Category Archives: Theology Quotes

Rowan Williams on self-judgment

Bonhoeffer writes [in a poem on his imprisonment], “They often tell me / I would step from my cell’s confinement / calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / like a squire from his country-house.” … But the poem is about the great gulf between what “they” see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside: the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. “So which is me?” Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person they see, or the person I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am is in the hands of God. … It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in “what is unseen”…, in the one who doesn’t need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart.

From Being Disciples (Eerdmans, 2016), 29-30.

Michael J. Buckley on Weakness

For there is a different question, one proper to any form of Christian ministry: Is this person weak enough to be a servant of the gospel of Christ? [81]

What is meant by weakness? Not the experience of sin. Indeed, almost its opposite. Weakness is the experience of a peculiar liability for suffering; a profound sense of inability both to do and to protect; an inability, even after great effort, to author or to perform as we should want, to effect what we had determined; an inability to succeed with the completeness that we might have hoped for. Weakness is the openness to the humiliations and sufferings that issue in the inability to secure one’s own future, to protect ourselves from any adversity, to live with easy clarity and assurance, or to ward off shame, pain, and even interior anguish. [84]

Weakness is the context for the epiphany of the Lord; it is the night in which he appears — not always as felt reassurance, but more often as a hidden power to continue, faithful even when one does not feel the strength, even when fidelity means simply putting one foot in front of the other. [88]

from What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise (Eerdmans, 2016)

Heinrich Müller on Little Sins

You only combat the great sins and do not want to be called a murderer, thief, or adulterer, so that you have no shame before the world. Meanwhile, little sins, which you do not observe, put your flesh to the test. You love the company of people, follow the example of their elegant, costly clothing, share with them a friendly joke about this or that thing, thereby being wounded in your heart, though you are not aware of the wounds. Your former zeal for Christianity decays gradually, dies away within you, until finally it happens that you die an eternal death from the wounds. See then how many great calamities arise more from little sins than from great ones. You consider great sins to be sins and avoid them, but you do not consider little sins to be sins and do not give them proper attention. I advise you to consider no sin little. However little they may appear, they offend God, wound your conscience, and become a root for many great sins.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 214.

Heinrich Müller (1631-1675) on Bearing Crosses

Are you tested in the oven of misfortune? It is no achievement to be pious when all is going well. A Christian is known in the midst of crosses. Anyone can be a helmsman in good wind and still weather. It is especially in bad weather that you see what a sailor knows how to do. Good gold stands up to a fire. Tell me, then, how do you fare in the time of testing?

If you have lost your possessions, do you think that you have a better treasure in heaven that no one can take away? Can you say with Job: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

You are tormented by sickness. Do you complain about your pain? Do you also believe that the inner man is gaining much when the outer man is wasting away (2 Cor 4:16)?

You are put to flight. Is your mind still joyful? Do you realize that you are still on your way home to your home?

If death approaches, are you frightened or do you say with Paul: “Christ is my life, death is my gain” (Phil 1:21)?

In a word, whoever accepts crosses willingly is good, whoever bears them patiently is better, and whoever values crosses and thanks God for them is the best Christian.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 210-211.

Charles Wood on Acts of God

That there is a God who acts at all is not something a careful observer of the world’s occurrences is inescapably driven to conclude. [95] …

It is therefore from God that we first learn of the acts of God. That is, it is the word of God that identifies and interprets to us the acts of God, which are otherwise indiscernible in events. This priority of “word” over “event” in our coming to apprehend the acts of God must be respected in any adequate account of God’s self-revelation. God is not “revealed in history,” if history is understood as the course of events. God does indeed act in events…but the events as such do not betray that fact. We do not arrive at a knowledge of God by noticing the Godly features of certain events and following God’s footprints through history, so to speak. Even “God is revealed in acts” is an abbreviated and therefore potentially misleading statement of the order of knowing involved. The acts of God themselves must be disclosed as God’s acts. God is hidden in events and is revealed as acting only through the word that renders the acts as God’s acts to us. [96] …

Thus, to describe an occurrence as an act of God is not to indulge in pious overdescription of the events involved, justified perhaps by their impressiveness. It is instead to place the occurrence within a different context of description, on the basis of the agent’s own self-disclosure. It is to acknowledge a God who not only acts, but also speaks. [97]

from An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Pr Intl, 1994).

Is There an Entry for “Formation” in the Lutheran Lexicon?

A. On Formation

In those branches of Christian tradition where the term itself is most at home, “formation” is viewed as a deliberate undertaking in which those who are spiritually more mature direct and assist the less mature, and “forming” is seen as an apt term for this process: there are various disciplines and exercises aimed at shaping the Christian life, helping one acquire the proper habits (or virtues) and shed inappropriate ones, and so forth. But in other Christian communities, the very idea of “forming” is suspect, as running counter to the way human personhood ought to be described as well as to the way the Holy Spirit works with and in human beings. … Sanctification is God’s work – not the product of human programs; further, “forming” is not as accurate a term for what the Spirit does as, say, “regeneration.” Most of those who take this alternative to the language of “formation” still find appropriate ways of nurturing and guiding persons in the life of faith, and ways of describing the spiritual state of the life of the unregenerate and the regenerate, the immature and the mature Christian – but with some characteristic differences in both conception and procedure. There are similar ranges of variation among Christian groups as to, for example, the role involvement in Christian practice plays in spiritual formation – and as to what sort of Christian practice is most crucial.

from Charles Wood, An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Press Intl, 1994), 27.

B. Standing Questions for Lutherans

Would they [the 16th c Reformers]…have endorsed the sort of intentional training in virtuous works and deliberate cultivation of Christian character that is advocated by the supporters of virtue ethics? Is the exhortation to good works the same thing as the inculcation of virtue? Did the reformers approve the idea that individual Christian character could and should be formed through human effort as virtue ethics holds, or did they rely solely on the gospel’s power of transformation? Was there a place within the Christian faith and specifically within Lutheranism for the teaching of virtue, or were Christian virtues the essentially automatic fruit of the gospel and justification?

from Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward A Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Fortress Press, 2014), 73.

C. One Strand of the Received Wisdom

41. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.

from Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 1517.

The quest to be a virtuous or pious person is not a Christian quest.

from Gerhard Forde, “The Christian Life,” in Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Fortress Press, 1984), 438. [italics original]

Virtue is not the goal of life; virtue is our problem.

from Steven Paulson, Lutheran Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), 2.

D. A counter vision

I want to be part of a community with the habits and practices [i.e. virtues] that will make me do what I would otherwise not choose to do and then to learn to like what I have been forced to do [i.e. formation by habituation].

from Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company (Univ Notre Dame Pr, 1995), 75.

Is Lutheran theology adequately capacious to assimilate Hauerwas’ admission? Or does this topic expose a structural blind spot for Lutherans? Or is it Hauerwas who’s missing the bigger picture? However we come down on these questions, I’m glad folks like Biermann are at least continuing the conversation.

Richard Hays on the poetic sensibility of the Gospels

If we learn from them [the NT’s four evangelists] how to read, we will approach the reading of Scripture with a heightened awareness of story, metaphor, prefiguration, allusion, echo, reversal, and irony. To read Scripture well, we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility. The Gospel writers are trying to teach us to become more interesting people – by teaching us to be more interesting readers.

from Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, (Baylor UnivPr., 2014), 105.