This guide offers clarification, explanation and further elaboration of “‘Fundamentals’ of WordAlone Network theology presented" (Network News, July-August 2006). There are primarily two ways for it to be used: individually, or in groups for discussion.
Individuals will benefit most by reading each section and then reflecting on the questions at the end of each section. Groups might decide in the interest of available meeting time to deal only with the questions at the end of the sections. In that case discussion leaders can use the information in the body of the guide to help initiate and enliven the discussion.
We live in a web of beliefs, many of them assumed. None of us can pull away to a place unaffected by the powerful beliefs impacting the lives of all people. Beliefs exert long-term influence to form a range of thoughts from popular opinion to academic dogma. Beliefs have powerful influence over human affairs.
Not all beliefs are healthy. Not all beliefs are based on truth, nor are all compatible with it. For example, many uncritically accept the belief that humanity is ever-evolving, getting better and better—a belief that is not compatible with the truth that God reveals about humanity in the Bible. All of us are susceptible to bad beliefs if we don’t pay attention to or don’t think of the power and prevalence of beliefs in society. We are susceptible if we do not identify and examine beliefs for their potential for good or evil.
Like it or not, fundamental beliefs govern the assumptions and discourses within society. We make the bold claim that we hold beliefs that have been revealed by God, and other beliefs that are derived from them and are therefore true. Fundamentals are where our assertions and our reasoning start. "Take away assertions and you take away Christianity," Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will.
"Fundamental" comes from a Latin root meaning "bottom." Fundamentals exist at the bottom, or at the foundation of things. Fundamentals are not to be confused with fundamentalism. Fundamentals are basic, underlying beliefs—assumptions or presuppositions that are at the foundation of whole sets of beliefs. There are fundamentals that make the Lutheran witness distinct among the wider Christian witness in the world.
Bear in mind that fundamentals for Lutheran theology operate within the powerful sphere of competing and contradictory beliefs. They are not irrelevant matters for musing, nor are they propositions set forth to unnecessarily divide the church. As beliefs grounded in Scripture and Lutheran tradition they are powerful forces that presently face the threat of being ignored or overthrown.
God is real? Who would argue with that except an atheist, right? But here come those competing beliefs again, ideas from the past that have wormed their way into what people do and say today while many are not even aware of the divergence from the truth.
God's reality is not dependent on humans. Neither is God's truth. WordA1one rejects the view that God is a projection of the human mind as has virtually been taken for granted by many in academia since Freud with a few notable exceptions. WordAlone also rejects the view that God's truth is relative, subject to human approval and human revision, as has been promoted by persons within the church who seek to conform Scripture to current culture.
When you listen carefully to some voices, you can hear in what they say that they would reject our second fundamental with a vengeance. Take the late Carl Sagan for example. When he wrote his famous book, Cosmos, he began: "The Cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all that ever will be." He meant: "There is no God, and the universe itself will make everything happen that happens."
Lutheran Christians must assert that God does interact with the universe. It is fundamental for Lutheran Christians to believe that God continues to act in history, exalting the humble and removing the proud, defending the righteous and opposing tile evil, answering prayer.
There are at least four senses in which the truth of this fundamental can be seen. First, our knowledge and understanding of creation has changed. We know the world isn’t flat and the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth.
Second, our understanding and perception of experiences and institutions in this creation are shaped by our relationship to those things and cultural differences do shape our understanding. For example, the Japanese view of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will differ from the American view of the bombings.
Third and most significant, as sinners we inevitably see things as we want to see them and hear things as we want to hear them. More than our understanding of the world being limited by our scientific abilities or cultural and historical differences, our understanding of the world is distorted by the reality that we all live in a sinful condition of rebellion against God. We inevitably put our own spin on things.
The infinite is without limit; the finite is limited. People have generally moved in two opposite directions when thinking about the infinite and finite. One move is to assert that there is no way to connect the infinite and finite. The infinite cannot have anything to do with the finite and vice versa. This move is made by those who deny God causes things to happen in the universe.
The opposite move is to collapse the distinction so that either the infinite is essentially identified with the finite (for example, making our own gods) or the finite is imagined to be able to connect with the infinite (the towering city of Babel) if not be like the infinite (the serpent’s lie in the garden that Adam and Eve might be like God knowing good and evil).
Scripture reveals that the triune God alone is infinite. All else is finite. Scripture also reveals that the infinite God has met us finite beings as one of us in the man Jesus, which denies the first move above, completely separating the infinite from the finite. But Scripture also denies the opposite move, collapsing the distinction between the infinite and finite. Unfortunately both false moves have occurred regularly in the history of the church.
The view that apostolic succession is guaranteed by bishops in historic succession is essentially an effort to connect the finite (a human structure and practice) with the infinite, Christ himself. Transubstantiation is another case. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the bread and wine of the Mass remain the same in appearance, but not in what they really are. The finite becomes the infinite. A more recent example of collapsing the infinite into the finite is the project by feminist theologians to re-imagine God, creating their own names for God and their own image of a savior, anyone other than a man who hung on a cross.
Theologians rightly speak of the finite becoming the bearer of the infinite. Here they are consistent with the Scriptures. The body and blood of Christ are given in, with and under the bread and wine. Every human being called by God and sent with the Gospel message brings the unlimited God to limited, even sinful, persons. The shepherds standing at the manger illustrate this better than anyone. The lowest of the lowly, they were the first to spread the word that a Savior had been born. But they remained shepherds.
Some will insist that the true church is the Roman Catholic Church. Others will insist it is the Eastern Orthodox Church. What does the Scripture say? Nowhere does any biblical passage give us a textbook definition of what we call "the church." But the Bible as a whole does indeed have something to say on this matter, and it is enough.
The word "church” came into English from a Greek word meaning "of the Lord" (kyriake). In the New Testament the church is never understood as a building, but as a people. Ecclesia is the term used for church in the New Testament. The notion that the church cannot exist without its approved hierarchy traceable back to Peter is the product of a later time. The church as understood in the New Testament was the assembly of those baptized who held faith in their hearts and kept the Lord's Supper.
Noteworthy here is what Paul writes in Galatians. He vehemently defends the authenticity of his call to be an apostle. This call, he says, came from Christ and not from any church leader, whether Peter, John, James, or anyone else. Paul maintains that he belongs to the ecclesia, without dependence on the authorization of Peter or the rest. Those who believed through Paul's mission activity must also certainly be considered authentic members of Christ's ecclesia, though also not in any succession back to Peter.
If it is true that a legitimating hierarchy does not authenticate the church, neither does its members’ profession of belonging authenticate it. Because someone says, "I am a member of Christ's church," does not make the statement true. Only God can know who the true believers are. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is a sobering reminder of this.
Then how do we know who belongs to Christ’s church? We don't. It is beyond human ability to know who is among the saved.
It is therefore a violation of truth to define the church as a group of persons whose names are on a particular list, or as the membership of a corporation, which is what a denomination really is, or as having "expressions" when that concept belongs to human organizations.
Some theologians fault Luther for defining the church so simply: saved persons with faith in their hearts who gather for the Lord's Supper. Luther was absolutely correct in adding no more to the definition of church than this. To see the church as anything beyond the fellowship of believers, whose true membership is known only to God, pushes the church across a line into institutional rather than divine reality.
Understanding the church in this way is fundamental to WordAlone, and to Lutheran Christians. We might simply ask this question: Did Jesus die for sinners? Or did Jesus die for an institution?
Original sin, "like “Trinity," is a term that does not appear in the Bible, but the teaching is certainly present throughout Scripture. Paul writes in Romans that sin came into the world by one man and spread to all people. It is a given in both the Old and New Testaments that every human being is a sinner in need of salvation. As the Psalmist wrote, "All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one does good, not even one." (Ps. 14.3)
Sin is inborn in that no human being escapes it. It is a condition in which we live from the moment of conception until our last dying breath. Sin is not only an outward act, but also a lurking inward predisposition to rebel against God. It is essentially being born with a fatal illness that knows of no human cure.
Jesus said that no one could come to him unless it had been granted by the Father (John 6:44). He also said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit – fruit that will last." (John 15:16) If we really believe Jesus then we must accept and defend Fundamental 7.
Martin Luther believed Jesus. He thought that only two of his writings were worth preserving – the Small Catechism and "Bondage of the Will." The explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism captures the truth of what Jesus said about grace alone: "I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel and enlightened me with his gifts and sanctified and kept me in the true faith."
This fundamental may be the least understood and most often rejected in the history of the church, even among Lutherans. For more than 50 years a majority of Lutherans in America have responded in surveys that they believe their good works save them. WordAlone asserts with Jesus and Luther that all depends upon God being merciful to sinners.