Four Branches June 2018

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Exegetical Theology: Old Testament Storytelling – the Narrator

The narrative study of Scripture reveals much about the way the inspired biblical spellbinders communicate their spiritual point of view. It is a study in indirectness.

The narrator of the book of Ruth furnishes a telling example. Our storyteller only intrudes two times to mention God in his own voice, rather than write theology into the mouths of the beloved Ruth and Boaz.   These brief exceptions prove the rule: the reticence of the narrator to barge in on the scene (when it matters enough to do so) only conceals his true significance.

In Narrative Art in the Bible, Shimon Bar-Erfrat (1984) elucidates the critical role of the narrator in Old Testament historical prose. He explains that the relation between the narrator and narrative is not like that between painter and painting or composer and musical composition. It is distinguished by the fact that the narrator is, quite simply, “inside the narrative” (p. 13), that is, the narrative voice is part of the work itself. It is the narrator who brings the events before us and addresses us. “We see and hear only through the narrator’s eyes and ears” (p. 13). It is this narrator who mediates the entire reality of the narrated world, its shape depending in every way on the narrator’s standpoint. His full inhabiting of the real biblical world—its very atmosphere charged with the reality of God—is meant to be unconsciously shared by the reader the more the inspired story entangles, as all the best redemption stories do.

While the narrator is the most important structural component of the story, he is the single person most likely to go unnoticed, and along with him, his deep influence. Bar-Erfrat’s contention is that the great potential of a narrative to influence an audience rests with the oblique and unobtrusive narrator, leading to the “absorption of his or her implicit values and attitudes” (p. 14). He argues that the reader identifies less with the characters of the narrative than with the narrator, and that the religious narrator’s point of view is the feature of the genre that serves most strongly to impart “its outlook on life, people, good and evil, God and divine activity in the world” (p. 14). (The author of the book of Ruth has a special word he uses to be sure he has our attention.)[1]

While the historical events play so vividly in front of us, the voice of the narrator is inside of us. This exemplifies the essence of theological indirectness for the way readers fall under the gentlest sway of a persona they scarcely acknowledge—how we learn best when we don’t realize we’re learning at all. Of course, it is the Spirit himself before whom we bow in admiration, not any mere human genius. How (and why) the book of Ruth exemplifies literary beauty, and what is better by far, how it points beyond itself to Christ our true Redeemer, will be the subject of the next two installments.

Rev. Mark Paustian serves Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN, as a professor of English and Hebrew.

Alter, R. (2011). The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bar-Efrat, S. (1984). Narrative Art in the Bible. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

[1]   Alter (2011) describes the ubiquitous Hebrew hinneh [look!]—translated “Behold” in archaic translations—has more going on with it than we may have realized. The word seems designed to create “a sense of immediate witnessing” (p. 194). It has the rhetorical function of drawing of the reader into the perception of the biblical character, for example, when the Burning Bush captures the curiosity of Moses (Exo3:2), or my personal favorite, when Jacob, the “heel-grabber” wakes up to the dim eyed face of Leah—hinneh-hiv’ le’ah [look she Leah]! (Gen 29:25). As both examples demonstrates, the word isn’t only spoken by biblical ‘characters in their moments of surprise, but can also occur as part of the narration itself.

Interestingly, the narrator in the book of Ruth only uses this convention when God’s hidden hand of providence is moving behind the scenes. When Ruth happened upon the field that belonged to Boaz, the redeemer of whom she had been completely unaware, the writer interjects that just then, “Hinneh [look!], Boaz was coming from town…” (2:4).The same happens when the nearer kinsman with whom Boaz needs to negotiate just happened to pass by (4:1). Hinneh! Reader and narrator join in that sense of “immediate witnessing,” becoming two tourists with their heads moved close together to gain the same angle of sight through the trees. The word seems designed for erasing the edges of the movie screen and, according to whatever posture readers have been maintaining toward the drama, to pull them the rest of the way inside.

Systematic Theology: The Mystic Union – God Comes Closer

The word mystic seems better suited to describe the birthing class instructor we had rather than Lutheran theology. She made frequent overtures to the students in the mandatory class to pursue additional naturalistic classes with her. She had a calming sing-song voice aided by a background of new age music. In the final class she propositioned each couple to pursue her version of spirituality. She desperately wanted us to feel one with each other and god.

The Lutheran Cyclopedia states, “The goal of mysticism is the alleged intuitive and emotional contact with the Absolute. In its practical aspects, mysticism is the attempt to apperceive, use, and enjoy ultimate values.” In mysticism, human abilities and faculties are used to reach out and touch the divine.

The word mystic with respect to the mystic union has nothing to do with mysticism. Our predecessors chose the term mystic because it emphasizes a factual and real union between believer and God, and yet one that is still unique and mysterious to our understanding, sense, and emotion. In the mystic union man doesn’t reach out and touch God in any way. It is God who deliberately comes even closer to his child through the means of grace in a way he wasn’t before. Acts 17:28 says, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” God’s omnipresence indicates he is already in everything. He upholds and sustains every particle in every part of the universe. “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

In the mystic union, however, God comes even closer to us at the same time as conversion (John 14:26). He makes his home with us and in us. “Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’” (Jn 14:23). He establishes our very own bodies as his own sacred space, even calling us his temple. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Quenstedt wrote, “It does not follow that wherever God is already present according to his substance, there he cannot according to his substance come closer in another way. Only this follows that God cannot come closer in that way in which he is already there.”[1]

Taking God at his Word means God has come closer to us. He is not merely in us by his omnipresence. He does not merely hold us together by his omnipotence. He does not know us merely by omniscience. The eternal God comes closer by grace. He uniquely lives with and is one with his people. He cannot come any closer.

For further reading, read pages 1-47 of Dr. Timothy Schmeling’s paper on the Mystic Union.

Rev. Aaron Mueller serves as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Howards Grove, WI.

[1] TDP, I, 3, p 629; cited from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Dogmatics Notes: Mystic Union.


Historical Theology: Pope Leo’s Tome

“Every Lutheran pastor ought to have read both Luther’s 95 Theses and Pope Leo’s Tome.”  So said a well-respected Lutheran historian.  The 95 Theses?  Of course!  But what is this “Tome”?  And something written by a pope no less?!

The second ecumenical council of the Christian church held at Constantinople in 381 answered many Trinitarian questions, but there were many questions concerning the nature and relationships in the person of Christ that were yet to be answered.  In 428 the Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, began to teach that the divine and human natures in Christ were separate from one another, that what is attributed to his divine nature cannot be said of his human nature, and that Mary is rightly called the Christotokos as opposed to Theotokos.  At the Council of Ephesus in 431 under the leadership of Cyril of Alexandria Nestorius and his teachings were anathematized.

Yet in his repudiation of Nestorius, Cyril had used the word physis instead of prosopon to describe the person of Christ.  This was unusual for Greek speakers, therefore many understood Cyril to be saying that Christ only has one nature (contrary to what he later said he had intended, that Christ is one person with two natures).  After Cyril’s death in 444, a monk named Eutyches claimed to be following Cyril when he preached Jesus Christ as one person with one nature.

When Pope Leo heard what Eutyches was teaching in 449, he wrote a letter to the Bishop of Constantinople, Flavian.  This letter would be called Leo’s Tome.  This letter was a clear confession that the single person of Christ necessarily has two natures, completely human and completely divine, which are separate yet in relationship to one another, and therefore Mary the mother of Jesus can properly be called Theotokos.  At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo’s Tome was regarded as the standard definition of the Scriptural Christological position and it heavily influenced the final confession of faith published by the council.

While there is much that we would not agree with Pope Leo on, his tome is rightly considered a Christian classic.  It emphasizes the need to let Scripture speak and to accept its message even when that message does not make sense to human reason.  It upholds and defends the Scriptural truth of one God who is three persons (Triune).  It rightly confesses and defends the doctrine of the person and dual natures of Christ.  Other doctrines such as believers’ authority in mission and certain hope “of” and “in” the judgment to come rest squarely on the personhood and natures of Christ as emphasized by Pope Leo and confessed at Chalcedon. In fact, the entire doctrine of justification itself, as confessed by confessional Lutherans, only has its full meaning, power, and import because of the Scriptural truths confessed by Leo in his tome and the definition of faith of Chalcedon.

Read the Tome yourself at

Pastor Robert Wendland serves as a professor of church history and homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary

Practical Theology: Leadership Learning Initiative

“Victory is won with many advisers” (Proverbs 11:14b).  Nothing can replace the work of the Counselor when it comes to our vocation as shepherds of God’s flock.  And we do fairly well in seeking out brothers as mentors.  But have we limited our pool of advisers?  Have we neglected the “many” of Proverbs 11:14?  One of my most valuable years of continuing education was what I called my personal “Leadership Learning Initiative.”

The Plan

Over the course of twelve months, I arranged meetings with twelve individuals whose leadership I had admired from afar.  These leaders were from a variety of fields, e.g., a college president, owner of a construction company, CEO of a local business, psychologist, etc.  I never imagined how much I could glean from these leaders.  But I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Great leaders cherish the opportunity to share their knowledge. [1] That’s what makes them great leaders.  But I also found it valuable to not simply say, “Hey, can we meet?”  In a very professional manner and respecting their time, my administrative assistant arranged for the appointment with an initial phone call.  A week prior to the scheduled meeting, she sent an introduction letter and a “Meeting Map (Sample).” The Meeting Map[2] consisted of four to five questions that provided direction for our discussion.  Significantly, it was tailored to the individual, demonstrating I had done my homework on their accomplishments and it provided them a sense of what I was hoping to learn from them.  In addition to the tailored questions, I asked each interviewee, “What should I read?” and “To whom should I talk?”  These simple questions provided me with a massive amount of resources to pursue.

The Post-Game Plan

As leaders shared their insights with me, I made it a habit to share my findings with my Leadership Team and/or anyone else whom I thought could benefit from my newfound insights.  This proves valuable not only to the person with whom you share information, it also forced me to capture the essence of the meeting in a meaningful way, serving as a resource years later.

The Lasting Results

Not only did I gain an hour of insight and a reading plan for further growth, my network of influencers increased dramatically.  For example, one of my original interviewees introduced me to Leadercast, an annual video conference and online leadership tool. I’ve now attended a few sessions throughout Wisconsin, where not only have I learned leadership skills through some valuable workshops, but I’ve also created friendships, forged relationships with community leaders and community people who became members of my congregation, introduced a young woman to WLC[3] as a college choice, and the list goes on.

Rev. Joel Heckendorf serves as the coordinating pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI.

[1] Click the link in the article to hear Hall of Fame football coach, Lou Holtz, emphasize this in a recent Entreleadership podcast.

[2] In the same interview, Coach Holtz talks about the importance of being prepared when you ask for someone’s time.  For example, he had 83 questions prepared when he asked to interview another Hall of Fame football coach.

[3] For further Leadership Development, consider the Christian Leadership Certificate through WLC.