Archives For Martin Luther

From the mind of Martin Luther, the desk of Karl Barth and the easel of Matthias Grünewald.

‘The model of the biblical witness in his unity form is John the Baptist, who stands so notably at midpoint between the Old Testament and the New, between the prophets and the apostles…In this connection one might recall John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Crucifixion especially his prodigious index finger’ (Barth , CD.1.1:112)


Grunewald, 16th Century Crucifixion scene


‘For we have John the Baptist’s Word and Spirit, and we parsons, preachers; Christians are in our time what John Baptist was in his time. We let John the Baptist’s finger point and his voice sound: ‘’BEHOLD, THE LAMB OF GOD THAT TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD’’

We deliver John’s sermon, point to Christ and say: ‘’this is the one true Saviour whom you should worship and to whom you should cleave. Such preaching must endure to the last day’

 (Luther cited by Barth, CD.1.1:102)


John the Baptist

John’s finger does not point in vain but really indicates when and where we are enabled by means of his word to see and hear what he saw and heard’ (Barth, CD.1.1:113)

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:1-3)

‘Speaking stands in correlation to hearing, understanding and obeying…it is faith that hears, understands and obeys God’s speech’ (Barth, CD.1.1:135)

May. It.  Be. So.



Barth, K. 1936 Church Dogmatics: Vol 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1 Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Massachusetts

Artworks: The Crucifixion. Detail. St. John the Baptist. 1510-1515. Oil on panel. (Karl Barth had Grunewald’s picture placed above his desk.)

Originally posted 13th September 2013

Define Your Illusions_RL2015_GVLWe the broken are far too easily ignored. We the abused are far too easily used. We are sold hope and guided by hands quick to speak of solidarity. We fall for blurred distinctions and ignore the price.

We are sold an empty comfort from mouths  that speak words of sympathy, but are absent of any real connectivity. They may promise salvation and deliverance from the deep sadness and pain we want so much to rip or be ripped out of us, but they cannot deliver what they promise. Sadly, some choose to keep us dwelling on that pain and sadness, in order to squeeze a dollar or two out of it.

In a way that pain and sadness become commodities.

In the church and world, if among the broken we are picked out as ‘charismatic, gifted, beautiful or anointed’ we are seized upon and raised up by the collective and individual alike.

Either to promote a cause or financial gain. Paraded on stage, our testimony is “validated”, our pain and healing seemingly put to good use. However, when the doors close and the next ‘big’ thing is promoted we realise that our pain and healing was paraded  in order to hype up the masses or sell politics, an opinion, idea or distorted theology. Here the veil falls and we see that interest in the One who saves, saved and will save was pushed to the background as we were adorned with adoration, idolised and syphoned for hope.

The essence of our contact with world, relationship and institution is easily manipulated. We the broken, guarded and sensitive to those things which have hurt us so successfully, are ironically attracted by those things that will hurt us. Buying into the false promises that control us as they promise remedy.

Sometimes, therefore, the broken become the prey of the fortunate. Then, sometimes the affected are thrown away like chaff by the disaffected.

This could be because the voices of the experienced are disruptive. Disputing certainty, and intellectual anxiety about meaning and purpose. Disrupting those firmly held inside a web of ideological conformity.

Our continuing survival discomforts their faith in empirical impassabilities. It challenges the surety of presuppositions that imprison the impossible to ignorance and the absurd. It challenges their claim to power. Examples here include the historical, Martin Luther and The Reformation, or the fictitious Katniss Everdeen and her role in ‘The Hunger Games.’

Those with higher opinions based solely on higher education or their association with certain institutions may comment, but it is clear that most are selective and set only on pursuing a particular narrative – often the one that will keep them popular.

Faith uninformed by reason ends in delusion; superstition. Worse still is reason detached completely from the necessary dualism of faith and reason – scientism. As proven by the 20th Century, is the grounding of gross inhumanity.

An evolutionary ethic demands the strong must resource their strength from the weak until the weak are no longer useful. The “elite” have no problem assuming, then, that the broken are ruined beyond repair. That we cannot think for ourselves or see through the shattered lens that pales in comparison to their presumed-to-be superior, unscarred monocles.

So, we are sold illusions and sadly, we buy into them. We are even convinced enough to vote for them.

Niceties and platitudes of human tolerance end in hypocrisy. Resulting in acts of kindness being abandoned and the real importance being place solely on the appearance of giving it.

Additionally, the beauty of an orthodox theological understanding of Christian love is deconstructed, then subsumed into an “absolute ethic of niceness.[i]” God’s mercy is, thus, distorted without any acknowledgement let alone recognition of His right and freedom to act in just judgement. [ii]

With all the brokenness and abandonment around me at the time. Growing up as a teen in the 1990’s. I found it easy to fall into the trap of self-medication. Weekends spent young, drunk (and/or stoned); finding my identity in the closest people or things that I thought were identifying with me.

Looking back on that time, it wasn’t  because I was being drawn to those people or things because they identified with me, but because I leaned towards whatever I could identify, understand or nullify my pain with.

We hear packaged in phrases that ‘such and such, really identifies with their audience‘. Terms of endorsement often found in movie and music reviews alike.

The important distinction not to be missed here, though, is that artists don’t generally identify with their audience. Rather their audience (the customer) identifies with them. It’s not reciprocal, even if the understanding is mutual.

The truth is that those people and things only identified with my money and my blind, happy applause.

Case in point is the band Guns n’ Roses.

I remember reaching for everything I could find or learn about them, to be them. Even up to the point of copying almost every riff and niche Marshal Amp sound I could squeeze out of my $150 second-hand electric guitar, which had a cracked head and the embarrassing habit of going out of tune after each strum, pick or bend.

I was more than a fan. I was a disciple flirting with a generalised, but similar inner darkness that they seemed to be wrestling with. Questing for the transcendent; looking to ascend the hole of despair that my existence had boxed me into.

This was poetry with guts.

Emotion and truth screaming through mic, five string, bass and drum. In short: a form of worship. Throwing up; ’emotional vomit’ (as Lacey Sturm from ‘Flyleaf’ brilliantly described it); a numbness screaming out for feeling. This was a reach for rescue-through-revolt. A desire to be heard and acknowledged; a potential revolution powered by real-anger, angst, amp and an “appetite” for definition.

The reality is that the men of Gn’R didn’t identify with me. They couldn’t. They didn’t know me. Yet, there is no blame that I can justly attach to them. What I was being sold hung on a blurred distinction.*

I identified with them, their craft, skills and lyrical aptitude. I related to what people were selling through them and bought-into it every time. It wasn’t and couldn’t ever be reciprocated.

Any healthy personal connection where I felt cared for or understood was an illusion; an estrangement caused by a blurred distinction.

Although tempted, I wouldn’t simply relegate this as ‘idol worship‘ hoping to avoid over-analysing things, but as something more complex propagated by the absence of key relationships in my life.

What I have learnt through all of this is that my identity must rest in and under Jesus Christ, not any man, woman or ideology. He is the one in whom God chooses not only to identify with us, but to free us, in order to be for us and with us. So that we can be free for Him; free from, in order to be for, each other**:

‘…when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [and daughters]. And because you are sons [and daughters], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but sons [and daughters], and if so, then an heir through God.’
– (Galatians, 4:3-7; see also Romans 8:15)


[i] Elshtain, J. 1993 Just War Against Terror

[ii] (see Karl Barth C.D II:1 ‘Dues non est in genere’: God is not a species that can be categorised by us, outside that which and who He has chosen to reveal Himself to us).

*So that I am not misinterpreted, “Gunners” as-they-were, still are, in my opinion, musical giants. Lyrically, rhythmically and melodically they hit on truths with criticisms of society that no one else dared to speak in and from that kind of arena.

** Karl Barth, paraphrased. 



Happy Reformation Day!

While we mark this very important event, it’s equally important to remember that the Church did not begin in 1517.

Christians have a deep and valuable history, one that includes the wisdom and passion for Christ, of our Catholic brothers and sisters.

We may find disagreement, but we find solidarity at the foot of the cross and at the door of the empty tomb.

The day has as much to do with the Roman Catholics as it does Protestants. Reformation day reminds us of the importance of Anselm of Canterbury’s (1033-1109) motto, faith seeks understanding; contemplation of God is ‘faith in search of understanding’ (fides quaerens intellectum).

‘I seek not, O Lord, to search out Thy depth, but I desire in some measure to understand Thy truth, which my heart believeth and loveth. Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.’ [i]

Martin Luther lived out Anselm’s standard. I would even say with confidence, Luther breathed Anselm’s prayer. His voice and work is buttressed by it. The 95 theses may never have driven its points into the consciousness of the world, beyond the door the theses was nailed to, without it.

Without Anselm’s ‘faith seeks understanding’ the idols and the corruption of Luther’s age would have stood without challenge, and carried on without change. Luther was a man who applied faith in search of understanding. Not in order to believe, but in order to understand.

Luther wasn’t advocating revolution. In the end he was bound to this thing we call The Reformation.The momentum that he sparked swept him up in the inevitable conflicts it ignited. Conflicts that arise wherever corruption and power is challenged.

This movement took him to places both dark and full of light. He struggled with depression, justifiably feared for his life. And while this doesn’t excuse his well-known rants against Jewish non-believers, often referred to by opponents as his antisemitism, they were given in old age. By that time he was a seasoned intellectual who saw more than he had ever anticipated.

500 years ago a monk stood before the Goliaths of his day. He spoke with a degree of innocence, believing the authorities would hear and receive. Authorities who read the same bible he read; who were supposed to be guided by same words Anselm spoke.

Luther wasn’t naive to think his challenge would convict those above him. His disgust at the corruption he saw in Rome surrounding the Church of the early 1500s came from a fire within that only God could birth.

And birth it He did. The Reformation was a refining fire. Today, it’s candle still burns, equally reminding humanity of the gift of faith and reason. The nail banged into the wood of the church door in Wittenburg challenges us today to check each step, to discern if what we are being taught matches with the wisdom and revelation testified to us in the Biblical text. To ‘destroy arguments and bring every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to obey Christ.’ (1 Cor.10:4-5, ESV)

From political extremes to the cults of modern liberalism, to the pressure to read everything in life through a Marxist, Social Darwinist, or ultra-conservative lens, The Reformation speaks to us today.

One place this is heard is through the life and thought of Jacques Ellul. Ellul was a French theologian who is better known for his work in philosophy than theology. He was a student of Karl Barth and a leader in the French resistance during World War Two. He worked alongside Christians and communists, and witnessed the curious subjection of the former to the latter.

As a Christian well schooled in Marxism, Ellul was not a fan of Christian Marxism. He opposed those who advocated a commonality between Christianity and Communism, and he laid a barrage of criticism in the direction of liberation theologians, who he saw as inconsistent and hypocritical. They rightly questioned the excesses of capitalist democracies, but  ‘they didn’t [and still don’t] question socialist or Communist dictatorships.’ (Jesus & Marx, 1988:59) [ii]

Ellul’s broadside against liberation theology reflects the spirit of The Reformation. He regards liberation theology as ‘a tool of propaganda’ (1988:60). However well-intentioned liberation theology may be, its path results in ‘syncretism, and dizzying intellectual acrobats, where Jesus is tortured to make Him fit into confining categories. This is an adulterated faith. Christians who followed this path either twisted scripture or forgot it.’  (1988 pp.48-52).[iii]

‘Situating everything in Marxism is intellectual terrorism.’ (1988 pp. 22-26) [iv]

The final part of this broadside is the theological bomb Elull throws into the masses of blind conformists:

‘Arrogant and impudent accusations that the Church has always sided with the powerful and supported the state and the ruling classes amount to abominable historical lies. Accepting the Marxist lie about the Church in this fashion implies that the Church has always been a perfectly unified whole, exercising a single function with just one doctrine!’
(Jesus & Marx, 1988:49) [v]

Among other examples throughout Church history, The Reformation smashes the assumption that the Church has always sided with the powerful and supported the State. It is single-handedly corrected by a monk, who inspired a back-to-basics change, as he spoke truth in love before an establishment who threatened his life and showed him nothing but contempt.



[i] St. Anselm. The Devotions of Saint Anselm (p. 3). Waxkeep Publishing.

[ii] Ellul, J. 1988 Jesus and Marx, Wipf & Stock Publishers

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

Prayer Graffiti

September 30, 2015 — 3 Comments

IMG_4709After ruling out a couple of Renaissance teens tagging the pews, pause and consider the depth of meaning behind the act of engraving an empassioned prayer, possibly by someone who was illiterate, on the walls of what would have been considered to be God’s-own “house.”

It’s not unlike those who bravely crawled, touched and called out to Jesus. Who upon seeing and hearing this turned, smiled and said to them, “be healed, no greater faith have I seen in all of Israel.” (Matt.8:10/Luke 7:9)

Prayer is apart of change. It’s in the free act of prayer, grounded in the free and loving act of why and how God, in Christ,  addresses us – in Gospel and law – that our time and space, is repurposed and redefined.

When life sends you a storm, draw God a strong boat.

‘God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.’
…………………………………………………– Karl Barth, Prayer 1952:13
‘For we know that our defence lies in prayer alone’
………………………………………….– Martin Luther, Large Catechism.

JBEAlthough Jean Elshtain didn’t consider herself a theologian, there’s a good chance that anyone willing to exhaust any enquiry into her eligibility for the title would conclude that she, in fact, was.

Theology permeates her work. Forming the backbone of the majority of it.

Elshtain’s broad and consistent conversation partners include St. Augustine, Albert Camus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). This also includes some small contact with theologians Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Elshtain considered herself a layperson when it came to theological matters.  Having added theologian to her list of accomplishments may have meant weighing in on an area where her insight and much-needed centrist voice may not have been as keenly heard.

For example: other than walking through some legitimate claims against Christians being hypocrites there is, also, the very real issue of being recklessly labelled as ‘unchristian”, “unloving”, “bigoted” or “unChristlike”, when debating sociopolitical issues or the strengths and limitations of something like just-war theory and practice.

It’s likely, then,  that Elshtain benefited from not having been assigned the title of a theologian. Resulting in her successfully navigating institutional prejudice, reductionist reversals, aversions and distractions. Such as underhanded rhetorical tactics like name calling, selective outrage, cross-examination, inferring ignorance by association, negative preempting and agenda driven ridicule. {to name a few}

Elshtain follows the example of Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus and Karl Barth who are credited, among others, as being careful and critical, when it came to allowing themselves to profiled in political terms; and/or  placed into rigid theological, philosophical or sociological cult-like categories. They weren’t looking for disciples.

It’s long, but one example is her assessment of the government and God distinction, which followed her critique of some Western theologians and philosophers, such as Mark Taylor [i] and Noam Chomsky [ii] post-September 11, 2001:

Misunderstandings of Christian teachings are rife. Christianity is not an exalted or mystical form of utilitarianism. Jesus preached no doctrine of universal benevolence. He showed anger and issued condemnations. These dimensions of Christ’s life and words tend to be overlooked nowadays as Christians concentrate on God’s love rather than God’s justice. That love is sometimes reduced to a diffuse benignity that is then enjoined on believers.
This kind of faith descends into sentimentalism fast. But how do believers translate the message of the Christian Savior into an ethic of worldly engagement if an ethic of universal niceness misses the point? Because Christianity is far and away the dominant faith of Americans, these are exigent matters of concern to all citizens, believer or no.
For a minority of believers, worldly engagement already marks a capitulation. But the vast majority of Christians, both now and in the past, have sorted things out in more nuanced and complicated ways.
Richard Niebuhr delineates five “Christs,” by which he means five characteristic models of how Christians have engaged the world: the Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; the Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ as transformer of culture. Believers have occupied each of these positions historically, sometimes more than one at a time.
An example would be the great Thomas Aquinas, who was faithful as a monk to his vows “against” the culture—poverty, celibacy, and obedience—even as he belonged to a church that had “achieved or accepted full social responsibility for all great institutions” and that had “become the guardian of culture, the fosterer of learning, the judge of nations, the protector of the family, the governor of social religion.”
For Aquinas, Christianity is, among other things, a structure of practical wisdom “planted among the streets and marketplaces, the houses, palaces, and universities that represent human culture.” This kind of believer neither despises the world nor retreats from it.
Rather, this believer engages the world, sustains it, and seeks to transform it—all at the same time. Ordinary vocations are the responsibility of believers. They should not shirk their vocations, including political vocations like soldiering or judging. Such vocations are necessary to sustain a common life. This Christian believer undertakes the tasks of vocation as an act of service and performs them in humility and with a strong commitment to their often tragic, sometimes joyful nature.
Tension, even paradox, emerges in situations when “what is required of man in his service of others is the use of instruments of wrath for the sake of protecting them against the wrathful.” This point is made most vividly by Luther, with his insistence that there is a “time of the sword,” but it has been widely, if not universally, shared in the historic Church.
For Christians living in historic time and before the end of time, the pervasiveness of conflict must be faced.
One may aspire to perfection, but living perfectly is not possible. To believe one is without sin is to commit the sin of pride and to become ever more boastful in the conviction that a human being can sustain a perfectionist ethic. For St. Augustine, for Martin Luther, and for the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the harsh demands of necessity as well as the command of love require that one may have to commit oneself to the use of force under certain limited conditions, and with certain intentions.[ii]

This analysis is Elshtain at her absolute best. It’s passionate, clear and thorough. It might not win her admission into the theologians hall of fame, but written in 2002, her words stand today as a pertinent warning. Calling us to question what it is that we are being sold and why.

Here Elshtain is pushing beyond the ”Just-War Against Terror” topic, assessing the real reasons for it in the first place; at the same time not willing to join the call to arms by right-wing fanatical patriots, or accepting at face value the manipulation of facts, oversight and simplifying of arguments by the Left, which tends to blame the West for Islamic terrorism and animosity towards the West in the Middle East.

If we don’t listen carefully, look past the careless labels, false appearances, hypocritical accusations of prejudice and fear mongering about fear mongering; double standards and confusion (sadly, the list can go on). It is possible, that once this fog clears we will only discover the brutal cost of inaction caused by self-doubt; the paralysing fear of prejudice and an anachronistic contempt that uses an exhausted mistrust of “The West” from unhappy cynics who live freely and prosperously in it.

History speaks.

Labelled a warmonger, ridiculed and considered too old to be relevant, Churchill critically questioned the Nazi movement long before it became a bloody necessity to reject it. Blind acquiescence and something that C.S Lewis called ‘the tyranny of good intentions’, resulted in the catastrophic ambivalence and indifference of the West in the 1930’s.

Positive optimism (or any ethic of universal niceness that is falsely attributed to Jesus Christ) doesn’t resolve conflict, it ignores conflict and allows tyrants to thrive. In the 1930’s such optimism ended in Prime Minister Chamberlain’s, now haunting words “Peace For Our Time’….which was shattered by the sound of falling shells, screeching stukas and the blitzkrieg that hit the World not long after it.

Reagan rightly said:  ‘the greater lessons of history tell us that the greater risk lies in appeasement.’

An even greater risk, is a ‘house divided against itself.’ (Jesus Christ, Matthew, 12:25)

It stands to reason. If even some of our Muslim neighbours, are as outspoken as Elshtain, like Tarek Fatah (43min – 46min) who is making similar observations of the response so far, Elshtain’s words are not to be ignored.



[i] Mark Taylor, “The Way of the Cross as Theatric of Counter-Terror,” paper presented at a conference on justice and mercy, University of Chicago (Spring 2002), cited by Elshtain in Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World Basic Books Kindle Ed (p.82)

[ii] Chomsky, N. 9-11 cited by Elshtain, (ibid, p. 226)

[iii] Elshtain, J. 2008, Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World Basic Books Kindle Ed. (p. 100-101).