John the Baptist and a Dangerous Trend

The Gospel reading for this Sunday (historic, not Vatican II) shows a disturbing trend among even our best and brightest clergy.  Of course, Pr. Weedon is exempt from my criticism.

What is the problem that doth afflict us?

When I was a young pastor, and I preached on this, I preached that John was doubting Jesus’ credentials.  Even the greatest can doubt, so therefore we must look to Jesus to dispel that doubt. Most pastors today preach just this sermon.

I preached this because I knew nothing.  I was more ignorant than a four year old.  (See previous post).

As I read the fathers, I discovered something.  They didn’t see it this way at all.  They understood John to be directing his disciples away from himself and toward Jesus.  The witness of the fathers is fairly unanimous on this.  I haven’t read every word of every church father.  But the overwhelming interpretation is that John was sending them away from himself, pointing one last time to Jesus.

When I realized that the weight of the church was against my interpretation, I changed it.  Now I preach in line with such fathers as Augustine and Luther.

I am not certain when the “doubting John” interpretation took hold, but I suspect it was either during pietism or rationalism (with the rise of the psychiatric model.)

Yet, many pastors, knowing what was taught in the early church, continue to preach the new version.

Now, does this destroy the faith?  No, it does not.  Indeed, a fine lesson can be drawn from it, even with the wrong interpretation.  But that’s not the point.

When we simply place ourselves and our time over the rest of church hsitory and interpretation, we divorce ourselves from any standards at all.  There can be no right or wrong, because we decide what is right in our mind regarding biblical interpretation.  (And then get grouchy when others do the same to worship practice.)

In a paper a few years ago, I criticized the habit of some in Lutheranism that read the confessions with a Lutheran Fundamentalist viewpoint.  That is, they read only the words themselves, without the context of the fathers to help interpret them.  The catalog of testimonies tells us that this is not how they were intended to be written.  Of course, how one reads the confessions, whether as a traditionalist or a fundamentalist, is not, in and of itself, a mark of orthodoxy or heterodoxy.

But it makes me nervous when I say, “Luther was quoting Cyprian in his Smalkald definition of the church”, and I hear only “Well, we are not bound by Cyprian.”  Of course we aren’t.  That isn’t my point.

If I stand at Normandy beach and say, “The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air”, then you know I am making a comment about the indominatable spirit of America.

If our Lord, from the cross, says “Eli, Eli Lama sabachtani”, then you know he is bringing to mind the wholeness of Psalm 22.  And so if Luther, in defining the church, quotes Cyprian, and says, “A seven year old child knows this is right,” then perhaps we should look at what Cyprian says about the church.  Unless Blessed Martin was speaking only cynically – that is, “A seven year old child knows what everyone says is a great Cyprian insight.  So disregard that man entirely, because he is a simpleton.”

Having read Cyprian, and having read Smalkald, I don’t think that was Luther’s point.  If we want to understand Luther’s understanding of the church, Cyprian is of inestimable value.  Of course that makes many Walther-Lutherans nervous, because they (inorrectly) see Cyprian as a champion of papal authority.  He wasn’t.  Nor was he an Ecclesiast.

How do I get from This week’s Gospel reading a common Lutheran view of  Cyprian : They both show a disturbing trend to ignore the history of the church.  And that’s never good.

As Dr. Weinrich would say, “It isn’t a question of whether, as a pastor, you will be a church historian or not.  It is a question of whether you will be a good church historian or a bad one.”


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