Thursday, December 29, 2011

God's Name

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about God's name:

Q:  What is God’s Name?  Many religions talk about “god,” but does the Christian God have a unique name?

For Americans, it used to be that the identity of “God” was very clear.  55 years ago, the nation was largely Christian, and the question, “Do you believe in God?” meant, “Are you a Christian?”  In the years since, that clarity about the identity of God, along with the answers to many other spiritual questions has been largely lost.

Today, when someone speaks of “god,” they could mean the Christian God, but it is just as likely that they mean the God of some other religion, a deity they have cobbled together from the various thoughts of many religions, or merely a generic “higher power” which may or may not have a precise name.

This lack of clarity in the language for god is not unique to our culture.  For example, in nations which speak the Arabic language, both Christians and Muslims use the term “Allah” to refer to their god.  Likewise, both Jews and Christians could recognize the many terms used by the Old Testament as references to their god, even though their definitions of that God are drastically different.

The two most common Hebrew terms that the Bible uses for God are “Elohim” and “YHWH.”  Elohim is a general term used for a deity in the Hebrew language, but since the Israelites believed that only one real God existed, and that the others were false, this term came to be used as a specific term for their God, much like Americans would have used the word “God” until the late-1950s. 

YHWH, on the other hand was the proper name for God.  This is the name revealed by God to Moses when He spoke from the Burning Bush, saying, “I am that I am.”  Sometimes this word is written in English as “Yaweh,” and it is thought to be pronounced like “Yah-way.”  However the precise vowels within the name as well as its pronunciation cannot be decisively identified by modern scholars.  This is because the Israelites took the commandment against using God’s name in vain so seriously that they refused to pronounce it at all, instead substituting the word “Adonai” (which means “Lord”) or “Ha-Shem” (which means “the name”) when they would read it out loud.  Eventually, the vowel sounds within the word were no longer known by later generations and therefore lost to history. 

These Hebrew Words were translated into Greek in the New Testament as “Theos” (the generic term for a god) and “Ho Kurios” (which is literally translated as “the Lord”).  We also have specific revelation of God in the person of Jesus, who said that the only way to know God the Father was to know Him and the only way to come to God the Father is through Him.  Therefore, it is also accurate to say that God’s name is Jesus, as reflected in the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”  (i.e. “Jesus is YHWH.”)

For Christians, it is important to choose our language carefully when speaking about spiritual things, because we must remember that when we say the word “God,” it may not be understood by our neighbors in the same way we mean it, which can be an obstacle to accurately communicating the Truth. 

For myself, I have a personal habit of avoiding the generic word “God” to a large extent, when preaching or writing, because it is too easy today for every person listening to simply fill in their own definition.  For the sake of clarity, I instead attempt to use terms like The Trinity, The Lord, Triune God, God the Father, God the Son, Jesus, God the Holy Spirit, or The One True God as much as possible so that it will be abundantly clear to anyone listening that I am not speaking about a generic deity or about the God of every person’s individual understanding, but instead about a specific God who has revealed Himself in specific ways resulting in a precisely definable identity. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of creeds:

Q:  Why do some churches say creeds during their worship services?  Isn’t believing in these creeds a way of adding onto the Bible?  If a church requires adherence to any document other than the Bible, isn’t that against the Reformation principle of “Scripture Alone” that protestants claim to believe?

There are many forms of creeds found throughout Christianity.  The three that are almost-universally accepted, and which many churches speak publically as a part of public worship are the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  The Apostles’ Creed is typically associated with Baptism and with the prayer offices of the Church.  The Nicene Creed is typically associated with the Lord’s Supper, and the Athanasian Creed, the longest and most complicated of the three, is traditionally said on occasions specifically associated with the doctrine of the Trinity, such as the first Sunday after Pentecost.

During the first 400 years after Jesus ascended into heaven, representatives from all of Christianity met seven times in response to false teachings that had arisen.  They gathered in council to evaluate these new teachings and responded by formulating statements of what was true, based on the writings of the Apostles, which we know as the New Testament.  These three creeds are the result of the councils mentioned above, and from that point until the founding of the United States over 1300 years later, they were considered the standard for Christian orthodoxy.  If anyone agreed with these creeds, even if they disputed other teachings of the Church, they were considered within the scope of Christianity, and if anyone disagreed with elements of these creeds, they were considered outside the scope of Christianity.

This is true to such an extent that my Lutheran predecessors emphasized their consistency with historical Christianity by including them as the first documents in their collection of statements about what they as a group believed in comparison to their Roman Catholic and Reformed neighbors of the time. 

To confess these creeds, whether as foundation for one’s written doctrine, or as a public act of worship, is not a way of adding onto the Bible, though.  This is because these creeds are summaries of what is contained in the Bible.  In fact, fragments of these creeds can be seen already in the letters of the Apostle Paul, as he quotes them as evidence for which doctrine is true or false in the congregations he is addressing. 

The reason these creeds are necessary is because throughout the history of Christianity, people have frequently misunderstood the message of the Bible, and as a result, strayed from the truth.  These creeds serve as a succinct and time-tested way to begin instructing new Christians in the faith, so that as they begin to read the Bible, they can “stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them” as these foundational statements undergird their personal reading, as well as an easily-memorized way that Christians can test the statements of unknown teachers against established truth to judge whether the teacher in question ought to be believed. 

In the centuries since these creeds, the tradition of summarizing the doctrines of churches in a written statement has continued with documents such as the Book of Concord among Lutherans and the “Westminster Confession” and the “Canons of the Synod of Dort” among protestants.

However, this is not to say that these creeds or other confessions are to be considered equal to the Bible.  Instead, they are always subject to what is taught in the Bible, and derive their authority from the Bible. 

At the same time, the three major creeds listed at the beginning of this article are not merely examples of what Christians have believed in the past.  Instead, they are statements of timeless truth which reflect the essence and foundation of Christian teaching.  Since God Himself does not change, neither does His Truth, and since these creeds reflect and embody that Truth as revealed in the Bible, they themselves remain true for all time, regardless of the changes in human opinion and perspective which may have occurred in the generations since.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Divorce & Remarriage

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about divorce and remarriage:

Q:  Under what circumstances does the Bible allow for divorce?  After a divorce, are one or both of the parties allowed to remarry, and under what circumstances? 

Strictly speaking, the Bible allows only one circumstance under which a marriage ought to come to an end.  That circumstance is the death of one spouse.  A widow or widower is given no special restrictions in the Bible regarding when or whom they may marry beyond those given to other single Christians, so they may remarry as soon as their own conscience allows them. 

However, in light of human sin, Jesus is recorded in the gospels as allowing one condition under which a marriage may end by divorce, which is adultery (sexual unfaithfulness) on the part of one spouse.  In such a case, Jesus said that the spouse who was the victim of the adultery has the option (but not the requirement) to divorce the spouse who committed adultery.  As in all things, the Bible prefers reconciliation of the marriage when possible, but does allow for divorce as a result of adultery when reconciliation is not possible. 

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives several pieces of instruction, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as an Apostle, regarding marriage and divorce.  In doing so, he specifically rejects the idea that spouses may divorce, even over matters as  serious as religious differences, but he does expand upon Jesus’ instruction to allow for divorce in the case of abandonment by one spouse.  Under the circumstance where one spouse unilaterally leaves the marriage against the wishes of the other, he does not fault the spouse who was abandoned for the dissolution of the marriage. 

In reading these instructions from St. Paul, Bible scholars and Christian ethicists have typically concluded that these instructions not only include the allowance for divorce as a result of literal abandonment, but also what has been termed “malicious abandonment.”  Malicious abandonment would include such circumstances as abuse by one spouse toward another, and addiction or other circumstances under which the actions of one spouse significantly compromise the safety of the other spouse or the children in the family. 

Under the circumstances listed above, one spouse in the dissolved marriage would be ethically and morally faulted with causing the divorce, while the other would be considered justified in their decision to end the marriage.  At the same time, a divorce is never solely the fault of one spouse.  Since all marriages are between two sinners, both spouses have always sinned against the other in some manner, even if not in ways that justify divorce.  Remembering this, it is important that both parties acknowledge their sins to God (and perhaps to one another or to their pastor) in the aftermath of the divorce and repent of them, knowing that Jesus’ death is sufficient to forgive all sin, and taking corrective action before considering remarriage.

After a divorce, a pastor would treat every situation individually when divorced Christians are considering remarriage.  If the divorce was not Biblically justifiable based on the criteria above (adultery, abuse, abandonment) then he will need to address this in caring for those desiring remarriage.  If the divorce was Biblically justifiable, then he will have different needs to address in his spiritual care of the person depending on whether they were the guilty party in their divorce or the victim. 

A victimized spouse is morally free to remarry, but should certainly seek guidance and pastoral care as they enter their new marriage, because of the mental and spiritual factors involved with recovering from divorce.  On the other hand, it is also necessary that a spouse guilty of causing their divorce repent of their sin and take corrective action before a responsible pastor will agree to participate in joining them in a new marriage. 

Ultimately, Christian ethics insist that marriage is intended to be a life-long commitment between a husband and wife, but human sin has interfered with this intention and continually causes broken marriages.  Acknowledging this, it is the task and desire of the Church and its pastors to care for all who are broken by the effects of sin in the world, especially making use of God’s gifts of Prayer, Blessing, Scripture, and Sacraments so bring the forgiveness of Jesus to those who have sinned, allowing them to proceed in a new life.