Monday, February 20, 2012

Walther gets me...

It has been so long since I visited with Walther that I cannot remember when that last was.  To be honest, I think that while I have longed to do so for a few months now, I think I have been afraid to pick up my beloved copy of The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.  It is a lovely old book, filled with that wonderful aroma of aged paper and weighted with the quality of craftsmanship that has all but disappeared in today's world of publishing.

I have not yet seen the latest and greatest version that came out last year, but I wouldn't be surprised if the long, long, long paragraphs were broken up or re-worded or somehow modernized.  But my heart sings at the sight of a paragraph that trails down one page and the spills over onto another because it tells me that Walther trusts me to listen and to think, to be patient with his thoughts and to work at gathering them into my mind.  Yet it is for that very reason I have struggled with my desire to be comforted by my best Lutheran friend.

You see, I can hardly call Luther a Lutheran friend, right?  In a way, I think of Luther as my pastor, the one who shepherds my heart the best, the one who truly is a seelsorge to me.  Walther?  Well, he comforts me and consoles me and challenges me in the way someone who misses scholarship greatly longs to experience.  The challenge itself would be enough for me, but while Walther was writing for the audience of another century, another gender, and a vocation of which I have no part, his book reads like a personal letter written from someone who longs to help his good friend and sister in Christ.

But that challenging part.  SIGH.  I struggle so very much cognitively...more so now than three months ago, six months ago, a year.  I have to work and work and work at things that were as natural to me as breathing...and I still get them wrong, still cannot figure them out, still need help.  I was so very afraid that I had completely lost my ability to read Walther.

Alas, I have not!

In a galaxy far, far away, I had left off reading in the 18th Evening Lecture.  Since this one was built up to in the preceding three Evening Lectures, I re-read them.  Then, I dove on into the 18th Evening Lecture and raced on into the 19th.

Walther is writing about his Ninth Thesis.  Now, I could tell you that this is my favorite thesis, but that would be like telling you it is my favorite bit of the Book of Concord.  Favorite must be so very widely defined when it comes to our Confessions and The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel.

In any case, the thesis is this:  In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace. (2)

At the risk of confusing others, I shall jump to the stopping place I found in the 19th Evening Lecture because this is not so much about teaching others as it is about remembering for later:

     ...unless a person clings to the Word, he cannot feel assured; he will waver and vacillate every day and hour.  This moment he will imagine himself a Christian, the next hour he will think that he has deluded himself.
     Luther contends that this testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of God's children is accompanied by strife.  There must be confidence in Christians and at the same time fear and trembling.  This is possible.  I can cross an awful abyss, trembling at the thought that I may be hurled into it; but seeing a barrier erected on both sides of my path, I gather confidence and cross over, confident of safety.  That is the strange paradox in the heart of a Christian:  he fears and trembles and still is assured. (200)

[Two random thoughts: a) Somewhere in the Book of Concord, Luther calls those of us who hold to the Confessions strange, too.  I like that that word is the choice of both men, for I certainly am convinced that I am strange! b) Notice the double entendre: ...gather confidence and cross over.  Ah, how I savor the pen of a skilled writer!]

I am to weary to truly record why it is that I stopped here or to weave together all the thoughts that brought me to this place of rest and reflection.  I do wish to note a couple of observations, along with a few other quotes, though:

The 18th Evening Lecture is primarily about Absolution and the Office of the Keys, or the Keys, while the 19th Evening Lecture is about struggle and anguish and...yes...feelings.  I would almost think these are in reverse order, since our Confessions teach that Absolution should be retained for the anguished souls that they might find the peace of Christ (BOC, AC, XXV, 4).  However, in a sense, the order fits because Walther first talks about how feelings do not matter to salvation and then how feelings do matter to the saved.  Remember the whole of that most wondrous 1st Evening Lecture?  Walther spent all that time telling me what the proper distinction between Law and Gospel was not before he told me what it was.

In the 18th Evening Lecture, Walther writes:

     ...You cannot infer from your feelings or from the divine blessings showered upon you that God has forgiven you; for He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain upon the just and the unjust.  You can draw that inference only from the fact that He tells you that you have been forgiven.  A person seeking for this assurance in any other way will not find it, but only deceive himself by imagining that he has found it in some other way.
     But where does God tell us that He has forgiven us?  Why, in His Word, in the Gospel, in Baptism, in the Lord's Super, at absolution.  In the Holy Supper the real gift of grace which we take from it is not our partaking of the body and blood of Christ, but the promise of the forgiveness of sins which Christ attached to the promise of His body and blood to be received by us: "which is given for you," "which is shed for the remission of sins."  The body and blood of Christ are but the royal seal which the Savior affixes to His words.  Briefly, then, in everything that God does to assure us of His grace the Word occupies the first place. (185)

Something that leapt out at me was the passage quoted from Luke, chapter 2, verses 10-11 found on page 179: "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

Funny, this, but I only remember the first and last part of that passage:  ...tidings of great joy:  for unto you is born this day...  But the passage from Scripture, before telling us what the news is, declares that the news is for every single person, believer or not in the promise, faithful or not under the Law, pious or not.

In the 19th Evening Lecture, Walther uses the example of Cain to illustrate a point.  But it struck me that he was not making Cain the polarity (if I am using that word correctly) as Christians tend to do so now.  We say:  Be Able, not Cain.  Be Jacob, not Esau.  Be David, not Saul.  But from the moment sin first entered into the world by man, God desired for all to be saved.  The promise of Genesis 3:15 was made for all.  The Psalms teach us this.  And, when the fullness of time came for the first part of the promise to be fulfilled, the angel reminded us again before announcing the Word had become flesh.

I think we tend to use Able and Cain and all those other biblical "couples" as polarities of behavior because we are so deeply ingrained, en-fleshed, with this inescapable desire to go our own way.  From Adam to Cain to Saul to me.  Really, there should be no polarities, the beginning, middle, and end is Jesus.  It is not about us, it is not about our behavior, our faith, how we approach God.  Yes, we have free will, but that will saves us not, forgives us not, frees us from death not.

That really is what Luther and Walther mean by strangeness, isn't it?  Our very nature eschews reception, yet  faith can only be received.  So, the tension between our born and re-born selves never ends.

I have said this before...shouted it, whispered it, cried it...Luther and Walther would not have been turned away by my struggles, would not have stood afar off from my anguish.  Both expect it.  Both understand it.  Yet neither one had hormone deficiency!  Strip away the estrogen highs and lows, and the heart of this child of God still struggles because she knows her sin and lives in a world that tells her there are no free gifts, there is no absolute forgiveness.  Tells her.  Whispers it to her.  Beats her up with it.  And even uses other Christians to do so...primarily through errant teaching, false doctrine, and calls for personal holiness.

I know little...very, very, very little...about pietism, however I am beginning to understand that within the LCMS exists just as much works righteousness, just as much Law taught as a specious Gospel as there is in the evangelical church.  The difference is the Confessions.  They are pure.  They stand upon the Scriptures and what is not clear, is not confessed.  Jesus.  You know, the Lutheran hero of every story, the answer to every Sunday School question.  Only this sure does get lost among all those calls for personal holiness the Lutheran way.

In the 18th Evening Lecture, regarding speaking absolution, Walther writes:  We cannot look into people's heart; but that is not necessary at all; we are to look only in the Word of our heavenly Father, which informs us that God has absolved the entire world.  That assures us that all sins have been forgiven to all men. (191)

To me, one of the great sorrows of this age is that private absolution, for the most part, has not been retained by our churches.  Yes, it is in our Confessions, and there are confessional Lutheran pastors who are rather vocal about its importance and lament greatly that people do not come.  However, it is not widely offered even in Confessional, traditional, liturgical churches...not freely, not openly, not abundantly.  I have experienced it as "by appointment," which (in my opinion) places an additional burden on the already anxious garner the courage to ask, to listen to the pastor search for time, to have it be squeezed in some time, some place.

I have also experienced it as an "instructional" time.  This (in my opinion) is a good example of something that can be rightly...or wrongly...divided.  Yes, I think of absolution as the Grand Exchange:  you give Christ your sins and He gives you some sweet, sweet Gospel just for you spoken through His undershepherd. When you receive the Gospel, there is always a learning of Jesus, a greater illumination of our Triune God, the Promise and Work of our salvation, and who were are as creatures and children of our God.

However, for example, I have an undershepherd question the sincerity of my anguish, quiz me on my knowledge and understanding of how the particular listed sin fit into the 10 Commandments.  This places focus on me, on my feelings, on my knowledge, on my faith...even though our Confessions teach that it is not the knowledge of history but history that saves [BOC, AP, IV (II), 48], not knowledge, not feelings, nor is even the listing of any particular sin necessary (BOC, AC, XXV, 7). Such a focus raises doubt, heightens despair, at the very time the Word is given to soothe doubt, to wash away despair.

I rest easy with Walther.  Always.  Even though reading this evening was more challenging, even though I had to work harder at absorbing his missive to this struggling sheep, I rest easy with Walther.  There is a certitude in the Book of Concord that is ineffably satisfying and peaceful to the ex-evangelical soul, to all souls I know, but especially to the ex-evangelical.  It is the epitome of being still and knowing He is God (Psalm 46:10).  Though The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel is not part of the Christian Book of Concord, for me it holds the same certitude, brings the same peace.  Walter stills me.  He tells me what something is not and then what it is.  He does not do so by the ways of man, but of Scripture and of Luther, who also did so of Scripture.  And his focus is always Jesus, not me.

In my very uneducated opinion, it seems to me that Walter took a look around him and saw that the ways of man had crept back into the way of God, where the church was concerned.  So, he spent time at his own little restoration (for the reformation was not a reforming of the church but a restoring of it) so that, once again, anxious souls might be given the pure doctrine, might have the sweet, sweet Gospel poured into their ears...the way Luther longed to hear it in his own when he needed it, longed for it.

I need to think on this further, but I will finish by noting that Walther seems to be saying that you must hear to believe and believing you must feel, that Psalm 34:8 is not merely referencing the Lord's Supper, but experiencing the Word.

Experiencing the Word.  What a wild thought........

Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!


Brigitte said...

Walther is Martin's favorite, too. There is a very nice devotion book out, also: God grant it!

It is strange, like with Luther one can't walk away not feeling fed.

Myrtle said...

Oh, Gitte! I miss your mind! That is such a perfect way to put it: one can't walk away not feeling fed.