Tag Archives: Martin Luther


Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, is one of several Luther biographies I have on my shelf and it is a classic work, even if it is a little dry to read. I want to focus in on an insight from one of the last chapters called ‘The Struggle for Faith’ in most of what I write below but first I’m going to indulge a bit of nostalgia since this was also the first book on Luther’s life that I read many, many years ago while I was in middle school. I remember giving a presentation, it was required that we do a biography on a historical figure, and since I knew very little about this person so important they named the denomination I grew up in (and continue to be a part of) I remember finding this book and choosing it from the library. I also remember my verdict on the book, it was boring (to a middle schooler much of the impact of the theological debates was lost). Still over three decades later I find myself once again returning to this classic bio of Luther and finding a new insight from it.

Anfechtung, the spiritual struggle that Luther endured throughout his life which included both elements of depression and self-doubt combined with a struggle for faith, was a continual if frequently unwanted partner in Luther’s life. Luther’s struggle to find a gracious God would provide strength and hope for many people but it also came at a high cost for Luther. Luther’s impact and talent were prodigious and he became an inspirational figure of faith for countless people and yet in his personal life he was in a continual struggle for faith. He proclaimed that God was always good and yet he struggled to accept this gospel for himself. He until the very end felt unworthy of the grace he proclaimed. A quote from Luther and then Bainton that I found helpful:


If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never been subjected to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experience great assaults. (Luther)


Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid. (Bainton, 283)


I have sometimes admired those for whom faith is simple, who seem to be unquestioning in their trust but that is not my experience of faith. I have often questioned my own struggles of faith, depression and have occassionally viewed them as crippling to my ministry. Yet, perhaps what may be an excessive emotional sensitivity may also be a critical part of my hermeneutical insight, my pastoral presence and my preaching’s relevance. Perhaps it is the vulnerability that allows questions and doubt that allows grace to enter in through my own weakness. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the Lutheran theological tradition resonate with me even today.

Revelation’s Interpretation Through Time

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw any strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”(Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier, 2012, p. 11) Particularly in the last couple hundred years we have seen some strange creatures emerge as interpreters of Revelation. Certain groups within Christianity, who are looking for certainty and answers, have found the book of Revelation as an irresistible puzzle to decode as they attempt to find a way to predict the future. Yet, the church has always puzzled with how to use the book of Revelation. While its original readers would have heard this as a text in a way that helped make sense of their position as a small minority in a hostile empire the position of the church in society would continue change. How does a church which eventually would become the religion of the land deal with these odd visions? Sometimes Revelation would be virtually ignored within the larger canon of the scriptures, while at other times it would capture the imagination of writers, interpreters, and artists.

John, the stated author of Revelation, probably writes somewhere between the year 80 and 100. The book of Revelation, as it is originally written, is a sharp challenge to the claims made by the Roman empire. As Christianity strove for recognition within the Roman empire Christian apologists tended to distance the anti-imperial rhetoric from the way they discussed Revelation. Revelation’s images would be used by early witnesses of the western church, like Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, in their apologetics to attempt to show how Christianity was related to Judaism. Ireneaus in his conflict with Marcion used the image of the four beasts around the throne to argue why there should be four gospels in contrast to Marcion who wanted only an edited version of Luke’s gospel along with Paul’s letters. In the eastern church the book of Revelation received even less usage. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 254) showed that the Revelation and the Gospel of John could not have been written by the same person due to literary form, writing style, and theological content. The church historian Eusebius (d. 339) listed Revelation as one of the recognized books but acknowledged that some grouped it with the rejected writings. The first known commentary on Revelation wasn’t written until the end of the second century by Victorinus of Pettau (d. 304) and this work would inform many future writings on Revelation. As Craig Koester can relate on this commentary, “In his view, the vision of the Lamb breaking the seals on God’s scroll shows that Christ reveals the meaning of Scripture through his death and resurrection (In Apoc. 1.4; 4.1-5:3; Huber, “Aspekte”). Like many modern interpreters, Victorinus observed that the beast has traits of the Roman emperors, especially Nero.” (Koester, 2014, p. 33)

In the time after the edict of Milan (313), which made Christianity tolerated throughout the Roman empire, the church had a new struggle: to define the faith. Within this struggle to articulate how they would talk about who Jesus was and how Jesus was related to God images from Revelation would continue to play their role along with the gospels and letters of Paul. Particularly the identity of Christ as the Alpha and the Omega would become decisive for the way the church would talk about Jesus in the time after the council of Nicea (325). In this time artwork of Christ victory and reign over the world would begin to integrate Revelation motifs. Yet, the Roman empire itself would be challenged by both internal and external forces and as Christianity continued to exist in this world Revelation would provide some of the theologians of the church a lens to view the world. St. Augustine’s adapted a reading of Revelation (from Tyconius) which saw a conflict between the city of God and the city of the world: interpreting both the present age but also the internal spiritual struggle between the powers of sin and grace in the life of the believer. St. Jerome, best known for his translation of the bible into Latin, created his own spiritualistic reading of Revelation where separating oneself from Babylon means resisting sin, but it may also involve retreating to a monastic lifestyle.

The Medieval Period (500-1000) would see Rome’s empire divided: North Africa would be captured by Islamic forces, Germanic kingdoms would rise in the west and the Byzantine empire would rise in the east. It was a time of plagues and instability, of invasions by Vikings from the north and Magyars from the Balkans. During this time of instability the church continued to grow in power and influence. There would be frequent calls for reform of the church but frequently these reforms would be resisted by the church’s leadership. This resistance made some turn Revelation’s vision of Babylon into a critique of the papacy—which would continue into the sixteenth century and beyond. In the late Medieval period, Joachim of Fiore’s (d. 1202) mystical view of history where there were three ages (the age of the Father, the age of the Son and the age of the Spirit) reawakened an interest in the thought of Revelation. He believed that history was progressing towards the age of the Spirit and reforming pope might lead the way into that age. In his view the seven heads of the dragon symbolized the persecutors of the church from Herod and Nero to the Muslim warrior Saladin in his own time.

The age of reform in the sixteenth century would bring about very different views about the book of Revelation. Erasmus (d. 1536) reopened the question about the status of Revelation, and Revelation held little attraction for his piety centered on the imitation of Christ. Luther (d. 1546) also questioned the place of Revelation, especially since in his view, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” (LW 35: 399) Yet, even as Revelation would be added at the end of the New Testament with Hebrews, James, and Jude (the other books Luther questioned) and be unnumbered we also see within the artists of Luther’s time the capturing of Revelation’s images. For example, Revelation was the only book in Luther’s German NT that was fully illustrated by woodcuts from Lucas Cranach and Philip Nicolai (d. 1608) used images from Revelation to respond to an outbreak of plague that took thousands of lives by writing “Wachet Auf,” or “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”

Although Zwingli also believed that Revelation was not a biblical book and it would be the only book in the New Testament that Calvin would not write a commentary on, the reformed church’s theological belief in an orderly history allowed many later writers to see Revelation as a part of God’s prophetic outlying of how history would unfold. In the seventeenth century figures like John Napier, Joseph Mede and even Isaac Newton became fascinated with using mathematics to attempt to decode the imagery of Revelation. They desired to see order even within the book of Revelation and that showed God’s overarching providence. The anabaptist movement was also heavily influenced by Revelation. In 1525 Thomas Müntzer would call for the common people to take up arms as instruments of the four horsemen bringing the wrath of God to the world. Müntzer’s rebellion would be dealt with brutally by the armies of the authorities. Other anabaptist communities would form communities of purity and nonviolence interpreting the book as an image of the church’s spiritual life on earth.

Music continued to be a place where the images of Revelation would resonate. Handel’s Messiah, focused on the hopeful aspects of Revelation’s imagery and worship. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862 to advocate for the abolition of slavery and turned these images to rally support for the Northern war effort. Robert Lowery would use the image of the river at the end of Revelation for consolation in “Shall We Gather at the River.” Revelation would figure prominently in African American worship of the time and several songs, perhaps most famously, “When the Saints Go Marching In” utilize imagery from Revelation.

Futuristic interpretations begin to arise in the 1800s particularly in England and the United States. When the French Revolution brought in an era of terror and conquest rather that hope and peace, interpreters began to lose the optimism that reason would bring us into God’s kingdom and began to look for a sudden, cataclysmic return of Christ. In the United States, William Miller (d. 1849), whose theological heritage would lead to the Seventh Day Adventists, attempted to predict from Daniel and Revelation when Christ would return. When October 22, 1844, his predicted date, passed he continued to look for mistakes in his calculations and when he died in 1849 others would continue this work. One of the most popular interpretive frameworks in the United States is Dispensationalism which goes back to Nelson Darby (d. 1882) and was brought in popular form to the United States by Cyrus Scofield (d. 1921) in his Scofield Reference Bible. Two markers of this interpretation are that Revelation 4-22 prophesied times yet to come, rather than referring to events that have happened, and that the faithful church would be raptured (removed) prior to the seven years of tribulation on earth. This theology would be put into narrative form in the Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Revelation has proved illusive to being locked into a single interpretation, and perhaps that is a part of why it resonates. Its images are powerful and poetic, and particularly for the artists and musicians of the church Revelation has provided some fertile ground. There are interpretations, like Dispensationalism, which I don’t find particularly helpful and do not make sense from the perspective of a first century audience or for the way I read scripture. As an heir of Luther’s tradition, I can understand his hesitance in assigning Revelation a place within the canon alongside the gospels and Paul’s letters, and yet I am convinced that read alongside these writings we can hear Revelation as a witness to Christ. My goal is to attempt for a reading of Revelation that can be faithful to its original intent but also continue to speak to the church in its context. I am humble enough to realize that I am a part of the long history of readers attempting to make sense of this book and yet I do believe that we need, in a time where Revelation’s imagery is all around us in popular culture. I am heavily indebted to Craig Koester for the above discussion on the history of interpretation and you can find a much fuller witness to the history of interpretation in his commentary on Revelation. (Koester, 2014, pp. 29-64)


An Ongoing Reference to Luther’s Works

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

I am a Lutheran pastor but not a Lutheran scholar and the breadth of Luther’s works makes them a staggering task to approach. As a part of my study of various books of the scriptures I have also made it my practice, recently, to attempt to go through Luther’s works interpreting scriptures which may not be as concise as many of his theological works but give me as a reader some exposure to the evolution of Luther’s thought and theology in conversation with the Word that he cherished. I also think it is useful as we approach each volume to honestly look at what Luther’s interpretation over 500 years ago in his earliest works might have to still contribute in our time (and some books will be better handled by Luther’s theology than others).

Luther’s Works, Volume 9- Lectures on Deuteronomy (1523-1525)-This volume was written five years after the 95 theses and Luther’s theology and his Christocentric and preference for a plain text reading of scripture are beginning to emerge. Luther in this work is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods of interpretation he learned in his earlier work, but we see a hermeneutic beginning to evolve. Luther, due to the subject matter, also speaks a lot about his view of the law and its purpose in the life of the believer. Those familiar with Luther’s theology would see his first and second uses of the law reflected in the theological approach to adopting Deuteronomy. One of the other unfortunate things one sees in this volume is a heavily anti-Jewish tone which Luther becomes famous for in some of his late writings. Those who want to confine Luther’s anti-Semitic comments to those later works will be disappointed in the way they occur frequently in his exegetical work. Luther for all his gifts is a man of his time.

Luther’s Works, Volume 10- First Lecture on the Psalm, Psalms 1-75 (1513-1515)- This is a pre-reformation Luther and so his methodology is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods taught in the renaissance university. Luther is beginning to exercise the linguistic and explore some new hermeneutic roads but his theology has not developed yet. It is amazing how far Luther will come within a few short years after these lectures. There is not a lot in these lectures that are going to be enlightening to a modern reading of the Psalms or that will shed much light on Luther’s later theology. This is probably best used as a reference to understand where Luther’s theology begins before it fully develops.

Luther’s Works, Volume 11- First Lectures on the Psalms II, Psalms 76-126 (1513-1515)-Like the previous volume, this is a pre-reformation Luther and these lectures on the psalms will be strange to any modern reader unfamiliar with the allegorical and typological readings of the renaissance and earlier. There is not a lot of Luther’s developed theology in these works. The Psalms are mainly read from a Christological perspective and many of the readings are deeply critical of the Jewish people and faith. As with volume 10 there is not much that will be enlightening to a modern reader of the Psalms and should really be viewed as a historical document to understand the early theological perspective of Luther and how is evolves.

Luther’s Works, Volume 12- Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 2, 8, 19, 23, 45, 51 (1524-1536 depending on the Psalm) These are later approaches to the Psalms by Luther and they reflect his more developed theology. These are primarily Theological/Christological approaches to the Psalms. Luther still relies heavily on an allegorical approach to reading scripture which places each of the Psalms as either spoken through Christ or talking about Christ. Other times the Psalms become launching points for Luther to expound upon the Reformation theology. Some of these expositions can become very lengthy and he can discuss a single Psalm for a hundred pages, but there are some good insights into Luther’s Christological approach to scripture and his more developed theology in this volume.

Luther’s Works, Volume 13-Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 68, 82, 90, 101, 110, 111, 112 (1521-1535 depending on the Psalm) These continue to show Luther’s theology and way of reading scripture developing as well as illustrating some of the conflicts he was engaged in. You also see Luther the preacher in the expositions on the psalms using very earthy imagery and simple illustrations and proverbs. Luther’s reads the psalms through a very Christocentric lens, and many of the psalms he interprets as either applying directly to Christ or the Lord’s Supper. Luther continues to be verbose in his exposition, covering seven psalms in four hundred pages, and some of these expositions were multiple sermons or teachings. Even as Luther’s theological interpretation of scripture develops it would still be strange to most modern interpreters.

Luther’s Works, Volume 15- Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The Last Words of David 2 Samuel 23: 1-7 These are three separate works joined together in one volume and so I will treat each one separately.

Ecclesiastes (Initial lectures 1526, published in 1532)- Luther enjoyed Ecclesiastes and we see him begin to utilize a more plain text reading. There are still times where he falls back into allegory, but there are also times where he has a very lucid reading of the text that would be echoed in some modern commentators. Luther prefers to call this the Politics or the Economics of Solomon and within the later chapters one can see some of Luther’s own political theology (with its respect for temporal authority) being given voice as he wrestles with Ecclesiastes. Luther grasps the way in which our yearning for future things is in his words ‘a part of the depraved affection and desires of men’(8) and reflective of the ‘inconstancy of the human heart’ (10).

Song of Songs (Delivered 1530-31, published in 1539)- Luther, like most classical interpreters of the Song of Songs, reads this work allegorically as an illustration of the relationship between God and the people of God, or specifically for Luther between Christ and the church. Many of Luther’s concepts (law/gospel, two kingdoms, etc.) play into the interpretation and explication of the allegory. It is interesting to see the sexual language of Song of Songs explained away into something ‘purer’ and although Luther does a good job of drawing out an allegorical reading his overall interpretation in not as insightful as many of his other works.

Last Words of David (1543)-This is a polemical work and it bears the same ugly language of On the Jews and their Lies which appeared in the same year. This is the dark side of Luther’s Christocentric way of approaching scripture. If you want to learn about Luther’s later views on the Jewish people and Muslims this is one of the places where his anti-Jewish views are clearly exhibited. Luther spends a lot of time revisiting the Christological debates of the early church and attempting to argue in a way that would be unlikely to convince anyone who wasn’t already a Christian. Perhaps he was trying to erase any perception that he could have been an ally to the Jewish people from some of his earlier writings, but this is really an ugly piece.

Luther’s Works, Volume 21-The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat

The Sermon on the Mount composes the majority of this volume and reflects some of the developed theological themes of the Lutheran reformation. Particularly the division of the two kingdoms (the kingdom of God and the secular kingdom) and the division of law and gospel are apparent in Luther’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. The Magnificat is a much shorter work, on a smaller piece of scripture, written for Prince John Fredrick and perhaps most remarkably in this work is Luther’s favorable, for the 1500s, treatment of the Jewish people at the very end of the work.

Treatise on Good Works (1520) This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. A good translation of Luther’s 1520 treatise in a good visual presentation. Luther uses the ten commandments as the basis for this treatise to talk about the place of good works in relation to faith. It reads like a series of sermons or some of his other teachings. There are some good theological insights but it is a 1520 document and reflects the thoughts and language of that time.

The Annotated Luther, Volume 4: Pastoral Writings This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The volume is visually attractive to read and well put together. Several of the works are excellent examples of Luther’s creative and pastoral thought including: Selected Hymns, the Small Catechism, and Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague. Some of the works like the Little Prayer Book could’ve been left out, but they do show a development of Luther’s thought and style. Overall a good collection of Luther’s writings directed towards his pastoral theology and actions.

Psalm 11: Confident Faith in the Midst of Trouble

Giovanni Francesco Barberi (il Guercino), King David (1651)

Giovanni Francesco Barberi (il Guercino), King David (1651)

Psalm 11

To the leader. Of David.
1 In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
 2 for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
 3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
 4 The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
 5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.
 6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
 7 For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.

This is another Psalm where we do not know the threat that David (Psalm 11 is attributed to David) faces, yet the advice to flee like a bird to the mountains because of the strength of those opposing the speaker poetically evokes a mortal threat. Yet there is a defiance in the initial line which sets the tone for the rest of the Psalm, “In the LORD I take refuge.” The Psalmist trusts that, even in the midst of a life threatening situation, the LORD sees and will act. This Psalm, like many of the Psalms, revolves around the active move to take refuge in the LORD and to trust that the LORD will act. It means relinquishing control over one’s future and to stand in the trust that even in the midst of the speaker’s powerlessness that God can indeed act on behalf of the righteous and against the wicked.

This defiant stance, of trusting the LORD in the presence of danger, is a frequent theme of the Psalmist. For the writers of the Psalms they trust that God does see, act and judge. That God sustains the righteous and will in time punish the wicked. The author’s trust in God enables them to place themselves into the position of danger even when they may feel powerless. This poetic approach to faith that trusts in the midst of crisis has been a balm for many of the faithful across the generations. Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’, which is inspired by Psalm 46 is an echo of this type of faith. Yet, the Psalms are poetic and not dogmatic and just because the poet is able to appeal to the LORD in the midst of their situation does not condemn a person who may flee in a different situation.

In 1527, during the early reformation at Wittenberg, a case of Bubonic plague was discovered. The students were sent home but Luther remained in the city and was busy with pastoral and practical care of the sick. Late in the year Luther wrote an open letter on ‘Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague’ where Luther can endorse the type of faith that is stated here in the Psalm, because in times of death someone must stay: doctors, nurses, preachers and others necessary to care for the afflicted. But Luther also allows that there will be those whose faith is not at this place and they should be allowed to flee and that those who are unnecessary may be acting on a natural tendency, implanted by God to flee death and save one’s life. (Luther, 1989, pp. 736-755) Luther’s caution was not to condemn those whose walk of faith allowed them to flee like a bird to the mountains nor those who for the sake of the neighbor walked into the place where death seemed to reign.

Deuteronomy 8 The Dangers of Abundance

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Deuteronomy 8: 1-10 The LORD’s Care in the Exodus

1 This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors. 2 Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3 He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 4 The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the LORD your God disciplines you. 6 Therefore keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10 You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.


Deuteronomy 8 breaks into two sections, one looks back and one looks forward. Looking back to the journey of the people through the wilderness, a place without the resources for easy survival of a large people migrating from one land to another, they are reminded of the way the LORD provided in the midst of their scarcity. As Luther could say in his day:

God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. (Luther, 1994, p. 25)

In the reflective mode of book of Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people how God provided food and water, made their clothes and shoes endure the forty years, kept their bodies from showing the strain of the difficult journey and in general preserved the people through their ordeal.

The time of the Exodus was also a time of testing and discipline for the people as they slowly began to be prepared to enter the Promised Land. This chapter uses parent-child language in verse 5 to talk about the way that the LORD has been teaching the people how to live as the covenant people of God and to prepare them to live in this bountiful land. In the parental role God has attempted to provide a healthy set of boundaries and provide a pattern for their relationship with one another. In a culture where identity was inherited, passed down from parent to child, they have been in the process of constructing a new set of identities. Once their identities were fixed as slaves in Egypt because they were Hebrew and not Egyptian, now their identity is that of children of God, freed from their captivity in Egypt. Their parent’s generation was a generation in transition, continually looking back to their previous identity and being called into a new one but now this generation has to construct a new identity. Their existence has been one of wandering and relying upon God for their daily bread. Their parents and grandparents were captives, now they are to be conquerors. Now that they have grown into their role as the people of God they are ready to inherit a land rich in agricultural produce, mineral wealth and flowing stream. They are now being addressed as the grown children who, like Adam in the book of Genesis, will be called to work and tend this garden for the LORD.  They too will be tempted in their abundance and will be enticed to construct new identities other than the one they are inheriting from their parental God.



Deuteronomy 8: 11-20 The Dangers of Complacency and Affluence

11 Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. 19 If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the LORD is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.


Martin Luther could say of this passage, “(So) where abundance prevails, do not be puffed up or carelessly forget God. Whether everything is on hand or everything is lacking, cling to your God always with the same heart.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 92) And yet the fear portrayed, and realized through the later books of the Deuteronomic history, is that the people will not cling to their God with the same heart. When they are no longer dependent upon God for their daily bread in the same manner they will quickly begin to take their own security for granted. As David Martin, when talking about modern day Pentecostalism, can state, “Unsurprisingly, given so many of them are the ‘damned of the earth’, they respond to an Old Testament emphasis on good things God has in store for the righteous.” And the narratives of Deuteronomy portray a people who had been among the ‘damned of the earth’ and may well have been compiled to be told to a people feeling they are the ‘damned of the earth’ again as they sit in exile in Babylon. The people are needing to hear a promise of what God can do but also a cautionary tale of how when they have all that they need they run the risk of losing their identity. As immigrant cultures come to the United States the first generation typically comes with the values of the homeland and the language of the homeland, but subsequent generation become further and further removed from the language, culture and values of their ancestors homes, so too in a story of the Hebrew people they will begin, in a state of relative comfort, to adapt to the culture and the values that surround them. While the Ten Commandments may call them to care for their neighbor, and earlier in Deuteronomy is the call to care for the vulnerable among the community: the orphan, the alien, the widow, slaves, etc. Yet, the gods of materialism are seductive and call the individual to seek their own best interest, to follow the gods of their stomachs and desires, and to allow their living covenant with the God of Israel to become a set of religious practices separated from the rest of their lives. Deuteronomy continually reminds the people of their relationship to the LORD that their identity is found in the covenant they have with their God and that if they lose that identity their lives, property, and security are all at risk. That they too, even when abundance prevails, are to cling to their God with the same heart knowing that their daily bread still comes from the provision of the God of their ancestors.

Psalm 5- The God Who Hears and Protects

Gustave Dore, David Mourning Absalom (1866)

Gustave Dore, David Mourning Absalom (1866)

Psalm 5

<To the leader: for the flutes. A Psalm of David.>
 Give ear to my words, O LORD;give heed to my sighing.
 2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
 3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
 4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.
 5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
 6 You destroy those who speak lies;the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
 7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house,
 I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
 8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies;
 make your way straight before me.
 9 For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.
 10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.
 11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,so that those who love your name may exult in you.
 12 For you bless the righteous, O LORD;you cover them with favor as with a shield.


The God of the Psalmist, and the God presented throughout the bible, is a God who takes sides and values certain things and does not like others. This is not the impassive, unmoved mover of the philosophy of the 1700s-1900s who set the world in motion and then allowed it to move through time like a machine. The passionate cries of the Psalmist assume a God who not only hears but actively responds to the complaints and needs of the poet. Again and again God is named, implored to hear, listen, heed and ultimately to act. One of the courageous acts of the Psalmist and those who pray the Psalms is calling on God to be the God they expect God to be. They remind God of the contrast between the situation they perceive and the things they understand God to value.

In Psalm 5 the contrast is stated in terms of wickedness, lies, bloodshed, deceit and evil. The Psalmist is one who seeks righteousness, and as in Psalm 1 trusts, “for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1.6) and so the poet reminds the LORD again that “you are not a God who delights in wickedness.” Yet the complaint of the Psalmist arises out of the situation where the wicked, the evil, the boastful, liars, bloodthirsty and deceitful are the ones who the Psalmist perceives as their troublemakers. The Psalmist calls on God to act and to do something about this. Perhaps there are those by flattery who are obtaining power or who are accusing the writer of the psalm and the Psalmist asks for the guilt to fall upon them. As in Psalms three and four the Psalmist calls out for protection and for the LORD’s deliverance from the situation that the Psalmist finds themselves caught up within.

There is also the reality that the Psalmist, while attempting to be faithful, relies upon God’s steadfast love. The word translated steadfast love is hesed which also can be translated as grace. This is one of the many places in the Psalms where Martin Luther and others could find evidence of the gracious God who met the hearer in the midst of their own unworthiness. As in the reformation where the response to God’s grace was to love, serve, worship, and obey the LORD, so in the Psalm the steadfast love of the LORD is cause for awe and worship. The LORD is the Psalmist’s refuge and the refuge of all who seek the LORD. In language that would be familiar to many the LORD is refuge and shield, protection in the midst of their trouble and a safe place where the faithful may sing for joy and rejoice.

Peace, Peace When There Is No Peace: Jeremiah 6: 9-14

The Door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg where Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses. The Theses are now engraved in the metal doors.

The Door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg where Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses. The Theses are now engraved in the metal doors.

9 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Glean thoroughly as a vine the remnant of Israel;
like a grape-gatherer, pass your hand again over its branches.
10 To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.
The word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.
11 But I am full of the wrath of the LORD; I am weary of holding it in.
Pour it out on the children in the street,
and on the gatherings of young men as well;
both husband and wife shall be taken, the old folk and the very aged.
12 Their houses shall be turned over to others,
their fields and wives together;
for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land, says the LORD.
13 For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.
14 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying,
“Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
The posting of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther for debate in Wittenberg touched off a firestorm in Europe that would rage for a century, and most people think of the beginning of the reformation as a theological movement, which it was, but the 95 theses gained the immediate attention they did because they addressed an economic reality. I think it is telling that thesis 92 (which sets up the final three theses) explicitly refers to Jeremiah 6: 14:
92. Away then with the prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! [Jer. 6:14]
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14: 22] (Luther 1989, 29)

Luther felt that the people had placed their trust in the wrong place; in the reformation context they had placed their faith in the church and not in Christ. In Jeremiah’s context the people have trusted the rulers and the temple, but not God- and the consequences of that misplaced trust are devastating. Rather than making a single pass over the grapevine of Israel, Jeremiah is told to make a second pass so there is very little remaining for the people do not hear the prophet’s warning-others have told them a more pleasant message. The prophet is at the point where he has been the bearer of this message that has fallen on deaf ears, and he feels ready to break, even though he knows the result will be devastation. The litany of children, husband and wives, old and aged, least to greatest, prophet and priest, everyone is to be caught up in the tide of wrath.
We live in a culture that doesn’t deal with God’s wrath very well. Churches in the United States that tend to talk about God’s wrath tend to direct it towards primarily moralistic (and particularly sexual) behaviors. But in the Bible God’s wrath is a function of God’s grief over the turning of the people away from their vocation as the people of God and the ways in which injustice and greed have taken over the narrative of who they are.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

Why the sign of the rose?

The rose was a symbol of the last Great Reformation, which we most often associate with Martin Luther and the posting of the 95 Theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  In Luther’s seal the predominant image that gives form to the overall seal is that of a rose.  A rose was often worn as a mark to identify oneself as an adherent to the reformation in those early days of the conflict that would come to dominate the shape of the next 500 years of Christianity.  Protestant and Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Episcopal, Baptist and every other heritage of the Western Church found themselves reshaping their practices and life together in the midst of the impact of the Great Reformation of the Church.

It should go without saying that the world has changed dramatically in the last 500 years, that many of the questions of the reformation are not the questions of a society that is predominantly visual and digital rather than oral, a society that went through the enlightenment, capitalism and communism, modernity and post-modernity, from a printing press to the iPad.  The world is in a state of rapid transition and along with it the lives of those who attempt to live faithfully also are in a state of upheaval.  This is not the first time this has happened, nor will it probably be the last.  Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why points to the reality that about once every 500 years society goes through a ‘rummage sale’ and re-examines what it believes and why it believes what it does.  I agree that we are in the lead up to another Great Emergence, that  who we are as people and what matters is going through a period of upheaval and re-evaluation. For me this is a place to put down some of my early reflections on what I as a reflective person of faith see, and my initial thoughts on what it means.

So why the sign of the rose?  In the first case these reflections are sub rosa (under the rose) in the sense that they are the musings of an heir of the last Great Reformation, as an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) minister I take very seriously the gift that my particular and the worldwide church has given us throughout the past 500 years, and indeed I am an heir to the church’s roughly 2,000 years of both great triumphs and colossal missteps.  This is a voice on the emergence of a new reformation coming from under the faithful services of one shaped by the history of the past reformation.  It is also sub rosa in a second sense, it is somewhat covert at this point.  In espionage there is the sense that something done sub rosa is covert, and these reflections may well be viewed by some as dangerous, unfaithful, heretical and any number of other adjectives.  But in a time of great change, there is and will be conflict over the ideas that take form and shape the world going forward.

The questions of meaning, of God, of life are not solely the property of the church, in fact I have found in recent years that some of my best conversations have been with people outside the church and people of other faiths. I have certainly seen the church and people of faith struggle to engage difficult (and sometimes even trivial questions) and I am going to tackle some foundations that may be very uncomfortable to many, but may be liberating for many others.  As a blog this is a work in evolution, it is asking the difficult questions, not attempting to provide the one unequivocal answer (as if such a thing could exist in post-modern mind).  The reality is that if you agree with everything I say, you probably are giving me too much credit. Welcome to an encounter with one person’s reflective faith and encounter with the world and with God.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com