Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Truth "versus" Love?

Some atheists have charged that the Bible moves its adherents not only to brutality but also to indifference to the physical suffering of our neighbor. Richard Dawkins has for example predicted that if a giant fireball were to appear over New York City, that the hearts of many Christians would be filled with delight at its sight. Even if we were to disagree with the biblical scholarship of these critics of Christianity, anecdotal evidence to support their charge abounds in the antics of contemporary Christians. One need look no further than the public policy positions of many religious broadcasters (and AM radio personalities who wave the flag of the Judeo-Christian tradition) on anything from the bombing of Lebanon to proposals to penalize Christians who meet the humanitarian needs of aliens. These broadcasters and the bleeding-heart atheists seem to agree on nothing but one thing: the bible inspires brutality. This cultural landscape is the rocky and thorny field in which the Christian preacher sows seed.

Even within mainstream Christianity, I believe there are ditches on either side of the road for one to fall into. Ditches where one may end up emphasizing, one at the expense of the other, of either Truth or Love, theological orthodoxy or compassion. In one ditch, some folks may have a very sound view of how the humanitarian crises of the world should be seen through the lens of God's Law, and be able to name personal and corporate sins that exacerbate the problem. Their naming of such sins is well within the tradition of the church fathers. Sometimes their answer however is not so much a Theology of the Cross (which drives one to contrition and faith in Christ's work) but rather a celebration of our own good works and an urging of legislative advocacy. One might rightly ask how different is this theology from an appeal written by the Red Cross or Amnesty International. Where is the rest for the weary that Jesus talked about?

In the other ditch, one may find folks who rightly uphold the primacy of gospel and forgiveness of sins in the Christian witness. Yet in hearing them preach, one might be tempted to ask, "Forgiveness from what?!" Some may dismiss all talk and preaching on specific sins as legalism, doing so to a degree that is more "cheap grace" than Luther's Theology of the Cross. Some may dismiss the church's deliberation on matters of violence and money as "issues" or "social agendas" rather than being a part of God's Law which the church had traditionally wrangled with. They may oppose not only third use of the law but also the first and second uses when it comes to social sins. They confuse the omitted good of law-preaching with the bad of works righteousness. Luther told Spalatin, "By making our sins small, we make Christ small." One ends up with a witness that is devoid of "terrors of the conscience"-- the staring point of faith-- and risks leaving folks in a state of "heedlessness" regarding sins of omission and commission related to your neighbor's (or enemies') physical well-being.

Back to the center of the road, in several examples of Luther's preaching, I see both a Theology of the Cross and a grappling with "terrors of the conscience" on things like unjust wars ["Whether Soldiers..."], economic exploitation ["Sermon on Trade and Usury"], and oppression of the poor ["Admonition to Peace"]. This stuff is not only in his extra-confessional musings but also in the Large Catechism's Explanation to the (Fifth and Seventh) Commandments.

I ask, do we have to choose between theological orthodoxy and compassion? Can anyone write a sermon that speaks to social issues with the incisive insight of John Paul II and follows through with a Theology of the Cross in the tradition of Gerhard Forde? Is anyone currently "weeping for those whose life is hard" [Job 30:25] and striving to be faithful to unchanging doctrines? Can anyone confess a Jesus who is truly both "a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life"? Can anyone preach a law message that offends us in our comfortable conservatism, and a gospel message that offends us in our liberal moralisms?

This is the Preamble to 'The Truth "versus" Love Project: The Greg M. Johnson Homiletics Award,' a little sermon writing contest I've started for seminary students in my denomination. See more at:

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