Four Branches April 2018

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Exegetical Theology: Analyzing Conversations in the Gospels

Conversations follow rules that we might not always be aware of – but need to think about. Conversation analysis is the study of social interaction and those not-immediately-obvious rules. The Gospels contain many reported conversations. Let’s look at an example from Holy Week.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28-31)

There are three adjacency pairs in these verses, where speakers take turns: someone poses a question, and someone else gives an answer. The first is from the conversation between Jesus and the chief priests. The second and third pairs are nested within that first pair and come from the conversation that Jesus is reporting between the father and his two sons.

The way Jesus plays with the preferred and dispreferred second parts makes the parable so effective. For every first part of an adjacency pair, there are second parts that easily follow (preferred), and there are second parts that follow with more difficulty (dispreferred). Someone suggests, “Let’s go antiquing this Saturday.” You either respond, “I’d love to,” or, “Well, there are some other things that I need to do on Saturday.” The second response hesitates, explains, and evades a direct answer — all signs of a dispreferred second part.

The first son in Jesus’ parable gives the dispreferred response, “I will not.” Its shortness sounds rude compared to the preferred response that the second son gives, “I will, sir.” But see what happens next: although the first son has given a dispreferred response, we are told that he takes a preferred action: he goes. The second son gives a preferred response, but takes a dispreferred action: he does not go. Now Jesus restates his own question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The chief priests and elders could have given a dispreferred response: “Hey, wait — you’re talking about us, aren’t you.” But instead they give the easier, preferred response: “The first.”  Jesus gently but directly leads them into self-condemnation.

Adjacency pairs also serve as a foundation for other concepts in conversation analysis, and can be a useful tool for your exegetical toolbox, part of the analytical study of a Biblical text. In the same way that you encounter a verb and proceed to identify its person, number, tense, voice, and mood, when you encounter a conversation you might proceed to identify its adjacency pairs and preferred or dispreferred second parts. It’s a way of making ourselves aware of those language features that our minds process automatically.

Next month we’ll consider how when reporting a conversation, a narrator may purposefully choose to use direct speech, indirect speech, or reported consequences.

Rev. Nathan Ericson serves Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Oshkosh, WI, as the Special Ministries coordinator for the WELS Northern Wisconsin District.


Systematic Theology: If God Wants All to Be Saved, Why Are Some Damned?

How theologians have answered the question “Cur alii prae aliis” has caused considerable problems.  Calvin examined the Scripture passages that speak of original sin and rightly concluded that all people are equally depraved.  Therefore, he reasoned that the answer to the question must mean there is a difference in God.  He reasoned that God must only offer common grace through an external call to the non-elect while offering irresistible grace through the direct work of the Holy Spirit on the hearts of the elect.  He taught a double predestination.  It’s rational and reasonable; it’s not scriptural.

On the other hand, Arminius examined the Scripture passages that speak of God’s desire for all to be saved and rightly concluded that God’s offer of grace to all people is sincere.  Therefore, he reasoned that the answer to the question must mean there is a difference in man.  He reasoned that some people refuse to use the existing ability in all people to respond to the grace of God, while others do make use of it.  It’s rational and reasonable; it’s not scriptural.

Then there’s Luther’s answer – which is really Scripture’s answer: There is no single answer that fully satisfies human reason.  Why are some saved?  By God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Why are some not?  By man’s fault (Matthew 23:37).

In these articles on the will of God, we are evaluating and reviewing the distinctions Lutheran dogmaticians have historically used to state Scripture’s teaching on God’s will.  When it comes to this question, some distinguish between God’s antecedent will and his consequent will.  The antecedent will is that God wants all people to be saved (I Timothy 2:4).  The “antecedent” will helps in answering the Calvinist who ascribes to God two contradictory wills (i.e. God predestines some to heaven and some to hell).  The “consequent” will of God is that God will condemn the unbeliever as a “consequence” of his sinful rejection.  However, some have misused the distinction to ascribe some merit to man’s response to grace, defending a synergistic explanation for salvation and election (e.g. intuitu fidei).  It’s interesting that Hoenecke rejected the distinction as “completely worthless” (Dogmatik, II, p. 130) while Pieper saw its value in answering Calvinism’s conclusions on the matter (Dogmatics, I, p. 454).

Can the terms be used?  Yes, since they do reflect biblical doctrine and can be used rightly.  Siegbert Becker said this distinction is really the distinction between law and gospel.  Due to the baggage that comes with these terms, perhaps we simply stick with law and gospel as the answer to those questions.  Why are some damned?  Because of man’s sinful rejection (law).  Why are some saved?  Because of God’s grace (gospel).

Rev. Andrew Hussman wrote a helpful paper on this topic: “The Antecedent and Consequent Will of God: Is This A Valid And Useful Distinction?”

Next Month: “What does God want me to do?”

Rev. David Scharf serves as a professor of theology at Martin Luther College and on the Commission on Congregational Counseling.

Historical Theology: Past Danger, Present Threat

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’?” so Solomon once said.  So much of life could be described accurately as both a past danger and a present threat.  The particular threat to be discussed here is Pietism.

This article is too brief to give a detailed examination of the complex problem of Pietism.  However, C. F. W. Walther provides further food for thought in his Law and Gospel.

Even arriving at a definition for Pietism is a difficult task.  Most sources will begin with a vague statement that reads something like this: A movement, coming from within the Lutheran church in 17th century Germany, which stressed personal Christian living over formal religious teaching.  All of that is true, and yet there is so much more connected with Pietism.  It also has a way of infecting with its errors many other areas of Christian faith and life, both individually and corporately.

Walther experienced the danger of Pietism firsthand.  Although Rationalism had taken over much of the educational system of his day, Walther was heavily influenced by “a genuine Pietist” for a time during his school years.  He describes how this man led him away from the Gospel and almost shipwrecked his newfound faith.

Walther goes on to use a book by Johann Philipp Fresenius to highlight the errors of Pietism.  His Book on Confession and Communion, first published in 1745, was a bestseller of its day.  One would have had a hard time finding a Lutheran household without a copy.  It was reprinted while Walther was a student, and it played a big part in influencing him toward the inward focus of Pietism.  His summary of the errors contained in this book provides an opportunity to remember the dangers Pietism has posed to the Lutheran church in the past.  More importantly, this review of its errors shows the threat Pietism still poses to Lutherans even today.

Walther’s reason for including this account in his lectures was to warn his students about the ongoing threat of Pietism’s errors.  That is still a warning Lutherans need to hear.  Those errors fill the American religious landscape; learn what they are so they may be avoided.  Treasure the Gospel and keep it as the primary focus in devotional life and in preaching.  Keep justification and sanctification in their proper place, and teach them accordingly.

Consider reading what Walther has to say in Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, pp. 156-167.  For those interested in a fuller treatment of this topic, The Spirit of Pietism by Robert Koester offers a good overview in a readable fashion.

Rev. Jason Oakland serves Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Neenah, WI.


Practical Theology: Planning Your Week

Planning your week is about managing both your energy and your most important tasks. Steven Covey famously used the illustration about the college professor placing rocks in a jar (if not, you can hear Steven tell it here). The takeaway is simple: schedule your most important things first; there will always be room for the small stuff.

Where to start?

  • Schedule one hour to plan your week undisturbed (I like Friday afternoon).
  • Empty your “psychic RAM.” This is a David Allen term that means dumping every thought, project or task somewhere so it is not held in your brain. He likens keeping things in your head to a computer that can’t run at full capacity because it has multiple program running in the background. It is amazing how good it feels to get this downloaded.
  • Review the previous week. This may seem like dwelling on the past, but I find it helpful to review where I burned time or think about what went well – and what didn’t.
  • Ideal Workweek. A great tool I stole from Michael Hyatt is the “Ideal Workweek.” You can see a sample here. Basically, it is writing down what would be your perfect weekly schedule if nothing got derailed.  No, you never achieve this, but I find that the closer my week is to my ideal week, the happier and more productive I am.
  • Theme Days is a new idea I got a couple of years ago and I find to be super-useful. The idea allows you to bunch things together and give yourself permission to not think about certain things on the “wrong” day. For example:
    • Monday (home chores/errands/bills)
    • Tuesday (sermon/contacts)
    • Wednesday (mundane stuff like bulletin/eLetter/etc.)
    • Thursday (sermon/work on the church)
    • Friday (learning/future projects/plan)
    • Saturday (family/relax)
    • Sunday (church/plan/follow-up from Sunday)
  • Block your times. We will talk about this more next time, but basically, break your day into blocks (rather than hour segments). I think it was former WLS President Vallesky that encouraged us to think of our day in terms of morning/afternoon/evening blocks. The biggest benefit to this is that you can schedule your most vital tasks when you work best. I like to work in 2 hour segments followed by a 30 minute break. (Google Pomodoro Technique)
  • Try to schedule every minute. Just like your family budget, if you don’t plan every dollar, the money just seems to disappear. The same thing happens with your time. This doesn’t mean you are working every minute, but instead that you have a plan to attack the day.

Certainly, you can get away without planning your week. I’ve done it countless times. However, I think my wife would agree that those are the weeks I am generally out of sorts. On the flip side, I think you will find a week well-planned and well-worked will bring joy and the positive attitude that goes with it.

Rev. Jared Oldenburg serves Eternal Rock Lutheran Church in Castle Rock, Colorado, and is the author of the e-book “Who Is Jesus?”