Tag Archives: Ministry

Luther@500: The Pastoral Luther

Almost ten years ago, internationally regarded Luther scholar Timothy Wengert said,

As Luther fans the world over are already gearing up for the celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of their posting [i.e. the Ninety-Five Theses] on 31 October 1517, too often the celebrations will focus on Luther’s break with Rome or his Reformation breakthrough rather than on Luther’s own stated reason for the dispute: pastoral care for his flock in Wittenberg (“Introducing the Pastoral Luther” in Wengert (ed.), The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books; Eerdmans, p. 5).

Vose Seminary will commemorate this anniversary with a mini-Conference on The Pastoral Luther. Conducted on October 30, four papers will be presented as follows:

  1. Dr Peter Elliott (Perth Bible College): The Pastoral Roots of Luther’s Reformation
  2. Dr Michael O’Neil (Vose Seminary): Freeing Salvation: Luther’s Pastoral Theology
  3. Ps Matthew Bishop (Bethlehem Lutheran Church Morley): Of Good Comfort: Luther’s Pastoral Letters to the Depressed
  4. Dr Brian Harris (Vose Seminary): Luther as Leader

I am very much looking forward to this event. If you are in Perth, perhaps you can make it along.

For details and registration, go to:
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=321641  

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

On Retreat

17-SEP-Open_Leeroy-Todd-Sleepy-Eyes-740x500For a couple of days I am on retreat with the West Australian Baptist pastors. These retreats are always a quite restful and fun few days, as we catch up with old friends, enjoy some meals together and receive some input from the Conference speaker. This year’s speaker is Allan Demond, an inspirational Baptist pastor from Melbourne.

Allan is like a breath of fresh air, bringing a simple message on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the busy life of a pastor. He began his sessions by telling of coming to Australia from Canada in 1995 to take up pastoral leadership of the church where he continues to serve. Early in his ministry he was asked by another pastor whether he served in the ‘charismatic’ or ‘anti-charismatic’ church in his suburb. He bristled at the characterisation. He rejected the fundamental premise that his ministry and the church should be captured in so limiting a label. Yet, upon researching the history of his new congregation, he found that the church had earned a reputation for opposing certain works and activity of the Holy Spirit, and so determined to explore this issue and ‘hold open a space’ in which the church could enter into dialogue around what it means to be the people of God. “Who can be anti-charismatic,” he asks, “Anti-gift?”

And so began a decades long endeavour to ‘live out of a quiet and surrendered centre,’ to nurture a ‘deep and rich spirituality’ in his own life and in the congregation, and to learn the ways of the Paraclete, as he leads the church into the ways and ministry of Jesus. He discovered to his deep surprise and amazement, that the Spirit continues to author the ministry of God’s people in unique and powerful ways, speaking to and leading his people. His advice to the pastors: become aware of and recognise how the Spirit continues to be present and speak in your own life and context, and own it, and grow it. That is, thank God for his presence and gift and ask him for more.

Refreshing stuff from a humble guide.

Socrates, Nestorius, and the “Hard Work” of Theology

Socrates Bk vThe ancient church historian and contemporary of Nestorius, Socrates of Constantinople, evidently did not think much of Nestorius, despite his defence of Nestorius’s orthodoxy.

What sort of a disposition he was of in other respects, those who possessed any discernment were able to perceive from his first sermon. … [those] did not fail to detect his levity of mind, and violent and vainglorious temperament, inasmuch as he had burst forth into such vehemence without being able to contain himself for even the shortest space of time; and to use the proverbial phrase, “before he had tasted the water of the city,” showed himself a furious persecutor.[1]

Nestorius had been appointed as bishop of Constantinople by the Emperor in 428AD, chosen for his “excellent voice and fluency of speech.” Nevertheless it seems controversy dogged his episcopate from the start, and he eventually was condemned for his christological views at the Council of Ephesus in 431. It seems Socrates believes this was an unfair judgement:

Having myself perused the writings of Nestorius, I have found him an unlearned man and shall candidly express the conviction of my own mind concerning him; … I cannot then concede that he was either a follower of [known heretics] Paul of Samosata or of Photinus, or that he denied the divinity of Christ … He does not assert Christ to be a mere man, as Photinus did or Paul of Samosata, his own published homilies fully demonstrate. In these discourses he nowhere destroys the proper personality (hypostasis) of the Word of God; but on the contrary invariably maintains that he has an essential and distinct personality and existence. Nor does he ever deny his subsistence… Such in fact I find Nestorius, both from having myself read his own works, and from the assurances of his admirers. But this idle contention of his has produced no slight ferment in the religious world (171).

How was it, then, that this gifted and charismatic speaker occupying one of the most prestigious pulpits in the empire caused such an uproar? Socrates is blunt:

He seemed scared of the term Theotocos [sic; i.e. “God-bearer,” or “mother of God”], as though it were some terrible phantom. The fact is, the causeless alarm he manifested on this subject just exposed his extreme ignorance: for being a man of natural fluency as a speaker, he was considered well educated, but in reality he was disgracefully illiterate. In fact he contemned the drudgery of an accurate examination of the ancient expositors; and, puffed up with his readiness of expression, he did not give his attention to the ancients, but thought himself the greatest of all (171).

Alister McGrath translates that last sentence: “In fact he had no time for the hard work which an accurate examination of the ancient expositors would have involved…”[2]

Theological work can be hard. Yet this observation from the early fifth century is just as relevant today. Some pastors, leaders, teachers and others rely on their excellent gifts, charisma and charm to carry their ministry, dismissing the work of those who have gone before as though it were of no value or benefit. In their pride they may become arrogant, and may even, as Nestorius did, cause great dissention in the body of Christ. The work may be difficult, may even be “drudgery,” but it is necessary work, especially for those charged with the responsibility of shepherding the people of God.

*****

[1] Scholasticus, Socrates, “The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Second Series) Volume 2: Socrates, Sozomenos: Church Histories ed. Schaff, Philip & Henry Wace, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1890; reprint, 1995), 169.

[2] McGrath, Alister E., ed. The Christian Theology Reader, Third ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 273, emphasis added.

Baptism in Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonIn 2005 Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her magnificent Gilead. It is a gentle, beautifully-written story, the memoirs of the elderly Reverend John Ames, written for his seven-year old son, retelling his life, his beliefs, his fears, his hopes. This is a deeply human story of life in a slower time (the 1950s, but recalling a family history extending to the mid-nineteenth century). But slower does not mean simpler, for issues of war and slavery, courage, sickness, and family difficulty loom large.

So do matters of love, friendship, faith, ministry, and theology. As a reader I was caught by Robinson’s theological vision woven throughout the book, but in such a way that it does not overwhelm the story. Using the story, she reflects on all the issues mentioned above and more besides. See, for example, her meditations on the value being human:

There is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it… (75)

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? (141)

So, too, Robinson’s meditations on baptism and the Lord’s Supper surface from time to time. For instance:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running … It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth … it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing… (31-32)

It may be that “blessing” is Robinson’s primary word for describing the action of grace in the sacraments, and indeed the entire function of ministry. We minister in order to impart blessing (cf. Rom. 1:11). Baptism and blessing belong together in Robinson’s luminous world, and come together in a particularly humorous passage:

We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress – there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… (26-27)

For other, better accounts of this book, see the reviews by Nathan Hobby and Ben Myers.