven… that’s when it first went down.
Then the real test was when it started spreading around.
Sixty days to recant what I said? Father, please!
You’ve had, what? Goin’ on fifteen centuries?
“Oh snap, he’s messin’ with the holy communion.”
But I ain’t never dissed your precious hypostatic union!
“One place at one time.” Well, thank you Zwingli.
Yeah, way to disregard that whole “I’m God” thingy!
Getting’ all up in my rosary … you little punk.
Your momma shoulda told you not to mess with no monk.
What you bumpin’ me for? Suddenly you sore.
Keep that up, you’ll have yourself another Peasant War.
You blame common folk for the smack they talkin’ …
You ain’t even taught them proper Christian doctrine.
With my hat, my Bible, and my sexy little nun,
I got ninety-five theses but the Pope ain’t one.
Save me!

CHORUS

VERSE 3

When I wrote the ninety-five, haters straight up assailed ‘em.
Now they only care whether or not I nailed ‘em or mailed ‘em.
They got psychoanalytic. Now everyone’s a critic,
And getting on my case just because I’m anti-Semitic.
I’ve come back from obscurity to teach y’all a lesson,
Cuz someone here still ain’t read their Augsburg Confession.
I said Catholicism brings a life of excess,
And we all remember what went down with Philip of Hesse!
But you forgot about me and my demonstration?
Like you can just create your own denomination?
“We don’t like this part, so we’ll just add a little twist.”
Now we Anglican, Amish, and even Calvinist.
I gave you the power, you gone and abused it.
I gave you God’s truth, you just confused it.
Don’t you never underestimate the s*** that I done …
I got 95 theses but the Pope ain’t one.
Save me!

CHORUS

Shout out to Johann Gutenberg … I see you baby.

Losing our Conscience in “The New Moral Order”

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In his excellent article just released in Catholic Insight on November 10, 2008, Dr. Douglas Farrow of McGill University exposes what he calls the “The New Moral Order” being developed in Canada today. In this new order, Farrow argues, the older categories of:

1) natural law [the universal aspect common to all],
2) religion  [the covenantal aspect under which all are created], and,
3) conscience  [the personal aspect of moral response] 

are steadily being replaced respectively with the new categories of:

1) pluralism [i.e., the only thing universal is that we are all different);
2) secularism [i.e., rather than life under and before God, it is life without God]; and,
3) autonomy or individualism [rather than a personal adherence to a norm, it is personal adherence to oneself].

Now my own Barthian/Reformed sensitivities still prevents me from buying into my Doktorvater’s commitment to a notion “universal natural law” as is predominantly taught in Roman Catholicism. [The Cathecism of the Catholic Church says that “natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history” and is “a necessary foundation for the erection of moral rules and civil law.” (Catechism, art. 1979)]. I still prefer to think along the more Reformed (especially Calvin’s) notion of “common grace.” Yet even if you replace “natural law” with the idea of “common grace” which understands that the world “is not only created by God but upheld in its created existence and nature by his grace” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, 117), I think that Farrow has rightly identified the three purely secularized replacements vying for recognition.

But beyond the way in which Farrow brought these three fundamental ideas together (along with their parodies) in such a precise fashion, I  found it especially illuminating how Farrow notes that conscience, traditionally understood, is the discipline of the self subjecting itself to a higher order. Conscience was, in other words, the testing of oneself–of “me”–to see if I was living in alignment with that which Iknew and believed to have binding authority upon me. To live and act according to conscience was in effect to say, “I will do what I know to be right and good on the basis of my acknowledgement that something or someone is higher than me.” Indeed, conscience, when it is working properly, is precisely defined (imagine that!) by Barth as “the place where man becomes one with God’s will” (CD I/1, 202).

But now, with autonomy and individual rights increasingly reigning the day, it has come to the place where even conscience must be obliterated, lest we find ourselves testifying even in a small way that we are subject to something outside of ourselves. To speak of conscience, in other words, is to admit that something (or heaven forbid, someone) is judging me. So, the last triumph of “human rights” talk will be when the conscience is completely redefined from “a moral agent’s internal compulsion to act in accordance to external authority” to mean “submission to one’s self, and to one’s self alone”–without the hassle of having to conform oneself in any way to something external or higher or larger or, to be sure, divine. As Luther, in his own characteristic fashion, once put it, “Conscience is an evil beast which makes a man take a stand against himself.” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 7:331).

Though I encourage you to read the article in its totality on your own, I thought that Farrow’s penultimate paragraph was worth reproducing here:

What then shall we call this new morality, if not the morality of despair?  And with what shall we confront it, even and especially where it is most menacing, if not with the gospel of hope?  For despair, as Kierkegaard argued in Sickness unto Death, is the refusal to be oneself before God, and Christian hope is the right antidote to that.  Christian hope is grounded in the knowledge that God himself is for us in Christ, not against us, so that in Christ we may indeed be ourselves, and be ourselves before God. This, I think, is what Pope Leo XIII also had in mind when he said in Jesus Christ the Redeemer:  “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”

[You may also want to read Farrow’ previous article (also in Catholic Insight) where he comments on how the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is attacking the freedom of conscience of individual physicians to not perform procedures such as abortions.]

Reformation Day!

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I sent this out earlier to the Briercrest community. I thought I’d post it here as well.

P.S. Apparently scholars debate whether in fact Luther actually did post the theses as the story goes. But even if the the story is “apocryphal,” it is still the case that October 31 IS Reformation Day in the Church year.

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For those who have forgotten what day it is today, let me remind you that it is Reformation Day. It was on this day 491 years ago, on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the Church door at Wittenberg–an act which Luther surely could not have anticipated would result in what we now call the Protestant Reformation.

Recently, some (such as eminent evangelical historian Mark Noll) have been asking whether the Reformation is over, especially since there is a much greater willingness amongst Catholics and Protestants to work together for the cause of the Gospel, and since many of the old schisms that used to divide us seem to be closing. For example, though not everyone yet buys into all the conclusions of the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, it is nevertheless true that the differences between Catholics and Protestants are not nearly as great as they used to be, even on this fundamental doctrine which was at the centre of the original Protest. Add to this the reality that the last pope (John Paul II) and the current pope (Benedict XVI) have sounded more “evangelical” in our ears than ever, and one wonders whether the Reformation really is over. 

However, major differences still do exist and we are still quite a way from saying that the issues raised by Luther and the reformers which followed him so many years ago are no longer relevant. What we can affirm today, though, is that God by his Spirit is continuing to work to reform and renew his Church, the body of Christ. As outwardly the challenges to being a faithful Christian in our country today seem to be increasing, we can be thankful that Jesus is building his Church and nothing, not even the gates of Hades, can prevail against it, even though it continues to be ever in need of reformation, indeed, transformation, into the image of Christ the Lord and Head of the Church.

Happy Reformation Day!