“Dear Lazy Preachers…” Sincerely, Martin Luther

Martin Luther regularly collected and published his sermons following the calendar of the church year. They were known as “postils,” and during his life they were some of his most read and beloved works. Luther himself was pleased with them but lamented that Luther-Preaching-in-Wittenbergsome “lazy” preachers read them word-for-word from the pulpit:

There are some lazy, no-good pastors and preachers who depend on these and many other good books that they can take a sermon out of. They don’t pray, study or read, pondering nothing in Scripture, just as if we need not read the Bible, using such books as a template and calendar to earn their living (LW 6281-85).

I appreciate Luther’s point, but I am conflicted. Let me explain.

On one hand, preaching verbatim another person’s sermon detracts from the essence of preaching: the pastor stands among his or her congregation and in the power of the Holy Spirit speaks the Word of the Lord as it is refracted through his or her unique humanity. That refraction, or mediation, is what makes preaching different, more even, than simply reading the Scriptures aloud. It affirms the goodness of creation as it is experienced in the preacher’s own humanity (docetism always lurks in the wings). So, beyond Luther’s point about the pastor’s engagement with the Scriptures through prayer in preparation for delivering a sermon (certainly right), there is also something distinctly human about preaching that is lost when a sermon from someone else is delivered.

Further, a sermon is spoken in the midst of the particular moment of a church’s life, a moment surely common to others but one that has never before occurred and never will again. The time in which a sermon is proclaimed is unique in the history of the cosmos: this pastor, in the midst of this congregation, at this moment in history!  The human and historical essence of preaching is depleted by preaching a sermon that is not native to a  community.

In Luther’s case the pastors forthrightly read his postils, but today it often happens without anyone’s knowledge. The son of a nationally known author and speaker told me that his father was once visiting a church and heard one of his sermons preached. Even the personal illustrations from his family’s life were used! I have also known several churches that removed their pastors for preaching sermons they found on the internet or borrowed from others. Pastors are under much pressure to perform in the pulpit, and the internet is an easy source of content.

On the other hand – hear me out – perhaps a pastor can rightly do what Luther lamented. Continue reading

Luther on Proper Meditation: Part 1 – Evils

I will continue our look at Dennis Ngien’s book, Luther as a Spiritual Advisor: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings. The chapter we will look at here is entitled: “Gems for the Sick: Proper Meditation on Evils and Blessings,” and is taken from Luther’s work Fourteen Consolations. Ngien summarizes:

In all these consolations the victorious image of Christ looms large, by which we are lifted outside ourselves (extra nobis), and are so caught up into Christ that we might see how, with such eagerness, Christ was willing to suffer on the cross to make death contemptible and dead for us (pro nobis)” (48).

The fourteen consolations are made up of seven evils and seven blessings. Instead of focusing his attention solely on glory, Luther accepts the reality of the cross as forming the Christian life – thereby making this work – as Ngien argues, an exercise in a “theology of the cross.” Luther, Ngien explains, “accentuates the unity of word and Spirit, working together in accomplishing the proper outcome of any act of meditation. The Holy Spirit assigns value and meaning to a thing on which our mind focuses so that whatever he considers as trivial and of no significance will move us only slightly, be it love as it comes to us or pain when it disappears” (49). Continue reading

Tuomo Mannermaa on Union with Christ & the Christian life

What is the relationship between the believer’s union with Christ and his or her obedience to Christ’s teaching?

Our answer to that question is incredibly important not only for retaining the gracious character of the Gospel, but our language of salvation and Christian obedience says a great deal as well about our theology of the Christian life.

Toward sparking some discusson about the relationships we form between our theology of salvation and the Christian life, let’s consider the controversial (to some) reinterpretation of Martin Luther by the Finnish scholar Tuomo Mannermaa. As I have read, and reread, Mannermaa’s interpretation of Luther, I can’t figure out how Mannermaa’s theology of union with Christ doesn’t completely obscure the role of the Spirit in the Christian life. Consider the following from Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification:

The logic of [Luther’s] thinking is as follows: In faith, human beings are really united with Christ. Christ, in turn, is both the forgiveness of sins and the effective producer of everything that is good in them. Therefore “sanctification” – is, in fact, only another name for the same phenomenon of which Luther speaks when discussing the communication of attributes, the happy exchange, and the union between the person of Christ and that of the believer. Christ is the true subject and agent of good works in the believer, as illustrated for example, by the following passage: Continue reading

Prayer: Luther

Lord, keep us steadfast in your word; curb those who by deceit or sword would wrest the kingdom from your Son and bring to nothing all he’s done. Lord Jesus Christ, your power make known, for you are Lord of lords alone; defend your holy church, that we may sing your praise eternally. O Comforter of priceless worth, grant one mind to your flock on earth support us in our final strife, and lead us out of death to life.

Martin Luther (from Erhalt uns, bei deinem Wort)