Four Branches January 2017

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Exegetical Theology: Pondering the Penitentials (Part 2)

Psalm 38 is a penitential psalm that calls us to remember.  But what are we to remember?

One intriguing aspect of Psalm 38 is found in the title: the designation  לְהַזְכִּֽיר 1 . As with many of the terms used in psalm headings, the meaning of this term [2] is somewhat uncertain. It is a Hiphil infinitive construct of זכר. The NIV translates it interpretively: “a petition.”  The ESV translates it as a psalm “for the memorial offering” and the NASB as “for a memorial.” But the most straightforward translation would be “to bring to remembrance” or “to cause to remember.” With that in mind, the HCSB translates it as a “Davidic psalm for remembrance” and the NKJV “to bring to remembrance”. So also, the Luther Bibel presents the psalm as “zum Gedächtnis.

So what must be remembered as we think on our sin? Although David doesn’t expound on the sin itself, his repentant heart is clear in vs. 18: “I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin.” But the entirety of the psalm also reveals that the consequences of his sin are making it difficult to remember anything else. He is reminded of his sin through physical pain, through conscience, and through abandonment and mistreatment of loved ones. In a vivid way, vs. 4 tells us that David had no problem remembering the guilt of his sin. [3] And if the Accuser had his way, it’s no doubt that our sin is all any of us would remember!

But is that all that is to be remembered? In the end, when our sin is laid out before us and the guilt of our ways consumes us, what must be remembered? The glorious conclusion of Psalm 38 reminds us, even as David reminds himself, that the greatest power of the penitential psalms is found not in remembering guilt, but in remembering gospel. The gospel message, hinted at through the tetragrammaton in vs. 15 now shines brightly in the succinctly stated final verse: ח֥וּשָׁה לְעֶזְרָתִ֑י אֲ֝דֹנָ֗י תְּשׁוּעָתִֽי “Hurry to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” For a sin-sick heart, the salvation that comes from God in Christ must be remembered!

Rev. David Bivens serves Christ the Lord Lutheran Church and Sienna Lutheran Academy in Sienna Plantation, TX, and as chairman of the BWM’s Administrative Committee for African Missions.

[1] In Psalms, this unique designation is found only here and in the heading of Psalm 70.

[2] For a brief, but helpful summary of the translation possibilities, see Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Harris, Archer, Waltke, vol. I), pp. 241-242.

[3]  כִּ֣י עֲ֭וֹנֹתַי עָבְר֣וּ רֹאשִׁ֑י = Literally, “my iniquities pass through (or over) my head.”


Systematic Theology: The Majestic Genus

Bernard of Clairvaux said that there are three great miracles: the first is that God could and would become man; the second is that he did it in the womb of the Virgin; the third is that we actually believe it.  When speaking of the person of Christ, our approach must be that of the psalmist: “I do not concern myself with…things too wonderful for me.  But I have stilled and quieted my soul.” (Psalm 131:1b-2a)

At the moment of his incarnation, Jesus’ human nature received the divine perfections as a gift.  Look at Jesus in the manger.  That baby controls all things.  “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory…sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:3) The One who sustained all things couldn’t even talk yet!

This is because of the beautiful truth of Scripture the dogmaticians refer to as the genus majestaticum.  That is, the divine nature shares its attributes with the human nature (except eternity, since the human nature has a beginning) so that what is said of the divine nature can also be said of the human.  “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).  To be clear, so as not to limit the divine nature, the divine gave to the human and not vice versa.

Evangelicals and Calvinists reject this teaching, saying that it is impossible for Jesus to give his body and blood to us in the Lord’s Supper.  Yet this is what the Bible clearly says.  And no less miraculously, we believe it.  As the reformers said in the Formula of Concord: “What his assumed human nature is capable beyond the natural properties…no one can know better or more thoroughly than the Lord Christ himself; and he has revealed it in His Word.”  Study Daniel Deutschlander’s wonderful chart of the tres generes on p. 283 of “Grace Abounds.”

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

Historical Theology: This Is Most CertainlyTrue (But not like we think!)

Maybe you’ve heard it said that Martin Luther used “popular music” to communicate scriptural truth. This is most certainly true, but not like we might think. At least since the summer of ’69, Americans have linked the concept of “popular” with “pop” – music designed for immediate, mass consumption.[4] We further struggle to penetrate Luther’s musical world because we are pre-programmed to view the arts through one of two lenses: Either secular OR sacred!

These modern western concepts are simply foreign to Luther. Gutenberg’s printing press made materials available in “mass” quantities (hundreds, even thousands), but the mass appeal of pop culture would have to wait for the advent of radio and TV. As for the cleaving of sacred and secular, that division would not come into its own until the Age of the Enlightenment and especially in the Age of Romanticism.

Instead, in Luther’s day, the church held the keys to the kingdom of heaven – and often the keys to the city as well. Riedel states “The distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ did not exist then. Thus a melody sung with a ‘secular’ text could also be used for a ‘sacred’ text” (Riedel 26). This practice of replacing a “secular” text with a “sacred” text is called contrafacta. It is an important working concept in early Lutheran hymnody.[5]

So in what sense was Luther a popular musician?  He utilized church music that was meticulously crafted, widely known, and regularly sung throughout Western Europe. The majority of Luther’s hymns that are based on pre-existing melodies are adaptations of Gregorian chant (Herl 21) – a fact that surprises many in WELS. Church music was popular music.  But it’s true that Luther’s use of popular music went beyond the popular church music of his day.  More on that next month!

Rev. Aaron Christie serves Trinity Lutheran Church in Waukesha, WI, and is chairman of the Hymnody Committee for the WELS hymnal project.

[4] PSY’s Gangam Style video has been watched over 2.7 billion times on Youtube. An ordinary-looking man with a bad tux is the ultimate example of instant accessibility, the ordinary becoming something extraordinary.

[5] People are surprised to learn that the melody of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” was originally paired with a “secular” text. This was possible and somewhat common in the first 200 years of Lutheran history. Bach’s church cantatas still sounded a great deal like Hamburg’s opera house in 1723. How different our context is today. The Church’s hymns struggle when made to sound like Hollywood hits in 2017. Replace the words of the Gilligan’s Island theme song with those of “Amazing Grace.” This is a modern example of contrafacta – one that will never be sung at a funeral.


Practical Theology: I Just Want to Be a Blessing

What a wonderful, unselfish, Christian attitude when you, a former [6] called servant of the word say: I want to serve others with the gifts and experience God has given to me. I just want to help.

But you are not a normal, ordinary helpful Christian. Once you are no longer the called servant of the word in a congregation, you are no longer the called servant of the word. Someone else is. Anything you do with the best of intentions, but which nevertheless makes the life and service of the new called servant of the word difficult, moves you from your former position as an overseer – ἐπίσκοπος (1 Timothy 3:2) to the new position of a meddler – ἀλλοτριοεπίσκοπος (1 Peter 4:15).

Of course, you love the people you’ve left. They love you. You’ve guided them. They’ve followed your pastoral lead. But now that is over and the Lord has blessed them with a new shepherd.   That changes things:

  • your periodic visits with former members “to see how things are going”;
  • your continuing emails and devotions to those whom you used to serve;
  • your request to remain a member “if the new pastor says it’s OK with him”;
  • your unsolicited advice to your successor about what should stay the same and what should be changed;
  • even your attendance at your replacement’s installation “to give him a warm welcome”

are not really pastoral examples of helping and being a blessing.

The blessing comes as you trust that the Lord of the Church has brought to the people the man he wants to be their shepherd at this time in their lives. Let them grow and work together, even as the memory of your service fades. That will truly be a help and a blessing for the man and his ministry. God will surely meet all your needs (apart from them) as well as he will meet all of their needs (apart from you) as the Apostle Paul rejoiced (Philippians 4:19).

While visits and contacts and communications of various kinds with former parishioners will make you feel busy in retirement (or busier if you have accepted a divine call to a new place), they will actually make you a busybody in another man’s ministry. Like the Apostle Paul, what you were careful to avoid in your ministry, you don’t want to cause for another in his: “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.” (2Co 6:3 NIV84)

And if you think you would be an exception to the normal ἀλλοτριοεπίσκοπος, well, a little more on that next time.

Rev. John Seifert serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Midland, MI, and as president of the Michigan District.

[6] Former because you have accepted a divine call someplace else or have retired or have left the public ministry for another reason