Saturday, March 11, 2017

Musings on Causality, Divinity and Resurrection

It took a very long time before I could see things clearly.  

Growing up, I contemplated both God and science.   They always seemed in tension.  It did not help, of course, that my eighth grade confirmation pastor made me recite Luther's explanation to the First Article in from of the church with the prefix added, "In defiance of the theory of evolution, I believe that God has created me and all creatures . . . "

Although I did not know it at the time, I was already struggling with some pretty deep issues in the logic of explanation.   If one could explain why something was the case by pointing to laws and antecedent physical events and processes, what exactly was there left for God to do?  If I explained x both by divine intentionality D and some set of physical events E coupled with physical laws L, then in what sense is D, or perhaps E and L superfluous?  If x would not have happened without D, then surely E and L cannot form a complete explanation of x.   But E and L do form a complete explanation of x, therefore by modus tollens, x would have happened without D, and thus D is causally irrelevant.

The general problem is one of causal overdetermination, and confronts us as well in the philosophy of mind.  If mental event M1 explains M2, and M1 is physically realized by a set of brain events P1, and P1 causes a set of brain events P2, and P2 is the physical realization of M2, then in what sense is M1 qua M1 -- that is, M1 in so far as it is M1 -- causally efficacious in producing M2?  Does not the mental become merely epiphenomenal on neurophysiology, a "wheel idly turning" (Wittgenstein) as it were?  Is this not clearly a situation in which mental explanation fails to articulate the deepest causal map of the universe, and thus is in principle reducible to brain explanation or, better yet, can be eliminated in favor of the latter?

Consider the healing of Mary from stage four liver cancer.  This event -- let's call it m -- is supposedly effected by God's intentionality and power D.  If God healed Mary, then clearly D causally produces m.  But Mary's healing is physically realized as some set of micro-physical actualizations S.   While there was once a time -- e.g., in pre-physicalist ages -- when one might have said that D causally produces S without means, that option is not available to most people today.   Our time assumes the principle of the causal closure of the physical,  for each and every physical event p, there is some set of physical events E that causally produces p, and for each and every physical event p, p cannot and does not produce events that are not physical.  But if D does not produce m without means, then there is some set of physical events that is the physical realization of D such that these events cause m.  

It has been axiomatic in theology since the late Enlightenment to conceive God-talk non-causally.   What I mean by this, is that the giving of an interpretation to theological language such as 'God creates the universe' does not involve one in the drawing of a causal relation across the disparate ontological domains of supernature and nature.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America slogan, "God's work, our hands," nicely captures the situation:  Divine agency is physically realizable!   God's working of Y is realizable through the means of some set of individuals P acting in particular ways -- let's say that the set of individuals P instantiates a complex set of relations Q.   Thus, when P instantiates Q -- or perhaps when P acts Q-ly -- then Y obtains.   But the question is obvious: How is Y qua Y a divine act when it is physically realizable as P acting Q-ly?   More simply put, how is divine agency possible in means, when causal explanations in terms of the means is sufficient?   Do we not have a case of causal overdetermination here when allowing the divine explanation to track alongside the physical?  

The solution to all of this is to offer a model of theological language in which prima facie causal terms are given a non-causal analysis.  This worked very well in ages dominated by idealist pre-suppositions.  Accordingly, 'God creates' is a way of talking about some reality deeper than the causal.  Perhaps there is a reality of "Being-itself" that is deeper than the realm of particular beings, a realm that is somehow more profound than the causal, an ontological depth of being presupposed by the ontic structure of being in which beings are causally related to other beings.  Maybe although causal talk here is in some sense misapplied, the language of the causal somehow illuminates the depth dimension of the human such that the language is nonetheless theologically vindicated.  Thus, while God does not really cause the bringing about of Mary's healing, the saying of 'God healed Mary' does illuminate or make sense out of one's existential situation and the seeming mystery of grace, the getting of that which one is ultimately not earned or deserved.   Saying that 'God healed Mary' seems to say more than there is some set of physical events that occurred -- though they cannot be fully specified -- that when instantiated brought about some set of physical events in Mary such that the term 'healed' could be applied to her.

One might, of course, complain that my concerns with 'God heals Mary' are somehow merely a problem for the philosopher.  While philosophers are concerned with semantics, the meaning of terms and the truth-values of the propositions comprised by them, semantics is not a problem for the believer reading the Bible.  Why allow the abstractions of fundamental theology (proto-theology), a theology that is most immediately relatable to First Article concerns, to transgress upon the hallowed domain of Christology and the proclamation of Christ's life giving death and resurrection?   Why not simply preach Christ and let semantics take care of itself?

Imagine listenting to preacher Pete proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead and that because of this the future has been conquered and that salvation is at hand.   One could, I suppose, simply listen to Pete and not think deeply about what his pronouncements mean and what the truth-conditions of the propositions he utters are.  (The truth-conditions of a proposition are those which must obtain in order for the proposition to be true.)  One might somehow be able to say, "OK, I don't know exactly what Pete's meaning when he talks of Christ's resurrection, but I will regard the resurrection to be true."  But this strategy does not work well when Molly asks what is meant by 'resurrection'.   At this point, one must either give some truth-condition for 'Christ is resurrected', or simply say that one does not know.  But if the latter, then Molly will say, "If you don't know what is meant by 'Christ is resurrected', then you don't know what it would mean for Christ not to be resurrected, and if you don't know that, then clearly to say "'Christ is resurrected' is true" is to say nothing at all."

To this, one simply has to change the subject.   While one might hope that one is meaning something even if one is not sure what one is meaning, there is no basis for the hope: Without knowing precisely what situation must obtain for 'Christ is resurrected' to be false, one knows not what 'Christ is resurrected' means.  Therefore, despite emotions to the contrary, to be told 'Christ is resurrected' is not to be told anything in particular -- and thus a fortiori not anything at all.  Sometimes for the sake of the Gospel one must say things as they are.  What is at stake is too important to do otherwise.

In the early days of Christianity, disciples knew that Christ's resurrection was tied to an empty tomb.  'Christ is resurrected' is false if the tomb is not empty.  The assertion had falsifiability conditions.   While the tomb being empty is not sufficient for Christ's resurrection, it is nonetheless necessary for it.  Christ's resurrection thus had a physical realization, and because that resurrection was tied to both the future and salvation, there was a physical dimension to both the future and salvation as well.   Just as Jesus Christ was physically raised from the dead, so too will all who sleep in the Lord be physically resurrected as well.   The coherence of soteriology depended up the physical realization of salvation.  While death was real, Christ's resurrected life could conquer it.

What I am saying is something quite sensible: Christ's physical resurrection and God's causal action producing it was itself understood in the tradition as causally-productive of human salvation.   Human salvation was an effect of divine agency, a causal action drawn across disparate ontological domains.  After all, there is no physical realization of 'Molly is dead' that in itself can causally produce 'Molly is alive'.  While 'God's work' can be realized perhaps in the work of human hands, 'Molly is being raised from the dead' has no known physical realization.

Simply put, while 'God creates the heavens and the earth' can be given a non-causal analysis it is not clear that a similar non-causal strategy can be given for 'God resurrects Jesus'.  The latter connects with the notion of salvation in a very intimate way -- as long as salvation is thought to be physically realized.  Of course, we are living in a time in which people are increasingly thinking that death is not an enemy.  If 'death' and 'life' are taken as descriptions of how we live rather than the fact that we live, then there may come a time when 'Mary's salvation' in no way depends upon the fact that she will live.  That time, which is increasingly our time, does truly recall the time of the Gnostics and their heresies.  

The first step in seeking treatment is realizing that one is sick.  If we do not realize the importance of semantics in theology, we shall not grasp the important theological work that must now be done.  It is irrational to hope for something of which it can be said that one does not know if one has it.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Studying Classical Lutheran Theology with Vigor and Rigor

I am driving back from the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Annual Convention where the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) was just granted candidate status towards full institutional accreditation.  ILT is dedicating all the resources necessary to acquire initial accreditation extremely quickly.

ILT is known, of course, for its innovative pedagogical model that uses video conferencing resources in an on-line format that allows almost all of our M.A., M.Div., STM and D.Min. curricula to be delivered directly into student's own home.  I was a tenured professor for many years at a state university, and often tell people that the only difference between teaching at the university or with ILT is that with ILT I don't have to find a parking place before class.  We do distance education very well.

Just because ILT is innovative pedagogically, however, does not guarantee its long-term success or viability.  Many other schools, even state universities, are beginning to use the technologies we have used since inception.  Lutheran seminaries are getting into the act as well.  So when all the Lutheran seminaries learn to deliver on-line like ILT has done, what is left to be distinctive about ILT?

The answer is easy: ILT is much more rigorous than most Lutheran seminaries now are; we prepare much more deeply in the discipline of theology itself.  The following compares the Institute of Lutheran Theology's Master of Divinity program with that of Luther Seminary's in St. Paul.  Luther Seminary once had a very fine curriculum, but changes over the last decades in the trajectory of theological education in North America have profoundly affected that curriculum.  The ILT curriculum comes from the 2017-18 ILT academic catalog.  The Luther Seminary information can be found in the Luther Seminary 2016-17 academic catalog found at  Below are the classes that students must take at each institution.

Biblical Theology

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Introduction to Greek
  • Readings in NT Greek, Biblical Hebrew 
  • Lutheran Evangelical Methods
  • Lutheran Biblical Interpretation
  • The Pentateuch
  • Wisdom and the Histories
  • The Gospels
  • Paul and His Legacy
  • Epistles and Formation of the NT
  • OT or NT elective 
Luther Seminary
  • Biblical Hebrew
  • New Testament Greek
  • Scripture & Witness I
  • Scripture & Witness II
  • Biblical Exegesis for Ministry 
Historical Theology

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • History of Christian Thought I: Origins to 1500
  • History of Christian Thought II: The Reformation
  • History of Christian Thought III: 1700 - 1900
  • History of Christian Thought IV:  20th Century
  • History of the Lutheran Church
  • The Theology of Martin Luther
  • The Lutheran Confessions 
Luther Seminary
  • Reform and Expansion of Christianity
  • Either History of Christianity since 1800 or Apostles to the Reformers
  • Lutheran Confessional Writings or denominational option
Systematic Theology 

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Creation and the Triune God
  • Christology 
  • Christ, Spirit and the Two Kingdoms
  • Three from the following:  
    • Theology and Science
    • World Religions and Theology
    • Christian Sexual Ethics
    • Philosophy of Religion
    • Religious Interpretation of Films 

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Faith, Knowledge and Reason
  • Critical Thinking for the Theologian (doctrinal track) 
Luther Seminary 
  • None 
Pastoral Theology 

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Pastoral Theology I
  • Pastoral Theology II
  • Pastoral Theology III
  • Parish Administration
  • The Teaching Shepherd
  • Theology and the Practice of Worship
  • Homiletics I 
  • Homiletics II
  • Homiletics III
  • Pastoral Theology elective
  • Internship (no credit) 
Luther Seminary 
  • Christian Public Leader I & II (half courses) 
  • Congregational Care and Formation
  • Foundations of Biblical Preaching 
  • Public Worship
  • Clinical Pastoral Education
  • Internship (counts as two courses) 

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Two courses (OT or NT elective and Pastoral Theology elective, as noted above) 
Luther Seminary 
  • 12 courses 
Notice the difference in the emphasis between ILT and what Luther Seminary now offers.  We don't teach leadership as an end in itself, but believe that if our students humbly know Scripture and the theological tradition profoundly, they will be formed with servants' hearts so that they might preach, teach and lead boldly.  Evangelical leadership is a function of Evangelical servanthood; such servanthood is not a function of leadership.  

Given what I have just said, it might be useful as well to contrast the Institute of Lutheran Theology D. Min. program with that of Luther Seminary.  Here it is: 


Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Reaching the Unreached
Luther Seminary
  • Congregational Mission and Leadership
Residency Requirement

Institute of Lutheran Theology
  • None
Luther Seminary 
  • Total of 38-42 days over four years
Method of Course Delivery

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Live multi-feed video conferencing one evening per week for a total of 45 contact hours per semester
Luther Seminary 
  • On-Campus one-week intensives, with work before and after
Required Courses

Institute of Lutheran Theology
  • A Secular World
  • Models of Engagement
  • Proclamation in the 21st Century
  • Catechesis
  • Methodology and Approaches to Graduate Study 
  • Two student-designed independent projects
Luther Seminary
  • Integration of Theology and Ministry
  • Pastoral Theology, Identity and Spiritual Life
  • Missional Church
  • Missional Leadership
  • Congregational Practices 

Institute of Lutheran Theology 
  • Work independently at own pace
Luther Seminary 
  • Four visits to campus during fourth year for research and guidance
I have made a comparison with Luther Seminary simply because I take what has happened at Luther to exemplify general trends in theological education within North American Lutheran circles.  Please know that I have nothing against Luther Seminary; many of my good friends once received a very fine theological education there.   

Monday, January 09, 2017

Ten Years Ago and Ten Years from Now

It is January 2017 and I just received notification that the video of the Institute of Lutheran Theology's appearance on the "Leaders in the Future of Education" series on the public TV program Voices in America will be distributed to PBS stations across the country at the end of the month.  I was also notified that our first ILT commercials will be run on the Fox Business Network during prime time on January 19 & 20th.  (The commercials are an added benefit in being featured on Voices in America.)  ILT has come a long way.  

As we begin 2017, I am thinking back to 2007.   As many of you know, I am the President of a new educational initiative called the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT), a fully-operational seminary and graduate school offering a M.A. in Religion, a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Sacred Theology, a Doctor of Ministry, and certificate programs in pastoral and youth ministry.  ILT is presently on the fast-track towards full institutional accreditation, which we hope to have as early as 2018.   Tonight, however, I am not thinking ahead to next year, but am thinking back to a time ten years before.  What was life at ILT like ten years ago?  Thinking about ten years ago, makes me wonder as well about ten years from now?  Where will ILT be in 2027?  

Before remembering January 2007, however, it might be beneficial to some to review what the Institute of Lutheran Theology is.  A good way to learn what we are about is to visit our webpage.  You will find there that ILT has a nicely elaborated Mission Statement and a number of Institutional Goals.  If you examine the page long enough you will find out about our many programs that still offer something of a theoretical approach to theology.  Graduates of our Masters of Divinity program learn Greek, some Hebrew, some logic, basic philosophy for theology, some ethics, a theology & science course, study the Biblical texts, take 4-5 courses in the history of theology, study Luther and the Confessions, take three courses in systematic theology, have 9 courses in practical theology plus a year-long internship.  We offer this program reasonably (about $30k for the full Masters of Divinity) and almost wholly through on-line video conferencing.  Each student sees and hears the other students, sees and hears the professor, and the professor sees and hears each student.  (Note: Internships are not virtual.  Students must do flesh-and-blood ministry in congregations.)   Though we are very young, we have already had about 40 graduates from our various programs, 16 in the last calendar year alone.  

Our faculty is very solid with several members with long academic records and research reputations.  We are blessed to have theologians from the following Lutheran traditions and bodies teaching with us: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, and North American Lutheran Church, the Association of Free Lutheran Churches, the Augsburg Lutheran Churches, and the American Association of Lutheran Churches.  ILT's students come from many church bodies, but predominately Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), the Canadian Association of Lutheran Congregations (CALC), and the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).  In our Doctor of Ministry and Master of Sacred Theology, we do, however, presently have students from the LCMS and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) as well as the Reformed tradition.   

So where was ILT ten years ago today?  

We were nine months forward from our launch at the April 2006 WordAlone Convention in Golden Valley, Minnesota.  We were seeking partnerships when and where we could find them, about to visit Concordia University in Irvine, California and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  We were eight months away from our first course being delivered over the internet, eleven months away from being incorporated as a non-profit in the state of South Dakota, 13 months away from being granted our IRS 504 c (3) status, and still 32 months away from offering our first graduate course.  (We chose to offer courses to lay people within congregations in our first few years.)   The ILT staff in those days consisted of four people, each having full-time jobs doing something quite unrelated to ILT.  (It would be  42 months before I gave up a tenured full professorship to work to build the Institute of Lutheran Theology.)   Four part-time staff is a far cry from the ten dedicated full-time staff we have now.  In 2007 we raised approximately $30,000; while last fiscal year we raised almost one million dollars.  

People have asked me, "If you knew how hard this would be, would you have done it?"  I always answer, "I always knew it would be this hard, I just did not know we would be this successful."  After all, how does one begin a graduate school and seminary without institutional support and funding?  How does one bring it about ex nihilo?  The answer, of course, is that one does not do such a thing, and cannot do it.  However, by the grace and will of God, with perseverance and patience, things come into being that one could never engineer.  ILT exists by the grace of God and it will exist as long as God graces it.  

So where would we like to be in ten years?  What constitutes the success of ILT going forward?   

We will finish this academic year with a headcount of about 100 students.  It is reasonable to expect that as a fully-accredited institution, we can grow this headcount 7.2% a year to 200 students by 2027.  We think by 2027 that we will have had 8 cohorts of Doctor of Ministry students graduate, as well as a dozen or more Masters of Sacred Theology students, 30 Masters of Arts, perhaps 40-50 Masters of Divinity students, and maybe 125 certificate students.   We hope to grow our tuitional revenue by 200% and our donor revenue by 100%.  In addition, we want to be able to obtain grants to upgrade our programs, our library, and our entire facility.  It is possible that by 2027 we will have both a functioning Ph.D. program and a nascent BD curriculum.  Who knows what God might have in store if we are bold enough to dream?  

All will be for nought, however, if we don't remain true to our Mission.  At the beginning we were wary of locating at a denominational seminary because our experience was that the theological trajectory within the ELCA could not be controlled by traditional affirmations of adherence to Scripture and the Confessions.  We thought that being independent gave us the best opportunity to stay Biblically-grounded and Confessionally-based.   We still think this.  Our philosophical presuppositions and theological affirmations are meant to situate us on the same basic semantic and ontological field as was present within the Reformation itself.  We hold that there really is a God that is causally involved in our salvation, a God whose acts can be spoken about in true propositions.   

If you have not been thinking about us for some time, or have never really heard about us, do some research about us.  Our courses our top-notch.  We teach classical Christian theology from a Lutheran perspective.  We aim a bit higher intellectually than has been the wont within vast reaches of North American Lutheranism recently.  Check us out. You don't have to be Lutheran to benefit from great courses from faithful and competent professors, delivered right to your home computer.