Concordia Journal Spring 2023

Page 18

A Concordia Seminary St. Louis Publication
Editorials Editor’s Note Erik H. Herrmann 5 An Exegetical Note Jeffrey Gibbs 7 An Extraordinary Way to Honor a Pastor James Brauer 12 Articles Translation and Syncretism Douglas L. Rutt 17 Translation Principles and Lessions for Translatros Vilson Scholz 31 Reading the Bible with Spiritists William D. Miller 39 Homiletical Helps Anatomy of a Sermon Sermon on Job 19:18–25 by Timothy Saleska Erik Herrmann 55 Reviews Featured Review T&T Clark Introduction to Spirit Christology By Leopoldo A. Sánchez M. 65 Volume 49 Number 2


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The fifty days of Easter have come and gone but Pentecost continues on. That’s not simply a liturgical observation about the church year. The Holy Spirit, who was so lavishly poured out on that first Pentecost, continues to fill God’s people with the comfort of his presence, the manifold gifts of Christ’s life, and the hope of an everlasting life in God’s bright and eternal country. The Spirit urges the church, leads it out into the world, and through it bears witness to the truth.

The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church is as manifold as his gifts. Our own professor Leopoldo Sánchez offered some beautiful reflections on the work of the Spirit in our individual lives in his book Sculptor Spirit (IVP, 2019). Sometimes descriptions of personal sanctification—being made holy—can remain a little abstract. Sánchez helpfully looks at the concrete and particular ways that the Spirit empowered and was active in Christ’s own life and ministry and then extends those themes to the Christian life. The things that Jesus “began to do and teach,” as Luke describes the subject matter of his Gospel, is ongoing through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who belong to Christ.

Of all the Spirit’s work, it is especially his presence in and through his word that stirs the life of the church—”nowhere [is the Spirit] more present and more active in than the holy letters themselves, which he has written.” (WA 7, 97, 2–3). By this word the church is made holy—“sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). The Spirit made known this truth at Pentecost in a profusion of languages; likewise, the church devotes itself to bring the truth of God’s word into every tongue and dialect, trusting that this same Spirit speaks and is active to “call, gather, and enlighten.”

Martin Luther believed this wholeheartedly and so he centered his entire reforming efforts toward the bringing of God’s word to his own people, in their own language. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German is one of the great literary and cultural achievements of western history, but for the life of the church it was a gift of God. Last fall we marked the 500th anniversary of his translation of the New Testament with an evening lecture on the significance of Luther’s translation and the work of biblical translation in general. One of the lectures was given by Dr. Vilson Scholz, visiting professor of exegetical theology from Seminario Concordia in Brazil and long-time translation consultant for the United Bible Society. We publish here his reflections on Luther’s approach to translation, which interacts both with the

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Editor’s Note

contemporary schools of translation and the theological conviction that God does indeed speak his word through every language.

Belief that the Spirit takes up human speech and language to communicate the gospel to all people, however, does not make the task of translation easy or simple. Human language and culture are not neutral vehicles but are shaped by myriad experiences, traditions, and Weltanschauungen. In his article, “Translation and Syncretism,” Dr. Douglas Rutt enters into the challenges that emerge when language is also embedded with theological and religious ideas that distort or undermine the Christian message. Bringing his own missiological experience and expertise to bear on the question, Rutt argues that translating God’s word into a people group’s “heart language” remains the goal: “the ability to communicate the message of the wonders of God so that it ‘cuts to the heart,’ in other words, it reaches the heart of a hearer, mandates translation of God’s word to the ‘heart languages’ of people.”

Taking up the challenge of contextualization along with the various approaches to translation—literal, dynamic equivalent, and functionalist—Rutt weighs the strengths and pitfalls of each for the purpose of faithfully conveying the message of the gospel.

Syncretism and accommodation is the context of our third article, by Dr. William Miller, pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Based on his doctoral research, Miller introduces us to Brazilian Spiritism, especially as it was developed and systematized by the nineteenth-century French educator, Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, writing under the name Allan Kardec. Both a Christian heresy and a philosophical/religious movement, Spiritism argues both for its continuity with the Bible and for additional sources of theological authority in experience, science, and mediumship. In this article, Miller examines its more popular elements, especially the operative assumptions and methods for how the Bible is cited and read to support the Spiritist doctrine.

As we continue to witness this season the greening and growth of the natural world around us, let us also be grateful for the emergence of our own green season, the growth and fruit that the Spirit awakens and cultivates in us. His work is an eternal work for our eternal spring.

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An Exegetical Note

Precious or Costly? What is the death of his people in God’s sight?

(Psalm 116:15)

Some time ago, I realized that I didn’t know what Psalm 116:15 meant. The ESV’s translation is the standard one: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” You see this verse offered to express Christian sympathy and support at the death of a believer. It popped up on Facebook, I heard it in person, I saw it in writing.

I did not know, however, what the verse meant. On the face of it and apart from any context, Psalm 116:15 seems to say that God looks with approval when his saints die. (“Saints” is the plural of with 3 ms pronominal suffix, “his faithful ones, his devout ones.”)1 Read in isolation, the statement indicates that God likes the death of his people or that it pleases him; it is precious in his sight. In English, this would be the normal way of understanding verse 15 as a stand-alone statement. In addition, that would be the normal force of the Hebrew adjective that is fronted in the verse: “Precious in the sight of the LORD.”

The surrounding context provided by Psalm 116 itself, however, leads strongly in another direction. And, after developing my own very preliminary investigation, I learned that I was quite late to the exegetical party. The need to render in this verse differently than “precious” is widely acknowledged in commentaries and in at least a few English Bible versions and paraphrases. To state my conclusion up front, a more faithful, contextual rendering of this verse would be this: “Costly (or weighty) in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” I’ll build the case for this on three major supports: (1) the semantic range available to the adjective ; (2) Psalm 116 as a whole and how it directs the translation in a certain direction; and finally (3) the book of Psalms in general and its attitude towards death. At the end, I’ll offer several ways to apply the verse in light of God’s work in Christ and our Christian life today.

The adjective occurs in the Hebrew Old Testament thirty-five times, and twenty-two times it straightforwardly modifies literal possessions that are “precious, valuable”—frequently in the phrase, “precious stone(s)” (e.g., 2 Sm 12:30).2 This positive meaning also occurs in theological or relational contexts six times, modifying God’s mercy (Ps 36:7), wisdom (Prv 3:15), the faithful prophetic word (Jer 15:19), and various important or valuable people (Ps 45:10; Prv 6:25; Lam 4:2). Twice the

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context stretches or broadens this positive sense, referring to the “beauty” or “glory” of a pasture (Ps 37:20) or to the “splendor” of the waxing moon (Job 31:26). Context, of course, has this ability to adjust the meaning of an individual word.

Two other examples show that context can further adapt the meaning of in what might be called a more neutral direction. 1 Samuel 3:1 (ESV) reads, “Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare ( ) in those days; there was no frequent vision.” The last clause of the verse influences the meaning of the adjective in the prior clause, moving it from “precious, rare” all the way to “rare, infrequent.” In addition, Ecclesiastes 10:1 (ESV) reads, “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” A more literal rendering of the last clause would be “weighty ( ) from [ of comparison] wisdom and honor is a little folly.” Citing this verse, BDB glosses the adjective with “influential”; the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew suggests, “weighty.” Here the meaning has journeyed from “precious, valuable” to “significant, weighty, influential.”3 Lexically these examples in the OT show how the adjective’s meaning can be changed by the context. This is the first point in the argument.

Second, it is precisely the context provided by Psalm 116 as a whole that makes the normal translation of verse 15 (i.e., “precious”) misleading at best. It’s simple enough to state the force of the context. Psalm 116, like many psalms, expresses the psalmist’s gratitude to God for preventing his death. The psalmist didn’t die, and he is thankful for it! Even a quick reading makes this clear. The psalm says (ESV), “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD; ‘O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!’” (vv. 3–4). Further, “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living” (vv. 8–9).4 Immediately after verse 15, the psalmist declares (v. 16), “O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds.” How did God regard the death of the psalmist? It was something that needed to be prevented, and prevent it God did. In such a context, “precious” in the normal positive sense cannot be the meaning of 5

As I mentioned, the tension between context and the common translation in verse 15 is widely acknowledged among those who study Psalm 116. I consulted ten commentaries from a range of theological commitments as well as two scholarly articles. One of the articles and seven of the commentaries argue that the standard translation “precious” must be adjusted. The remaining sources acknowledge the difficulty but respond by (in effect) altering the meaning of the noun “death”! Two authors in this latter cluster of four assert that the verse means that the death and the life of God’s saints are precious in his sight.6 (Of course, the verse does not say that.)

A third writer advocated a more radical change, suggesting that for rhetorical effect

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the word “death” in verse 15 has been deliberately interchanged with the word that really fits here, namely, “life.”7 The final writer (in this group of four) argues that the noun “death” ( ) is not in fact a form of the noun “death” at all; I am not aware that this view has convinced many.8

From the eight scholars who suggest a different rendering than “precious” for , Franz Delitzsch is typical: “The death of His saints is no trifling matter with God; he does not lightly suffer it to come about; He does not suffer His own to be torn away from Him by death.”9 More directly Derek Kidner says, “Precious could mean either ‘highly valued’ or, in a less happy sense, ‘costly’ . . . the singer’s rescue from death (3, 8) makes the second meaning more likely”10 I surveyed English translations using the popular website Although almost all English translations that I consulted offered the standard translation of “precious,” three (Common English Bible, Complete Jewish Bible, and Jerusalem Bible) offered “costly.” Moreover, quite a few “amplified” versions and/or paraphrases allowed the context to adjust their renderings. The Good News Bible offers, “How painful it is to the Lord when one of his people dies!” The Amplified Bible’s additions are, in my opinion, very helpful: “Precious (and of great consequence) in the sight of the Lord is the death of his godly ones (so He watches over them).”11

Third and finally, Psalm 116 exhibits a perspective on death that is widespread through the entire psalter. Here I will simply assert this as an obvious fact and trust my readers to examine the texts if they feel the need to do so. In psalm after psalm the authors speak in gratitude to God because death threatened to take them away from the land of the living, but God intervened and did not let the psalmists die. It is a little obvious; after all, the authors lived to write their psalms! The psalmists believed that embodied, created life lived in faith and service to the God of Israel is a great good; death threatens that good. The psalmists do not want to die, they don’t die (at least, not then), and they thank God for preventing their deaths. God cares about whether or not his servants die. Throughout the psalter, God saves his servants from Sheol. Their death is no small matter to him. It is weighty. It is costly—just as Psalm 116:15 says.

In brief fashion I’ve tried to show that (1) the lexical possibilities available to , (2) the context of Psalm 116 itself, and (3) the entire psalter’s prominent theme of giving thanks for deliverance from death combine to produce a translation of Psalm 116:15 along the lines of “Costly/weighty in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” I encourage my readers to their own further study of Psalm 116:15. In light of this brief presentation, the question of application immediately comes to the fore. Four sorts of applications (at least) are possible.

The first is christological. In many and various ways, the ministry of the Lord Jesus fulfills the psalms (cf. Lk 24:44). In my view, for instance, Psalm 110 is a prediction, applying only to the ascended and victorious Jesus and first claimed by

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him during Holy Week long ago.12 On the other hand, Psalm 22 applies to Christ’s work typologically; David’s suffering and deliverance is the type, and Christ’s is the infinitely greater antitype. In a way that is similar to Psalm 22, Psalm 116 can also be interpreted in light of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Christ’s death was costly to God his Father. God did not treat it lightly. And in answer to Jesus’s plea, the Father rescued him from death (Heb 5:7–10). He did so by breaking death’s hold, by raising his Servant-Son from the dead to walk in the land of the living . . . forever. Death no longer has mastery over Jesus (Rom 6:9). He is the Lord.

A second way for Christians to appropriate Psalm 116:15 is to pray as the psalmist did when our own lives are in danger. It is entirely appropriate to beseech the Lord to save us from death, to preserve our lives and lengthen our days. To walk before the Lord in the land of the living means greater, continued opportunity to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of Jerusalem—that is in the midst of his holy Christian church.

Third, Psalm 116:15 validates the grief of Christians (and others) when their believing loved ones die. Death is not trivial to us because it is not trivial to the God who made all things; it matters to him. It is possible that John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”) describes how costly to the Lord Jesus himself was the death of Lazarus, even though the Lord knew he would rescue him from death that very hour. God’s good intention that we walk before him in the land of the living is attacked and temporarily negated when a believer dies. It is entirely Christian to grieve as needed when such a costly thing as death comes on the scene.

But not without hope. Fourth and finally, death only temporarily negates our good, creational existence in this fallen world. For the day will come when that cost no longer needs to be paid. Resurrection awaits the psalmist who sang Psalm 116. Resurrection signaled the victory of Jesus over sin, Satan, and death itself; he was delivered over because of our transgressions and raised because of our justification! Every believer can look death in the eye and say with confident hope, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” The day is coming when we will all know with unshakeable certainty just how true Psalm 116:15 has been ever since it was penned.

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1 There are some small grammatical questions that arise in verse 15. One is the unusual form of the word “death,” which appears to have a he-directive appended. Also, the preposition precedes the noun “his saints.” If one were to woodenly render the verse, it would run “Precious in the eyes of Yahweh toward death for his saints.” The he seems not to be regarded as semantically significant by scholars, and the lamed that governs “his saints” likely expresses possession; on the many possible uses of see B. K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 11.2.10.

2 Computer software generates two uses of the adjective (Prv 17:27 and Zec 14:6) that are actually examples of the adjective being confused with or , “cool, cold.”

3 J. A. Emerton, “How Does the Lord Regard the Death of His Saints in Psalm cxvi. 15?,” in The Journal of Theological Studies vol. 34, no. 1 (1983): 153, reports that it is “generally believed” (especially owing to the meaning of Aramaic and Arabic cognate verbs) that the Hebrew verb that is related to the adjective in question originally signified “to be heavy.”

4 In both verses 4 and 8, the ESV translates with “my soul.” As so often in the OT, this refers to the person, the self, as verse 3 shows, “The snares of death encompassed me.” The psalm does not refer to the “soul” as opposed to the “body.”

5 An indirect support comes from several uses of the Hebrew verb , as noted in Emerton, “How Does the Lord Regard,” 150. Psalm 72:14 (ESV) reads, “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is (form of ) their blood in his sight.” In both 1 Samuel 26:21 and 2 Kings 1:13–14, one or more persons (e.g., a ) are regarded as precious (form of ) in another person’s sight. What this means, of course, is that blood was not spilled, and life was not taken.

6 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), 808; John F. Brug, Psalms, Volume 2 (Waukesha, WI: Northwestern, 1989), 183.

7 John Goldingay, Psalms Vol 3: Psalms 90-10 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 346, says “Literally understood, v. 15 is an odd statement. The meaning of might have become stretched along lines parallel to those that apply to , so that it means heavy, grievous, or burdensome. But there is no other indication of this stretching, and it is easier to infer that v. 15 involves a hypallage, an interchange in the application of words. Prosaically put, the life of the people committed to him is valuable to Yhwh; or the people in danger of death who are committed to him are valuable to him” (emphasis added). This strikes me as unlikely. If the psalmist had wanted to say, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the life of his saints,” he could have easily said that.

8 Michael L. Barré, “Psalm 116: Its Structure and Its Enigmas,” Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 109, no. 1 (1990): 61–79.

9 Franz Delitzsch, Psalms: Third Book of the Psalter (repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 219.

10 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), 410.

11 In passing, let me mention one intriguing feature of the interpretation of Psalm 116:15. Quentin F. Wesselschmidt, Psalms 51–150 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 293–296, cites selected Fathers on verse 15’s meaning, including Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo the Great. They seem to have retained the positive meaning of “precious,” while applying the verse to deaths of Christian martyrs. In a context of martyrdom, the normal translation would make tolerable sense; God is pleased when his martyrs die bearing fearless witness to him. Martyrdom, however, is not even on the radar in Psalm 116; the psalm does not rejoice in death, but in death being averted.

12 Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 21:1–28:20 (St. Louis: Concordia, Publishing House, 2018), 1158–1166.

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An Extraordinary Way to Honor a Pastor

There are many ways to honor a pastor’s years of service. Congregations may celebrate a pastor’s retirement or milestone with a service, social event, or gift. Rarely does an individual, who benefited from a pastor’s faithful delivery of the gospel, find a way to share the preacher’s story of service or some sermons. So, it is extraordinary that someone, even a family member, honors a pastor by creating a website that documents his ministry and shares his gospel messages. However, that is what my brother, Roger L. Brauer, has done for our father, Harold H. Brauer (1910–1998), a 1935 graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

Perhaps what led my brother to this project was a deep interest in his family tree and a hope that sharing messages about Jesus might help even one person. Though he had high school level pre-ministerial training, in college Roger studied both mechanical engineering and psychology. Eventually, he earned a Masters and a PhD in engineering from the University of Illinois. During his career Roger continually researched his family genealogy through correspondence, interviews, newspaper archives, ship’s logs, web resources, and personal travel to sites in the United States and Europe. Over the years he collected several file drawers of data. After Harold’s death, Roger ended up receiving all of Harold’s sermon manuscripts (about 2,000) from ministry to congregations in Colorado (Julesburg, then Amherst), Utah (Ogden), and Wisconsin (Symco, then Green Bay). Along the way, he helped start three Christian schools and several parishes. In the final years of his ministry, he was the North Wisconsin District’s stewardship and mission counselor.

Since he had the biographical data and all of Harold’s sermons, Roger got the idea of creating a website to honor his father. (Keep in mind that Roger has little fear of big projects, as evidenced by building his own house while he was fully employed or writing a comprehensive, 672-page book, Safety and Health for Engineers, now in its fourth edition.) So, he organized his material and arranged for web developers and services, making sure that the site’s contents would be downloadable.

The website has two main parts. The first surveys Harold’s personal story: that his parents chose him to meet their pledge that one of their six sons would become a pastor, that by age eighteen he had completed grade school, high school,

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and the two years of college which preceded seminary studies, that he had athletic accomplishments in tennis and basketball; that during World War II he held services for German prisoners of war and established a congregation for workers at a nearby navy supply center when they did not have enough rationed gasoline to drive to his Ogden congregation. The site includes considerable information: Harold’s autobiography, selected documents, photos, and news clippings related to his education, athletic participation, pastoral assignments, residences, and family. The second part has the sermons. Getting them onto a website was no simple task since some were handwritten and the typewritten ones were on single-spaced, double-sided half-sheets. No scanning process could make them easy to read. Through experimentation, Roger learned that the fastest method to get a legible text was to dictate each sermon, let voice-recognition software generate a text file, and then edit that version for posting to the web. The sermons are grouped into six categories: church year, Old Testament, New Testament, special occasions, radio sermons, and German sermons. For each category or subcategory, a user can view a list with the sermon title, biblical text, and date and place of delivery. Clicking on the sermon’s number in the list takes the user to a page with the sermon, its biblical text, title, and hymns used when it was delivered. The eleven radio sermons from1947–1948 were on 33 1/3, 16-inch platters that the station had recorded in advance so that they could be aired when Harold was not available for a live broadcast. Roger had these sound recordings converted to digital sound files so a web user could choose to read the text or hear the sermon as it would have sounded more than sixty years ago. The German sermon texts are posted, but not translated. Since some of the sermons are still being processed, the web collection is not yet complete, but it is up and running.

This is an extraordinary project, created by a pastor’s son, to honor a sainted servant of the Lord. To access this tribute to Rev. Harold H. Brauer go to

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Translation and Syncretism

Douglas L. Rutt is provost and professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He joined Concordia Seminary in July 2018 after serving as the executive director of International Ministries for Lutheran Hour Ministries. His areas of academic interest include homiletics, theological education and formation, Christian leadership, and missiology.

One of the most significant missiological issues that faces the church as it continues to expand throughout the world is the danger of syncretism. Renowned missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen stated that the “largest vacuum” in mission theology and research today is the topic of syncretism. Further, he has said, “I am continually awed by the creativity of humans to mix and match various religious beliefs and rituals to suit their changing worldview inclinations.”1

The Perennial Challenge of Syncretism

Syncretism,2 simply put, is the mixing or comingling of beliefs and practices from non-Christian religions, values, worldviews, and ultimate commitments of a people, with the message communicated to us in God’s word, the truth of Holy Scripture.

Concerning the root cause, Van Rheenen put it this way:

Author’s note

This is an adaptation of a keynote address given at the Bible Translation Conference cosponsored by the Department of Mission Theology of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church

Mekane Yesus and Lutheran Bible Translators, June 17, 2022, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Syncretism occurs when Christian leaders accommodate, either consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture . . . so that Christianity loses its distinctiveness and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture.3

While syncretism is usually blamed on an accommodation of the message to the prevailing culture, I contend that it is not only the accommodationist approach to gospel communication that can lead to syncretism, but that also syncretism can appear due to a neglect or denial of the prevailing culture, where context, culture, and worldview are overlooked, as we will see later in this article.4

The continuous struggle of anyone attempting to bring the gospel to people who have not already been exposed to and shaped by the biblical message is to present the truth of God’s revelation in a way that confronts the culture and elements of the culture that are not consistent with the truth of God’s word, yet does not destroy the culture entirely. The challenge throughout the history of Christian expansion has been to discover how to communicate God’s word in a way that resonates with a certain people or cultural context without the message losing its core essence. When cultural behaviors and beliefs that end up altering or distorting God’s message are incorporated into “Christian” practice and teaching, syncretism takes place.

Some will argue that all expressions of Christianity in some ways are syncretistic or are threatened by syncretism. Syncretism is not always obvious, especially to those within a culture or tradition shaped by Christianity. That might be called “subtle” (but no less potentially insidious) syncretism. An example from US culture might occur when an American hears that there is “freedom” in the gospel. As Paul states: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).

Americans have a unique idea of freedom, thinking that it implies that individuals are free to do whatever they want. That concept of freedom easily leads to moral relativism and even carnality. Rather, the freedom that Paul is speaking of is freedom from the burden of a guilty conscience before God—freedom from God’s eternal wrath. It has nothing to do with “you are free to behave as you wish.”

A more palpable form of syncretism is something I witnessed as a missionary in Guatemala. This form of syncretism has sometimes been called “Christopaganism”

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The freedom that Paul is speaking of is freedom from the burden of a guilty conscience before God.

because of the mixture of ancient pagan beliefs and practices with elements of Christianity. The sixteenth-century conquest of the Americas by the Spaniards can be seen from various perspectives; however, besides the gold and silver, as well as agricultural products such as sugar, tobacco, and cacao, which were extracted from the continent, there were sincere, ongoing attempts to evangelize the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas.

Within the Catholic church building in the market town of Chichicastenango, one can witness religious practitioners, curanderos, performing shamanistic rites and rituals, appealing to ancestors and other deities or spiritual powers from the ancient Mayan pantheon of precolonial times, in the very center aisle of the church building. Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic catechist will be preaching from the front, urging people to attend Holy Communion and have their children baptized. The contrast is startling. Another example is a deity and folk saint by the name of Maximón (sometimes referred to as “San Simón”). In the mind of the Guatemalan local people, he seems to be a mixture of Mayan deities and biblical figures, such as Judas Iscariot and Saint Peter, among others.5

Contextualization and its Relationship to Syncretism

How and why did this comingling of pagan and Christian practices happen? The missionaries who accompanied the conquistadores approached the challenge of communicating the Christian message to the indigenous communities, who previously had no known exposure to the gospel, in different ways. Dr. Rudolf Blank, in his book Teología y Misión en América Latina, speaks of two distinct methodologies. One he calls “tabula rasa,” literally “blank slate.” This approach displayed little respect for the cultures, religious beliefs, and ideas of the local inhabitants. According to the tabula rasa model, the only way to implant Christianity in the “New World” was to totally obliterate every vestige of the local religion and start anew in the hearts of the people.6

The conquerors were optimistic about the effectiveness of this methodology, even though today most would agree that it led to syncretism such as described above regarding the curanderos of Chichicastenango and Maximón in the Lake Atitlán region. It is not that easy to do away with people’s deeply seated assumptions and beliefs, even though outward artifacts and vocabulary have changed. It is widely understood today that ignoring the previous beliefs of the people and coercing them to adapt to new practices and dogma, only meant that the old practices were pushed underground; they were still at hand, none-the-less. It is often said that while the indigenous people of Central America may pronounce the name of a saint, in their heart they are invoking an ancient deity.

Blank describes the other approach to evangelization in the New World as “providential preparation.” According to this method, every culture has at least some residue of the truth. The work of the missionary is to look for similarities in

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the religious beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples that can be used as “points of contact” with the teachings of Christianity. The Augustinian monk Bartholomew Díaz used this tactic. As Blank says, “Instead of prohibiting the rites and dances of the natives, he permitted these ceremonies to be offered to the Eucharist instead of the sun. Native disguises and music were utilized in the celebration of Catholic festivals such as the Festival of Corpus Christi.”7

The danger of syncretism is present also in this approach if carried out uncritically. The line between making use of harmless cultural practices to help communicate the gospel and accommodating the message of the gospel to the point of its distortion can easily be crossed.

Approaches to Contextualization

These examples demonstrate different approaches to what missiologists sometimes call contextualization. Contextualization is a complicated idea with a controversial history, both in how it is defined and how it has been implemented. It is used in diverse ways, sometimes to mean something that goes far beyond what a person committed to the truth of Scripture could tolerate. What David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen stated in the later part of the past century is true today: “There is not yet a commonly accepted definition of the word contextualization, but only a series of proposals, all of them vying for acceptance.”8

Dr. Paul Hiebert wrote of contextualization that will best avoid syncretism. He spoke of the period of “noncontexualization,” which would be akin to the “tabula rasa” approach described above by Blank. It is the idea that there is little within a non-Christian culture that can be built upon in communicating the gospel.

On the other end of the spectrum, he spoke about “naive contextualization.” This is where elements of the culture are absorbed uncritically or made use of in the transmission of the Christian message. Both approaches lead to syncretism, the former because it bypasses context and thus, essentially, bypasses the hearts of the hearers. The latter also leads to syncretism by causing confusion when the challenges of the gospel to a culture infected by sin (as are all cultures) are not fully communicated with impact.

Hiebert advocates for what he calls “critical contextualization.” Critical contextualization is when, in the efforts to bring a new word (God’s word) to people,

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The line between making use of harmless cultural practices to help communicate the gospel and accommodating the message of the gospel to the point of its distortion can easily be crossed.

one takes culture and context seriously, recognizes that the process of accurate communication of the message must include listening for and searching for ways in which that message can be related to people within a certain context, and yet avoids the pitfalls of adapting to the culture in a way that distorts the message. In that way it is called “critical” contextualization because one does this work carefully, critically scrutinizing the way in which cultural elements can be made use of without compromising the message.9

Dr. Robert Kolb, in his book Speaking the Gospel Today, used two terms for what we mean by contextualization in its appropriate sense. Kolb speaks of actualization and translation, noting that it is crucial to avoid accommodation. 10

In summary, by “contextualization” we mean taking seriously the culture and context surrounding and impacting people’s lives and finding a way to communicate God’s truth into the hearts of people of that contextual situation. This would mean that two things are necessary: Exegesis of the word, and exegesis of the world. We must do all we can to try to understand God’s word, within its original context. That involves a careful reading of and reflection on the text of Scripture, preferably in the original language, to determine the meaning in its original setting. It would include an understanding of the historical and social situation of the text. It also includes an examination of the grammatical structures employed by the inspired writers. Sound exegesis, is, then, “the systematic process by which a person arrives at the reasonable and coherent sense of the meaning and message of a biblical passage.”11

Yet, as Kolb stated: “Genuine biblical teaching, doctrine, is not correct if it is merely flawless in content. It must also be accurately presented, aimed precisely at the situation of the contemporary hearer. It must be as effectively spoken by us today as it was effectively delivered to the prophets and apostles two millennia and more ago.”12

When the message of the gospel is accommodated to the culture, so that it loses its prophetic voice, its “saltiness,” even to lose its “offensive” character, then the message is distorted, the power of the gospel is undermined, and the result is syncretism. To put it another way, African theologian Tite Tiénou emphasizes the critical importance of contextualization to the life of the church:

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Contextualization is the inner dynamic of the theologizing process. It is not a matter of borrowing already existing forms or an established theology in order to fit them into various contexts. Rather contextualization is capturing the meaning of the gospel in such a way that a given society communicates with God. Therein theology is born.13

Again, people approach contextualization from a variety of postures, often depending on the theological position to which they ascribe. While almost everyone today understands that in some ways the message must be actualized or translated into the context of the hearers, there is a continuum in terms of which holds more weight in the process, biblical revelation or contextual, human elements. Hesselgrave and Rommen have provided a helpful diagram to illustrate how one’s theological commitments will impact how one approaches contextualization. While the entire endeavor is much more nuanced, in general terms one can see how things tend to shake out.14

By means of this chart, one can see how theological positions value the message of Scripture in their approach to contextualization. One could say that those who have a lower view of Scripture will emphasize the human elements in their interpretation of the message and will likely be ready to adapt the message more freely to the prevailing context. On the other hand, those who have a higher view of Scripture will tend to exercise more care in order to avoid conditioning or even distorting the message based on contextual/cultural norms.

Even so, true, appropriate contextualization, actualization, or translation requires serious attention to both the world and the word. It is not something that can be executed in a formulaic fashion. It involves human communication with complicated human beings with their biases, emotions, spiritual conditions, complex contextual experiences, and so on, and thus it is something one works toward and is ready to adjust along the way. Is contextualization a science, an art, or a skill? The answer is, “yes.” It really is all three.

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Translation, “Heart Language,” and Contextualization

We have laid a foundation of “translation and syncretism” by looking first at contextualization because translation, especially translation of Scripture, is an essential component of any true contextualization or actualization of the message for a people group, and Bible translation work requires the same diligence in understanding human language as well as the message of God’s revelation. Every time we observe Pentecost, we remember a decisive event in the life and history of the Christian church, when it was made obvious that God’s message can be expressed in any language:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:5–12)

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

It is not only that these people from various language groups heard the “wonders of God” in their own language, but that the hearing in their own tongue was key to the message “cut(ting) to the heart.” While the Spirit may not work for us today as it did on Pentecost 2000 years ago, the ability to communicate the message of the wonders of God so that it “cuts to the heart,” in other words, reaches the heart of the hearer, mandates the translation of God’s word to the “heart languages” of people.

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The ability to communicate the message of the wonders of God mandates the translation of God’s word to the “heart languages” of people.

James Nestingen quipped, “Your heart language is the language your mama spoke to you when she was changing your diapers.”15 The impact of hearing something in your heart language is significantly greater than when hearing it in another language, even if you know that other language well. I visited a Lutheran congregation in Jamaica years ago, where everyone spoke English, yet the heart language of the people is Patois (Patwa). The service was conducted in English by an American missionary. Afterwards I asked a member of the congregation if she thought it would be good to use Patois in the service. Her face lit up and she said, “When the pastor uses a Patois expression, or when we sing a Patois hymn, it is . . .” She trailed off. All she could do was point to her heart. Hearing the wonders of God in her heart language was special, and she seemed to indicate that to hear God’s word in Patois has special significance beyond the English, which she understood perfectly.

Christianity has grown, and continues to grow, in Africa. In the year 1900, less than 10 percent of the people of Africa were Christian, by 2000, that number had grown to over 50 percent.16 Historian Mark Noll lists the growth of vernacular Bible translations as one of the most significant factors in the growth of Christianity worldwide, not only because people hear the message, but because of the impact of hearing it in their own language. He states

This wave of translations has also been liberating, especially because it has given to peoples all over the world a sense of being themselves the hearers of God’s direct speech. Thus, in a world where fewer and fewer can escape modern electronic technology and the reach of “imperial” languages associated with that technology—Chinese, French, Spanish and especially English—the chance to hear the Christian message in one’s own mother tongue takes on even greater significance.17

And yet, while the translation of the Scripture into the vernacular heart languages of the world is key to clear understanding of the message, there are differing approaches to translation, just as there are differing approaches to contextualization in general. While a given translation can lead to a clearer and true understanding of the message of Scripture, it can also lead to a misinterpretation or distortion of the original message if the translation work is not done carefully and critically.

Approaches to Translation and Syncretism

One approach to the process of putting the original text of Scripture into another language has been described as “literal,” “word-for word,” or “formal correspondence.” This is where the translator tries to follow the text of the original Greek and Hebrew as closely as possible, word-for-word, and in a similar word order. In English, the NASB and the ESV are modern examples. This approach to translation is founded on a high

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view of Scripture, that every single word of the Bible is fully inspired by God, and thus a translation should follow the original as closely as possible. This is a noble idea, yet different languages have different structural, syntactical, and grammatical features that sometimes make it difficult if not impossible to follow the original so closely.

This is true of the difference between Greek and English. English simply does not have all the linguistic apparatuses to handle, for example, the very long, complicated sentences of Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians. You might argue that Ephesians 1:3–14 is really one, extremely long sentence in the original Greek.18 Greek is a language with a complex structure that has various tools to keep what one is talking about straight, such as three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), number, case, the genitive absolute, and so on. Even a formal correspondence translation in English doesn’t attempt to follow the Greek completely. In English, the reader would simply get lost, and thus even the more literal ESV uses five sentences to translate that one Greek sentence, Ephesians 1:3–14.

A slavish word-for-word translation could lead to a lack of understanding, and thus open the door to syncretism. For example, no English translation actually describes the Lord as “long nostriled,” but that is exactly what the Hebrew phrase, means (Ex 34:6). The sense of “long nostriled” is not clear in English, and so English translations are likely to translate “long nostriled,” into something like “slow to anger,” or “long-suffering.”19

Recognizing shortfalls of literal translations, another approach to Bible translation was developed and articulated by people such as Eugine Nida, Jacob Lowen, and William Reyburn. This approach has been called “dynamic equivalent,” “meaning-based,” or “thought-for thought.” This is an over-simplification, to be sure, but this approach to translation tries to understand the impact on the original hearer of a particular phrase of Scripture and attempts to translate in such a way so as to produce the same impact upon the modern-day hearer. Proponents of this approach “say that the message, not the particular words, is what matters, and that their style of translation helps people understand that message more clearly.”20 In comparison with the more literal translation of the ESV, mentioned above, of Ephesians 1:3–14, the “dynamic equivalence” New Living Translation uses fifteen sentences to translate that one long Greek sentence.

The dynamic equivalent approach to Bible translation has been the predominant methodology used by Bible translators for the past fifty years. Its value and usefulness are plain to see. Yet, as we have said for contextualization, it must be done critically. For this approach to work well and to faithfully convey true biblical meaning, a profound level of analysis of the original language and a deep understanding of modern vernacular language in its contemporary setting is essential. There is nonetheless a risk of syncretism with this approach if the translator does not fully understand how the intended audience might interpret the translation of God’s word.

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While these two philosophies of Bible translation have been seen as competing approaches, in truth, both methodologies require, at times, literal translation, and, at times, more of a paraphrase of the biblical text. Moreover, both an overly literal and an over-zealous dynamic equivalence approach can lead to misunderstanding of God’s original message, and thus lead to syncretism because of incomplete transfer of meaning from one language to another.

Functionalism and the Challenge of Syncretism

A third philosophy postulated in recent years, which is gaining traction even among Evangelicals, is called “functionalism.” Functionalism is an attempt to avoid the literal versus dynamic equivalent dichotomy, recognizing that sound translation will involve both approaches. Functionalism advocates that the defining factor in an approach to Bible translation is the function that the translation supposes to achieve. In other words, the way in which something is translated depends primarily on the function or the purpose of the translation. Purpose, called the skopos, is the controlling factor.

This approach advocates that translators should sit down with the local Christians and church leaders and work out the kind of translation that the people want and what needs and expectations they have for the translation. While it is true that local Christians and stakeholders should be a part of any translation project, some would say that this approach, if taken too far, can lead to syncretistic translations that put the needs and expectations of the community above the message that God would bring to those people. As in any approach to contextualization, the proper balance between the weight placed on the prophetic and challenging word of God and the needs and expectations of the people should be sought. Fidelity to God’s word should not be sacrificed by accommodating the message to meet the perceived needs of a community. If the biblical writers were to discuss it with them, the Jews of Pentecost certainly would not have asked for a word from God that was going to condemn them for putting his Son to death.

There are important positive aspects to the functionalist approach, especially the emphasis on community involvement. The importance of community “buy in” to a translation project is an absolute necessity. However, with all transcultural communication, it is not without pitfalls.

Seth Vitrano-Wilson raises legitimate concerns about the functionalist approach, especially as it has been employed to influence the translation of key dogmatic truths within the context of “insider movements.” This has led to serious controversies and division within the linguistic, Bible translation community. So much so, that major organizations have come to loggerheads and even division over the issue.

At issue is that certain translators recognize that within Muslim communities, it is offensive to describe Jesus as the “Son of God,” and to describe the relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity in terms of Father/Son.” Islam for

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sure has a problem with this in that it implies a sexual relationship between God the Father and Mary, a serious obstacle. Thus, some translators working in predominantly Muslim contexts advocate for using other, non-familial, terminology to describe the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

It is beyond the scope (skopos?) of this article to discuss all the ins and outs of this controversy, and how diverse groups have attempted to address it.21 To my untrained eye, however, it seems problematic not to speak of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the terms expressed in Holy Scripture. Is it offensive? Yes, it is. It was offensive to the Jews of biblical times. Saint Peter describes Jesus as a “rock of offense” and the “stone which the builders rejected” (1 Pt 2:7–8). This is not to say that the Muslim community should not be approached carefully and thoughtfully so as not to create an obstacle from the very beginning on this matter; however, one must question whether taking the “needs and expectations” of the receptor group as the primary determining factor in a Bible translation could not lead more readily to a syncretistic understanding of the message. Vitrano-Wilson argues that once one accepts the tenets of functionalism, it becomes nearly impossible to argue against these translations. After all, if the “local church” (defined however Insider Movement proponents choose to define it, and excluding anyone they deem as too far “outside the context”) wants a certain translation choice—if it fulfills the skopos that have for the translation—what can anyone else say about it? Ideas about “meaning” or “faithfulness” become completely relativized to what serves the purposes of the Insider Movement and the outsiders who promote it.22

The other obvious factor that will impact Bible translation efforts, which can lead to syncretism, or at least misunderstanding and doctrinal error, is the question of bias. Everyone has biases, that, even unwittingly, can and will condition the message as it is being translated according to their theological and other presuppositions. This is widely recognized, and one can see the different biases being injected into translations, especially to languages like English, which is said to have more than 450 translations of the Bible, each with its intended purpose.

An example of bias from a Spanish-language Bible can be found in its rendering of Matthew 28:19–20. A literal-grammatical translation of this passage from the Greek would come out something like this: “As you go (or, “wherever you go”), disciple all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.”23

The relatively new and widely used Reina Valera Contemporánea, back translated into English, would read something like this: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy

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Spirit. Teach them to fulfill all things that I have mandated.” The difference is subtle, to be sure, but the newer version of this Spanish translation seems to emphasize a “believers’ baptism.” In other words, someone becomes a disciple first and then, as a believer, is baptized.

The Spirit of God

In all that we have discussed, it becomes readily apparent that faithfully moving the message from one context or language to another is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. From a human perspective, the whole enterprise seems overwhelmingly complex with so many chances of missing the mark. While I am convinced of the crucial need to bring the truth of God’s word to people in their heart languages, as did the Spirit on Pentecost, I recognize that the entire endeavor requires care, intense study, preparation, and attentiveness to human contexts and biblical absolute truth.

The great African theologian, Lamin Sanneh, devoted his life to describing how the Christian message is translatable into any language. Indeed, for Sanneh, its translatable nature is essential for there to be a genuine African assimilation and expression of the truth of God’s wonders. He didn’t underestimate the risks involved, but he also knew that God’s Spirit would and has worked mightily through such translations, as imperfect as they have been.24

Translating the message in a way that will prevent syncretism or mistaken understandings is a serious endeavor, and the reality is that humans will never be able to do it perfectly. This is not to say one involved in this work should not prepare him or herself in the various fields related to the task, such as biblical interpretation, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, communication theory, and so on; however, it is important to remember that behind it all is the power of the Spirit of God, which works in the hearts of those who hear the word to produce true repentance and faith in Christ Jesus. Sometimes the translation may not be particularly good, just like sometimes a sermon may not be particularly good, yet the Spirit can and does work through both to melt hearts and turn them to God. Jesus himself, in is “farewell discourses” (Jn 14–17) makes it abundantly clear that a “Helper” would come, who would help the disciples understand and assimilate things that even in the presence of their Lord Jesus they were not capable of understanding yet. We can be confident that in our efforts to produce translations that will clearly communicate the wonders of God, that same Spirit works and does his work in spite of the shortcomings of our efforts. The true hedge against syncretism, in the end, is the work of the Spirit.

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Faithfully moving the message from one context or language to another is fraught with challenges and pitfalls.


1 Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself,” in Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, ed. Gailyn Van Rheenen (Pasadena, CA: Evangelical Missiological Society, 2006), 1.

2 The word syncretism is said to be derived from two Greek words, syn, which means “together with,” and kretizein, “to lie like a Cretan” (cf. Ti 1:12). This theory suggests that Cretans were constantly at battle with one another, but when faced with a common enemy, they would lock elbows and join forces to face the outside enemy together.

3 Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Contextualization and Syncretism,” Missiological Reflection #38 (blog), Missio Dei Foundation, January 1, 2011,

4 For this discussion, I rely heavily on my paper, “Contextualization in Evangelistic Conversation,” Missio Apostolica, 14, no. 1 (May 2006): 58–65. Also available at

5 There are various investigations and reflections on the interesting interplay between the American indigenous, pre-conquest religious practices and beliefs and Christianity. Perhaps one of the most significant missiological publications on the topic is Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity? Albeit produced some years ago, as the result of the William S. Carter Symposium on Church Growth at Milligan College in 1975, ed. Tetsunao Yamamori and Charles R Taber (South Pasadena Calif: William Carey Library).

6 Rudolf Blank, Teología y Misión en América Latina (Saint Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 30–35.

7 Blank, Teología, 35–37.

8 David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 85.

9 Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 11, no. 3 (July): 104–112.

10 Robert Kolb, Speaking the Gospel Today: A Theology for Evangelism (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 17.

11 Richard Ascough, “Guide to Biblical Exegesis,” Queen’s University (blog). Accessed July 22, 2005. No longer available online.

12 Kolb, Speaking the Gospel, 18.

13 Tite Tiénou, “Contextualization of Theology for Theological Education,” in Evangelical Theological Education Today: Agenda for Renewal, ed. Paul Bowers (Nairobi: Evangel Publishing House, 1982), 51.

14 Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization, 148.

15 Personal recollection, LCMS global theological conference in Peachtree, Georgia, November 2010.

16 In real numbers, it is estimated that in 1900 there were 9 million Christians in Africa. By 2000, that number grew to 500 million.

17 Mark Noll, The New Shape of Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 24–25.

18 The original Greek manuscripts did not contain punctuation and spaces between words and sentences. It was up to the reader to figure out when one thought ended and another began.

19 Seth Vitrano-Wilson, “Functionalism: Why the New Dominant Paradigm of Bible Translation Makes Syncretism Inevitable,” Journal of Biblical Missiology (May 17, 2021). https://biblicalmissiology. org/2021/05/17/functionalism-why-the-new-dominant-paradigm-of-bible-translation-makes-syncretisminevitable/.

20 Vitrano-Wilson, “Functionalism.”

21 A brief summary of the controversy can be found here:

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22 Vitrano-Wilson, “Functionalism.”

23 “Por tanto, vayan y hagan discípulos en todas las naciones, y bautícenlos en el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Enséñenles a cumplir todas las cosas que les he mandado,” Mateo 28:19–20, Reina Valera Contemporánea (United Bible Societies, 2011).

24 Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

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Luther’s Septembertestament Translation Principles and Lessons for Translators

Bible translation has been around ever since pre-Christian times when the biblical message began to be translated into Aramaic (the Targums) and Greek (the Septuagint). In Christianity, translation has become so to speak, second nature, and it has been so from the beginning. Jesus spoke Aramaic, but his words have been preserved in Greek. To us he speaks English, Spanish, Cheyenne, French, Portuguese, and some 2,500 other languages worldwide. For us, the Bible is a translated text. We naturally refer to our English versions as “the Bible.” Pastors don’t usually say, “Open your translation of the Bible.” It is the Bible!

In the Gospels, all words spoken by Jesus in Aramaic were immediately translated into Greek, and this by the writer of the Gospel himself. As St. Jerome pointed out in his letter to Pammachius, “we read in Mark of the Lord saying Talitha cumi and it is immediately added ‘which is interpreted, Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ The evangelist may be charged with falsehood for having added the words ‘I say to you’ for the Aramaic is only ‘Little girl, arise.’ To emphasize this, and to give the impression of one calling and commanding, the evangelist has added ‘I say to you.’” Mark was not a literalist. He preferred a rendering that is more emphatic or rhetorical, and understandable!

Bible translation has a long history, and one of the most interesting chapters is the one on Luther. What Luther did is more meaningful if compared to what St.

Vilson Scholz is a visiting professor of New Testament exegesis at Concordia Seminary. He comes to us from Seminario Concordia, Brazil. He has many years of experience as a translation consultant with the Brazil Bible Society. Currently he is working on a commentary on 2 Corinthians.

Jerome did. Jerome is the translator of the Vulgate (the date is AD 404), and the Vulgate is “the” Latin translation. Being older than Luther’s translation—and more widespread and influential in Western Christianity— the Vulgate is an important point of reference. Jerome, the translator, had to defend his method of translating, just as Luther had to do eleven centuries later. Jerome does it in “Letter 57: To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating,” written in AD 395. The method that came under fire is what we know as “dynamic translation” or “semantic translation.” At one point Jerome writes, “I have not deemed it necessary to render word for word, but I have reproduced the general style and emphasis. I have not supposed myself bound to pay the words out one by one to the reader but only to give him an equivalent in value.” This is, simply put, dynamic equivalent translation. In his defense, Jerome appeals to the practice of classical and ecclesiastical authors, and to New Testament writers as well. And yet, Jerome’s Vulgate is anything but a dynamic equivalent translation. In fact, it is one of the most literal translations of the Bible that was ever made. Perhaps only interlinear translations are more literal. Jerome was able to keep the Greek word order. He did not translate the Greek article, because Latin does not have a definite article. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which in Greek is elthétoo he basileia sou (“come the kingdom yours”) is translated as veniat regnum tuum (“come kingdom yours”). Such a literal and, sure enough, meaningful rendering is possible in Latin. But why is the Vulgate so literal? This has to do with Jerome’s famous exception, as I call it. In Letter 57, he writes, “For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the Holy Scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for word.” The Holy Scriptures are an exception, says Jerome. It must be rendered word for word. And Jerome has had a lasting influence. Even on Germans, despite of Luther. For example, Luther translated the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer as Unser Vater (“our Father”). However, since before Luther’s time and to this very day German speaking people say, Vater unser. In this they are most certainly following the Latin Pater noster, which follows the Greek Páter hemon.

As for Luther, he translated the Bible literally most of the time. Unless there was a reason for doing something different—a reason that in most cases has not been made public—Luther would favor a literal translation or what we would call a

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Unless there was a reason for doing something different Luther would favor a literal translation or what we would call a “formally equivalent” translation.

“formally equivalent” translation. In many instances one is left wondering why he did not prefer a more dynamic translation. In his Open Letter on Translating, written in 1530, Luther says, “I have not just gone ahead anyway and disregarded altogether the exact wording of the original.”1

An interesting and important example is Philippians 2:5–8. This text is commonly read as if it were dealing with Christ’s incarnation, which is then seen as his humiliation. Modern versions tend to favor such a reading. The New King James Version is a case in point: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Luther scholars probably will confirm that the reformer never used the Philippians 2 text in reference to Christ’s incarnation. Luther’s translation of Philippians 2 has a dynamic touch here and there, but in general clings to the Greek and avoids unnecessary connections or paraphrasing. Here is what it says, in a somewhat literal translation into English, with parenthetical comments and the retention of the slashes that are part of his Septembertestament:

Each one be minded (Luther uses the singular because he is translating a reading found in the Majority Text published by Erasmus) / as Jesus Christ also was (Paul uses “Christ Jesus” a lot, but here and there Luther changes this to “Jesus Christ,” apparently because it is easier to pronounce) / who even though he was in divine form / he did not consider it a robbery / to be equal to God / but he emptied himself / and took on the form of a servant / became the same as another human being (this is clearly a Catholic or Lutheran reading, which assumes that this text has nothing to do with incarnation, only with humiliation) / and in appearance found as a human being / he humbled himself and became obedient unto death / yea unto death on the cross.

Luther, however, did not feel obliged to follow Jerome’s “notable exception,” by which the Latin translator argued for a literal rendering of the Scriptures. Luther would rather follow Jerome’s rule and go dynamic whenever necessary. In the Open Letter on Translating, Luther says that “the literal Latin is a great hindrance to speaking good German.”2 (The same holds true, of course, for “literal Greek.”) A few paragraphs earlier in his Open Letter, Luther is more specific: “We do not have to inquire of the literal Latin, how we are to speak German. . . . Rather we must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do

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our translating accordingly. That way they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.”3

Luther did not lose sight of the reader (and the hearers) of the text. He was aware of possible misunderstandings. He felt that Kirche (“church”) would be misunderstood in the sense of a consecrated building. People would not primarily think of an “assembled group of people.” Thus, in the New Testament, Luther never translates ekklesia (church) as “church,” using the word Gemein(d)e (“community”) instead—the Lutheran preference for “congregation” and, in areas with stronger German influence, “community” (Gemeinde).

Luther has been called a “creative translator,” an epithet apparently created by Heinz Bluhm. To be creative, Luther had to let go Jerome’s “notable exception.” The classic example is Matthew 12:34: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (RSV, ESV). This is as literal as it could be. But what is “the abundance of the heart”? Luther has Wes das Herz voll ist, des gehet der Mund über, that is, “That of which the heart is full, of this the mouth overflows.” The New Jerusalem Bible is very idiomatic: “For words flow out of what fills the heart.” As simple as that.

Philippians 1:21 is one more example of creative translation. The Revised Standard Version and the English Standard Version are strictly literal: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Luther’s translation creates the poetic proverb: Denn Christus is mein Leben, und sterben mein Gewinn, that is, “For Christ is my life, and dying, my gain.” Note how he handles the single “to me” in the Greek: he doubles it, saying “my life,” “my gain.” Splendid! And dynamic. And Leben (“life”) and sterben (“dying”) rhyme in German. In English, a better-sounding version, with the same number of syllables, is, “For Jesus is my life / and dying is my gain.”

Luther becomes intently dynamic when dealing with words and themes that were high on what we may call his “Reformation agenda.” It is here that one can notice that it is indeed Luther’s Bible. What he did would certainly not be allowed to an interconfessional translation team or to a team working with Lutheran Bible Translators. Nowadays, your translation cannot be “denominational.” But Luther did not care. He said, “This is my translation.” Take the example of “preaching.” In Luther’s translation, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Matthew 3:3 and elsewhere) is not just a voice of “someone crying”: it is “a voice of a preacher in the wilderness” (eine Stimme eines Predigers in der Wüste). (However, it must be added that the “preacher” was brought in later; in the Septembertestament Luther has just ein rufende stimme, that is, “a calling voice.”) At Pentecost (Acts 2:4), those who were filled with the Holy Spirit began to preach, and not just speak, in other languages. Romans 10:17 is classical: “So faith comes from what is preached (aus der prediget)” and not from what is heard, as most translations render the Greek word akoḗ

A famous example is Romans 3:28. It is well known that Luther did not simply say that a person is justified by faith; he said, “by faith alone.” But Luther did more.

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He changed the order of the phrases, so that the emphasis falls on “by faith alone,” which he puts at the end of the sentence. Instead of “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (New Revised Standard Version), Luther says, “So then we hold / that a person is justified / without doing the work of the law / by faith alone.”

Luther translated Romans 3:23 in a way that nobody else dared or dares to translate. Instead of “all have sinned (past perfect) and fall short (present tense) of the glory of God,” Luther translated the Greek aorist as a present tense, which is strange, but not necessarily wrong. As a result, the verse is speaking about a human condition, not a past event. Luther’s translation says, “they are all (together) sinners.”

And what about “righteousness of God?” This is a good example of the so-called holy ambiguity, involving the Greek genitive. Translators the follow Jerome’s “notable exception” will always leave it the way it is in the Greek: “righteousness of God.” And so, it can mean that “God is righteous or just,” that “God bestows righteousness,” that “righteousness comes from God,” and so on. Yet, Luther was no fence-sitter. He settled for “the righteousness that counts before God” (die gerechticheyt die fur got gilt). This is unabashedly “forensic justification.” And this is in no sense a literal translation.

Does this mean that Luther is the creator of the “dynamic translation” model? No. This would be anachronistic, to say the least. Luther anticipated some of the features of our dynamic equivalence type of translation, but he was not interested in founding a Lutherische Dolmetschschule, that is, a “Lutheran Translation Model” or “Luther’s Way of Translating.” He did not intend to set right the clumsy German translations that had been published before his time. (We are told that eighteen translations had been published before Luther came on the scene.) Luther’s translation is not programmatic, for it does not follow an overall program or theory. Luther defends himself, gives reasons for translating this or that passage in such and such a way, but he does not teach how to translate the way he did. At the end of the day, Luther’s translation is one of a kind. One may even say that Luther’s way of translating did not win the day (or was not followed by other translators) because it is too idiosyncratic or unique. Luther is not just a translator; he is a preacher. In the same way as the gospel came clear to him, his desire was to preach this message to all his readers as well. Nobody could (or would) translate like Luther. And after him (just think of the King James Version), to play it safe, the basic rule was “translate literally.” Jerome got the upper hand or prevailed.

Septembertestament ... 35
Luther becomes intently dynamic when dealing with words and themes that were high on what we may call his “Reformation agenda.”

Before giving a list of things Bible translators can learn from Luther, it may be important to answer the question, “Do English speakers have access to Luther’s translation of the Bible?” The answer is: “Not directly.” The “Luther Bible” in its entirety has never been translated into English or any other language, and, quite frankly, it is not a good idea to translate a translation of the Bible. In the case of this translation, however, scholars could be interested in having a larger portion in their own language. One place to go for additional examples of Luther’s translation is the Book of Concord, particularly the Formula of Concord. Here, many Bible passages are taken from Luther’s German translation. And whenever Luther’s translation is somehow unique, Luther’s text is translated into English. For example, in Article V of the Formula, which deals with law and gospel, the confessors (FC, SD, V, 22) cite the text of 2 Corinthians 3:9: the letter (or law) as “the ministry of condemnation” (in literal translation). In the Formula of Concord, it says that the law is a ministry (an office) that preaches condemnation. The confessors are quoting Luther’s translation (das Amt, das die Verdamnis prediget), and the English translator kept this rendering. Once again, Luther unpacked the Greek genitive (ministry of condemnation becomes ministry that preaches condemnation). His translation is anything but strictly literal. A more promising source (quantity wise) is Miles Coverdale who gave us the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English. Coverdale, “in addition to subscribing to the principles underlying the German Bible, has a very large number of definitely Lutheran formulations. He himself indicated as much when he said on the original title page of the first edition of 1535 that his version was ‘faithfully and truly translated out of Douche and Latyn.’”4

So, then, what can a translation agency or a translation team learn from Luther?

1. Luther assumes (and shows) that we are allowed to translate the Bible. It remains to be seen if he ever discussed the “translatability of the Bible.” One gets the impression that he simply took this for granted.

2. Luther began with the New Testament, as it is usually done to this day.

3. Luther never stopped revising his translation. This tells us that Bible translations can be and need to be revised, at least once every twenty-five years. The corollary to this is that we should prefer updated or revised editions to older ones.

4. Luther (as most Bible translators were) was very much concerned about fidelity. He does not mention fidelity to the original text, but it seems clear that he assumed—and defended—this kind of fidelity. However, for him fidelity to the original was not tantamount to literalness. Luther certainly is a pioneer in what is called “double fidelity,” that is, fidelity to the original text, but also fidelity to the reader (and listener). “They will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them!” Does it sound right? Is it easy to read aloud? No Bible translation should be printed before being tested with a real audience,

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being read out loud. In the case of Luther’s Septembertestament, sometimes the layout of the text comes to the aid of the reader (an example worth checking is the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3). The insertion of slashes (a feature which is not unique to Luther’s New Testament) helps the reader to process shorter meaningful units of long text. Luther also wrote introductions to the biblical books. The famous introduction to Romans is part of the Septembertestament of 1522. In some ways, Luther prepared a “Study Bible,” with many marginal notes. And, of course, the use of incisive or memorable language comes to the aid of the reader (and listener).

Are we allowed to translate the Bible? I think we all would respond with a resounding “Yes.” Can we translate the way Luther did? Maybe not everybody is completely convinced of that. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25, can assist us in our search for a more positive response. The parable is about a man (the Lord) who goes on a journey, and, before doing so, entrusts his property to his servants. He hands out talents, a substantial treasure. And what could be more precious than God’s holy word? Two servants traded with the talents. They were not afraid of running risks. The third servant (and the emphasis is put on this last one) played it safe. “Master, I was afraid (of you) . . . and I decided to take good care of your talent. I hid it in the ground.” Investments are always risky business. Meaningful translations can raise people’s eyebrows. Many think that the treasure should be kept safe, buried in the ground of literal renderings. But we know well who is called a “wicked and slothful servant.” I don’t know about you, but I would rather be the good and faithful servant. Luther most certainly was.


1 Martin Luther, “Open Letter on Translating” (1530): vol. 35, p. 194, in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vols. 31–55, ed. Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia/Minneapolis: Muhlenberg/Fortress, 1957–86), hereafter LW.

2 Luther, “Open Letter on Translating” LW 35:190.

3 Luther, “Open Letter on Translating” LW 35:189.

4 Heinz Bluhm, “Martin Luther and the English Bible: Tyndale and Coverdale” in The Martin Luther Quincentennial, ed. Gerhard Dünnhaupt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1985), 116.

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Reading the Bible with Spiritists

Brazilian Spiritism has presented an interesting challenge to me since I first encountered it on a plane from the United States to Brazil. I was traveling to Porto Alegre in order to study at the Lutheran seminary there, and I sat next to a young woman and her very sick child. They were American, like me, and were also on their way to Brazil, though their final destination was some town that I can’t now recall. I was too wrapped up in my own excitement and nervousness at the thought of living abroad and didn’t bother to learn the name of this woman and her child beyond what short-term memory necessitates in holding polite conversation. I had assumed our conversation would be one of those common airplane discussions that I would forget as soon as the plane touched down. But she shared her own life struggles with me in such a natural and open way that I became intrigued by her story of loss. Her little boy had some form of incurable cancer. She had already taken him to different doctors and facilities in the United States (MD Anderson and the Mayo Clinic came up) and had spent her life savings trying to find someone who was able to save her son’s young life. It was difficult to tell how old the boy was because he looked very sick and weak, but he couldn’t have been older than nine or ten years old. And now this mother, with desperation in her eyes that I felt she was trying to pass off to herself and others as hope, told me how she had taken out a second mortgage on her home in order to finance this trip to Brazil to see a Spiritist healer named João de Deus (John of God).1 I was both confused and locked-in to the conversation at that

William D. Miller is senior pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is also an adjunct professor of theology with Concordia University, Nebraska.

point. In my previous travels to Brazil, I had focused on the voodoo religions that I observed in Rio de Janeiro and the northeastern hinterlands.2 But this woman’s belief in “spirit surgery” was something that I had never heard before. She wasn’t going to Brazil to sacrifice a chicken by means of a witchdoctor, but she had in fact used up the last financial resources she had to allow a man she had never met to inspect and perform some sort of alternative surgery to take the cancer out of her son’s body. This was a last-ditch effort to save her son’s life, but she was taking a route that was very nonWestern and, to my mind, un-American. With no other options, she was giving her money to a religious healer rather than to the medical establishment.

That night on the plane I was completely unable to offer the woman a confession of the faith that could speak to her experience. That night on the plane was one that caused me to begin reflecting on the interaction of Lutheran theology and Spiritism. I didn’t simply have a problem in answering existential questions that this mother was asking about life and death or the promises of God to her suffering child, the problem began with my inability to discern what it means to be a Spiritist practicing the religion in the Brazilian context.

Over the years since that first encounter with Spiritism, I have learned that it is a spectrum of beliefs and practices that is not systematically organized. It is both Christian heresy and something else entirely different from Christianity. It is both a religion and a philosophy. It is, in some ways, a Western attempt to blend scientific explanations of the cosmos with Eastern religion/philosophy via Hinduism. It is a money-maker on par with the evangelical movement in the United States3 as well as a culture-shaping force within Brazil. In fact, I have come to consider Spiritism the unofficial “official” religion of Brazil.4 And I see problems in Lutheran interaction with Spiritism, both on the level of ecumenical engagement as well as on the level of evangelistic outreach to Spiritists (practitioners of the belief system) that effectively brings the good news of the cross and empty tomb of Jesus to bear in their life contexts.

For example, though I didn’t reflect on it that night on the plane, I later realized that I do not know whether or not that desperate mother on the flight would have self-identified as a Spiritist, and whether as an adherent to a religion or a philosophy at that. I could not discern what, if any, spiritual value she assigned to her own journey in Spiritist teaching beyond the claim to alternative cancer treatment for her child. And, because I could not discern what it meant to be a Spiritist practicing the religion in the Brazilian context, I could not account for her trajectory of practice. In other words, I could not account for how she first came in contact with a religious system that, though very well known in Brazil, is not yet widely known in the United

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I have come to consider Spiritism the unofficial “official” religion of Brazil.

States. How did she begin her own practice of Spiritist teaching? Was there a local Spiritist center or reading group in her hometown? If so, what drew her there in the first place? Did she practice on her own by reading Kardec’s5 writings and attempting to channel her mediumship as a home novice? Then how did she first become aware of the literature? If she did have contact with a North American Spiritist community, why did she not seek healing for her child with their mediums? Why did she feel she had to practice Spiritism in a distinctively Brazilian context with a Brazilian healer in order for the spirit surgery to be effective?

This was an American woman deeply influenced by a religious movement originating in France and taken root in Brazil. She is not the only one. Spiritism, and other related movements usually grouped together under “spiritualism,” has found wide interest in the United States as an on-again/off-again fascination since the nineteenth century. The LCMS theologian Theodor Graebner wrote a treatment on the topic in the early decades of the twentieth century.6 The last decades of the twentieth century saw book sales of the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho upwards of 350 million books.7 In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Hollywood became interested in Spiritist motifs, seeing heavyweights like Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon teaming up in the film “Hereafter.” The movement may speak with a Brazilian accent, but this is not a movement exclusively for Brazilians nor Brazilian immigrants to the United States. Spiritism is part of the pantheon of the American religious landscape.

The truth claims of Spiritism may be poised to appeal to increasing numbers of North Americans because they are resonant with “name-it-and-claim-it” groups who are already seeing gains in the United States.8 For this reason, it is good to understand their truth claims and how those claims help them to conceive of the “Ultimate and Absolute, the fundamental source of identity, security, and meaning . . .”9 And one place to begin is with God’s revealed word. Spiritists read the Bible. They translate the Bible. These are facts often ignored in Christian analyses of the movement. But it may be time to read the Bible with Spiritists in order to work toward a Spiritist hermeneutic. After all, if another religious or philosophical movement holds the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament in high esteem, what better place for Christians to seek understanding of the neighbor and what is driving those needs and beliefs, than by beginning with the Bible? It is true that no Christian conversation will be truly

Miller, Reading the Bible with Spiritists 41
What better place for Christians to seek understanding of the neighbor and what is driving those needs and beliefs, than by beginning with the Bible?

Christian without the cross and empty tomb, but understanding how Spiritists read the Bible, may be a better place to start to understand how Spiritists come to their understanding of God as not triune, Jesus’s death as not sufficient for salvation, and the telos of the believer’s life as reincarnation rather than resurrection. This article is a first attempt at working toward a Spiritist hermeneutic.

Who Are the Spiritists?

Allan Kardec was the nom de plume of the French educator Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail. In the middle part of the nineteenth century, he developed (though he and his followers prefer the term “codified”) the philosophical system known today as Spiritism. According to Federação Espírita Brasileira the canon of Kardec’s most important works consists of The Spirits’ Book (1857), The Mediums’ Book (1861), The Gospel According to Spiritism (1864), Heaven and Hell (1865), and Genesis (1868). They are referred to collectively as “the codification” of Spiritism and Kardec is viewed as a systematizer. This is because Kardec’s followers view his work as organizing the broadly Spiritualist movements of the nineteenth century in Europe and North America. Kardec characterized his own work as building on something universal. If it was new, it was new in the sense of on-going revelation from God in order to raise humanity spiritually.10 So he could talk about ushering in a New Era of Humanity11 while simultaneously casting his work as building on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Spiritism first gained ground in Brazilian culture in the universities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, as well as in the ranks of the Brazilian military. The Roman Catholic Church in France made early attempts to suppress Kardec’s teaching, which was followed by local prelates in Brazil. These efforts only resulted in more interest in Spiritism on the part of Brazilians. Adherents may refer to themselves as “Spiritist,” “Kardecist” (after Allan Kardec), and/or “Christian Spiritist.”

The Spiritist approach to Scripture is the focus of this article rather than any other consideration. I will focus on two articles12 in Spiritist periodicals in order to examine the hermeneutic employed and to draw out implications for Lutherans. I am focusing on popular writing intended for adherents to Spiritism, much like Christianity Today or The Lutheran Witness would be in North America. Like those two English publications that include serious attempts to make Christian readings of Scripture accessible to laity, these popular magazines similarly include serious attempts to make Spiritist approaches to the Bible accessible to everyday practitioners of Spiritism.

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Two Test Cases: Mediumship and the Resurrection


The first article examined here is “Mediumship Among the Apostles” written by Paulo da Silva Neto Sobrinho. As the name suggests, the article presents a Spiritist reading of the practice of the séance among Jesus’s apostles including the Day of Pentecost. We will start here since it will provide a test case of how the biblical text is engaged when central Spiritist doctrine is in view.

The general features of the article include a defense of Spiritist teaching concerning mediumship as a general capacity of humanity over against this teaching’s detractors (presumably traditional Christians), an appeal to Jesus as the teacher of Spiritist doctrine par excellence in the gospels, a look at what the author understands as the practice of the séance by the apostles whereby they channeled the spirits of dead people utilizing various passages of Scripture as textual evidence, and closes with an exposition of the biblical practice of the laying on of hands framed in line with the Spiritist practices of passes and mediumship.13

Though an initial appeal to the truth of the Spiritist teaching on mediumship (the capacity to channel or “commune” with the spirits of the dead) in the article is understandable for a Spiritist author, what a Lutheran reader of the article may be surprised by are the number of hermeneutical principles on display in the course of the author’s argument with which we would agree in principle. The first, and this is also true of the second article under consideration below, is the author’s assumption that Scripture interprets Scripture. In order to make the argument that the capacity of mediumship is a central teaching of the Bible, the author not only makes appeal to passages of Scripture (a practice that standing alone would constitute “cherry picking”) but also aligns passages of Scripture in an attempt to explain difficult doctrine in terms of other scriptural passages. The force of his argument is not found in moving from a passage of Scripture to the writings of Allan Kardec for illumination, or vice versa, but rather in his assumption that the Spiritist teaching on mediumship is a “natural” reading of Scripture and can be arrived at when Scripture is allowed to interpret Scripture.

The helpful question for a Lutheran trying to reconstruct a Spiritist hermeneutic is not which passage of Kardec’s writings are being used to reframe Scripture, but rather which passages of Scripture are being used to illuminate which other passages of Scripture. A second helpful question for a Lutheran reader is whether considerations of genre are being ignored. A third is whether semantic games are being played in the comparison of biblical passages. As I mentioned, the author attempts to cast Jesus as the teacher of Spiritist doctrine in the gospels. His example in this article is the reading from Matthew chapter 10 where Jesus is preparing to send his disciples out on mission. Ultimately, the author will focus on Jesus’s words concerning the

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persecution of his disciples, that they will be delivered over to courts and dragged before governors and kings (Mt 10:17–18). In order to argue that Jesus taught mediumship as a capacity of humanity and that spirits of the dead regularly act upon embodied human beings for our good, his focus will ultimately be on Jesus’s statement that, when his disciples find themselves dragged before authorities they will not need to think ahead of time what to say, because helpful spirits will give them words in the moment. He points to where Jesus comforts his disciples by saying “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you”(emphasis mine).

Before turning his attention to the ultimate goal of his argument, however, the author begins with verse 16 where Jesus exhorts his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The author attempts to explain the intent of Jesus’s words (and presumably the authorial intent of Matthew) by comparing another passage dealing with the wisdom of serpents; in this case Genesis chapter 3. His intent is to undermine traditional Christian views of the serpent as synonymous with the devil (since he believes Jesus must think highly of serpents and their wisdom) as demonstrating oppressive dogmatism, presumably on the part of Roman Catholicism.14 In other words, the author ignores all consideration of genre and compares a narrative passage from the Torah concerning humanity’s fall into sin with a teaching passage from a Gospel whereby Jesus is preparing his disciples to go on mission. Sidestepping the context of both passages so that concerns of rhetorical force and application (to say nothing of authorial intent) are shelved in favor of mere word study, he focuses on the adjective “wise” describing serpents in both passages all in order to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the official interpretation of Scripture on the part of the Roman curia.15 Not only does this move demonstrate a strange choice of precisely which passages of Scripture interpret which other passages of Scripture, but it demonstrates semantic games that are not fair to Jesus’s own choice of words in Matthew 10:16 as demonstrative of nothing deeper than a trope of language.

These moves to undermine a Christian reading of biblical passages with which many Brazilians may be familiar sets up his approach to the verse he really wants in focus: verse 20. At this verse he turns his attention to exegesis.16 And this is a second approach to his hermeneutic with which Lutherans would typically agree in principle, namely that the end of sound hermeneutical principles is their actual application in exegesis. Regarding Jesus’s comforting promise to his disciples that, when they find themselves having to give an account for the gospel they preach, that the Spirit of their Father would be answering for them, the author of the article appeals to a scholar, Carlos Torres Pastorino, who is an authority for him when thinking through problems of Greek grammar. The entire argument here is whether the “Spirit” referenced in verse 20 is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, or whether

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this is a reference to a holy spirit from God, meaning an elevated or evolved spirit who is helping the disciples.17 The whole argument hinges on Pastorino’s discussion of articles in Koine grammar. This scholar is quoted as asserting that nouns that are not preceded by a definite article in the Greek text must be translated with the indefinite article preceding the noun in modern Western languages, in their case Portuguese. The legitimacy of Pastorino’s argument is moot, however, since the text here reads τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρὸς and so the argument would have to be first over who exactly is the Father of these disciples being referenced here. The answer to that question would then answer which (with the definite article) Spirit was referenced since he is, evidently, the Spirit of their Father. That line of inquiry, however, would prove problematic for a Spiritist since Kardec taught that God is not a personal being but more like Aristotle’s unmoved mover. Accordingly, this author’s exegesis is concerned with questions about the use of articles in Greek to the complete exclusion of the persons referenced. And this tact does demonstrate an a priori commitment to Kardec’s writings since Kardec explicitly rejected the Triune nature of God in favor of earlier Greek philosophical conceptions of God. It should also be noted that this approach to Greek articles also serves as an attempt to imply that the Roman Catholic Church cannot be trusted with the original text of Scripture because they may have corrupted the text, adding definite articles, in order to fit their own dogma. Because this article is an attempt to reconstruct a Spiritist hermeneutic, the remainder of this author’s article is not in view in terms of continuing into a consideration of the theology on display.18 I am only interested here in the handling of the biblical text. So already we have the dictum Scripture interprets Scripture applied in a way Christians would find problematic since its application here resembles random association. It is, however, anything but a random application since it is driven by a priori doctrinal commitment to Kardec’s doctrinal writing. Then the task of exegesis is engaged merely as a proof that the original text was consulted rather than in service to asking germane and focused questions concerning the text itself.


The second article I want to consider as a test case for reconstructing a Spiritist hermeneutic is an article entitled “A Spiritist Vision of the Resurrection” by Paulo Neto. This second article will provide a test case of how the biblical text is engaged when central Christian doctrine is in view. Because Spiritists believe in reincarnation rather than in a bodily resurrection, and because they eschew belief in a final judgement day in favor of the evolution of the soul through the process of reincarnation, the consistent witness of Christians to the resurrection of Jesus is problematic for them given that the word “reincarnation” does not occur in the Bible. As with the previous article, this author follows the approach of Scripture interprets Scripture in that biblical passages are not merely marshalled and “cherry

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picked” but rather placed side by side when and where passages can be compared in order to draw out conclusions, or at least implications. In this case, however, the hermeneutical principle is not being leveraged in order to elucidate an opaque or obscure passage, and certainly not a hapax legomenon with respect to the word resurrection. Rather, the dictum is here applied to the problem of where it is clear that traditional Christians and Spiritists are talking at odds and past one another. So the biblical passages marshalled are brought to bear on the question of whether “resurrection” can conceptually find a place within Spiritist doctrine without conceding to the Christian kerygma.

The author marshals the textual evidence into four categories: (1) resurrection may mean to come back to life in the same body, (2) resurrection may mean to come back to life in another body (as with reincarnation), (3) resurrection may mean to “resurface” in spirit, and (4) resurrection may mean to “resurface” in spirit as/ by influencing an “incarnate” (bodily) person.19 Setting aside for now the problem that some of the above categories actually describe what we would term in English “revivification” rather than “resurrection,”20 the focus of this article is not to debate doctrine or to quibble over words. I will accept the author’s categories and look instead at how the biblical text is handled.

The way the texts he places in the first category are handled is, even by any secular definition of sound interpretation, dishonest. This is true even though his approach is largely a reader-response approach. He compares Matthew 9:24, Luke 7:11–17, and John 11:1–44 and simply takes Jesus’s terminology in the cases of Jairus’s daughter, the widow of Nain, and Lazarus and asserts that “sleep” means physical sleep in the case of all three. When commenting on Jesus’s clarification in the Johannine text that Lazarus was dead, the author simply falls back on a common Spiritist accusation of conspiracy, namely that the Roman Catholic Church “augmented” the text in order to bolster their own teaching on the resurrection. This is so deeply dishonest that even atheist readers of the biblical text would not attempt to put forward that argument.

With the second category there is only one text in view: Luke 9:7–9 in which Herod fears and wonders because many within his circle asserted that Jesus was John come back from the dead, Elijah the prophet returned, or else one of the other prophets. Here the text is handled at face value and the author asserts that firstcentury Jews must have believed that a person could come back to life in another body (since Jesus had his own unique body apart from the other persons Herod’s court supposed him to have been). If many believe Jesus to be someone else, the author simply assumes that this possibility was part of first-century cultural belief. Questions of historical context are excluded from the author’s argument here to be sure. But this interpretation is of interest to Lutherans because it demonstrates a priori doctrinal commitments to reincarnation finding fertile soil in the biblical text.

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With the third category and the idea of resurfacing after death in spirit only, the author focuses on Luke chapter 20 where Jesus teaches about marriage in the resurrection. As Jesus unpacks for the Jews that there will be no marriage in the resurrection, this Spiritist author focuses on Jesus’s reason he gives that they do not marry: they are like the angels in heaven. For this author that means that they are now purely spiritual beings like angels. This reading is interesting because it is a prime example of how different populations latch onto different aspects of a biblical text due to life circumstances along with a priori commitments.21 In other words, both Christians and Spiritists note that Jesus’s given reason that no one will marry in the resurrection is that all “will be like the angels,” but whereas Christians focus on the marriage part of that equation (which is admittedly Jesus’s main thrust), the Spiritist author of the article spends more time reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’s comparison between the human race and angels in the resurrection. Here at least, the Spiritists have focused more intensely on Jesus’s description of life in the resurrection rather than on Jesus’s contrast between life in this age and life in the next. Even though it can be argued that Jesus did not mean that persons have no physical body in the resurrection (and there is plenty of textual evidence to say that he did not) it is interesting that the author’s reading here, though hitched as it is to Kardec’s anthropology, is deeply reader-response and plays by the hermeneutical rules of such an approach. Neto’s article may present a less satisfying heuristic than a robustly Lutheran reading, but it is not necessarily representative of a dishonest approach from the Spiritist point of view.

The fourth category of those dead who resurface, and who are only perceptible to the embodied persons through their influence on currently embodied persons, is an esoteric corner of Spiritist thought unfamiliar to Christians.22 This kind of situation is considered less common than other expressions of communion with the spirits of the dead, such as psychography during a séance.23 What the author refers to here is when a medium and the spirit who acts upon them have become “totally synchronized.”24 For this category, Neto returns to the death of John the Baptist and lays the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke side by side for comparison. Even though Jesus and John were contemporaries so that those who supposed that Jesus was John come back from the dead must not have heard of Jesus before his fame spread, Neto utilizes these accounts for his theoretical groundwork for a thought experiment concerning this aspect of Spiritist doctrine. Since that doctrine does not concern us in this article, I will end my comments on his fourth category here.

For the remainder of his article, Neto examines the idea that the resurrection body is spiritual and not bodily and focuses on an interpretation of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:35–49. This Spiritist author’s approach to his categories was all to set up the idea that “resurrection” is really a reference to different types (four categories in his view) of “resurrections” in the plural. And “resurrection” is simply a religious

Miller, Reading the Bible with Spiritists 47

term for what-happens-to-the-soulwhen-a-person-dies. Though the doctrinal argument is, again, not in focus in this article, it is important to understand the hermeneutic applied to Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul writes that the resurrection body “is sown a natural body, [and] it is raised a spiritual body” (emphasis mine). For Spiritists, who deny the bodily resurrection, these comments by Paul in chapter 15 are taken in as “spiritualized” a sense as possible. This is perhaps the best example of a priori doctrinal commitments finding fertile soil in the biblical text. And it is an example that should be of interest to Lutherans since so much ink has been spilled over the Christian interpretation of the culmination of Paul’s entire argument in 1 Corinthians when he makes his concluding comments about resurrection as being the end goal of discipleship.

Why Read the Bible with Other Religious Groups?

An examination of two popular articles leaves us miles from a true understanding of a Spiritist hermeneutic, but it is a beginning. What can be said here is that Spiritist writers are utilizing both reader-response approaches as well as textual approaches that all conform to a priori doctrinal commitments learned from the writings of Allan Kardec. Their handling of the text displays attempts at approaches that, in principle, are resonant with Lutheran readings, such as “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This is not to argue that their handling of the text amounts to a Lutheran approach since they are lining up verses side by side rather than reading in light of larger passages, and indeed the whole of Scripture. But it may be hasty to write off their handling of Scripture as mere polemics simply because their approach does not match what Lutherans mean by “Scripture interprets Scripture.”25

The application of such hermeneutical principles within Spiritism, as I observe, is still hitched to Spiritist doctrine in questions of the nature of God, sin, judgement, death, and afterlife. The approach of the two authors of the articles examined here is one that I believe we, who have our own confessional documents, and therefore a priori commitments, may want to take note of. Though we Lutherans assert that the content of our confessional documents is drawn from the Scriptures and not the other way around, many Lutherans do, I suspect, read the Scriptures through the lens of the Confessions rather than reading the Confessions through the lens of the

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It may be hasty to write off their handling of Scripture as mere polemics simply because their approach does not match what Lutherans mean by “Scripture interprets Scripture.

Scriptures. Seeing this reversal of fit in another religious group may help us to bolster our own close readings of the Bible as Lutherans where we take the exegetical as our starting point rather than the doctrinal. Also of interest are those places, such as with Jesus’s teaching on marriage in the resurrection and with Paul’s teaching on the spiritual nature of the body in the resurrection, where Spiritists believe they find fertile biblical ground for their own teaching. So much exegesis that is done in Western contexts may focus on differences and distinctions in readings between Christian groups. When reading older commentaries from the first four centuries it is clearer where the early church fathers were careful to exposit readings that would be harder to misunderstand along the lines of major heresies. The Spiritist readings examined here seek to supplant Christian teaching on such central themes as the nature of man, the nature of God, and the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps Lutheran approaches to hermeneutics and the application of those principles to the task of exegesis should return to serious thought to the on-going reality that there are still counterfeit “christianities”—plural—in the world, especially as we see the last day approaching.


1 João de Deus is sometimes accepted by Spiritists as a gifted medium but is sometimes seen with suspicion. Spiritist sociologist Christina Rocha has attempted to document João de Deus’s work in an academic setting unsuccessfully. She views him as a faith healer (curandeiro) who could hurt the integrity of Brazilian Spiritism as a philosophy.

2 The word for this vast region in the northeast of Brazil in Portuguese is “Sertão.” Though not technically a desert due to an average rainfall of roughly twenty inches a year during the rainy season, this is a rough region that is often arid.

3 In and around the Triângulo Mineiro region of Brazil one can observe Spiritist bumper stickers, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia not unlike items that can be purchased in evangelical Christian bookstores in the United States.

4 Officially, Roman Catholicism is still the official religion of the Federal Republic of Brazil.

5 Allan Kardec is the founder (he and his followers refer to him as the “codifier”) of Spiritism.

6 Theodor Graebner, Spiritism: A Study of Its Phenomena and Religious Teachings, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1919).

7 The Washington Post, “Meet the writers who still sell millions of books. Actually hundreds of millions.” December 20, 2016. It needs to be noted that some Spiritists claim Coelho as a fellow Spiritist, or at least claim that his books show an affinity with their beliefs. Others do not see Coelho as a Spiritist at all. I include Coelho in this paper because, even if he is not considered an outright Spiritist, his style of writing shares some overlapping themes with Allan Kardec’s early concerns. Anthony D’Andrea has said of Coelho’s oeuvre “Reflecting other emerging spiritualities from Brazil, Paulo Coelho de Souza illustrates

Miller, Reading the Bible with Spiritists 49

broader processes of late modernity, particularly the reflexive project of the self moving into the religious space in a rapidly modernizing society.” Anthony D’Andrea, Reflexive Religion: The New Age in Brazil and Beyond Religion in the Americas Series, vol. 19 (Boston: Brill, 2018), chap. 8

8 They teach that people are always “evolving” in connection with what will be best for this life and future lives. Their teachings dovetail well with ideas about the Law of Attraction.

9 Robert Kolb, “Confessing the Creator to Those Who Do Not Believe There Is One” Missio Apostolica

10 God wanted this new revelation to come to men in the fastest and most authentic way. So he gave the Spirits the vocation of manifesting themselves from one pole to the other, without conferring on only one person the privilege of hearing the word. Kardec, The Gospel According to Spiritism, 27.

11 Kardec, The Gospel According to Spiritism, 61–65.

12 The first article is “A Mediunidade entre os Apóstolos” (Mediumship Among the Apostles) published in Caminho Espiritual (Spiritual Path) magazine. The second article is “A Visão Espírita da Ressurreição” (The Spiritist Vision of the Resurrection) published in Revista Cristã de Espiritismo (Christian Magazine of Spiritism), both under the major Brazilian publisher Minuano.

13 Passes is the Spiritist practice of passing energy between two living persons, often the aid of the spirits of the dead, in order to heal a person in both their body and in their spirit. It is usually practiced with one person standing over and behind another who is seated. The standing person keeps their hands several centimeters above the head of the seated individual and never physically touches them.

14 “The first observation that we make is that, because he tempted Eve, they say that the serpent is Satan himself. However, this is strange when Jesus commends us to be wise as serpents. The fact demonstrates that such an association is merely the fruit of dogmatism which only produces religious fanaticism.” A primeira ovservação que faremos é que por ter tentado a Eva, dizem que a serpente seria o próprio satanás, entretanto, isso fica estranho. Porquanto o próprio Jesus nos recomenda sermos prudentes comoas serpentes. Esse fato demonstra que tal associação é apenas fruto do dogmatismo que só produz o fanatismo religioso. Page 6.

15 It is common for Spiritists to cast themselves on some level as a protest movement against Roman Catholicism since they represent the largest alternative to Catholicism in Brazil.

16 Again, it may surprise some Lutheran readers that a Spiritist would make an argument for their approach to a biblical text based not on Kardec’s writings but on Greek grammar, but it should be noted that Spiritists have their own original translations of the New Testament.

17 In Kardec’s doctrine, these evolved spirits are the spirits of dead people who have been reincarnated so many times that they have continued to learn and grow in enlightenment. This also means, by extension, that the author of the article has many spirits of the dead in mind who, at any given time, may be acting upon the disciples as they give an answer for their gospel and, thus, aid them.

18 There is a one-to-one comparison made between the biblical practice of the laying on of hands and the Spiritist esoteric healing process of passes, but the second article contains a better example of that kind of doctrinal commitment in the hermeneutic. I will look at this interpretive move in greater detail when discussing that article on resurrection.

19 Spiritists do not define the anthropology of a human being as a body and a soul together. Rather, they believe that a person is a soul or spirit that sometimes inhabits a body (incarnate) and sometimes does not (disincarnate). So the idea in this category is of a person resurfacing in the physical plane where their presence can only be discerned in the way in which they are acting upon an incarnate (bodily or “enfleshed”) person.

20 Portuguese also has both words available as in English.

21 This interpretation vaguely reminds me of Gerald O. West’s work in reading the Bible with AIDS patients in South Africa. The same passage of Scripture may contain aspects that are latched onto more readily by one group that are largely ignored by another.

22 The closest comparison I can make for North Americans is a quote attributed to the late Billy Graham: “Can you see God? You haven’t seen him? I’ve never seen the wind. I see the effects of the wind, but I’ve never seen the wind. There’s a mystery to it.” Neto’s argument is that a disembodied spirit may be perceived in their deeply integrated effect on other embodied persons.

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23 Psychography is writing in a trancelike state. The writing is purported not to be the product of the medium’s mind, but of the mind of a disembodied spirit (deceased person).

24 This total synchronization of a medium with his/her “operating spirit” is not conceptually synonymous with possession in Christian doctrine since (1) the disembodied spirit is conceptualized as a deceased person rather than as an unclean spirit or demon, and (2) the two are “synchronized” rather than one having free reign over the other. But, in terms of perception, if such a thing did occur it would appear closer to what Christians’ term “possession.”

25 I possess a copy of a translation of the New Testament published by Conselho Espírita Internacional. This Spiritist translation taken from the Greek text is fairly close to anything that might be discussed at an SBL conference here in North America. The differences between Kardecist and Lutheran readings of the text are on display in the footnotes. Whether or not this means that some adherents to Spiritism think of themselves almost in terms of simply another denomination, it certainly highlights the difficulty in continuing to classify Kardecism in classically Christian systematic terms as if the movement can be discussed in itself without its on-going interaction with Christianity. This article is an attempt to keep Spiritism in conversation with Christianity precisely because it represents a perversion of the gospel-centered approach of Lutherans.

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Homiletical Helps

Anatomy of a Sermon Sermon on Job 19:18–25 by Timothy Saleska

For the preacher, sometimes the biblical text will be the first to present the main question or idea of the day’s sermon, but sometimes the text confronts a question that is already there in the life of the hearer. In this chapel sermon, Dr. Tim Saleska, professor of exegetical theology and dean of ministerial formation, takes us into a recent moment in his own life that made the promise and hope expressed in the middle of the book of Job all the more urgent and crucial. Now when a preacher uses himself as the point of entry, it can be a beautiful invitation into experiencing solidarity with the hearer as they receive the grace of God together. But it also carries some risk. Personal stories in the pulpit, because they are often powerful, have the capacity to take over, either through the lingering attention to the person of the preacher or, by the same token, by diminishing the ethos of the preacher’s appeal. Personal stories can draw one into the message of the sermon, but they can also distract or alienate. One of the most helpful uses of the personal story is as part of an excursive framing of the biblical text.

So, in this case, Dr. Saleska is preaching on Job. The book and story of Job can often be difficult to connect to because of its extreme depiction and expression of suffering. Job’s pain is so severe and so inexplicable that he can almost seem like a caricature of the human condition, or an abstraction of it, making it much more difficult to hear the book’s message. But Saleska’s personal story frames the story of Job in such a way that the story of Job is not so strange after all, but one of the

Editor’s note


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sermon, preached at the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis on November 7, 2022, is represented in italic type which can be read all at once by following the gray bars.

many examples of how all people live precariously on the precipice of death. Such an excursive framing of the biblical story gives a broader interpretative context for hearing the Scriptures again, providing keys to the meaning of the passage and its relevance (for the use of stories in the structure of the sermon, see David Schmitt’s material on sermon structures, especially Framing the Biblical Story and Multiple Story Structure at narrative/).

Last Monday, God gave Diane and me a reality check that I did not at all like. I was upstairs brushing my teeth, and Di was downstairs. Suddenly, we both heard a very distinctive sound: Pop . . . Pop Pop! It was loud and was coming from right in front of our house. Di happened to be walking towards the front door, and through the window she saw the flash of the gun in a passing car. The car crept by our house, then backed up and went down a side street out of sight. We immediately called the police. But both of us were left shaken.

I got this queasy feeling in my stomach that stayed with me for quite a while. I couldn’t talk myself out of it. In fact, I was sort of surprised at how hard it was to shake off that feeling.

Anyway, less than an hour later, I was in chapel, still processing this thing that had happened. And you might remember that one of the hymns we sang last Monday was Martin Franzmann’s O God, O Lord of Heaven, and Earth. Well, we got to verse three, and I got stuck on the first line of that verse. The verse begins, Thou camest to our hall of death. My queasy stomach full stopped at hall of death. And I understood what those gunshots were trying to tell me. In case I had forgotten, God wanted to remind me that I live in a hall of death. On that sunny day last week, I was forced to think about what this grim truth means to me personally.

Saleska’s story of the gunshots outside his house is unsettling to be sure and we can easily imagine that we would have felt the same kind of fear in such a moment. Potential danger so close to one’s traditional place of safety is jarring, but rather than just pass over it as a near miss, Saleska invites us to consider the universality of this experience. This is not just an incidental moment . . . it’s the pulling back of the curtain of safety to reveal that we are all in what Franzmann calls “our hall of death.” You and I may not have this precise experience, but through Saleska’s personal story we can all identify a moment in which this curtain is peeled back, and we suddenly witness the fragility of our own existence.

Which, by the way, is a good example of the paradox of how the particular more readily evokes the universal than generalities. That is to say, if Saleska would have just spoken about our condition generally—that we are in a fallen state and that in spite

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of our comforts we are moribund—or, if he would have fired a shotgun of examples to try to cover everyone’s varied experience, neither would have been very effective. But through the concrete, particular story of Saleska’s personal experience, we are able to much more readily identify and place within the framework of our own individual experiences the fear and uncertainty of which he speaks.

I guess that I needed reminding because—to be honest—most of the time, I don’t think of my life in this dark way. In the first place, it’s scary, and in the second place it doesn’t feel to me as if I’m living in a hall of death at all. In fact, quite the opposite. I was thinking about this during chapel, and I had to admit that I have had little first-hand experience of what it means to live in a hall of death. I had to admit that I have all kinds of cushions that—well—cushion me from the “life is a hall of death” experience.

For example, my zip code. I have always taken the benefits of where I live for granted. But did you know that your zip code is the number one determiner of your physical health outcomes? It’s more important than your genetics. And I have always had that cushion. Many people do not. They live in a zip code where death, and despair, and hopelessness are far more prevalent. Where gunshots are a normal sound in their daily lives. And my zip code is just one of many cushions that have made my life generally comfortable and filled with hope.

In the first connection between his personal story and the hearer’s experience, Saleska aims at identification and solidarity. But now, he wants to stress a certain discontinuity—not in the universal condition of our existence in “our hall of death”—but in the way we experience this. He uses the metaphor of “cushions” as those things that protect us from seeing and experiencing the danger of our fallen world (a more contemporary image than the “hedge” of protection in Job). But cushions also remind us of privilege—some have it “cushier” than others. And here Saleska sets before the hearer this difference. Without entering into fraught political or social questions, he brings the hearer to a consideration of the neighbor. Further, by making the comparison between himself and those in less privileged living circumstances it allows the hearer to identify rightly. Those who mirror Saleska’s kind of zip code are invited to reflect on the neighbor less fortunate. Similarly, those hearers who live in places and circumstances that are harder and more tenuous than Saleska’s are not distanced or alienated but are seen and recognized by the preacher. They can hear his words too, knowing that they are not overlooked or forgotten by the sermon.

The gunshots reminded me that God could take it all away. And unlike what I easily do with the daily news, I could keep neither the gunshots nor those disturbing thoughts about God, at a comfortable distance.

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Frankly, the idea that God might take away what I hold most dear always scares the liver out of me. My children? Please, God, no. My grandchildren? Please, don’t. My wife. My house. My health. My mind. No, no, no. It scares me that God could do this to someone I love, and I pray all the time that he not do it. I recoil from the thought that sometime in the future, God is going to take me away from every one of the people I love, and from everything else that makes life worth living.

But all last week, like an earworm burrowing into my brain, the gunshots, along with that hall of death picture have made my fears hard to ignore—and having to read Job for this sermon has not helped.

Job is neither a caricature nor an abstraction to me. I look at Job, and I see a real picture of what God can and does do—to one degree or another—all the time and to people all over the world. God removes cushions and gives Death its way. This is what happens when you live in the hall of death. Sooner or later, God starts messing with the things that give your life hope. The things that make your life worth living.

Here the sermon turns to the biblical text after significant framing. The hearer is now ready to approach and see Job as an expression of our own experience, in continuity with us all who live in the “hall of death.” The distance between Job and us has been bridged. And Saleska tells us explicitly—Job is neither caricature nor abstraction but a real picture of what can and does happen to us all. Living in the hall of death is the house of our own making, but the cushions that soften and hide its décor of darkness and decay are gifts from God. And when they are removed, that too is God . . . “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). We are now considering fully what it means to be at God’s mercy . . . and what God’s mercy truly means. But this mercy is sharpened and clarified as Saleska introduces another concept into the picture: hope. On this word, the rest of the sermon will turn. In the experience of suffering every hope and comfort is stripped away revealing one remaining, solitary hope, hanging only on a promise. But as Saleska goes deeper we find this hope is stronger than all others, inviolable, because of the resurrection of the Christ our Redeemer. Job’s Redeemer is also ours; He lives and so will we even though death seemingly destroys everything.

In this sermon, the transformation of concepts and experiences—of danger and hope—arises from the transformation of the gospel. Proclaiming the gospel is not just imparting information about Christ and his resurrection; it is a leaning into its power to transform everything. Our small, soft, cushiony hopes that we spend most of our time guarding and worrying about is transformed by the gospel into the solid, everlasting hope that cannot be touched by death—“Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). It’s on this that faith and hope hang.

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“[God] has pulled up my hope like a tree,” Job says in verse 10. “He has kindled his wrath against me and counts me as his adversary.” “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope (7:6).” “The water wears away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so, you destroy the hope of man (14:19).” “Where then is my hope? Who then will see my hope (17:15)?” Job asks. This is what God does. Silently and unapologetically, God robbed Job of his hopes and dreams.

And so, I find it remarkable, incredible really, that stripped of every sliver of hope, this strangest of all hopes remains on Job’s lips. Job is not sitting on a cushioned seat in a comfortable church when he gives voice to his one remaining hope. He is suffering immense physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. Death has hemmed him in on every side. God is crushing him.

How in the world could he say, “I know that my Redeemer lives?” And “Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God?” It’s a crazy hope for anyone in the hall of death. And in this dark hallway, there is no visible evidence for it. Just the opposite. All evidence points to the contrary. Job’s wife had it right, “Curse God and die.” Hope is useless. In fact, most scholars deny the possibility that Job is actually hoping for a divine Redeemer and physical resurrection at all, and so they interpret it away. They (but notice, not God) they rob Job of the most amazing hope of all and advise that we not listen either.

Well, you either see the hope, or you don’t. You either believe it, or not. But still, I want to invite both believers and unbelievers to stop and consider these enigmatic and mysterious words of Job. Like a flower in a vast desert, a single, beautiful hope springs up from the wreckage of Job’s heart. A surprising voice from one soul, shipwrecked in the hall of death, one startling strain in the midst of the groaning and crying, and gunshots that come to our ears through the poisoned air that we breathe. Job’s hope blossoms for a moment and then passes from our view as quickly as it came. And Job never gives voice to it again.

Now, you may be disappointed that Job never again utters such a hope. By our lights, Job should invoke it triumphantly again and again. That might make us feel better about it. It would be easier for us to get a handle on it. But maybe not. Maybe the point is Job’s silence.

The gospel as God’s inviolable promise has the power to transform our hope. But there is another dimension to the gospel that Saleska wishes to emphasize, and that is that its strength does not rest on the strength of our faith, the clarity of our vision, or the confidence with which we live. This too is good news, for just because Christians hear the promise and have been given the gift of faith to believe it, fears and anxiety do not magically disappear.

To draw attention to this further dimension Saleska introduces the perceived

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disappointment in the biblical story, namely that Job speaks of this hope only once, in the middle of the book and doesn’t seem to return to it again. It is like a beautiful flower that blossoms but then quickly disappears. Job doesn’t seem to experience enduring comfort from this promise—he speaks it once and then seems to sink back down into his fear and sorrow. But the disappointment of Job’s passing confidence mirrors our own. So the biblical story is framed again by the preacher’s continued experience of fear and, by extension, our own experience of the same. We too continue to struggle with fear and sadness. What then does this say about our faith? What if my life continues to feel as tenuous as before? Do I really have this hope?

To address this, the sermon doesn’t replace our snatched cushions with a new pillow but points us again to the same gospel, the same promise. We are not promised a life without struggle or fear; we are promised only one thing, but that one thing cannot be shaken. My Redeemer lives and he is my one comfort and consolation. Always.

Maybe you can think about it like this: at the beginning of the book, Job had a life full of hope. His life was complete. But God took everything else away from him, except this one rare and improbable hope. God doesn’t mess with this hope, and I like to think that Job hid it away in his shattered heart, thereby leaving us hanging—because hope is not the realization, after all. We have to wait, because God wants us to wait—until the end of the book—until the end of our lives—until the end of time. He wants us to wait and see for ourselves what he is going to do with this final hope of Job’s. Disappoint us? Or not?

Now, it’s easy enough for me to remind you that in one sense, that wait is over. We live on this side of Jesus’s resurrection. I know that my Redeemer lives. In Jesus, God gave us—and Job—the Redeemer for which Job hoped. Jesus rose from the grave and so will I. Jesus lives, no more to die, and so will I . . . And yet . . . those gunshots still ring in my ears—echoing off the walls of the hall of death where I live. Scaring me.

And so, like Job, I still find myself both hopeful but also afraid. Out of pure grace, God has planted the same improbable hope into my weak heart. (By the way, it’s pretty much a hall of death in there too.) But there it is. I am conscious of it. Hidden away—the hope that someday, “in my flesh I will see God.” But I am also conscious of the fact that it is hidden in a heart marked by fear, worry, doubt, not to mention a myriad of sinful thoughts and feelings.

So, in my daily life, those gunshots reminded me once again, that I—a sinner given a glorious and unshakable future life—I still continue to wrestle with my fears and my anxiety about the future. And in that daily battle within myself, I try to remember that God has really promised me only one thing. He has given me only one sure hope. That’s the hope he wants us to cling to, and that is the hope that he promises to nurture and never take from us. In fact, our Redeemer lives to nurture

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it. He lives to comfort my fears. He lives to wipe away my tears. He lives to calm my troubled heart. He lives all blessings to impart! He lives to do all this for me? Yes. That’s my Savior. Amen.

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Sánchez M. T&T Clark, 2021. Paper. 208 pages. $34.95.

Emerging over the last several decades as a distinct and important field of theological study, Spirit Christology explores the person and work of Christ through an intentionally and explicitly pneumatological lens. In T&T Clark Introduction to Spirit Christology, Panamanian-Chilean Lutheran scholar, Leopoldo A. Sánchez M. has provided the most comprehensive, detailed, and up-to-date introduction available in this burgeoning field. The work is rigorous, thorough, and astute. Sánchez is intimately and equally familiar with the Spirit christological insights of both modern theologians and the ancient patristics. His breadth of knowledge and ability to articulate difficult concepts succinctly is impressive, although it leads perhaps to the book’s only real limitation: that it sometimes attempts to convey more depth and complexity than an “Introduction” entirely warrants. Despite this minor drawback, with its comprehensiveness and clarity, Sánchez’s volume is a valuable gift both to those entering freshly into this exciting area of study, as well as those already familiar with it.

Chapter 1 provides an initial introduction and overview of Spirit Christology. Beginning with an intriguing discussion of whether Jesus needed the Spirit, Sánchez goes on to categorize the field as having three

alternative approaches: namely preNicene, post-Nicene, and Nicene Spirit Christologies. While the first and second incompletely anticipate or completely reject the orthodox Trinitarianism of Nicea, the latter (with which Sánchez aligns himself) build an understanding of the Spirit’s participation in Jesus’s life that is explicitly and intentionally Trinitarian. While the scheme makes logical sense, given that pre-Nicene approaches chronologically did not have a Trinitarian orthodoxy to reject, perhaps Sánchez’s scheme is overly complex, as there are significant parallels between the pre- and post-Nicene approaches. The final section of this chapter explores the revival of Trinitarian theology, the Second Vatican Council, and the growth of the Pentecostal and Charismatic

Reviews 65

churches. Through high-level summaries of the work of several significant theologians, Sánchez demonstrates how these central features of the twentieth century’s theological landscape form the fertile soil in which Spirit Christology has blossomed.

In chapter 2, Sánchez explores how biblical studies can both enrich and be enriched through an interaction with Spirit Christology, focusing on the work of three pertinent biblical scholars: James Dunn, Gerald Hawthorne, and Michael Gorman. Dunn’s exegetical work paints Jesus as having self-conscious authority to proclaim the coming kingdom as God’s son precisely because of his experience as being uniquely possessed and used by the Holy Spirit. This insight leads Dunn directly to the intrinsically pneumatological nature of present Christian experience. Hawthorne’s exegetical analysis extends Dunn’s work, integrating pneumatological and incarnational Christologies, by positing that Jesus kenotically relied on the Spirit throughout his life and ministry. The Spirit is the “power of God that moves Jesus to accomplish his mission” (45). And in a directly related fashion, that same Spirit empowers the life and ministry of Jesus’s followers. But Sánchez does more in this chapter than simply using others’ exegetical work to amply demonstrate both the biblical grounding of Spirit christological insights and their vividly practical implications. Utilizing Gorman’s Spirit christological analysis of John’s gospel, he also demonstrates how new insights arise when texts (even those

which aren’t explicitly pneumatological) are viewed through the lens of a Spirit Christology. “Theology informs exegesis and vice versa” (54). The overall description of Spirit Christology and biblical exegesis being intricately linked is particularly compelling.

Chapter 3 argues that Spirit Christology is not merely a modern doctrine, by showing how Irenaeus and Athanasius (among others) anticipate some of the key insights and questions raised in this field. Irenaeus, responding to the elevation of the spiritual over the material in the gnostic heresy, utilizes a proto-Trinitarian Spirit Christology to talk about incarnation as the work of the Son, and his anointing at the Jordan as a work of the Spirit. Athanasius, responding to the adoptionist position of the Arian heresy, invokes an incipient Nicene understanding of Spirit Christology by arguing that the word “becomes a receiver of the Spirit in the kenotic self-humbling of his humanity” (68). Launching from this point, Sánchez goes on to explore several significant issues arising from these patristic foreshadowings of a modern Spirit Christology, such as the Spirit’s Trinitarian identity, ambiguity of language usage among the patristics, and contrasting understandings of the Spirit’s role in Christ, among others. While fascinating and generative, this section is perhaps one of those where Sánchez’s explorations take him beyond purely introductory material.

Chapter 4 sees Sánchez return to modern scholarship as he interacts with

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the work of two significant systematic theologians: Jürgen Moltmann and David Coffey. The chapter describes how both these theologians launch from a Spirit christological starting point to explore aspects of the immanent Trinity. Moltmann and Coffey gain insight from Spirit Christology into potential resolutions of the filioque debate, and the active personhood of the Spirit. Sánchez’s analysis in this chapter, following these theologians, centers on their understanding, justification, and outworking of particular Trinitarian models, with Moltmann complementing the common sending model (FatherSon-Spirit) with a “Trinity in glorification” model (Spirit-Son-Father) in which the Holy Spirit actively glorifies the Son and the Father, and Coffey incorporating both a sending and return understanding to emerge with a mutual love model (where the Spirit is the mutual love between the Father and the Son). Sánchez’s descriptions of these models and their outworkings are typically clear and erudite. Moltmann and Coffey’s understandings are not fully compatible, however, and his analysis (through silence) possibly gives that impression. Perhaps the chapter’s analysis would have been even more useful with more explicit critique.

The most fundamental issue arising in contemporary Spirit Christology is its relationship with Logos Christology, which has been given much more emphasis traditionally. In Chapter 5, Sánchez addresses this issue head on, arguing that the two christological

approaches are fully compatible, and indeed mutually informing. He insightfully explores how three contemporary scholars, working within their respective traditions, and building on the works of their forebears, illuminate aspects of a robust and coherent Spirit Christology that is fully reconcilable with Logos Christology. Sánchez reviews his own exploration of Spirit Christology building on the work of Martin Chemnitz, within the Lutheran tradition. He then explores Myk Habets’s work in the Reformed tradition, building on John Owen. And finally, Sánchez outlines the Spirit Christology developed by Skip Jenkins, who builds upon the proto-Pentecostal Edward Irving. This is a masterful chapter, enhanced by the gentle critique and productive interaction facilitated between the three explorations. As an emotionally satisfying and entirely justified end point, Sánchez notes that “all our works make room in our incarnational Spirit Christologies for the Son’s cooperative relationship with the Spirit in the sanctification of his humanity and see such relationship as defining for understanding Trinitarian theology, salvation in Christ, and human sharing in the Spirit whom Christ bears and gives” (149). It is hard to conceive of a more convincing ecumenical argument for the overall value and coherence of a Spirit Christology.

The final substantive chapter of the volume, where Sánchez explores the practical outworking of Spirit Christology, brings his book to a fitting

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conclusion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his previous practical work on sanctification in Sculptor Spirit, this chapter is where Sánchez particularly shines, summarizing Sammy Alfaro’s work on Spirit Christology in a Latina/o context, Lucy Peppiatt’s thesis on Spirit Christology’s implications for European mission, and his own treatise on sanctification. Alfaro’s work is particularly useful in bringing to light concerns from the global South, showing the applicability of Spirit Christology across not just ecumenical but cultural boundaries. Peppiatt’s thesis, among other aspects, explores how the application of Spirit Christology to mission can illumine the way the Spirit conforms people to Christlikeness while still maintaining their own particularity. And Sánchez’s summary of his previous volume on sanctification convincingly argues that Spirit Christology leads to a “rich, colorful tapestry of ways of living in the Spirit” (167). Combined, the three examples make very clear the practical applicability of Spirit Christology to everyday matters of life, faith, and our ongoing journey together in Christ.

Overall, Sánchez’s volume is a robust, helpful, and versatile introduction to the topic of Spirit Christology. Perhaps one of its best features is that, to a great degree, individual chapters (and even individual sections) can be read independently. Indeed, many chapters are constructed so that they progressively deal with more complex issues. Consequently,

uninitiated students could turn to the beginning of any chapter and find a coherent and well-worded description introducing them to an aspect of Spirit Christology, while those more familiar could quickly move to the more complex matters later addressed. Perhaps the only aspect missing from the volume was a sustained interaction with contemporary critiques, given that Spirit Christology is a doctrine that is routinely misrepresented and unfairly caricatured. That, however, together with a slight tendency towards complexity are the only drawbacks to an introduction that should become essential reading for anyone wishing to enter or more deeply explore the rich and fruitful world of Spirit Christology.

READING THE PROPHETS AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Introduction. By Eric J. Tully. Baker Academic, 2022. Hardcover. 432 pages. $49.99.

In this volume, Eric J. Tully, associate professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages and director of the Theological Studies PhD at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has given students, pastors, and interested lay readers an extremely helpful introduction to the prophets and the prophetic literature of ancient Israel. As the title makes clear, Tully approaches this prophetic literature

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as Christian Scripture, affirming in the first chapter and throughout the book the inspiration of these texts and their authority for the Christian church. As he states, “Because the Old Testament Prophets are Christian Scripture, we approach the text not to critique it or find fault with it but to hear God’s Word and know him” (3). That is not to say that Tully’s treatment is simplistic. As he also writes, “We will attempt to take the text on its own terms, not foisting our own preconceptions on it. Sometimes this will mean rejecting common ideas and interpretations that we have heard all of our lives” (3).

Tully acknowledges that reading the prophets can be difficult for a variety of reasons; that difficulty is the impetus for the shape of his treatment of the prophets. In part 1 Tully deals with the context of the prophet; in

part 2 he examines the Old Testament prophet, himself. In part 3 he treats each prophetic book individually.

In part 1, Tully contends that the prophets presuppose the reader understands their theological context; therefore, chapter 2 gives an overview of the concept of covenant and of the various covenants found in the Old Testament. The prophets also presuppose their own historical context; therefore, Tully gives a succinct but helpful historical overview in chapter 3. Tully also recognizes that the prophetic literature is complex; therefore, in part 2, he has five short chapters dealing with a variety of topics. Chapter 4 gives the job description of a prophet. Chapter 5 deals with false prophecy within Israel and with prophecy in other surrounding nations. Chapter 6 addresses key messages found in the prophets. Chapter 7 explores strategies that prophets used to communicate their God-given messages. In chapter 8, the last chapter of part 2, Tully discusses one possible explanation of the formation of these prophetic books.

It is these first eight chapters that I find most helpful in this book. Scholars have written a great deal about the who and the how of Israel’s prophets, and introductions with a more critical bent might include more of this material. On the other hand, more conservative introductions tend to gloss over these essential issues, not addressing them in any meaningful way and, perhaps, leaving readers with too simplistic of an understanding. Tully digests the

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scholarly research and presents carefully considered overviews, resulting in a fine introduction to the context, persons, and means of Israel’s prophets. A reader selecting this book may be most interested in what follows in part 3 as Tully treats each of the prophets individually (chapters 9–24), and that material is also generally excellent; however, the material of parts 1 and 2 are what set this book apart and make it worth the investment of finances and time when both are typically limited. The context supplied in these chapters will inform the reading of part 3 and will be of great benefit to those just beginning their journey with the prophets, but it will also fill in gaps and answer questions for those who have read, taught, or preached from this literature for years.

As noted, in part 3, Tully explores each of the prophetic books, presupposing and making use of what he has covered in parts 1 and 2. Each chapter follows the same format. Tully begins with “Orientation” wherein the identity and situation of the prophet is considered. He then moves to “Exploration” wherein the structure and content are explicated, usually chapterby-chapter. Lastly, in “Implementation,” Tully “summarize[s] some of the key theological points in the book and consider[s] their particular significance within the whole Christian Bible and our faith” (6). Especially helpful is the inclusion of the timeline for each prophet and various color-coded sidebars dealing with such things as “Historical

Matters,” “Five Phases [of prophecy],” “Canonical Connections,” “Theological Issues,” and “Reception History.”

Throughout the book there are tables as well as sidebars labeled “Thinking Visually.” These tend to be quite helpful for processing and even remembering the content being discussed. Beneficial maps and pictures are also included.

All in all, Tully’s book is an excellent resource in design, visual presentation, and content. As always, the reader should read carefully and critically, evaluating what is presented in the light of other resources, one’s own confession, and, of course, in light of Scripture itself. Readers of this journal should compare and contrast Tully’s work with that found in Concordia Publishing House resources such as The Lutheran Bible Companion, The Word Becoming Flesh, Prepare the Way of the Lord, and the volumes in the Concordia Commentary Series. Not every reader will agree with every point made, yet every reader will be challenged to think afresh about the prophets and about the prophetic literature as Christian Scripture. I wholeheartedly recommend this resource to anyone interested in engaging with the word of God as given through his servants, the prophets.

TRADITION AND APOCALYPSE: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief.

By David



Hardcover. 192 pages. $24.99.

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In this challenging and erudite essay, Hart looks to the Christian tradition not as the basis for proving the historicity of dogma, but rather, as the apocalyptic force that forms the basis of the church’s preaching and teaching. Hart’s criticism of tradition in this essay expands on his previous critiques of John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine and Maurice Blondel’s history and dogma. Newman argued that all developments in doctrine were held embryonically in the faith of past Christians. While Hart admires Newman’s and Blondel’s attempt to save dogma from the historical sciences, he concludes that they ultimately failed their task (9).

Hart uses the Arian controversy to illustrate the problem of Newman and Blondel’s historical approach to the development of doctrine. Methodically going through both Scripture and patristic evidence, Hart argues the Arians were not “heretics,” but instead, were traditionalists who clung to an increasingly irrelevant cosmological narrative of salvation (119). Arius attempted to preserve the tradition he received. This tradition is reflected in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory Thaumaturgus. This is the reason many writings from “orthodox” ante-Nicene fathers may seem to modern readers “gnostic” in their cosmology and Christology. The Nicene party, on the other hand, were innovators that sought to capture the paradox of the real union between God and his creatures in Jesus Christ (123). This new christological narrative proved to be more

fertile in preaching and teaching than the old cosmological narrative. Athanasius and the Nicene fathers peered into the future anticipating the goal of the tradition rather than looking back to old formulations of dogma. The triumph of the Nicene symbol, ὁμοούσιος, endures into the present day as a vivid and relevant expression of the Christian faith. Expanding beyond the fourth century, Hart’s insights help to explain the spread of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. As the Nicene symbol looked ahead toward new expressions of the Christian faith, Luther and the Reformers looked ahead toward the horizon of the apocalypse. The symbols—Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura—brought new and fresh expressions of faith that overtook the previous medieval paradigm. Lutherans are comfortable with paradoxes. On one hand, the Lutherans were innovators as defined by Hart. They sought to shed the baggage of an increasingly irrelevant and traditionalistic church culture. Luther and the Reformers looked beyond the horizon bringing fresh insight to Scripture and preaching. On the other hand, Luther and the Reformers taught the same doctrine as the Apostles—the content drawn from the apostolic witness of the church. Luther and the Reformers were daring and innovative to put that experience of faith into symbols. As with the Nicene symbol, ὁμοούσιος, the symbols of the Reformation continue to speak through the living tradition of the church. Some of Hart’s idiosyncrasies take

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away from his arguments. At times, he acrimoniously defends his belief in universalism and psychoanalyzes those who disagree with him. He admits that he wrote this book for himself and not others—and to take him or leave him as an author. Putting his idiosyncrasies aside, Hart brings a fresh look to the topic of tradition. The apocalyptic and eschatological dimension of tradition cannot be dismissed. Rather than looking backward to justify dogma, the church looks forward toward the consummation of Christ and his kingdom. Newman and Blondel’s approach to the development of doctrine encourages disenchantment. Ultimately, Hart’s essay does not address what the future of Christian belief looks like. That task is impossible. Instead,

he encourages Christians to fight the disenchanting power of traditionalism and live with their certain hope in the future. With its modest price of admission, I would certainly recommend this book to pastors and scholars.


FIRST EIGHT CENTURIES: From Pentecost Through the Rise of Islam. By Donald

2021. Hardcover.394 pages. $39.99.

Since the late 1990s, the globality of the history of Christianity began to attest a growing attention among missionaries and church historians. This informing work of early church historian Donald Fairbairn offers a fascinating and accessible account of the development of Christianity in the global context during the first eight centuries. Under the apparent theological and liturgical diversity displayed among different regions and traditions, Fairbairn argues, the Christian churches of the first eight centuries are still part of one story in essence.

Some justifications of the delineation of historical periods should be noted. While historians traditionally speak of the end of the patristic period in the years 451 (the Council of Chalcedon), 476 (the fall of western Roman Empire), or 604 (the death of Gregory the Great), Fairbairn suggests that these stopping points

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are too western-oriented and thus fail to give due attention to the Christian churches outside the West. The author decided to set the mark instead at the year 800 when the Islamic conquests became evident in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, and the idea of Christendom in Europe began to rise.

Fairbairn further divides his story into three periods: Christianity in the pagan world (c.30–300); Christian kingdoms prior to Islam (300–600); the rise of Islam and its impact upon Christianity (600–800). In part one, the author narrates the movement of Christian missions from Jerusalem to its surroundings, and also the development of liturgical practices, episcopacy, creed and the biblical canon in the

early church. Fairbairn made some worthy notes concerning the heretical tendencies in chapter six “Confessing One God.” “When a culture’s thought patterns and beliefs are similar to the Christian message but not the same, there is always a danger of reading too much of one’s own culture into the gospel” (117). The Persian church would easily fall prey to dualism because of Zoroastrianism; the Greek philosophy, especially in the form of Platonism, would lure the Greek-speaking church into unequal trinity and soul’s rising up soteriology; influenced by the pragmatic Roman mind, the Latin church of the West tended to be content with a form of Trinitarian theology with mere concepts of oneness and threeness and thus without deep engagement with the distinctions between the persons. Here we see a benefit of appreciating the other parts of the global church, namely, to develop a better reflective thinking of our own cultural assumptions which on the one hand would provide points of connection with the gospel message, but on the other hand would yield to unintended mistakes in our understanding of the Christian faith.

Turning to part two, Fairbairn surveys the changing situation of the Christian churches when political rulers embraced Christianity in the fourth century, and those who didn’t, as well as the theological controversies and mission movement ensued in the following centuries. A lesser-known fact concerning fourth-century Christianity is that the Roman empire was only

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one of the four kingdoms that favored the Christian faith. The other three kingdoms were Armenia, Georgia, and Aksum (nowadays Ethiopia). Another perhaps even more shocking development during that time was the changing attitude of Persian Empire toward Christianity triggered by the conversion of Constantine the Great. Fearing that the local Christians would become turncoats allying themselves with the Romans whose emperor passionately embraced Christianity, the Sassanid Persians launched a decadeslong campaign of persecution against the Persian church. “The horror that Persian Christians had to face in the fourth century was far greater that the earlier sufferings of Christians farther west, but for most Persians, there was no happy ending on this earth” (164). The vindication of the saints, after all, must be from the age to come.

Finally, in part three, Fairbairn covers the rise of Islam and the ensuing impact brought to the Christians within its conquered regions through the eighth century. As opposed to the stereotypical view that the Muslims were always fervent and bellicose religious fundamentalists, their attitude towards Christians within the Islamic realm was initially favorable. Two reasons behind this perhaps unexpected stance: first, the theological dividing lines between the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) were not yet obvious to average religious adherents; second, the political energy of the Arabs was directed outwardly to military expansion

rather than inwardly to religious consolidation of the society. It wasn’t until the late-seventh century that the status of Christians began to deteriorate as the new Caliphate Al-Malik (r.685–705) implemented a series of policies that bolstered a unique Islamic Arabic religious and cultural identity.

Several comments are in order. First, while the chronological and geographical breadth of the book may seem daunting to many readers, the author’s ability to keep his account in a manageable fashion is commendable. Second, the concluding reflection of each of the chapters deserves extra attention that not only summarize the key development of the corresponding historical period but also provide theological perspective on how to access the development from a Protestant position.

Third and finally, the author argues that despite the theological and ecclesiastical variations existed among different regions, the story of Christian history during the first eight centuries was one story. However, the single story then turned into multiple stories. The reasons for the drifting apart between different Christian traditions, according to Fairbairn, are political (the rivalry between Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium; the isolation of the Asian churches under the more austere Islamic government) as well as theological (the filoque controversy). However, since the author defines “single story” as a form of creedal consensus, “a story of common faith in one God, the creator of all things. This God, the Father

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Almighty, created us through his divine Son and divine Spirit . . . he sent his Son and Spirit into our world . . . to save us and bring us back into relationship with him” (369), the reasons above which accounted for the emergence of multiple stories are all invalid. In fact, Fairbairn’s argument for the commonality underlying the Christian history of the first eight centuries was in one way or another still applicable to the global Christian church after the eighth century. It seems more plausible to me that the Christian history through the twenty centuries was, and still is, one story.

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We’re sparking your thoughts for Sunday! Jessica Bordeleau hosts weekly conversations with homiletics professors Dr. David Schmitt and Dr. Peter Nafzger. Their discussions on the lectionary text will give your sermon and lesson plan a fresh start.



SEPT. 19-20, 2023





Titles now available in The Conversations in Preaching Series from Concordia Seminary Press

“Each book in the series takes up one topic relevant to the preaching task and begins a conversation. At the heart of the conversation is a Lutheran sensibility of preaching.”

The Gregg H. Benidt Memorial Professor of Homiletics and Literature Concordia Seminary


Dr. David Schmitt

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