Thursday, August 30, 2007

Matthew's Gospel as Legalistic?

As I've noted, I'm preparing to lead a prolonged Bible Study on the Gospel According to Matthew. (We're going to meet as long as it takes to complete reading and discussing the entire Gospel; no three- or four-part series, this. When I originally planned it, I did not know that the ELCA's bureaucrats were proposing programs to encourage Bible study in the congregations. I was apparently prescient: I saw the evidence that our congregation was becoming Biblically illiterate long before the bureaucrats realized that -- in large measure of their failure to attend to the real business of the Church -- that was happening in spades throughout the ELCA. But that's another post.)

As I've been reading, thinking, and talking about the study, I've been frankly amazed by the number of people who say that Matthew is their least favorite gospel. It's too legalistic; it doesn't present the Gospel as unconditional grace; it tells us what to do and links what we do to our ultimate disposition in eternity. Well, I'm frankly (and, yes, naively) surprised.

Now I am certainly no biblical scholar (my Greek has rusted nearly to the point of being immobile and my Hebrew is, I think, beyond redemption; my serious study of critical material took place in the[latter] days of Jeremias -- whom no one in seminary reads now, I'm told -- and his generation; my finger-tip access to Bible verses and stories is nil). The Matthew prep has been exciting and fulfilling in no small part because it has led me deeper into the Bible, into biblical theology, into Lutheranism. It has required me to put my "systematic" theology (such as it is) into the proper context -- i.e., to set it face-to-face with scripture, as it ought always to be.

But it has always seemed to me that if there is anything to Lutheranism, then we can't write off scripture passages and books as "legalistic" without calling into question the entire raison d'etre for the Reformation. On that point, Luther was clearly daft to refer to James' epistle as "straw" and the book of Apocalypse as of no relevance to faith. (Likely, he just didn't get them.) We are supposed to bend our theological musings to the teachings of scripture (carefully discerned, not just on our own, but in company with the Church of every time and place), not the other way around.

So why the great mistrust of or dislike for the Gospel of Matthew? Is it because it lays out a very clear connection between the in-breaking of the reign of God in Jesus and the shape of life (in community) that is meant to issue from that? I can't accept that. Oh, I expect it from the ultra-scholastic Lutherans who could at any point even consider as possibly orthodox the premise that not only are "good works" not required for salvation, but they are detrimental to it? (I still like the joke about the old Lutheran Herr Pastor who on his death bed proudly declared that he could not remember committing even one good work.) And I am old enough to know that pastors preach sermons on the Sermon on the Mount in which they pretty much say that Jesus was setting out ideals, not actual ways to live the life of faith.

But I am thrown that thinking, even liberal, Christians don't see -- on its face -- the grace-founded proclamation that Matthew reveals was embodied in Jesus. Of course, I try to follow in the footsteps of Stanley Hauerwas (who has just issued a new "theological commentary" on Matthew), when I can understand him, and that makes me prone to lean in a particular direction. But what I have always appreciated about Hauerwas (and Bonhoeffer, for that matter, because he's on the same team) is that he always sounds to me as though he's paraphrasing Matthew's Gospel.

As I go along, I'll have to continue to wrestle with this. I'm not very far into my research on Matthew. (Unfortunately, I'll probably end up being just slightly ahead of the class I'm leading -- something that isn't good.) But so far, I have found nothing that contradicts a quite conservative reading of the Lutheran confessions. Grace is all. But to hear the Good News is already to be changed, and so it's quite natural to ask "How, then, shall we live?". After all God has done, isn't it the witness of scripture to explore the "so what?" of the new state of affairs?

That's what Matthew does, I think. And I think he is neither moralistic nor legalistic (if there's a difference) in doing so. And I'm loving the book. And I love the idea that all the good grace-oriented pastors will be confronted with Matthew's witness as sermon fodder for the next liturgical year. Trust that I'll be listening carefully!


-C said...

Good post, Dwight!

How would it be to let us who cannot attend your weekly forum follow along? Perhaps blogging your way through Matthew after the Sunday discussions?

It would be alot of work - hard for you. But interesting for us - at least for me.

Wollom said...

You raise an important point when you say, "We are supposed to bend our theological musings to the teachings of scripture (carefully discerned, not just on our own, but in company with the Church of every time and place), not the other way around." For me, you've placed your finger on just the point of what is termed by some to a revisionist hermenuetic. How is is in the early days of the 21st Century that we can be both evangelical in our theology and faithful to the Scirptures as we witness to the challenging issues of our day? Thanks for a well written post. Wally

Lucas said...

Your Greek has rusted and your Hebrew is beyond redemption? Shame on you. You complain about Biblical illiteracy while being ultimately Biblically illiterate yourself. Enough of these easy admissions from pastors about their linguistic stupidity. The bible is written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Most of it is written in these langauges. If you cannot read these langauges, there is a real sense in which you cannot read the Bible. You should not only be reading in these languages yourself, but teaching congregants these languages.