Category Archives: Public Theology

Reflection pieces on faith and life in the modern world.

Women Leadership in the Moravian Church

Sister Judges and Deaconnesses: Offices for Women in the Moravian Church

Presented at the Moravian Archives, Sept. 13, 2011

Introduction  [Slide 2]  Women “also are formed in the image of God, and share in His grace and in the kingdom of the world to come. They are endowed with equal sharpness of mind and capacity for knowledge (often with more than the opposite sex), and they are able to attain the highest positions, since they have often been called by God Himself to rule over nations, to give sound advice to kings and princes, to the study of medicine and other things which benefit the human race, even to the office of prophesying and of inveighing against priests and bishops. Why, therefore, should we admit them to the alphabet, and afterwards drive them away from books?”[1]

[Slide 3] So wrote Moravian bishop John Amos Comenius in his Great Didactic three and a half centuries ago. Comenius was writing to educated men in a society that systematically and sometimes brutally denied women the opportunity to pursue their own sense of vocation and develop fully as beloved children of God. Comenius was writing to a society that tolerated violence against women in their own homes and that largely ignored the suffering of poor women without homes.

Comenius was a prominent public witness to the traditional Moravian belief that all of God’s children should be valued and encouraged to pursue their vocations in the world. This evening we are going to take a brief tour of the role women played in the leadership of the Moravian Church. We will see that the Moravians centuries ago were very progressive in their ideas of women’s leadership, but after the death of Zinzendorf they adopted the sexist norms of their society. When Moravians in Europe began ordaining women after World War II, many people thought this was something new and radical. Little did the average Moravian know that their church had a long history of appointing women to leadership offices.

Ancient Unity             [Slide 4] Many of you are familiar with John Hus who was killed because of his opposition to injustice, but you may not know about the Taborites who were the direct ancestors of the Moravian Church. Four years after Hus’s death, thousands of men and women gathered on a hill in southern Bohemia to celebrate communion. They renamed the hill Mt. Tabor, the name of the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. We have the following description of what happened on Mt. Tabor:  “The people having been divided into groups, the men by themselves and the women and children by themselves, the more learned and eloquent priests, from early morning on, fearlessly preached the Word of God and especially those things that concern the pride, avarice, and arrogance of the clergy. There all called each other brother and sister, and the rich divided the food that they had prepared for themselves with the poor.”[2]

[Slide 5] The Taborites attempted to create a more just and equitable society based on Acts 4, but they ultimately failed to transform Bohemian Society. Eventually the Church of Tabor was destroyed by the rulers of Bohemia, but the idealism of that first communion on the mountain made its way into the old Moravian Church. Women were not ordained to the priesthood by the Taborites, but they played a major role in the Taborite church. They were teachers and even took part of worship leadership. True to Hussite principles, they were allowed to drink from the chalice in communion, unlike women in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Inquisition repeatedly expressed its frustration that Taborite women were educated and could discuss Scripture better than many trained theologians. Some of them claim that this was proof that the devil was working at Tabor.

[Slide 6] Some of the survivors of Tabor formed the nucleus of Unity of the Brethren, which Moravians often refer to as the Ancient Unity.[3] Although the name of the church sounds sexist today, from the beginning the church recognized that sisters were equally members of the body of Christ. The Brethren did not ordain women as priests, but they did have an office in the church for women. Women could be “congregational Judges.” The Judges in the Unity were similar to modern elders, in that they assisted the pastor in his duties of oversight. Form the instruction manuals for the judges we learn that they heard confessions and helped people improve their behavior and attitudes. Judges were trained to settle disputes within the congregation and were expected to be wise enough to prevent disputes from developing. Clearly Judges were people of respect and authority within the congregation.

What is significant for our talk this evening is that in the 15th century the Moravian Church set some women apart in the congregation as pastoral leaders. This is a rare example women being instructed and counseled by women religious authorities outside of convents. Unfortunately we do not know much about the Sister Judges, only that they did the same kinds of pastoral care that the Brother judges did.

Zinzendorf Era  [Slide 7] You are probably familiar with the name Count Zinzendorf and the village of Herrnhut in Germany where the Moravian Church was resurrected after having been destroyed by Catholic authorities. The church created at Herrnhut was not the same as the old Unity of the Brethren in Bohemia, but many of the ideals of the old Brethren found new life in Zinzendorf’s community. The Moravians were one of the most controversial Christian groups in the 18th century. To be a Moravian at that time was to be a member of the most egalitarian and multi-cultural organization in the Western world. [Slide 8]  It was not perfect by any means, but it was only in Moravian communities that you could find European aristocrats calling Africans, Native Americans, and European peasants “brother” and “sister” and even kneeling to wash their feet. Many of the most beloved practices of the Moravians today, such as the lovefeast, had their origin in Zinzendorf’s radical vision of the New Jerusalem where all followers of Christ are brothers and sisters.

[Slide 9] One of the most important leaders in the early Moravian Church was Countess Erdmuth Dorothea von Zinzendorf. She was raised in a very pious household at Ebersdorf in Germany where the mystic Hochman von Hochenau was a preacher. She and the count viewed their marriage as a partnership for the service of Christ, and she played an important role in managing the affairs of the Zinzendorf household and the church. She travelled as far as Russia to advocate for the Moravians and was the author of many hymns. Zinzendorf once claimed that his theological principles came from her. Erdmuth was given the important office of the Charnier or Hinge for the church at the same synod that elected Christ as Chief Elder. Most Moravians simply called her “Mama.”

[Slide 10] One of the most shocking things the Herrnhuters did in the early days was to select women to serve as elders alongside of the men. One of the first elders to be chosen was Anna Nitschmann who was just a teen-ager when she assumed office. Anna later founded the Single Sisters Choir and was part of the inner circle that governed Moravian affairs for thirty years. She travelled extensively, and was a participant in some of the most momentous decisions of the church, most notably the election of Christ as Chief Elder. In addition, she wrote hymns and was a much beloved counselor. Eventually she was ordained as a deacon and later became one of the first female presbyters in the Moravian Church. That’s right, she was ordained as a presbyter, but in Moravian circles she was simply called “Mutter.”

[Slide 11] Some of radical Protestant churches, like the Quakers, allowed women to preach and teach, but it appears that the Moravians were the first church with formal ministerial ordination that ordained women. At least they were the first church since the early days of Christianity. It is possible that the Moravians knew about deaconesses in early Christianity. Certainly they saw that there were women in the New Testament who held office. According to Zinzendorf the Holy Spirit anointed one hundred and twenty people to the apostolic preaching office at Pentecost, including women. He claimed through that “an equality in the teaching office between the sisters and brothers” was made that has not stopped.[4]  [Slide 12]

Zinzendorf recognized that many women are identified in the New Testament as disciples, prophets, co-workers, deacons, and even apostles. He believed that the church should strive to live up to the standard of the New Testament, and under his leadership, the Moravian Church provided many leadership roles for women denied them in other churches. Historian Peter Vogt has shown that most of the pastoral care of women was carried out by women who were ordained. Some of these women even preached publicly.[5]

[Slide 13] Scholars have identified over two hundred women who were ordained deaconesses during the time of Zinzendorf . There were also fourteen Priesterinnen (female priests or presbyters) who were ordained in secret We know that these women assisted in serving communion and leading other liturgical services, but it is not clear if they consecrated the sacraments.[6] We should not make too much of the fact that these deacons and presbyters were deaconesses and eldresses. It appears that these offices were the equivalent of the male offices, but we do not know for sure. In any case, I think that it is time that the Moravian Church officially acknowledges that it first ordained women in the 1730s rather than 1957. The fact that Zinzendorf’s successors tried to bury this history does not make it any less true.

It is significant that the female presbyters were ordained by bishops, just like the men. The Moravians were one of the few Protestant churches that claimed its bishops were in apostolic succession, and they were the only one in which bishops ordained women. Clearly they wanted these women to be within that apostolic tradition. It is also significant that a woman, often Anna Nitschmann, assisted in the ordinations of women. I would not be surprised if researchers one day learn that Anna Nitschmann had secretly been consecrated as a female bishop. Certainly she functioned like a bishop in the Moravian Church and was the one responsible for the women clergy. [Slide 14]

One of reasons that women in the 18th century Moravian Church had leadership roles was the Choir System. You are probably familiar with the 18th century Moravian practice of dividing the church into groups organized according to gender, age, and marital status. One of primary reasons for the choir system was so that women could be guided by other women rather than by men. As in the old Unity of the Brethren, women served as spiritual guides and mentors for other women. It should be noted that the Moravians in the 18th century were not entirely free of patriarchal assumptions about women. Although the community gave women a surprisingly good education, most of the economic activity of women was restricted to jobs such as cooking, sewing, and childcare. Thus it is inappropriate to refer to equality, but it is evident that the power and status of women was greatly enhanced compared with the contemporary culture. Women choir leaders played important roles in the governing structures of Moravian villages. As Beverly Smaby puts it, “Male and female roles were much more symmetrical than in any other colonial society, including the Quakers.”[7]

Women were in charge of women’s education and discipline and devotional life. The choir houses for Single Sisters and for widows provided room and board so that women were not forced into marriage by economic necessity. Katherine Faull recently lectured here at the archives on the ways choir leaders helped women deal with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as they progressed through the stages of life. She’ll be giving the Moses Lectures at the seminary in two weeks on the choir instructions. The choir system provided a useful network of support for women in Moravian communities. Single Sisters had older women to guide them through puberty and maturity, and when a Sister married, the Married Sisters Choir provided spiritual and emotional support for the new bride. Pregnant sisters met together for devotions, and they continued to have meetings for months after giving birth. When a woman’s husband died, she was immediately welcomed into the widows choir where her Sisters helped her deal with grief and change of life. In short, women were supported in every aspect of their physical, social, and mental health by women who had offices in the church.

[Slide 16]  Women had their own sphere for leadership and growth, but they were not separated from the community as whole. Men prayed for and cared for women, too. This is most evident in the 18th century Litany where the congregation offered the following prayer:

Regulate and keep in Order the festival Seasons of Matrimony (Especially of the newly married Pair N.N.) (Deut. xx. 8. ch. xxiv. 5. I Cor. vii. 5.), Let our pregnant Sisters reap the Blessing of thy having lain under a human Heart, And let those who give Suck, enjoy the Blessing of thy having sucked the Breasts of a Mother;

Sanctify all bodily Fathers to the spiritual Father, And all who bear Children, to the Mother of us all; Bless thy Gift, the Children; Visit them even in their Mother’s Womb!

May Faith in the Marriage of the Lamb be the Girdle of the Reins of the espoused Sisters, Call their Chamberlains thy espoused ones, and this will be a Girdle to their Loins; Be thyself the Reward of those Brethren, who have discharged their matrimonial Ministry with Faithfulness,

And be Thou the blessed Hope of those Sisters, who are lonely and Widows indeed; Pour out thy Holy Spirit on all thy Servants and handmaids!

Hear us, O dear Lord and God!

Examples of Female Leadership  [Slide 17] There were many important women leaders in the 18th century Moravian Church. Tonight I want to mention two of them, both of whom were African. In the 1730s, the Moravian missionary Georg Schmidt traveled to South Africa where he made contact with the Khoi people, who were called Hottentots by the Europeans. These people were viewed as animals by the European settlers and sometimes were hunted like game, but Schmidt went to them with the simple message of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. Among the people who responded to his teaching was a young woman whom Schmidt renamed Magdalena when he baptized her. Her name recalled Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Magdalena, or Lena as she was called, learned to read the Dutch New Testament that Schmidt gave her.

Schmidt planted a pear tree in the valley where he formed a small community of about three dozen converts. Lena was one of his assistants. Unfortunately the European authorities in Cape Town decided that the Chrisitian Gospel was too dangerous for the native peoples of Africa. Schmidt was forced to leave South Africa. It was half a century before Moravian missionaries allowed back into the territory. When they arrived they went immediately to the valley that Schmidt had worked in. There they found the pear tree blossoming. More important, the elderly Lena was still holding worship services with a small flock of believers. Like her biblical namesake, the Khoi woman was a witness of the resurrection and the mother of a church.

[Slide 18]  Another African woman who heard the message of God’s love from Moravian missionaries lived on St. Thomas. Moravians today celebrate the names of Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, but how many of us know about Rebecca Freundlich Protten?[8] Rebecca was a freed slave living on St. Thomas who responded to the preaching of the Moravian missionaries. She became an evangelist who assured other slaves that the Moravians could be trusted. She was one of the founders of the Posaunberg congregation, which is now called New Herrnhut. Rebecca married one of the Moravian missionaries, which was a rare instance of inter-racial marriage blessed by a Christian church during the colonial era. The marriage was controversial, and both Freundlichs were imprisoned by colonial authorities. She continued to preach to the slaves from her prison cell. When Zinzendorf came to St. Thomas in 1738 he was able to secure her release. In the 1740s the Freundlichs traveled to Germany, but Matthew died before reaching Herrnhut. Rebecca was ordained a deacon in Germany. She was the second African woman to be ordained by the Moravians, which means that she was the second African woman we know of to be ordained by any Christian church. After the death of her first husband, she married an African brother named Protten and they went to Africa as missionaries.

[Slide 19] Rebecca, Lena, Anna Nitschmann, and Ermuth Dorothea are just a few of the courageous Moravian women who defied social norms and traveled the world inspired by the love of their Savior. They labored long into the night counseling and caring for their sisters. They were pastors who cared for their flocks. They were preachers and writers and musicians; brides of Christ and mothers of the church.

Theology  The historical record is clear. There were many leadership positions for women in the Moravian Church, and women played vital roles in the development of the church in the 18th century. Some of this may go back to the heritage of the Unity of the Brethren and Comenius, but it is really Zinzendorf who deserves credit for creating such an inclusive community. He did not do it alone, obviously. His wives helped shape the practice of the church, but I think it was primarily Zinzendorf’s theology that provided the foundation for women’s leadership in the 18th century.

[Slide 20] When the Moravian Church published a new Book of Worship in the 1990s, there was a lot of concern over the language that would be used to describe God in Moravian prayers and hymns. What most Moravians at the time did not know was that during Zinzendorf’s lifetime our ancestors routinely prayed to the Holy Spirit as “Mother.” [Slide 21] For more than thirty years, this was the accepted practice and was strongly encouraged by Zinzendorf and other leaders of the church, including August Gottlieb Spangenberg and Peter Böhler here in Bethlehem. Zinzendorf said that the motherhood of the Holy Spirit was “an extremely important and essential point … and all our church and practice hangs on this point.”[9]

[Slide 22]  One of the most important litanies to the Holy Spirit during Zinzendorf’s time was titled the Te Matrem, which was based on the ancient Te Deum Laudamus. The litany begins: “Lord God, now be praised, you worthy Holy Spirit! You, the mother of Christendom, the Church honors in unity. All the angels and the host of heaven and whoever serves the honor of the Son; also the cherubim and seraphim, they all sing with a clear voice.” This litany represents an extremely rare example of Christian liturgy using feminine language to describe God, but it was only one of several worship pieces to the mother Spirit in Moravian churches.

[Slide 23] Zinzendorf acknowledged that this type of language for the Holy Spirit was not typical, but he always insisted that it was the simplest, clearest, and best way to communicate the nature of the Holy Spirit. This is language that even a child can comprehend. Zinzendorf argued for the scriptural authority of the Mother Office by linking together the Old and New Testament verses Isaiah 66:13 and John 14:26: “When the dear Savior at the end of his life wanted to comfort his disciples (at that time the language was not as rich as ours is); by that time the Savior, who was a very great bible student, had doubtlessly read the verse in the Bible ‘I will comfort you as a mother comforts.’ Then the dear Savior thought, ‘If I should say to my disciples that I am going away, then I must give them some comfort. I must say to them that they will receive someone who will comfort them over my departure. It will not be strange to them, for they have already read it in the Bible. …There it reads they shall have a Mother: I will leave you my Spirit.’”[10]

[Slide 24]  Zinzendorf believed that the church should be a school of the Holy Spirit, which would unlike any human educational institution. It is “a family school, that is a school on the lap, in the arms of the eternal Mother” who tenderly loves her children. A Christian is like a child who “sits on the Mother’s lap, is received into the school, and is led through all classes; then it is under the special dispensation, under the motherly regimen of the Holy Spirit, who comforts, punishes, and kisses the heart, as a mother comforts, punishes, and kisses her own child.”[11] We do not know if Zinzendorf ever read Comenius’ Mother School, but this quotation is certainly consistent with Comenius’ understanding that education is a benevolent process guided by a nurturing figure.

[Slide 25]  The idea of the Holy Spirit as Mother became an important part of Moravian devotional and communal life. The church established a festival for the Holy Spirit, popularly called the Mutter Fest (the Mother festival), which was first mentioned publicly in 1752. It was observed annually until 1770. It appears that the devotion to the Mother was particularly important to the women of the community. The Church’ s Prayer to her Mother was regularly used on the Single Sister’s festival day. It is very significant that Zinzendorf compared the Holy Spirit to Anna Nitschmann, who was also referred to simply as the Mutter.

[Slide 26]  The 18th century Moravians also had a remarkably positive view of the human body. We do not have time tonight to go into detail on Zinzendorf’s view of the human body, which is a fascinating topic in its own right. Suffice it to say that Zinzendorf took the doctrine of the Incarnation very seriously. Like the early Church Fathers, Zinzendorf spoke of a union of the divine and human in Jesus that was so complete that one can say that God was born in a stable to a virgin. God suffered. God died on the cross.[12] The Creator’s assumption of a human body blessed and redeemed humans from the law of sin and death. The Creator took on human flesh in Mary’s womb because he wanted to restore human nature and bless human life. [Slide 27]

According to Zinzendorf, the blessing of women’s bodies comes through Mary, the mother of Jesus. Nursing mothers should meditate upon the mystery that God was a baby whom Mary nursed. Zinzendorf insisted that the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb and the birth of Jesus removed all shame associated with the female body. As such, women and their bodies ought to be honored by all. “And from that same hour the womanly member, the womanly mother, was no more a shame but the most honorable of all members.”[13] Zinzendorf boldly proclaimed that the bodies of women are holy. This is one of the most extraordinary ideas in the history of Christianity, but it was hidden away for many years. Think of the shame that is heaped on women in our day and how this idea could bring hope and healing to women around the world. Once all notion of shame is removed from women’s bodies, there was no longer a barrier to their being fully included in leadership.

What Happened?  It is clear that the Moravian Church actively promoted the full inclusion of women in the leadership and fellowship of the church. The church at one time valued women of all ages and status in life, where strong women leaders were challenged to build up the kingdom of God. But something happened during the 19th century and this history was almost forgotten. What happened? [Slide 28]

As soon as the public learned what was happening in Moravian communities there was pressure on the Moravians to conform to sexist society. Vicious polemics were published against Zinzendorf and the Moravians. Missionaries were imprisoned, and evangelists were assaulted. Many of the polemics against the Moravians mentioned the danger they posed to public order by allowing women to hold offices. As Paul Peucker has shown, some of the Moravians were also concerned that the church might be dominated by women.[14] After the death of Zinzendorf, the leadership in Herrnhut tried to reassure the public that the Moravians were not a dangerous cult threatening social norms. Men like Spangenberg published material that minimized the radicalness of the Moravian Church, and some of Zinzendorf’s boldest ideas were repressed against the wishes of some members of the church. [Slide 29]

Beverly Smaby has shown that demise of women’s leadership was a conscious decision on the part of prominent male leaders of the church to remove women from the internal decision-making process. [Slide 30] The male elders explain the new policies thus: “we are obliged to adjust ourselves as much as possible to [the world’s] customs in those things that don’t belong to the essence of our Church, and to do nothing different unnecessarily that could give the public cause to conceive all kinds of false conceptions of us and, even with the appearance of truth, to draw detrimental conclusions from [what we do].”[15] They were more concerned about public relations than the New Testament’s vision of the true Christian community that had motivated their ancestors.

Women were excluded from the committees established to manage the church’s affairs after the death of Zinzendorf. Not surprisingly, the all-male committees decided to end women’s ordination.[16] Women were no longer allowed to assist in serving Holy Communion in groups where men were present, and they gradually lost other rights in the church.

[Slide 31] In 1789, when male delegates expressed concern about women were attending synod, the women protested in writing. They called the proceedings “humiliating” (demütigend) and they tried to reclaim their accustomed leadership role stating: “that the Savior had granted us the gift that [people of] our sex want to be led and reprimanded by their own kind, which, especially in spiritual matters, is not usual in the whole rest of the world…. [T]o legitimate the service of the Sisters in the Church it is necessary, that the male servants of Jesus honor [the Sisters] with respect and trust…. [O]ur cause will surely fall into chaos, if the maids of the Savior are, from one time to the next, more and more pushed back.”[17]

One of the most disturbing discoveries made by modern historians, especially Paul Peucker, is that the church’s leaders intentionally destroyed some of the documents associated with the radical experiments of the 1740s and 1750s.[18] This included the burning of most of the letters and personal papers of Anna Nitschmann because they contained things that they were not comfortable with.[19] The reason we know so little about the most important woman in Moravian history is that the church’s male elders burned the records. Men have often erased the history of women in the Christian church, but at least the Moravians were honest enough to record that they had done this.

[Slide 32] It was not just women’s leadership that suffered in the years after Zinzendorf’s death. The devotion to the Holy Spirit as the Mother of the Church was also a source of anxiety for his successors. The first synod held after Zinzendorf’s death raised the issue of the Mutter Fest and decided that this should be restricted to private gatherings because outsiders would not understand it.[20] Some protested this decision since the Mother name was considered “a real and divine truth which the Savior has declared to us through the blessed Disciple [Zinzendorf].” It was also decided that the litanies of the church needed to be revised, and the word Mother was systematically removed. The new litanies appeared in the liturgy books of 1770 and 1773. The word “comforter” replaces “mother” in some places. The Spirit is no longer referred to as the “Mother of God’s People” but is instead “Lord God Creator.” What was once vital to the community was removed, and it was not accidental that the worship of the Moravians changed at the same time that women lost their roles in leadership. It would not be until the second half of the 20th century that the church would ordain women in significant numbers. [Slide 32]

Conclusion  For hundreds of years the Moravians taught that women are equal to men spiritually and should be fully incorporated into the life of the church. For most of the history of the church there were specific offices for women so they could provide pastoral care to women. For a brief, extraordinary period in the 18th century the Moravians ordained women as elders, deacons, and presbyters. During the days of Zinzendorf two of the most important leaders in the Moravian Church were called Mama and Mutter. Women served as missionaries and helped found some of the most important congregations in the Americas and Africa. Moravians even worshiped God as both Father and Mother. But there was a backlash to this positive view of women after the death of Zinzendorf. Women were slowly, but persistently pushed out of office and even the historical record was distorted. Still Moravian women and men today may be inspired by the past to create a more just future. [Slide 33]


[1] Comenius, The Great Didactic of Comenius, tr. by M. W. Keatinge, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1910 reprint by Kessinger Publishing, no date), 68.

[2] Kaminsky, Hussite Revolution, 284-285.

[3] Craig D. Atwood, Theology of the Czech Brethren (Penn State Press, 2010).

[4] Zinzendorf, Gemeinreden 32 (ZH 4), 69.

[5] Peter Vogt, “A Voice for Themselves: Women as Participants in Congregational Discourse in the Eighteenth- Century Moravian Movement,” in Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), 227-247.

[6] Hans Joachim Wollstadt, Geordnetes Dienen in der Christlichen Gemeinde: dargestellt an den Lebensformen der Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine in ihren Anfängen (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1966), 346-348; cf. Otto Uttendörfer, Zinzendorf und die Frauen: Kirchliche Frauenrechte vor 200 Jahren (Herrnhut: Missionsbuchhandlung, 1919).

[7] Smaby, The Transformation of Moravian Bethlehem from Communal Mission to Family Economy (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 13.

[8] Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).

[9] N. L. von Zinzendorf, “Eine Rede, vom Mutter-Amte des heiligen Geistes. Gehalten in London den 19. Oct. 1746,” in Der öffentlichen Gemeinreden im Jahr 1747 (hereafter Gemeinreden), Anhang, p. 2, reproduced in Hauptschriften in sechs Bänden (hereafter abbreviated as ZH), vol. 4, ed. by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962). This discourse is found between the two sections of the Gemeinreden. For more on the mother office of the Spirit, see Gary Kinkel, Our Dear Mother the Spirit: an investigation of Count Zinzendorf’s Theology and Praxis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990), and Atwood, “The Mother of God’s People.”

[10] Zinzendorf, Gemeinreden 3 (ZH 4), 64 and 65. He also uses the Song of Solomon as support. Eine ist meine Taube, eine ist ihrer Mutter die liebste. Wer ist die Mutter? Ingleichen sehet Salomo in seiner Krone, damit Ihn Seine Mutter gekrönet hat am Tage der Freuden seines Hertzens. Spangenberg records a vigorous disagreement within the Brüdergemeine over Zinzendorf’s exegesis of this passage. Apologetische Schluß-Schrifft (ZE 3), 79 f.

[11] Zinzendorf, Gemeine Reden 27 (ZH 4), 375.

[12] Zinzendorf, Einundzwanzig Diskurse über die Augspurgische Konfession (ZH 6), 65.

[13] Zinzendorf, Gemein Reden, (ZH 4), Anhang, 36; Zinzendorf, Gemein Reden 1 (ZH 4), 29.

[14] P.M. Peucker, “ „Gegen ein Regiment von Schwestern“: Die Stellung der Frau in der Brüdergemeine nach Zinzendorfs Tod,“ Unitas Fratrum, Heft 45/46,

[15] Unvorgreiffliche Anmerkungen und Desideria dem Ehrwuerdigen General-Synodo zur Prueffung und Decision pflichtmaessig dargelegt von dem verordneten Unitaets Syndicats Collegion nebst Beylagen Sub. Cit: A. bis Cit. H., page 41, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.2.B.45.2.a, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Restrictions.”

[16] Es sey diese erste Conf: ohne die Schw. veranstaltet worden, damit wir über ihre Concurrenz erst mit einander sprechen möchten, u. es würden sodann die Schw. ausgemacht, die künftig zur Conf: kommen solten, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.3.B.4.c.1, May 30, 1760, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Restrictions.”

[17] Protokoll der General synode 1789, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.2.B.48, pages 481-484, as quoted in Peucker, “Gegen ein Regiment von Schwestern,” 69-70.

[18] Peucker, “Im Staub und Asches”

[19] Extr. aus einem Briefe von Br. David Nitschm. an Br. Petrum. London. 13 Sept. 65, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.14.A.z.44.a.18, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Relationships.”

[20] 28th session of the synod. August 9, 1764. Verlass des Synodi zu Marienborn im Jahr 1764 gehalten, p. 1305- 1310. Archiv der Brüder-Unität, Herrnhut, Germany. Item R.2.B.44.1.c.2, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Restrictions.”

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How Moravians have Read the Bible in the Past

Eastern District Conference July 2011

I.  Ground of the Unity        The primary doctrinal statement for the worldwide Moravian Church is the Ground of the Unity. It was written in 1957 and revised about 30 years later. It includes a lengthy discussion of the Moravian view of the Bible, which is consistent with over 500 years of Moravian history. Raise your hand if you’ve read the Ground of the Unity prior to today. In this workshop we are going to focus on how Moravians have read Scripture in the past, but I think it is good to have the Ground of the Unity in mind as we do so.

“God’s Word and Doctrine               The Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation; and this Scripture is the sole standard of the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life. The Unitas Fratrum recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and it sees its primary mission, and its reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message. We ask our Lord for power never to stray from this.”

II. The Unity of the Brethren         Today we’re going to look at the past for guidance in how to read the Bible in our time. This statement from the Ground of the Unity is consistent with what Moravians have always understood about the Bible. To begin with, I think we need to remember just how seriously our spiritual ancestors took the Bible. They separated themselves from the ministry of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1400s because they believed that the church was violating the teachings of the New Testament. At the time people who rejected the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church could be arrested, tortured, and killed. Keep in mind that the inquisitors justified their actions on Scripture. I often remind Moravians that every year we remember the death of John Hus who was condemned for heresy by the Council of Constance. Every year we are reminded that disputes over Scripture can lead to violence.

At his trial, Hus insisted that the Scriptures should be the final authority in the church, not the opinions of popes, theologians, and lawyers. The Catholic Church was afraid of what would happen if people were allowed to interpret the Bible on their own. Hus could have saved his life at any point simply by agreeing with the church’s teachings, but he chose not to. His life was shaped by the story of Jesus. For Hus, it was better to die as a witness to the truth than to conform to lies and corruption. Hus died singing because he believed that he would live with Christ in heaven. When Moravians talk about our lives being shaped by the Scriptures, keep in mind that this has included the idea of dying with Christ.

Hus’s followers continued his reformation after his death. They proclaimed that the Law of Christ was superior to the law of popes and cardinals, and the symbol of their rebellion was the chalice used in Holy Communion. For years the Catholic Church forbade lay persons to drink from the chalice even though Jesus said “drink of this all of you.” The Hussites believed that this was an egregious example of the institutional church defying the clear teachings of Jesus. Don’t think this was a minor disagreement. The government killed hundreds of people simply because they drank from the chalice. The pope and emperor launched five crusades against the Hussites who insisted that the Bible must be the final authority in the church. The Hussites argued that the Catholic Church of their day acted more like the Church of the Antichrist than the Church of Christ, no matter how much they quoted Scripture.

Fifty years after the death of Hus a small group of men and women led by Gregory the Patriarch formed a covenant community in the village of Kunwald in Bohemia. They did not call their community a church, since that word referred to the large institutional church. They were a voluntary community of brothers and sisters who wanted to shape their lives according to the teachings of the New Testament. They were a Unity of Brethren, and they believed that obedience to the Law of Christ meant much more than drinking wine in communion. They insisted that the Sermon on the Mount is the clearest expression of the Word of God for the church. They believed that Jesus’ instructions in the gospel are binding on his followers.

The Brethren were strongly influenced by the writings of lay theologian named Peter Chelcicky. Peter went much further than Hus in advocating for a complete reform of the church. He argued that the church of the apostles was the purest expression of Christianity, and all churches should try to live up to that ideal. It is the New Testament that provides a description of the church living under the Law of Christ. Peter regarded the Old Testament as an inferior and incomplete revelation that must be read only in light of the New Testament. The kingship of Christ had replaced the flawed kingship of David, and Old Testament laws regarding secular authority and war had been abolished abolished by the Law of Christ.[1] Peter completely rejected the idea that secular authority should enforce the laws of the church.

Christians should live according to the new covenant, which is based on radical love rather than fear. He wrote: “if the Law has been commuted, and if we are liberated from the Law of death through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and subjected to the Law of love, then let us see on what foundation power can be placed in Christ’s faith…. If he had wanted people to cut each other up, to hang, drown, and burn each other, and otherwise pour out human blood for his Law, then that Old Law could also have stood unchanged, with the same bloody deeds as before.”[2] In other words, Christians must look first and foremost to the teachings of Jesus, not the old law of Moses. Peter did not get rid of the Old Testament, but he did recognize that the Old Testament can be a very dangerous book if taken literally.  Peter subordinated the old revelation of Moses and the prophets to the new revelation in Jesus Christ.

A young noble by the name of Gregory read Peter Chelcicky’s writings and decided to live according to the Law of Christ. Gregory and his followers broke completely with the state church and ordained their own priests in 1467. They also wrote their own hymns and confessions of faith, established a strict church discipline, and established schools. They tried to recreate the church of the apostles as seen in the New Testament. This was the origin of the Moravian Church. Christ was the “one thing necessary” because through Christ humans could know God, be saved from sin and death, and learn the law of love. The New Testament was to be preferred in matters of faith and practice because it “neither condemns to death … nor coerces anyone to fulfill its commandments, but rather with loving patience calls for repentance, leaving the impenitent to the last judgement.”[3] In the Old Testament, they valued the wisdom literature that deals with ordinary living much more than the books of law and history.

The Brethren viewed Christ as the true Word of God in human flesh; therefore Christ was the revelation of the invisible God in human form. Scripture should point beyond itself to God and should lead people into a faithful relationship with Christ.[4] Since Scripture is the touchstone for authentic teaching, it must be provided in the language of the people and made available to everyone who professed faith in Christ. This was a radical concept in the 15th and 16th century. For centuries the church had believed that the sacred Scripture should be read only in the sacred languages of Latin or Greek, but the Hussites believed that God’s word must be understood by the people. The fact that they were willing to translate the Bible meant that they did not view the words of the Bible themselves as sacred. It was the revelation within the Scripture that was sacred. Every man, woman, and child should be taught to read and understand the Gospels.

The Brethren made an important distinction between things that are essential to salvation; those that minister to salvation; and those that are incidental. The essentials are just that. They decided there were six essential things. God creates. God redeems. God sanctifies. Humans respond to God’s work with Faith, Love, and Hope. Those are the essentials. God is the one who creates, redeems, and sanctifies, not the church. The work of the believer is in the realm of faith, love, and hope. It does not matter how brilliant your theology is or how accurate your translation of the Bible is or how successful your church is if you do not have faith, love, and hope.

Many of things that churches think are essential were considered ministerial by the Moravians: Baptism, Holy Communion, confession, the priesthood, worship, church discipline. Ministerials are very important because they communicate what is essential. The ministerials are sacred because they point to what is truly sacred, but they are not sacred in themselves. One way to think about this is to ask: what happens if the Inquisition burns down your church, kills your priest, and throws you in prison? Have you lost your salvation or do you still have what is essential: faith, love, and hope? Or, on the other hand, if you have a beautiful church with great music and inspiring preaching but do not have faith, love, and hope, what do you have?

Luke of Prague                     It often comes as a surprise to Moravians to learn that the founders of our church viewed Scripture as ministerial rather than essential. The great Moravian theologian Luke of Prague said that “the Word of God is the first, greatest, and most necessary ministerial thing.”[5] It was the basis of all other ministerial things, which get their holiness from the Word, but the Word of God was not simply the words of the Bible. The true Word of God is the gospel of Christ and his commandments, not the words of Scripture alone. Luke, like earlier Moravians, believed that the Word of God is more clearly seen in the New Testament than the Old. This is the foundation of true faith without which no one can come to God. This did not diminish the status of Scripture because Scripture points to Christ. But it is Christ, not the written Bible that is essential. The Bible is the guiding rule of faith, and he taught Moravian ministers to distinguish “between the external writing of the law, with ink on paper or parchment, and the external reading of it, and the internal truths contained in it.”[6] Luke instructed preachers to pay close attention to four things when interpreting a passage: when was it written, where was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written.[7] Was a particular passage written in ancient Israel in the time of the Mosaic Law or was it written in the time of the early church and the Law of Love? The essential teachings of the Bible were illuminated through the Holy Spirit within the community of faith rather than in classrooms and libraries, according to Luke.[8]

One of the most important Moravian Confessions of Faith (1535) begins with a statement on the authority of Scripture.[9]  This was actually the first Christian confession of faith to begin with a discussion of the authority of Scripture. It says that the apostolic writings “should be preferred to the writings of anyone else as sacred to profane writings and divine to human ones.” It is interesting that this article defines Scripture as those writings “received by the fathers and endowed with canonical authority,” thus acknowledging that the canon of Scripture was determined by the early church rather than given directly by the apostles. The Confession of 1535 insists that Scripture be translated into modern languages rather than being treated like an arcane text for the intellectual elite. It should be “understood by all” and believed “implicitly and simply.” Scripture was inspired, not dictated, by God “through the instrumentality chiefly of Peter and Paul.”

Comenius                  One of the most important Moravian thinkers was John Amos Comenius who lived during a time of intense religious violence. Protestants fought Catholics; Lutherans fought Calvinists; Puritans fought Anglicans. He urged Christians to recognize that moderation is itself a part of Christian faith. Satan works by inflaming unholy passions and pushing people to extremes of rationalism empty of faith or fanatical devotion devoid of reason.  “We must therefore oppose Satan by keeping to a middle course 1. between neglect and abuse of the Scriptures, 2. between a life of profanity and one of superstition, 3. between neglect of discipline and harmful rigidity.”[10] He also argued that if the path ahead is uncertain, he advised, it is safer to keep to the middle so that you can move to the right or left as needed without becoming lost.

Comenius examined many of the doctrinal issues that were dividing Christians and he concluded that some of them could not be decided on the basis of Scripture alone. He blamed theologians, who seemed to think that “to know simply Christ seems too simple a theology,” for the disputes and divisions among Christians.[11] He reminded his readers that Satan was “a sophist” who was always offering arguments, just like a theologian. On the question of justification by faith or works, for example, Paul and James clearly disagree. Comenius concluded that both faith and works are necessary.[12] Rather than fighting over this, Christians should follow both Paul and James: “As Paul praises faith, you must put your trust in our beloved Saviour with all your heart. As James recommends works, you must do everything with a pure heart.”[13]

Comenius believed that true Christianity is simple, profound and powerful.[14] Politicians, priests, and lawyers create needless perplexity and complication. Comenius pointed out that the first religion was that of Abraham: “to believe in one God, to obey one God, to hope for life from God the fount of life.” He also quoted Micah 6:8 (“to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”) as a summary of true religion. “See, this was the whole of religion before the law and under the law, to grasp God by faith, to embrace God with love, and to hold God by hope.”[15] Comenius insisted that the Bible is the great fountain of divine truth and guidance, but it has to be studied carefully. Comenius urged people to apply reason to the study of Scripture. A Bible student starts “by learning all the biblical history,” but must go beyond this to perceive “the true meaning of these three articles: faith, love, hope.”[16] The ultimate goal of reading the Bible and being part of the community of faith is to become a renewed creation: a man or woman “created according to God, in justice and holiness of truth.”[17]

Simplicity in doctrine does not mean stupidity; nor does trust in God mean turning away from human responsibility. Faith and reason, service and devotion, love and reconciliation, realism and hope were united in Comenius’ thought, just as they were in the teaching of the Brethren from the beginning. Comenius continued and refined the Unity’s theological heritage that Christianity is not a matter of wrangling over the mysteries of salvation; it is a discipleship that allows a clear-minded commitment to social justice, personal integrity, interpersonal forgiveness, and sacrificial love. The one thing needful, for Comenius, was the Christ who provides a “paradise of the heart” in the midst of confusion and frustration by leading believers out of self-centeredness and greed into universal love and justice.

Zinzendorf                 As you probably know, the Moravian Church was reborn in the 1720s on the estate of Count Zinzendorf. He was one of the most creative theologians of modern times, and his ideas continue to shape the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf loved the Bible and even tried to translate the New Testament from Greek into modern German. One of his great innovations was taking individual verses of Scripture out of context and using them as “watchwords” for the day. Today these verses are chosen by lot, but originally Zinzendorf selected them personally. He wanted people to take the words of Scripture into their hearts and minds and let the words guide their actions and attitudes. Moravian liturgies, especially in Zinzendorf’s day, were composed primarily of Bible verses or paraphrases. Moravians were expected to know their Bibles so intimately that they would understand references to Elisha or the daughters of Philip.

It is important for readers of the Bible to recognize that Paul and Peter were both Christians and yet had different things to say about Jesus. The Bible does not speak objectively as a uniform and authoritative expression of a single viewpoint, and it is wrong for theologians to try to force it to do so. The diversity in the Bible increases its usefulness for the church. Zinzendorf agreed with modern biblical scholars that the Gospel of John was written last, but this makes it superior to the others according to Zinzendorf. He claimed that the Holy Spirit had more time to reveal the truth about Jesus to John than the other apostles.[18] But John should not simply replace Mark. Each of the gospels is necessary even if John is the key to understanding the whole Bible.  

The key to understanding Zinzendorf’s approach to the Bible, though, is his idea of religion of the heart. He believed that true religion is a matter of the heart or soul, not the mind alone. He did not have much sympathy for those who get wrapped up in the most obscure parts of the Bible and ignore what is clear. He claimed that the prophets sometimes received dark and confusing revelations; “even they had no clear concept of it in the understanding.[19] The Bible includes a number of voices speaking out of their own experience; therefore the personal histories and personalities of the biblical authors shape their expression of revelation.[20] Even more provocatively, Zinzendorf openly acknowledged that the Bible is flawed in its historical details and lacks the artificial beauty of the classics. The Bible is not a perfect book, but this only proves that it is true to God’s purpose and to human life.[21] God let the authors speak out of their own experience. Zinzendorf argues that it is a terrible error, perhaps even a sin, to try to force the Bible to speak with a single voice, or to “improve” it. “The fact that the Bible has so many errors (scarcely a book today would be published with as many), is, for me at least, an unassailable proof for its divinity. Why?  It was so much the desire of the Lord that not a syllable in the divine teaching of the Holy Scriptures be altered.”[22]

Zinzendorf valued the Old Testament more than the original Moravians did, but he agreed with them that the Old Testament must be interpreted through the New Testament. He claimed that the Old Testament is actually about God the Son not the Father. Here in Pennsylvania Zinzendorf preached: “In the Old Testament people knew about no other God at all except our Lord Jesus, who at that time was called Jehovah.”[23] Zinzendorf believed that the Bible teaches that Christ is the Creator.[24] The first chapter of the Gospel of John clearly paints Jesus as the pre-existent logos who is the creative force in the universe. Zinzendorf accepted the tradition that Isaiah 9:6 is a messianic prophecy, but he focused on the idea that the messiah would be called “almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Zinzendorf points to other passages of the New Testament that explicitly or implicitly identify Christ as the Creator (e.g. Heb. 1:8 f., and especially Col. 1:16) in order to show that those who deny that Christ is the Creator are denying the plain truth of scripture.[25] The Creator was incarnate in Jesus.

“Indeed, when they [the theologians] ask us for a single axiom from which we derive with our doctrine all other principles; when they ask us for the two chief lines of the Bible without which the Bible is and remains a chaos of nonsense; when they ask I say, the two chief propositions upon which scriptural doctrine stands and falls: the first is that there is a Savior, and the second is that the Savior is the Creator.”[26]

The doctrine of Christ as Creator was so important to Zinzendorf that he dared publicly to disagree with the Apostle Paul who in I Cor. 15:24 subordinates the Son to the Father.[27]  Since the Savior is the Creator, there is no separation between creation and redemption. The same God who made human creatures also came to redeem them. We can debate the merits of Zinzendorf’s theology another time, but the idea that Christ is the creator was part of Moravian doctrine well into the 19th century. The important thing for our discussion this morning is that Zinzendorf and his followers had a clear method for making sense of the Bible. Christ is the Word of God who was incarnate. We read the Bible through the mind of the redeemer. The Bible is a living book of revelation because Christ is a living presence in the community of faith.

New Testament Practice                  The Moravians in Herrnhut tried to create a new Christian community based on the teachings of the NT rather than simply following tradition. This meant that they ordained women to offices in the church since women were among the disciples, apostles, and elders of the early church. They called each other brother and sister, and insisted that clergy are servants rather than lords. They exchanged the Kiss of Peace and shared in lovefeasts and footwashings. They believed that Christ had made all people, not just white people, and that Christ had purchased all people through his blood. This meant that slaves and Indians were brothers and sisters who were to be loved not exploited. The first worship service in the new sanctuary of the Salem church in North Carolina in 1771 gives you some idea of just how radical the Moravian’s interpretation of the NT was. An African named Sam was baptized and received into the congregation with a kiss given by the white pastor. Can you imagine anywhere else in America where a white man would kiss a black man publicly and call him brother? The limits of the Moravian view of Scripture, though, were also evident in that service. Sam remained a slave after his baptism.

Spangenberg was less provocative than Zinzendorf, but he also acknowledged that the canon of Scripture was determined by the bishops of the early church. He believed that both testaments provide reliable information about the nature of God and God’s will for human beings, but he rejected the notion that the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible verbatim. Like Zinzendorf, he asserts that the Holy Spirit let each author write according to his own natural ability and knowledge. “If they gave him only their heart, and were willing to be led and governed by his Holy Spirit, for all the purposes he had with them, he then left all the rest to take its own natural course, as far as there was nothing sinful in it.”[28] This is a far cry from fundamentalist theories of “plenary inspiration” in which the biblical authors were stenographers of the Spirit.[29] Spangenberg viewed the Bible as the source of doctrine and moral instruction, and he is not all concerned over the historical issues raised by critical study of the Bible.[30] He wants people to focus on the central teaching of the Bible: redemption through Christ.

Spangenberg asserts that those who have accepted their redemption in Christ are empowered to live by an ethic of love. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they will be able to love their neighbors and so fulfill the demands of the Decalogue. His love ethic has radical potential since all humans are our neighbors. Followers of Christ must love all people “whether friends or foes, whether of the same religious persuasion” or not. “We must be obliged to say, Thou shalt love all men as thyself, whether converted or unconverted, whether Christians, Jews, Turks, Pagans, or by whatever name they may be called.”[31] The opposite of love is hatred, which is the desire to harm others or to rejoice in the harm that they suffer. Spangenberg insists that “hatred against any man is therefore not compatible with a heart, that has experienced Jesus to be its Saviour.”[32] He is intolerant of hatred, calling it a “notorious work of the flesh” that will prevent a person from entering the Kingdom of God. It is part of the fallen condition of humankind that must be overcome by grace. Sanctification is characterized by love for all people. This love must include the love of one’s enemies. “Now, if any one loves his enemy, then he not only seeks to avoid whatever might hurt him; but he is also inclined, and earnestly intent upon doing every thing to the utmost of his power, to the furtherance of that which can be of service to him.”[33]

19th and 20th centuries      After the death of Zinzendorf, the Moravian Church grew more conservative theologically and socially. The church’s leaders were profoundly frightened by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Europe. In America, they were afraid of the emotionalism of the Second Great Awakening and the rationalism of the liberals. A Moravian synod approved a statement of the Chief Doctrines of the church in the late 18th century. Originally there were four chief doctrines, but by the end of the 19th century the number had been expanded to eight. Americans sometimes called these 8 doctrines the Essentials. Interestingly, the Bible itself was not one of the eight chief doctrines, but it was the basis for them all. “The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments are and shall remain the only rule of our faith and practice.  We venerate them as God’s Word, which he spake to mankind of old time in the Prophets and, at last, in His Son and by his Apostles to instruct us unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  We are convinced that all truths that declare the will of God for our salvation are fully contained therein.”

In 1914 the following paragraph was added:  “We hold fast to our genuine Moravian view, that it is not our business to determine what the Holy Scriptures have left undetermined or to contend about mysteries impenetrable to human reason.  We would keep steadily in sight the aim set before us by the apostle Paul, Eph. 4:13, 14, that we may “all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”  At the same time, we would never forget that every human system of doctrine remains imperfect, for, as the same apostle says, I Cor. 13:9: “We know in part.””

This was the basis for the statement we now have in the Ground of the Unity. Although the Moravians grew more conservative over time, they did not jump on the fundamentalist bandwagon. Over the centuries the church has been remarkably consistent in its teaching on the Bible even if specific doctrines and practices have changed.

1) The Bible is authoritative for the teaching and practice of the church. Congregational worship and Christian ethics should be grounded in the New Testament.

2) Both the Old and New Testament are divine revelation, but the NT should be used to interpret the Old. We are first and foremost followers of Christ. We cannot understand the revelation of God without experiencing Christ. Jesus is our guide for interpreting the whole Bible.

3) The Bible is a complicated and confusing book that does not provide a clear system of doctrine. It was written over many centuries by many different people who were inspired in different ways by God. It is important to focus on the central message of the Bible rather than getting lost in obscurities.

4) The central story of the Bible is that we were made by a loving God who wants us to be happy and healthy. But we are corrupted by sin, hatred, greed, and the fear of death. We cannot save ourselves, but God took on human form in order to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus Christ was the living Word of God who is the full revelation of God for humankind, and we can be united with Christ in love. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit we are able to live as God would have us live. We will never be perfect, but we can learn to love and serve.

5) The Bible is a book about liberation from sin, hatred, and death. It teaches us that all people are our neighbors and our brothers and our sisters.

6) We should expect different people and different churches to interpret the Bible in different ways. Are differences are less important than what unites us as followers of Jesus.


[1] Wagner, Chelčický, 86-89.

[2] Chelčický, Triple Division, 139-140.

[3] Brock, Unity of Czech Brethren, 86.

[4] Paul Ricouer, “The ‘Sacred Text’ and the Community,” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, tr. by David Pellauer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 68-74 discusses the crucial difference between the Bible as an authoritative text and as a sacred object. “Maybe in the case of Christianity there is no sacred text, because it is not the text that is sacred but the one about which it is spoken.” The Bible has authority because it is the defining text for the community and its life. “Preaching is the permanent reinterpretation of the text that is regarded as grounding the community; therefore, for the community to address itself to another text would be to make a decision concerning its social identity.”

[5] Müller, I:462.

[6] Molnár, Bratr Lukás, 82, quoted by Crews, “Luke of Prague,” 38.

[7] Quoted by Müller, Geschichte der böhmische Brüder, I:462.

[8] Peschke, Kirche und Welt, 170.

[9] Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions, I:801-802.

[10] Panorthosia, II:204.

[11] Unum Necessarium, 97.

[12] Panorthosia, II:13-133,

[13] Panorthosia, II:142.

[14] Unum Necessarium, 64.

[15] Unum Necessarium, 88-89.

[16] Unum Necessarium, 73.

[17] Unum Necessarium, 74.

[18] Beyreuther, Studien, p. 38; Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 4, p. 101.

[19] Gemeinreden (ZH 4), Anhang 2, p. 18.

[20] Wundenlitanei Homilien (ZH 3) 15, p. 145. Even errors in astronomy were tolerated by the Holy Spirit; Spangenberg, Apologetische Schluß Schrift (ZE 3), p. 146.

[21] “Therefore it is a great thing that the Holy Scripture was brought together with a great heavenly wisdom out of a hundred pieces, and their proper purpose is not at all to run together a series of thoughts in a flowing connection, like a system. Instead it [concerns] faith matters which concern the ground point of our blessedness and way of life.”  Gemeinreden (ZH 4), part 2, Intro., p. 2-3 (unnumbered). In Bettermann’s judgment, p. 17, “The many historical mistakes of the scriptures are to him [Zinzendorf] a sign of their divine truth, because here human ambition which always must improve and correct until no one can find any more fault with the book fails.”

[22] Wünden Reden 15 (ZH 3), p. 144.

[23] Pennsylvania Sermons, First Sermon, p. 19.

[24] Kinder Reden (ZE 6) 84, pp. 411-412; Beyreuther, Studien, p. 11 f.

[25] Pennsylvania Sermons, Sermon 1.

[26] Gemeinreden (ZH 4) 37, pp. 153-154.

[27] Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 4, p. 96.

[28] Idea, 42.

[29] Idea, 42.

[30] Hans Frei, Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974), 38-40.

[31] Idea, 360-361.

[32] Idea, 361.

[33] Idea, 365.

In Essentials Unity….

Moravians often quote “In Essentials Unity, In Non-essentials Liberty, in all Things Love” as a motto of the church even though it has never officially been adopted as such by the church. Recently I was asked about the origin of this phrase, and it proved to be a fun search via the Internet. Mike Riess of the Interprovincial Board of Communication helped track down some of the following information. The most useful site on the phrase is http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/quote.html

The “In Essentials” phrase was originally in Latin and appears in two slightly different forms: “In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis (or, dubiis) libertas, in utrisque (or, omnibus) caritas.” The difference is whether there is liberty in non-essential things or in things that are doubtful, meaning that they are still open to debate and interpretation. The idea of “doubtful” things reflects the perspective of the Catholic Church more than that of Protestants. The Latin phrase has often been attributed to Augustine, and many people apparently believe that. However, no Augustine scholar has found the phrase in the great saint’s writings and it is doubtful that he would have even approved of it. Incidentally, one of the most famous applications of the “In Essentials” quote was by Pope John XXIII before the calling of the Second Vatican Council.

The Moravian Brethren in the 15th and 16th centuries made it a point of doctrine that there are some things that are essential to salvation (Creation, Redemption, Sanctification, Faith, Hope, and Love); some things that minister to salvation (Word, sacraments, priesthood, doctrine, worship); and other things that are incidental to salvation (forms of rituals, language of worship, local traditions, saints days, etc.). This distinction between Essential Things, Ministerial Things, and Incidental or Nonessential Things was central to the Brethren’s famed ecumenism. But the church did not use the famous “In Essentials quote” no doubt because Love was always an essential alongside Faith and Hope.

So, when did the quotation first appear? The earliest known use is by Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624)in 1617. He had been a Catholic bishop in Italy, but he sided with the Archbishop of Venice in a fight against the pope and was forced to flee for his life to England. The Anglican Church received him with open arms, and he wrote a bitter polemic against the papacy in which he argued that the church should be a republic not a monarchy. In book 4, chapter 8 of De Republica Ecclesiastica he summed up his proposal for ending church conflict by saying “And we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity. This I feel, this I desire, this I do indeed hope for, in him who is our hope and we are not confounded.”

Interestingly, the author of this irenic statement was personally quite hard to deal with and was unpopular in England. When the opportunity presented itself, he reconciled with the papacy and returned to Rome where he wrote a book against the Church of England. Unfortunately for De Dominis his new papal protector died, and the next pope imprisoned him in Castle San Angelo where he eventually died. But his works remained in use in England, and soon the English pastor Richard Baxter, a Puritan, adopted the phrase about liberty in nonessential things.

Around this same time in Germany there was a group of scholars who were greatly concerned about the way that theological and liturgical conflict had led Europe into the Thirty Years War. They hoped that by returning to the essence of Christian piety and devotion, the church could turn away from conflict and divisions. Johannes Arndt, David Pareus, John Andreas Valentin, John Drury, and John Amos Comenius were among them. As the American church historian Phillip Schaff put it in History of the Christian Church, vol. 7, pp. 650-653 (repr. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965): “It was during the fiercest dogmatic controversies and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, that a prophetic voice whispered to future generations the watchword of Christian peacemakers, which was unheeded in a century of intolerance, and forgotten in a century of indifference, but resounds with increased force in a century of revival and re-union: IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.”

This phrase next appeared in a tract by a Lutheran pastor identified as Rupertus Meldenius, which may have been a pseudonym. He listed some of  those who were seeking peace in the church in the aftermath of the invasion of Bohemia by the Habsburg armies in 1621. After that the phrase starts to appear in other works by Protestants in Germany and England. Of course, whenever we think of public intellectuals who labored for peace during the terrible years of the 17th century we think of John Amos Comenius, that “incomparable Moravian.” Though he is most famous for his pedagogical works, Comenius offered many proposals for peace in the church, drawing heavily on the theology of the Moravian Church, also known as the Unitas Fratrum. In one of his last writings Comenius proposed that there was One Thing Necessary for individuals, churches, and nations: return to simple faith in Christ. In chapter 8, paragraph 6 he wrote:

“However, what is most necessary for the body of believers, the Christian Church? UNIVERSAL CONCORD, which Christ called love, and he gave this for a watchword to his own or for a sign of his church (John 13:35). And the apostles commended mutual love as the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14), and urged that unity of spirit be maintained in the bond of peace, as if all were one body and one spirit, and all were called into the same hope under one Lord, one faith, one baptism, etc., with the diversity of the gifts of Christ not standing in the way (Eph. 4:3,7). The prime law of Christian concord is threefold: in absolutely necessary things to maintain unity, in less necessary things (which they call adiaphora) liberty, in all things, toward all, love.”

Translation of Unum Necessarium by Vernon Nelson, found a http://www.moravianarchives.org/images/pdfs/Unum%20Necessarium.pdf

This is not precisely the same as the so-called motto of the Moravian Church, but the sentiment is the similar. After the death of Comenius it was the German Pietists, led by Jacob Philip Spener and August Hermann Francke, who took up the cause of union among Christians based on piety rather than doctrinal and liturgical uniformity. The most significant figure in the Pietist movement in terms of ecumenical work was Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. While it does not appear that he used the precise phrase about essentials and non-essentials, he certainly operated on this principle as one can see in the Brotherly Agreement signed in Herrnhut.

More research is needed to show when the phrase began to be used as an unofficial motto of the Moravian Church, but it is clear that by 1902 it was viewed as such among the leaders of the Moravian Church in America. Augustus Schultze, the professor of theology at the Moravian Theological Seminary, preached at a Moravian synod in 1902 on the theme Essentials…of the Christian Faith. This was considered authoritative enough to be published by the church following the synod. Professor Schultze claimed: “We Moravians, at least, have always proclaimed it as our motto in matters of religion: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” We therefore take it for granted that there are many things generally conceded to be non-essential, while there are certain facts and truths so essential as to command a general acceptance.”

Schultze’s sermon indicates, though, that by 1902 there was no agreement on just what things were essential and which were non-essential within the Moravian Church let alone in the wider church. Despite the fact that the “Moravian motto” does not clarify what are essential things, the call for a type of unity that allows liberty of expression in some things clearly resonates with many people. Other denominations today claim this same phrase as a motto, especially churches that emerged out of the Campbellite movement in 19th century America.

Moravians should be cautious in claiming it as uniquely their own since it was coined by a Catholic bishop, popularized by Puritans and Lutherans, and has been meaningful to Disciples of Christ and other churches. However, if this motto leads Moravians and other Christians read the writings of Comenius himself, they will discover substantial proposals for how to put this principle into effect. Personally, I think the old Moravian essentials of Faith, Love, and Hope are a good starting place for greater unity and enriching diversity in the church.

Thinking about the Holy Spirit

Here are some notes from my theology class today:

One of the key questions in thinking about the Holy Spirit is what to do with the varieties of understandings of the Spirit in the Bible itself. There are references to the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is the one who comes upon the prophets, but also came upon Christ. Christ sends the Spirit but is also proclaimed the Son by the Spirit. John talks about a Paraclete or Advocate. There is lots of material for creative thinking about the Spirit of God and the human spirit in the New Testament. It is important in formulating our doctrines of the Spirit to keep in mind the essential fluidity of the Spirit in the Scripture, tradition, and experience, but common to the church’s witness is that the Spirit of God is the same Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. Part of the role of the Spirit is make Christ real to believers. The Spirit is the one who makes faith alive and real. Or to put it another way, the Spirit is the one who helps us encounter Christ as Thou rather than simply as the metaphysical Logos or an historical figure. The Spirit is also the one who allows us to call God “Abba” from the core of our being rather than defining God as a paternal figure.

When we think about the doctrines of justification and sanctification, theologians get all twisted out of shape in arguing about the nature of grace or God’s forensics, while forgetting the weightier matter that we are made right with God through grace as communicated through the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of justification is not fundamentally about judgment and guilt; it is about the existential experience of being made right with God by God’s own work in reconciliation. The experience of justification is an experience of the Holy Spirit, and thus it is marked by wholeness, health, life, and movement. It is not always pleasant because sometimes we are so disordered in our lives that the fire of the Spirit feels like a scorching flame, but the result of the encounter with God is a sense of re-integration, a sense of being truly loved with a love that is beyond what poets describe, an awakening to a deeper reality that gives us a new insight into the world. It is an experience of the holy that can be radically transformative.

Some Christian communities have tried to define in precise terms what the experience of justification through grace should be. For some, it only comes through the sacraments; for others only through right belief; for others only through a conversion experience. But the witness of the church through the centuries has been that the Spirit and God’s grace work in many ways, just as God works in many ways through creation. What the church has consistently affirmed, despite many different theological formulations, is that the Holy Spirit is part of the process of justification and redemption. Just as creation was not a single act in the distant past; redemption was not just a single moment on Calvary; the Spirit is involved in the continuation of creation and new creation. There is an on-going dynamic process of the world, including human individuals, being reborn or remade. The Spirit draws us into the future and opens us to the possibility of a better future than our past would indicate.

When we think about the New Creation that Paul speaks of, sometimes in terms of the New Adam (we should think about the New Eve as well), keep in mind that we are talking about being more fully human, not less human. The work of the Spirit is, in part, the work of bring us ever more fully into God’s intention for humanity; to realize our giftedness as bearers of the image of God. There is very little talk about becoming perfect in the New Testament, although John Wesley made the most of the few passages. What we mainly see is the hope for the reclamation of humankind from the law of sin and death. Perfection would be an entering fully into life; into the life of God who creates; who loves the world enough to enter into the suffering and sorrow of the world; who brings hope and life and freedom.

Justification is the beginning of the process of the re-creation of persons; sanctification is the on-going process of living out of the knowledge that we belong to God; that we are the children of God and can live as dearly beloved children of God; that we are the living representatives of God in the world. Sanctification has too often been restricted to issues of self-discipline or even self-mortification without making the connection between the individual person and the wider society. Sanctification or becoming holy means entering into the life of God in our existential situation, and that means that we become living agents of God’s justice in a world disordered by the disease of sin and selfishness. This is why evangelism and the social gospel go hand in hand; why liberation theology and liturgical theology go together; why justification by faith and justice in the world are related; why redemption and reconciliation are political as well as spiritual goals.

One of the most important theological terms related to the work of the Holy Spirit is Vocation, and it is another one of those terms that we have allowed to degenerate over the centuries. When I say you need vocational counseling or vocational training, what do you think of? The word is just the Latin word for “calling,” and in the church it was specifically the calling of God through the Holy Spirit. The calling of the prophets, like Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures, was a paradigmatic view of calling, but in the NT calling is more than the calling of prophets. It begins with the calling of Jesus to disciples who leave one form of living for another. It was more than just the twelve who were called, and not all became apostles. There was the calling to the Samaritan woman, to Nicodemus, the calling to Lazarus to come out of the tomb, the calling to Mary Magdalene to health and then to recognize the risen Christ, the calling to Paul to give up violence and embrace love.

In early Christianity vocation meant the calling to be religious, meaning to join a religious order and take life-long vows of service and self-denial, but the Waldensians, Hussites, and then Luther turned vocation back to the originally idea of the calling of Christ through the Spirit to all who believe. Every Christian is called into life and abundant life. Every Christian is called to turn away from self-gratification into love for neighbor. Every Christian is called into community and into service. But every Christian is called in individual ways.

Umpires

Umpires and Postmodernism

I’m attending the Theology After Google conference at Claremont School of Theology, and there have been many thought provoking sessions. One of the speakers used an illustration from baseball to explain postmodernism, which was intriguing, but I think is misleading. It is the old baseball anecdote about the umpire who says, “It ain’t nothing till I call it.” According to Stanley Fish, this is a recognition that it is the interpreter who defines reality, that balls and strikes do not exist in the game until an observers makes the call. There is no objective reality, only interpretation, and the community helps define the nature of the umpire’s call. It is insightful, but what is crucial for the story is that baseball has authority figures known as umpires who are entrusted “to make the call.” The batter in the story was not asking for a statement on the nature of reality; he was looking for the umpire to determine the next step in the game.

Contrary to the speaker’s assertion, baseball never worked on the illusion that balls and strikes are objective realities evident to all observers. From early days, the organizers of games knew there had to be a subjective observer appointed to “call the game,” and, more importantly, the community agreed to his authority. Even television failed to change this dynamic as slow-motion replays demonstrated times when umpires “missed the call.” Casual fans watching at home may have been brought into the secrets of the game, but the gnosis was always there for those who participated.

What we have in the umpire illustration is pre-modernism. The umpire is the tribal chief or elder who has been appointed to make judgments affecting the life of the community. This is the wisdom model of discernment. The elder/umpire uses all of his or her knowledge, including knowledge of the living community, to make a wise decision for the good of the community. Should these judgments consistently prove harmful, foolish, or random, the community may remove him or her from the seat of judgment. But the community cannot exist without an arbiter of disputes precisely because the participants know that there is no way to determine an objective norm. To put this in ecclesiastical terms, the notion that “It ain’t nothing till I call it” is the functional equivalent of the priest saying “It ain’t the body of Christ till I call it.” As long as the community accepts that subjectivity of spiritual authority, we have a catholic church.

Contrast the role of the umpire in baseball with the role of time-keepers in many other sports, such as bobsled. Here we have sophisticated measuring devices and electronic barriers set up to give an objective (i.e. mechanical) determination of who had the fastest time. We never see the time-keepers. We know there are humans involved, but the “human” element has been eliminated in the desire for an objective standard quantifying the notion of “fastest.” The community turned over the task of interpretation to machines, and many people long for a similar process in other competitive sports such as gymnastics. In baseball, I imagine, one could insert a sensor that would determine the “precise” location of the ball within a predefined strike zone, but the game as we know it requires the active participation of umpires.

A postmodern view of baseball would see the umpire as one center of power/authority within the game, but recognize that there is much more going on during a baseball game than balls and strikes. Each player is a center of power, performing carefully articulated roles. Any individual may play a determinative role in the final outcome, but no one who it may be. In fact, you can never with integrity say that any one player won or lost the game because the game is an aggregate of dozens of pitches, swings, throws, etc. each potentially a game winner. Even those who do not play are centers of power in a drama that fans follow in the sports media. Will the centerfielder be on the injured reserve list? Has the coach benched the third baseman?

But even this barely scratches the surface because what is “really” happening in a baseball game is much bigger. Thousands of people are involved, but few are focused intensely on the game itself. People are talking to each other, eating, drinking, dreaming, keeping records, talking trash, remembering previous games, reliving their childhood, creating childhood memories, participating in one of the rituals of Americanization, exchanging money, encouraging capitalism, encouraging competition, advertizing brand names, admiring athleticism, having sexual fantasies about players (never umpires), and a thousand other things. Most of those fans know that most of the time it does not matter whether a pitch is a ball or strike. It matters sometimes, and any given fan will miss the moment. Even that does not matter, those who missed the moment will feel the excitement of the crowd and watch the replay.

What does matter is that the umpire makes a call so the game can continue. That is why the batter had to ask the umpire whether it was a ball or strike. The umpire had failed momentarily in his essential role in the game, and doubt set in. But the umpire quickly reminded the player (and scholars like Stanley Fish) that he (rarely she) is essential to the game in a way the player is not. Had the player protested too loudly and undermined the authority of the umpire, the umpire would have asserted his power dramatically by ejecting the player from the game. Again, this is a pre-modern system where the authority may be questioned, but only up to a point. Then naked power is revealed. That is why coaches, fans, and players repeat this particular anecdote as a piece of tribal wisdom. Every fan has the right to dispute a call, but we do not decide balls and strikes by consensus or the will of the fans. Players and coaches may protest, but not to the point of undermining faith in the game itself.

There is more, of course. The umpires, coaches, players, fans, and commentators all know that individual games do not matter in a 162 game season. Only a few games for a few teams at the end of the season really matter. That is why the nation watches the pennant race and the World Series. And most of those participants, even those making millions of dollars, recognize that even those games do not really matter. There is always next year. There is always the cycle of birth and death. What matters is that the game is played. This may sound postmodern, but it is also pre-modern. It is tribal. “In the spring of the year when kings go off to war,” says the writer of II Samuel. The postmodern turn in baseball is recognizing all of this, but still choosing to participate in the masquerade of balls and strikes because you know that the umpire is literally and symbolically a “part of the game.” And if you do not like that, you are free to choose another game with a different structure of rules and judgment, like curling.

So, how does this apply to the Church or to churches? We no longer have umpires that we give authority to call the game of faith for us. We do not even have a consensus on what the game of faith is or what truly matters in the game. We cannot even identify for sure where the centers of power are in the Church or who are the players and who are the fans. We are not even sure whether the game is played in the sanctuary/stadium or somewhere else. The premodern wisdom model of pastor as tribal elder has largely been rejected, in part because of modernism. The modern notion of an objective set of rules (Scripture, confessions of faith, books of discipline) is being overthrown, which is revealed by how desperately some cling to it. Some theologians and churches are struggling to adopt insights from postmodernism, but it is not yet clear if it is possible to have a postmodern community of faith since postmodernism is suspicious of all three of those words: community, faith, and of.

Jesus and Salvation

A Moravian Understanding of Jesus as Savior

Craig D. Atwood

Easter, 2003

This is a critical moment in the Moravian Church.  Yes, we are dealing with doctrine, but doctrine is more than slogans and memorized catechisms.  Doctrine is our self-understanding as the people of God.  Our doctrine and our practice must be in harmony. The history of Christianity is filled with examples of churches that established doctrinal purity and lost their faith, love, and hope.  Too often the phrase “Jesus is the only way to heaven” becomes in practice “Agreement with my preaching is the only path to God.”  Too often the concern to save some is distorted into the desire to condemn all who disagree with us.

There has been a great deal of discussion and even argument in recent years over the Moravian understanding of Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Throughout its long history, the Moravian Church has proclaimed that Christ is “the source of our salvation.”  We know of no other way to abundant life in this world and the next.  Moravians have also proclaimed Paul’s message that “through Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself.”  In other words, we teach that it is because of the on-going work of Christ that humans can be restored, forgiven, and brought into a grace-filled and loving relationship with God and all of God’s creation.

It is very important that Moravians understand that we teach that salvation is the work of God alone.  It is God alone who saves us. Moravians have traditionally recognized that Jesus and Paul repeatedly warn people about the dangers of self-righteousness.  It is the sinner rather than the Pharisee that is justified in Jesus’ parables.  When we turn salvation into a work that we do or when we believe that we are somehow worthy of salvation, then we reject the grace of God and turn our backs on Christ. We then seek salvation apart from Christ and lose what we seek.  We cannot save ourselves.  We do not save others.  All that we can do is recognize that we are indeed sinners saved by grace and in doing so become agents of God’s infinite mercy to others.

The Ground of the Unity makes a useful distinction between the saving work of Christ and the “fruits of salvation.”  We believe that the redemptive work of Christ is an objective reality, much as the work of creation is an objective reality. The fruits of salvation, on the other hand, depend on our acceptance of the gift Christ offers.  Moravians have always understood that we respond to God’s work of salvation in Christ through faith, love, and hope.  These are the only spiritual gifts that truly matter, as Paul informed the Corinthians.  Faith means trusting in God’s promises and the reality of Christ’s redemption.  Love means seeking the good of others in concrete acts of mercy and acceptance.  Hope means that we do not despair about the future but look for a better world for all of creation.  It is essential in the Moravian Church that our preaching and teaching about salvation increase our faith, love, and hope.

If in our zealous preaching of salvation through Christ we slip into anger, bitterness, or hatred towards those who do not receive our message or whose understanding of salvation differs from ours, then we are in danger of rejecting our own salvation.  To paraphrase Jesus, what have you gained if you convert the entire world but lose your own soul?

As to Jesus’ statement that he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” it is wise not to place too much stress on a definite article.  The word “the” is not the focus of the text.  The focus is on the words “way, truth and life.”  One way to interpret this verse is that Jesus himself shows us the way to God through his own life, teachings, work, and sacrificial love.  In saying that Jesus is the way, the Gospel of John is restating Jesus’ teaching that we are to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him.  It is important to note that this verse does not say, “Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is the only way to the Father.” It simply says that his followers must follow his way.

In all of the controversy over Jesus being the way to the Father, we are apt to miss the essential point that Jesus is also truth and life.  This means that the path to the Father is the path of truth.  All that is true comes from God.  It is Satan who is the father of lies. When Christians resort to deception in their effort to convert people, they are following the way of Satan rather than Christ. Moreover, Christianity embraces truth even when it comes from sources other than the Bible.  It is vitally important that we do not allow our zeal turn into a fanaticism that denies plain truth and hard facts.  Any religion or church that teaches that scientific facts are contrary to faith is not Christian.  Jesus is the truth; therefore if we turn from truth we turn away from Jesus.

Jesus is the life.  Clearly this means that following Jesus brings life in this world and the next.  This is consistent with the rest of Scripture. The word “salvation” comes from the word for health.  Therefore if our preaching and teaching diminishes life and destroys people, then we have ceased to be Christian.  Salvation in Jesus does not mean hopelessness, misery, destructiveness, abuse, or malice.  When churches resort to psychological or physical violence to enforce belief in Jesus, they lose their own salvation.

Jesus said that no one comes to the Father expect by him and we do doubt this statement.

There are, however, reasons to doubt that this verse is talking about salvation.  Jesus says that he is the one who can show his disciples who the Father is.  In the Catholic tradition, this refers to the Beatific Vision that is reserved for the saints.  All those who are saved are in paradise, but not all of them will see the Father.  Protestants acknowledge that this may instead refer to mystical experience, such as Isaiah’s vision of God.  For Moravians, this verse has traditionally meant that Jesus is the most complete revelation of God that we experience in this life.  If we desire to know God and God’s will, we look to the Gospel record of the life of Jesus. The followers of Jesus can be confident that when we look at Jesus we see the Father revealed.

The basic problem in the current controversy is over the word “only.”  Moravians have always and continue to proclaim that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  There is no reason to doubt that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  Nor should we doubt that by believing and following Jesus we shall experience eternal life with him.  Moreover, our missionaries have courageously taken this simple message of God’s self-giving love to those whom the world despised and rejected, such as slaves. This is consistent with the witness of Scripture and our experience of Christ.  There is simply no need to go beyond Scripture and insert the word “only” where it does not appear.  We must remain true to the plain sense of Scripture, common reason, and our experience of God in Christ.

There are many dangers in going beyond Scripture, particularly when we begin to preach and behave in ways inconsistent with Christian virtue.  There is a real danger that we will become the older brother in the parable and reject our own redemption by objecting the father’s mercy.  There is a danger that we will travel over land and sea to make a single convert and make him a “child of hell” rather than a child of God.  There is a danger that in shutting the kingdom of heaven to others, we shut it to ourselves.  This is not a minor issue. Our approach to salvation defines who we are as Christians and as a Church.

There is strong evidence in the Bible that God works in many ways to bring salvation.  Jesus himself told the parable of Lazarus in which Abraham and Lazarus are in paradise even though they died before Jesus’ atoning death.  Hebrews strongly affirms the salvation of the faithful people of the Old Testament.  Paul indicates in Romans that God keeps his promises and that the people of the Old Covenant are not rejected because Gentiles have been welcomed through a New Covenant.  The Moravian Church has traditionally taught that children who die before making an adult profession of faith are also saved by God’s mercy.  Would any Moravian pastor say otherwise at the funeral of a child? The repeated message of the Bible is that God is merciful beyond human comprehension.

It is consistent with the Christian tradition and Moravian theology to acknowledge that salvation remains one of God’s mysteries. Moravians should approach the doctrine of salvation in the same way we approach the presence of Christ in the Holy Communion.  What is mystery remains a mystery.  In the doctrine of salvation as in the doctrine of Communion we hold to the simple words of Scripture and proceed in faith.  Sometimes it is more dangerous to say too much rather than too little.

Does it mean that we lose our motivation for missions if we acknowledge that God may save people who have not made a profession of faith in Jesus?  It has not had that effect in the past.  The most heroic period of Moravian missions was an era when the mystery of salvation was acknowledged.  Moravian missions are not based on the desire to win some type of contest with other religions nor are they conducted to satisfy the personal ego of the missionaries.

Moravians engage in global missions because we love all of God’s children and want to be in communion with them.  We proclaim the gospel because we have found our salvation in Christ and want to share the joy of Christ with others.  We do not go in to the world to save people from the fires of hell.  We go to offer people the joys of heaven and intimate fellowship with us.  There are hundreds of millions of people in this world who are longing to be redeemed from their isolation.  All we need is a renewed awareness that the Holy Spirit is preparing those who are ready to receive the gospel rather than falling into the unchristian belief that we can conquer the world.

In summary, the Moravian Church’s traditional understanding of salvation includes the following key points that we reaffirm:

1.  We hold to the foundational Protestant conviction that salvation is by faith through grace.  Salvation cannot be earned.  No one is worthy of heaven. Those who are saved are saved out of God’s grace and suffering love not their own righteousness or even their doctrinal correctness.

2.  We further believe that faith is formed by love.  Love is the active component of faith and is essential to the Christian life and the Christian church.

3.  We preach, teach, and live in the full confidence that Jesus Christ is our Savior and the Savior of the world.  We affirm fully that “For God so loved the world, he gave his begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This conviction is not shaken by current controversy.

4.  We will resist the temptation to go beyond the simple teaching of Scripture in matters where there is much disagreement.  While we enthusiastically proclaim that Christ is the Savior of the world, we will not alter Scripture by inserting the word only where it does not appear. We acknowledge that people of sincere faith and good will who seek to follow Christ in the way have different interpretations of Scripture.

5.  We affirm strongly the biblical teaching that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  We believe that God’s redemption is an objective reality that does not depend on our response.  We recognize that our knowledge is partial, our motives are tainted by sin, and our love less generous than God.  We hold fast to the teaching that God can do more than we imagine.

6.  We approach the great mystery of salvation in a way similar to our approach to the mystery of Holy Communion.  This is a matter for awe and humility rather than rancorous debate and division. We acknowledge that the Scripture offers many perspectives on salvation, including the possibility of an eventual redemption of all souls in the eschaton.  We feel called to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ, but we will not presume to call into question the mercy of our gracious God.

7.  We share God’s love for the world and we go in faith into the world as agents of God’s grace with the life-giving message of Jesus Christ.  We acknowledge, however, that our Chief Elder may close certain parts of the globe to us and that we must follow his guidance rather than our own desires.  The proclamation that our Lamb has conquered should not be twisted into a belief that we must conquer the world.

8  Since Scripture, especially the New Testament, is the primary authority in our church, we affirm along with the Gospels and the book of Hebrews that faithful followers of God, such as Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Ruth, and unnumbered others were saved before the appearance of Jesus Christ.  Thus we reject the notion that “belief in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven” as unbiblical and confusing to people inside and outside the community of faith.

9.  Likewise, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and the teachings of Paul in his letter to the Romans, we affirm that God is faithful to the promise that he swore to Abraham, revealed through Moses, and reaffirmed through the prophets.  The fact that Gentiles may be brought into relationship with God through the covenant of grace sealed in the blood of Christ does not affect the old covenant with the people of Israel.  We are happy to receive Jews as brothers and sisters and are glad to share with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but we will not preach or teach that the children of Israel who do not accept Jesus as Messiah are condemned by God. Nor will we make Jews the focus of evangelism.

10.  Through the centuries we have recognized the great danger of self-righteousness and judgmentalism.  It is one thing to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ; it is another to proclaim that who disagree with us are damned.  The first is a joyful response to our experience of God’s mercy; the second is pride and hate cloaked in the shadows of self-justifying piety.

11. There may come times when those entrusted with leadership in our church find that they can no longer serve in this church with integrity because their understanding runs counter to that of the community of faith.  As Moravians we view such moments as a time for brotherly and sisterly council rather than a legal process.  If separation or change of role in the church is deemed necessary, the transition should be conducted with mutual love and respect. Our utmost concern is for the well-being of the community as a whole.

12.  We affirm our centuries-old understanding that the fruits of salvation are faith, love, and hope. Where these are lacking, there is no church. We also acknowledge that the effort to remove tares destroys wheat. It is imperative that in dealing with differences within our community of faith, as well as in our dealing with people in other religions, that we hold firm to the essential Christian virtue of love. If we cease to represent Christ in the world in our effort to convert the world, we have lost our faith without bringing others to faith.

Imago Dei

Image of God (Theology Lecture given at WFU School of Divinity)

Genesis 1:26-27: Some passages of Scripture have been especially fruitful for theological and ethical reflection in the history of Christianity. We may legitimately say that they have been more revelatory than other portions of Scripture in that once the teaching sinks in, it profoundly changes the way you view God, the world, yourself and the relationship between them. Gen. 1:26-27 is such a passage.

One of the nice things I like about these verses is that they have driven theologians and Sunday School teachers crazy for centuries because it clearly states that God says “let us make humankind in our image.” There have been solutions proposed for the plurality of divine beings implied in this verse, but none of them have proven entirely satisfactory. It is interesting that there has been a marked reluctance by interpreters to connect the “our” here with the creation of males and females. Only a few folks like Jacob Boehme and Ann Lee proposed that the plurality refers to the masculine and feminine aspects of God.

Our focus today is on humans as being created in the image of God and what that might mean for Christian doctrine. This is not spelled out for us in the Bible, and so there has been ample room for speculation in the tradition. Those who claim to base their theology on Scripture alone generally rely on tradition to interpret this verse.

Male and Female: First of all we should highlight something that is already well known to you, I suspect. The text clearly states that males and females are both made in the image of God. Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 11 that man is the image of God and woman the image of man is a common misreading of the text. Man and woman are both created in the image of Elohim here. Thankfully, Paul admits that sometimes he’s speaking for himself instead of for God, and I think this is one of the times. He was led astray by traditional rabbinical teaching on Genesis that tried to integrate the two creation stories. Paul’s reading of Genesis became the norm in Catholicism, but as good Protestants here, let’s begin with the plain meaning of the Genesis text rather than tradition. In this crucial passage, both men and women are made in the image of God. This is the one text that feminists in the church tend to literally why so-called biblical literalists use tradition to contradict the plain message.

Rather than revisiting the material discussed on Friday, let’s first focus on what this idea that both men and women are made in the image of God tells us about God. We could conclude with Mary Baker Eddy and other unorthodox thinkers that God is both masculine and feminine. Or we might conclude that the image of God in human beings is not connected to gender at all. Gender is part of biology and human society, and may have nothing to do with the Creator. It seems likely that gender, like race or individual attributes, is not definitive of the image of God, but that the image of God is something shared by all people regardless of gender or race or age. It seems to me that Genesis is teaching us that all humans, simply by virtue of being human, share in the image of God as an aspect of their creation. To be human is to have the image of God.

Universal Image of God: Notice that the image of God here was not given at baptism or circumcision; every person is a living image of God. Sometimes we read the Bible too quickly. We sweep right past one of the most important affirmations in the history of civilization and jump into the story of the Fall or the flood or the call of Abraham without considering the global implications of this claim. Genesis 1 does not say that only two of ancient ancestors were made in the image of God, and that later generations lost that image. It says that men and women alike were created in God’s own image as part of the fundamental, foundational goodness of creation.

If all that God made is good, humans are especially good because we are the living images of God on the earth. Turn to someone near you – in pairs or triads if you like. So long as you can share the gaze of another person in the class. Look into the face of the other person and examine her or him for a moment. Don’t be embarrassed. Look in the eyes, at the face, at the body of the other person. Now say to each other slowly, “you are the image of God.” Ponder that for a moment. Shelley, Barrett, Christa, Orita, Alfonso, Wesley, each of you is the image of God. Say to yourself, “I am made in the image of God.”

A Physical Image: Turning our attention back to the Bible, it is important to ask what the phrase “image of God” mean? There has been a lot of linguistic research and debate over the meaning of the world translated as image here. It refer to a likeness or a copy of something, such as a graven image is a likeness of a person or a deity. We cannot exclude the possibility that the original intention of the author of this verse was to claim that humans are smaller versions of a bi-pedal deity. Many of deities in the ancient world were represented in human form, and we know that the ancient Israelites had graven images of deities at least until the time of David, probably later. If Genesis was the only Scripture we had, we might conclude with the Mormons that God is like a human with legs and hands since he is often depicted as walking and doing things with his hand or finger.

But there are reasons why the whole tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has rejected this extreme anthropomorphism. The most compelling reason is that for much of the history of Israel and Judah the prophets railed against graven images and other forms of idolatry. Not only did the Jews promote a form of radical monotheism in contrast the dominant polytheistic cultures around them; they also adopted a view of God as radically beyond human constructions. They worshiped an invisible deity who spoke to priests and prophets but who has no physical form. By the time the litany of creation was attached to the beginning of Genesis, the rejection of anthropomorphism was normative for Judaism. I think we can safely dismiss the idea that the image of God refers to the physical attributes of humans as indicative of the divine being. It is not our opposable thumbs that make us bearers of the image of God, and we do not have to worry that birth defects or accidents make us lose the image we bear.

Stamped Image: Another meaning of image is like the image that is stamped on to a coin, usually the image of the governor authority (emperor, king, etc.). This marks the coin as legal tender. The same type of image may be stamped on official documents as a royal seal or guarantee of the authenticity of the document. In this case, the image is representative of the authority of the one whose images appears on the seal. In light of the fact that humans are created on the day before God rests and that they are explicitly given dominion over the creatures of the earth, it makes sense that the image here refers to a royal stamp of authenticity and authority.

By being stamped with the image of God, humankind is identified as the representatives of God on the planet. This would agree with the theme of stewardship proposed last week. We do not have divine authority to pillage, plunder, and rape the earth like brigands and blackguards; we have divine authority to care for the earth with the same love shown by the creator in making the earth. To wantonly destroy or passively allow the desecration of the earth is tantamount to rejecting the image of God in yourself.

Sharing in Divine Wisdom: A third way of viewing the image of God takes elements of both the first two. Children are said to be the image of their parents since they have traits of each parent. They are reproductions of their parents, at least partially. For centuries, theologians have discussed what it is in the human character that is a reproduction of the being of God. For the most part, theologians have focused on reason as the thing that distinguishes us from animals and makes us most like God. If God created the heavens and earth through the Word or Logos, then it makes sense that it is our Logos that connects us most intimately with God. Or, if you prefer to follow Elizabeth Johnson, it is Sophia that is the image of God in humankind.

If this is true, then the commandment to be fruitful and multiply takes on a different nuance. It is not simply to reproduce like other animals, but to be fruitful through our reason and our wisdom. The commandment to have dominion over the earth should then be read as a commandment to exercise wise and intelligent dominion rather than spreading across the earth like a ravenous swarm of locusts.

Churches in recent decades have been too quick to denigrate reason, primarily because of the attack on faith by certain types of naïve rationalism. The doctrine of the image of God should call us to exercise our God-given abilities wisely and courageously. As far as we know, we are the only earthlings who can use our minds to investigate the mysteries of the universe far beyond the confines of our own bodies. Without leaving our homes, we can travel to distant lands, predict solar eclipses, and marvel at the subatomic world. In our minds we a fleeting glimpse of eternity and are freed from the constraints of the body.

Creation: We do not have to enter into a contest with the Creator to prove that we are powerful. We seem to think that as our power and knowledge grows, our awe in God’s creation should diminish. Too often we are like children who learn how the magician does the trick and become cynical about magic instead of being inspired to learn how to do the magic ourselves. Personally, I think a recovery of the doctrine of the Image of God may help us recover a proper sense of reverence for the creator. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that there are miracles that humans can perform, such as raising the recently dead, that the Creator cannot do. We are the first generation that can cause a virgin to conceive through scientific means, and yet we find it hard to believe that God could do so. If our minds can move our bodies or use electrons to move machines, why do we doubt that God can work subtly but intentionally to move the natural world?

Perhaps part of being made in the image of God is the desire and ability to do miracles and wonders. Perhaps the image of God that humans share is the quality of creating, of calling new things into being. It may well be that we live most fully into our divine image when we create or at least re-create the world in which we live – or at least share in God’s appreciative love for creation.

Morality: Others have identified the moral sensibility of humans as the uniquely divine-like quality we share. Even though attempts to find a universal moral code running through all human societies has failed, we can assert with confidence that all human societies depend on some type of moral code. The ability to look at actions as having moral consequences appears to be a uniquely human trait. Contrary to the teachings of some schools of philosophy, humans do not act solely on the basis of self-interest or to satisfy the desires of the flesh. Humans can and do exercise restraint and self-discipline. They sometimes even sacrifice their individual desires for the sake of others. The ability to view actions in terms of right and wrong rather than in terms of success or failure may be our most important quality as human beings. We’ll talk more about this on Wednesday.

There is another approach to understanding the meaning of the image of God. We could look at the concept in the context of Genesis 1. What does God do in this litany? God creates, God speaks, God names, God orders, God plans for the future, God encourages life, and God blesses the world. It makes sense to me that this tells us about the image of God that humans bear. Humans think, create, speak, name, order, love, and plan for the future. We do these things and we should do these things because this is our essential nature. Moreover, humans are called to be like God and encourage life and bless the world God has made.

Fully Human/Fully Divine: And here we come to a conclusion that may be surprising, and many theologians have rejected this idea, but Genesis teaches us that we are most like God when we are most truly human, and we are most human when we act toward creation as God acts. We are called by God to use our God-given reason and our remarkable powers to care for what God has given. We are to share in God’s loving desire for creation, which ironically means we should limit our own appetites and desires in order to make room for creation to take place around us. We are to exercise a benevolent dominion over other living things, just as God does. It may be that we are most divine when we are most fully human.

Ethical Implications There is a problem with most of those approaches to the Imago Dei, however, which some of you may have picked up on already. They are very logocentric, and could be used to say that only humans who are rational, wise, creative, and moral are made in the image of God. Those born with disabilities or who lose significant brain functioning could be dismissed as not fully human. It is not just theologians who are in danger of viewing some humans as more divine or more human than others. Pay close attention to many policy debates in industrialized nations and you may find a tendency for wealthy, white, well-educated people to define humanity in their terms. Health care if for some, not all. Resources are for some, not all, for instance.

According to Genesis, all of humankind bears the image of God, but this image may be obscured through diseases of the mind and body, including the diseases of a society that dehumanizes the poor, ignorant, and neglected. We are the ones who tarnish God’s image, often with our racist and elitist attitudes. I am often bemused by the fact that many “Bible-believing Christians” reject the plain teaching of Scripture that all humans are created equal in God’s eyes. Souls and minds do not come in racial colors. Incidentally, this idea of that all humans are made in the image of God was the central issue behind the early opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It is interesting that it was religious liberals and social progressives who generally opposed Darwin in the 19th century because they feared that Darwin would undermine morality and social justice.

Among them was Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce—the man who was mostly responsible for freeing slaves throughout the British Empire. Samuel recognized that Darwinism could be used to justify racism, slavery, military aggression, and the worst forms of cut-throat capitalism. Wilberforce was wrong about the science of biology, but he was prophetic in his warning of the evils that can result when humans no longer view themselves and each other as the image of God. Ideas of racial progress and “survival of the fittest” played important roles in some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The misuse of Darwin’s theory demonstrates that it is not just theology that can be distorted for destructive purposes. Science can also be an ally in the service of hatred, greed, and oppression.

Living Images of God: It may be a good thing that the Imago dei is not explicitly discussed in Genesis 1. The text leaves ample room for us to develop our own thinking, and I personally think that we should not choose a single human attribute as the sign of the Image of God. Rather, we should think of the whole human person as being in God’s image, and we should worship the creator by living into the identity that he has given us.

What is most important, though, is that we recognize that the image of God applies to all humans, not some humans. There is no indication that some are more like God than others. It is even possible that we most clearly reveal the Image of God in our own lives when we are able to view others as representatives of the Image of God in their own right. Think how differently we would raise our children, speak to our spouses, treat our employees, and live in society if we let every single person remind us of God, our creator and judge. In times of war governments work very hard to dehumanize and even demonize the people on the other side in order to make it easier for soldiers to kill them. What if we simple refuse to go along with that demonic program? What if Jews, Christians, and Muslims with one voice said to every person in the world: “You are the image of God, and your life is sacred to me.”

Comenius: What happens when we view every child as a representation of God on earth? What happens when we look into the eyes of our enemies and see the eyes of God? Despite the claims of Augustine, Calvin, and others, there is little support in Scripture for the view that we lost the image of God in Adam’s fall. More on that Wednesday, for now let me just assert that the only way we lose the image of God is to refuse it. For now, let me leave you with this quotation from Comenius with apologies for the sexist language of the translator: “Whenever you encounter one of your neighbours, regard him as yourself in another form (which he is), or indeed as God in another form, for he is the image of God, and God will be watching to see how reverently you treat him.” Panorthosia, I:22.

 

All Saints

Today is the festival for all the saints. You may know that the church intentionally created this festival in the fall to reinterpret Samhain and other festivals for the dead. The fear of the dead is common in most societies, but the lesson of All Saints is that those who have died in the Lord are to be remembered with joy and thanksgiving rather than fear. All Saints is not just for those who have official status as decreed by Vatican officials. It is for all the saints, especially for those whose names we do not know. Many of these people suffered horribly at the hands of others. They were raped, tortured, starved, and wounded in countless ways. The history of the saints is grim indeed, but the message of All Saints is that the forces of evil and hatred were not victorious when they try to stifle the message of love through threats and intimidation. In Christian art, the saints are often depicted as both physically whole yet honored for the signs of their ordeal. It is a statement that even our woundedness and our suffering may be holy and honored before God. We should not fall into the trap of viewing suffering itself as good or divine, but we should remember that the roll of saints includes those who were abused and broken. So, on this All Saints Day, honor those who loved to the end. Honor them not just in song, but in acts of extravagant love and daring goodness.

Creation Ethics

What are the ethical demands of Genesis 1?  What is the first commandment given to humankind in this litany? To be fruitful and multiply. What does this say about sexuality? It is part of the goodness of the created order. Christian asceticism has often missed this point and validated celibacy over intercourse. A lot of ancient Gnosticism came into Catholic teaching through the monasteries, by the way. The question for us today is whether this commandment has the same relevance in our day that it had 2500 years ago. When this litany was recited by the priests of Israel, there were many uninhabited parts of the world and large cities were the size of average-sized universities. What do we do with this now that the human habitat has overwhelmed the entire planet? What do we do now that death has been kept at bay for decades for most people and there seems to be no longer a natural check on population? Should we rethink the command to be fruitful to mean more than simple sexual fertility?

Perhaps the commandment to be fruitful should be taken to mean that we should produce good fruits or be productive. This would be consistent with the second chapter of Genesis where humans tend the garden in Eden and till the ground after the expulsion.

The commandment to have dominion over the world has become problematic. Originally this was probably related to the fact that humans developed agriculture and mastered the ability to plant and harvest plants that we eat. We have also been able to domesticate other animals and use them for our ends. We cannot tame every beast, but we’ve turned wolves into dogs and bovines into cattle. We train dolphins to jump through hoops for our entertainment. The only animal that domesticates humans is the cat. But humans have never had mastery of the whole earth, nor can we subdue the entire earth. We should acknowledge hyperbole in the Scriptures. The quest to assert our power over the elemental forces has had some dire consequences.

All good teachings can be twisted to demonic ends, including the commandment to exercise dominion over the earth. We should not let the twisted versions of this text keep us from recognizing the positive nature of the commandment.

Genesis 1 affirms that humans are part of the web of creation and are in relation to the world. Notice that this commandment does not extend to the heavens, just to the earth. Here is how the Bible bring the vastness of creation down to a human scale. Christian doctrine teaches that God freely chose to make humans the stewards and caretakers of this small planet in the universe. It has been useful to explore the stars and send probes into space, but we have a fundamental responsibility to this planet that God has given us to care for.

Chapter 2 of Genesis tells us that we are Adam or earthlings; creatures of mud and divine spirit who are asked to till and protect the world. The stewardship of the earth is the second commandment given to human beings: male and female. If you believe in divine justice and judgment,you might want to ponder Jesus’ parable about the unjust steward who abused his office and was punished by the householder.

For too long we have asserted our power through manipulation and control, treating creation as an inert thing rather than as a precious gift loved by God. Perhaps things would be different if we viewed this world as a grace, as a gift, as a sacrament, as a sacred thing with an ecosystem that reflects the intention and goodness of the creator. Perhaps things would be different if we viewed dominion the way the ancients did, which is to govern wisely for the good of all. Perhaps it would be different if we recognized that the creator loves every creature, each according to its kind. Perhaps it would be different if we recognized that all that is, including humans, is contingent upon God not upon us. Perhaps things would be different if we were worthy of the trust that God places in us.

The Stars

Cosmology:

We humans construct models that allow us to interpret the world in which we live. Our perceptions of reality are shaped in part by these models, but every model has limits. We know in part, as Paul says, and we see the world through a “glass darkly.” As we pass through time, our knowledge and insight may increase, but there is also the possibility that the models we construct become more distorted over time.

When we talk about God, it is easy to slip into clichés or bits of ecclesiastical jargon that may be profoundly true but which now mask reality instead of illuminating it. If pastors are going to function as theologians, they will have to speak both the language of the church and the language of the world. They will have to understand their own historical and intellectual context in order to speak meaningfully about reality.

To a certain extent, theology is about three things in relationship: God, the world, and the self. Each of these is the topic of intense investigation and debate. There is no general consensus on the precise meaning of these terms, and efforts to give a single definition of each has failed to account for the complexity of the problems each term poses. But the fact that there is no simple answer to the question posed by the terms God, world, and self does not absolve us of the responsibility for coming to some understanding of these terms. As pastors, teachers, counselors or whatever vocation you will pursue with your M.Div. you will be expected to say something meaningful about God, the world, and the self. I suspect that you will find the task exceedingly difficult, and I hope that will lead you to humility rather than hopelessness.

One thing I think we can safely assert is that God, self, and world are interrelated terms. Our views of God are shaped in part by our view of the world and visa versa. We cannot truly understand human beings without understanding them as part of a world. Despite philosophical assertions that humans are autonomous, the truth is that our identities and our very lives are dependent on others and on the world. We are human in relationship to other humans and to nature. I believe that our existence and the world in which we exist are also dependent on God. Our identities are shaped in part in relationship to God. The attempt to understand humans without reference to religion has proven to be flawed. Our conceptions of the divine do affect our perceptions of reality.

Our knowledge of the world increases exponentially each year, but at the same time it is impossible for any individual to have a comprehensive knowledge of the world. The more there is to know, the less complete our knowledge. No one is able to put all of the knowledge we have of the world into a single system. That is part of our dilemma. Having said that, let’s discuss what we think we know about the universe in which we live and move and have our being.

I think that most theologians still work with a small universe, even though they claim to be working in a modern context.  For two thousand years Christians have proclaimed their belief in the creator of “heavens and the earth”, but the heavens are much bigger than the ancients imagined. In fact, the universe is far greater than we can really imagine. Douglas Adams offers an important insight: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly big it is.” People get all bent out of shape that we have trouble describing the nature of an infinite God who is the ground of all being, but seem content with our ignorance about the apparently infinite universe in which we live. If world means universe, it is a vast and nearly infinite universe.

Scientists work with cosmological models that allow them to investigate the universe. We use space probes, the Hubble telescope, radio waves, and a variety of technologically sophisticated tools and intellectually sophisticated theories to explore and explain the universe, and it just keeps getting weirder. All of our scientific investigation of the universe, though, is predicated on certain assumptions that cannot be proven. One of the most important is that matter and energy obey certain fundamental laws that we can describe mathematically. In other words, science is based on an assumption that the universe is a cosmos rather than a chaos, and that seemingly random phenomena can be explained through natural laws. We observe on earth that the speed of light is constant and so we construct cosmologies based on the speed of light.

Though many scientists deny it, this conviction that nature works according to universal laws was originally grounded in a theological conviction that the creator orders the cosmos according to rational principles. The notion that the universe was created by a benevolent and rational deity was fundamental to the development of modern science, which is the major reason that experimental science progressed most rapidly in monotheistic cultures. The early confidence that investigation of creation would prove the existence and benevolence of the creator was naïve, but the fact remains that the scientific investigation of the world began with a conviction that the world is constructed according to rational principles that humans can understand.

It appears to be true that the universe is at least 20 billion years old and is expanding over time. Not all Christians today believe this. You can visit a museum in Kentucky that argues that this is not true, but that is the equivalent of believing the world is flat or that the sun orbits the earth. Incidentally, the notion that the universe is only about 6000 years old does not come directly from the Bible, but is a calculation made from the genealogies in Genesis. No where does the Bible say that you must believe the universe is only 6000 years old. You may choose to believe that the universe is only 6000 years old, but you will have a hard time making sense of the modern universe we inhabit. Thankfully, the doctrine of creation never depended on a particular cosmology.

It appears that the universe is 20 billion years old, using the solar year as a way of measuring time. When we look into the heavens and “see” things that emit light that are 20 billion light years away, we are actually looking back 20 billion years into the past. So when we think about what “is” we need to remember that we are actually seeing much that “was” and may no longer be. When we see a star go nova and explode, we are seeing something that happened thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years before humans built the first villages. Those ancient humans looked up at the stars and were awed by their beauty and their predictability. Today we explore the stars in our minds and see that the heavens are in condition of perpetual change. We see a vast, violent cosmic dance in which the death of stars leads to new creation.

It appears that the universe has a beginning, which is commonly called the Big Bang. Somehow all of the energy and matter of the universe was united before it exploded. Since the beginning, everything that exists has been in motion from the tiniest atom to the greatest galaxy. Nothing is stable. All is in a state of change, just as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago without realizing the vastness of the universe. The atoms that make up our planet and all that exists originated in the Big Bang, which means that we are indeed made of stardust. The idea that we are dust and to the dust we will return is true on the cosmic scale.

The world we inhabit is part of a vast network of stars in our galaxy, but we are dependent on the sun. Our planet is moving around the sun, and the motion of our planet is affected by the motion of other planets. Until recently we thought that our planet was the only one with water on it, but now we know that Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, has vast seas flowing under a thick layer of ice.

It appears that there is water on the moon, and we just sent a large chunk of metal to slam into the moon to try to determine whether there is enough water there for us to exploit if we built a moon station. There is much about the moon we do not know, but one thing we do know is that we have already begun to pollute the moon and violate its being the way we violate our own world. In our attempt to understand the moon we have already begun to alter the moon and have left behind scars. Space is mind bogglingly big, but we already have so much junk orbiting the earth that it is causing a problem for scientists. And there are plans to infest other worlds with human habitation. We grow in knowledge of the cosmos without growing in wisdom.

It is ironic that as our knowledge of the stars grows, our personal experience of the stars diminishes. If you live in the northern hemisphere, light pollution is so severe you see fewer than half of the stars that those who live in non-industrial nations see. One of the changes in human consciousness in the 21st century is that we rarely lift our sights to the starry host above us and experience the universe beyond our world. I remember lying on a hillside as a boy staring up into the light bedecked blackness of space and suddenly feeling my perspective change so that it seemed I was looking down into the abyss. I grabbed hold of the grass to keep from falling into the void, but then equilibrium returned. Still, for a moment I felt the reality of how small I am in the cosmos.

A couple of summers ago my family went out West, away from the lights of the cities and the habitations of humans. My daughter found it disturbing to stand under the dome of the sky because she felt so insignificant. It took a while to find comfort in that. One night was pulled off on the side of the road to look at the stars, and I was blessed with the sight of a meteor plummeting through the sky with its brief, glorious trail of fire as it was consumed in the atmosphere. The death of the meteor is part of creation, too.

In our modern context of theology, we cannot assume that people look in awe at the heavens above or ponder the wonders of nature around them, but we can assume that people will pay little attention to a theology of the world that does not take the world seriously or reflect scientific fact. That does not mean that we need to let scientists be the arbiters of all truth. Science cannot give meaning to the universe nor tell us the nature of God, but it can tell us much about the world.