The title of my blog this week comes from a prayer that was written in honor of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador (1917–1980). “No sermon says all that could be said…” In fact, I have never finished a Sunday morning message without thinking to myself, “Now, on the other hand.” This is the dilemma that being a “Biblical” preacher creates in me.
Paul told the Ephesian elders that they were obliged to declare “the whole counsel of God’s Word” (20:27). The Canon of Scripture creates the boundaries within which the game of faith gets played. One verse, one story, one book, one idea, one doctrinal conclusion, one point of view does not exhaust what the Bible has to say on any given subject. Every truth that the Bible teaches is put into play with all of the other truth that the Bible teaches. “Scripture interprets Scripture” is how the Protestant Reformers put it, and what this means is that before drawing our conclusions of faith, we seek to understand the breadth with which the Bible speaks on a subject. Of course we are going to bring reason, tradition and experience into play in our theological reflection (the other “partners” in the “Quadrilateral”), but Scripture is where the conversation of faith begins, and so our very first obligation to Scripture is to read it “synthetically” – bringing together everything that the Bible says on any given topic to see where and how it all connects.
Gene Edward Veith, a Lutheran Theologian, in his book The Spirituality of the Cross (CPH – 1999), described where this commitment to the canon of Scripture finally leads us.
The distinctive characteristic of Lutheran theology is its affirmation of paradox… Luther developed his theology in Bible Commentaries, following the contours of Scripture wherever they lead and developing its most profound polarities: Law and Gospel; Christ as both true God and true Man; the Christian as simultaneously saint and sinner; justification by faith and baptismal regeneration; Holy Communion as the real presence of Christ in material bread and wine. (115)
Anglicans attempt a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, which works through compromise, broad consensus and a tolerance for differences. The Lutheran way, on the other hand, is one of polarities. Each pole of the paradox must be maintained and heightened. What G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy of the paradoxes of Christianity is particularly descriptive of Lutheran theology: “We want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning.” Christianity does not approach doctrinal issues … in terms of the Aristotelian golden mean. Rather, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”(117)
I try to keep this in mind and heart as Mark and I are working our way through our shared Lenten Sermon Series – “What I really don’t get about prayer is…” Each week we are trying to tackle one of the big questions that we all have about prayer that can get in the way of our praying if we don’t find spiritually satisfying answers. The further along we go in this sermon series, the more convinced I am becoming that the fundamental question about prayer that we have is who does it finally effect and affect?
E. Stanley Jones posed the core question memorably – “If I throw out a boat-hook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore?” Most of us in the mainline Protestant tradition have comfortably settled this question with the answer that E. Stanley Jones himself offered: “Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.” Prayer affects and effects me, or as Oswald Chambers put it in one of his meditations in his classic devotional book My Utmost for His Highest:
To say that “prayer changes things” is not as close to the truth as saying, “Prayer changes me and then I change things.” God has established things so that prayer, on the basis of redemption, changes the way a person looks at things. Prayer is not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s inner nature.
Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, while certainly not denying that it is true that prayer changes us, will insist that this affirmation alone does not tell the whole story Biblically. Prayer also affects and effects God. As Philip Yancey wrote in his book on Prayer (2006) –
Karl Barth, the 20th-century theologian who pounded home the theme of God’s sovereignty, saw no contradiction at all in a God who chooses to let prayers affect him. “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. That is what the word ‘answer’ means.” Barth continues, “The fact that God yields to man’s petitions, changing his intentions in response to man’s prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, in the glory of his majesty and power, has so willed it.”
In a really helpful essay on prayer, Melvin Tinker (“Why Prayer Changes Things” – http://www.thegospelcoalition.org) stated his conclusion first –
One of the most wonderful mysteries in the universe is that prayer changes things. God has so arranged his world that we have the ability to make significant choices, some good and some bad, which affect the course of history. One means God has given us to do this is prayer—asking him to act. Because he is all-wise and all-powerful, knowing “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), he’s able to weave our requests into his eternally good purposes.
And then he described the two ways that “our thinking can seriously go astray” here. First by “overemphasizing” God’s sovereignty –
“If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and if everything is preordained, then he’s going to do whatever he wills anyway and thus our prayers can’t have any significant effect. Sure, they may help us psychologically, such that talking to God helps us get things off our chest that may help us feel better, but prayers don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. So why bother?”
And second, by “overemphasizing” human freedom –
“If human beings are free to make up their own minds, then God can’t be absolutely sovereign; he must take risks such that human decisions can thwart his purposes, so there are severe limits to what we can ask for without undermining human freedom. …It’s out of order to pressure God to do more than he can do. So just give up on prayer.”
And then he stated the principle that must govern this and every conversation of faith for a “Biblical” Christian –
It’s always foolish and dangerous to play up one aspect of what the Bible teaches at the expense of something else it equally affirms. The God of the Bible is presented as the one who rules over all; he’s all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful. He isn’t surprised by anything we may think or do. On the other hand, Scripture also presents human beings as responsible moral agents who make significant choices, doing what we desire to do (“freedom of inclination”). God has chosen to relate to us personally without compromising the fact that he is God.
And now we’ve come back “full circle” to Gene Edward Veith’s observation about Lutheran theology’s willingness to follow the contours of Scripture wherever they happen to lead, and its comfort with paradox, keeping the Bible’s “furious opposites” both “opposite” and “furious.” When this approach to faith and Scripture is taken seriously, “No sermon says all that could be said…” And it means that a “good” sermon will not necessarily be the one with the conclusions with which you can most easily agree, but rather will be the one that invites you into the deeper conversation. DBS+