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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Cogitationes de statu medio

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This past summer a clergyman then serving in Rhode Island, who has now taken a call to Illinois, was in touch with me with questions concerning the Intermediate State. After in-person discussion when he drove over from Rhode Island to St Catharines and kindly took my wife and me to lunch, I ended up composing a hand-written letter to The Revd Matthew Richardt, giving him permission to publish my response to his questions, of which I gather he has shared parts with some brother pastors. Given the parlous condition of my handwriting, which is oftentimes an indecipherable mystery to myself after the event, I am not surprised that Pr Richardt has not yet issued my reflections in full, which he remains free to do. Since the matters in question appear to be a hot issue here and there, I have typed up my letter to Pr Richardt for my maiden appearance on this blog as a Gottesdienst editor. JR

Eve of Pentecost, 19 May 2018

 Reverend Brother/Dear Matt,

 Thank you so much for taking the trouble to drive over from Rhode Island to meet with me yesterday; Bonnie and I much appreciated getting to know you.

As I mentioned in our previous exchange of emails, I had made two attempts at sitting down to write documents in response to your queries; but after a good start, each of these attempts stalled, as the words and thoughts failed to flow.

Well, don’t you know, as we had agreed yesterday, I sat down at the computer this afternoon to write a letter to you concerning the topics you brought up. Guess what? After I had got off to a good start and we seemed to be getting somewhere, the computer suddenly lost power and the unsaved document went irretrievably down the tubes. So I’ve now decided to take the time-honoured, nowadays almost forgotten route of writing you a good old-fashioned letter by hand!

At the outset of my response to your questions, I would emphasise that I am in no way an exegetical or dogmatic expert on the topic of Eschatology. But as a young man with hardly any publication history behind me, I eagerly snatched at the invitation extended to me by my dear father in Christ, Dr Robert Preus, to author the Eschatology section—initially intended as a chapter, not as a whole book—of his dogmatics project intended as a riposte to the ELCA’s Braaten-Jenson Christian Dogmatics. As I mentioned to you, a few years ago Fr David Petersen of Redeemer, Fort Wayne, invited me to speak to a one-day conference in which I assessed the volume a good two decades after its appearance. I fear I was not well prepared for those lectures, which took shape in rather off-the-cuff fashion; but, remarkably, I found that I could stand by just about everything that I had written as a young clergyman and theologian, and could identify nothing substantial to recant. So I would continue to recommend to our clergy and theologically interested laity the pages I wrote now going on three decades ago on the topic of the Intermediate State of Souls.

As I observe theological exchanges in our two Synods, and as I keep my ear to the ground to pick up what is being said in various places, I don’t think we have a major problem with denial of the Intermediate State as such: few seem to suppose that bodily death simply entails extinction between the time a person breathes his last and the hour when the Lord returning in glory will raise the dead. My predecessor in the only parish I ever served full-time, a Seminex graduate who did excellent work in some areas, appears to have taught this very thing, namely “lights out” from death till resurrection. From my first Bible class onwards, I was peppered by questions on this topic, and my parishioners gave the impression of relief through my exposition to them of the position articulated in Eschatology. Instead of a brusque denial of the Intermediate State as such, we seem to face the phenomenon of some teachers of the Church being inclined to downplay the powerful reality of the life of the blessed between bodily death and the Parousia. “Yes, but Scripture says hardly anything about it; moreover, it’s a minor matter, not really that important.” If anyone is actually teaching something like this, they need to revisit the NT and the whole tradition of the Church, and then they need to adjust their teaching accordingly; otherwise the sheep will be defrauded, even misled by a Christianity Lite that does not measure up to the fullness of Christ.

A good way into our topic might be to head to the last six words of Col 1:18 in the Greek original:  ἵνα γένηται ἐν πᾶσιν αὐτὸς πρωτεύων, “that He might have primacy, be preeminent, take first place in all things/in every respect.”

We admire certain theologians for the “Christocentricity”of their thought, and sometimes theologians pat themselves on the back for their “Christocentricity”. But not only did Paul as an inspired author get to that point before any of the Fathers or teachers of the Church. For as the Apostle makes clear in this section of Colossians, “Christocentricity” lies at the heart and core of the saving “economy” of God’s dealings with men: the Father and the Holy Spirit resolved  from eternity to honour and magnify the Son, and carried out this purpose in time and space.

What bearing does our brief Pauline maxim have on the Intermediate State? Much in every way. Because Christ our Lord is enfleshed God, risen from the dead and seated at the Right hand of the Father, it is simply impossible for the bodily death of a sheep of His flock, a member of His mystical  body, to result in extinction. Of course, the OT never pictures the consequences of bodily death as extinction per se. Such philosophers as Plato were right to posit the “immortality of the soul.” Man’s survival of bodily death is a reality widely perceived across cultures, philosophies, and religions. We may not sneer at Lutheran Orthodoxy’s perception that some articles of faith are “mixed articles,” apprehended not only supernaturally by revelation but also naturally by reason and even gut intuition. Those who deride Plato should really take time out to listen to the voice of Truth as He speaks in Mt 10:28; it’s a very bad idea for church people and their theologians to disagree with Jesus: from the first moment of His conception, He has beheld the Father’s face, a state which you and I have not yet attained.

Not anthropological considerations, then—significant though they be: man is composed of perishable body and imperishable soul—but Christ Jesus our Lord, True God and True Man, who has gone to prepare a place for us in the Father’s House, He is the reason why the Intermediate State is for real; He makes it not a minor matter, but a very big deal to be expected, trumpeted, and celebrated.

Atheism has been the elephant in the living room or the mad aunt in the attic in the intellectual life of the West since some time in the 18th century. Already in the late 17th century, A. H. Francke, prior to his famous conversion experience, suffered terrible doubts as to the reality of God. Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietsche have made their contributions to the rise of atheism, so that by our time many are consumed by the sickening suspicion that material reality is all there is, with the consequence that death sucks all its victims into an all-nullifying black hole. Who has not been afflicted by this temptation? Against this background Joseph Ratzinger, as cited in my Eschatology, confesses beautifully that the Christian dies not into a black hole, but into Christ, and therefore into Life. Because of the Christian’s sacramental connection with Christ, the catastrophic whirlpool of bodily death ushers the believer into His presence, along with that of His Father, Their Spirit, and the saints and angels. Such mounting, ever increasing joys can never be a minor matter!

Paul, who describes Christ as our Life (Col 3:4), would have no problem with also labelling Him as our Hope. After all, he identifies our “blessed hope” as “the appearance [ἐπιφάνεια] of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13). Of course, He is primarily referring to the Epiphany of the Last Day, but the Paul who confidently expected to be “with Christ” upon bodily death also anticipated a personal epiphany of Christ to the departed Christian. In our focus on forgiveness, we Lutherans might have an unfortunate habit of suppressing entirely the NT witness to post-mortem judgement. “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10). “It is appointed to men to die once, and after death cometh judgement” (Heb 9:27). The Confessions attest the ancient, biblical teaching of the degrees of glory among the glorified saints, and how can that measure be determined apart from judgement? I have noticed that many funeral sermons neglect to preach repentance to those present, failing to inform the secure, unawakened sinners in the pews that they too must one day appear before the judgement seat of Christ. Instead, a sugary overdose of comfort is offered to family, friends, and acquaintances, sometimes with a proclamation of the canonisation of the deceased along the lines of the rituals regularly performed in St Peter’s Square. No, each forgiven sinner learns and must cope with the full truth about himself in death; not everything about us will be tested as pure gold in the fire that is the Lord. There is judgement in death, and there is purification, and then there is the everlasting being with the Lord.

The volume I wrote for Dr Preus distinguished between micro and macro eschatology, the former being labelled the End of Man, the second being dubbed the End of the World. After all these years, I wonder how felicitous the distinction is, since judgement and consummation befall man as individual person and man as he is grouped in various levels of community, supremely as he aligns himself with the civitas terrena/earthly city or the civitas Dei/City of God. Individualism is a terrible curse of our North American culture, as it is of all the cultures of the “advanced” West; moreover, it is a blight that, once identified and lamented, will prove bitterly difficult to overcome. As the ecclesiology put in place by C. F. W. Walther to address a time- and place-specific crisis developed (or perhaps morphed) in US culture, molecular Febronianism set in. Perhaps the insidious effects of such individualism lie behind the protests of those who, lamenting how the Intermediate State is sometimes presented, display a certain discomfort with overmuch focus on the Intermediate State itself.

Rather than so to say taking all (or most) of one’s eggs from the basket of the intermediate State and cramming them all into the basket of the Parousia, it would be well to realise that both these stages of eschatological fulfilment for the blessed, i.e., those who are sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock, are stages of the kingship of Christ following on from the reign He began here on earth through what we call the means of grace to the universal consummation of His kingship at the Parousia. Our focus needs to stay firmly fastened on Him in all three stages of His rule! If this happens, our theological understanding here below cannot go far wrong.

St Paul, as usual, puts it in a nutshell: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8); and since he is the Bearer of the sacred tetragrammaton, His lordship over the (blessed) dead cannot possibly entail their extinction or even their being put into cold storage (Rom 14:9b). Paul’s 100% focus on the Lord, his summons to the Lord, his plea that we be conversi ad Dominum, prompts me to express disquiet over the increasingly prevalent habit of following post-Vatican II Roman Catholics in having the celebrant face the congregation from the Preface through the Agnus Dei. For myself, I can pray for the congregation, but not to it. Ad populum celebration conjures up in me the impression of a claustrophobic closed circle from which I would fain escape into the vista of Christ surrounded by angels and saints. How can the intermediate State be a minor matter when we already have actual communion with Cherubim and Seraphim and all angels and with all holy folk gone before us from the beginning of the world! Hereby we enjoy a much wider communion than we do through our synodical arrangements of altar and pulpit fellowship! Angels and demons mill invisibly around us at all times, the former to our good, the latter bent on our harm. Our being surrounded, in the case of the faithful gone before us, by “so great a cloud of witnesses” takes us to a text we should take on board in full force (Heb 12:1).

And as Christ reigns right now in His earthly Church and in the Paradise of which He is the living Heartbeat, He bids the ecclesia militans look beyond her current—increasing—distress to His supernatural, universal coming in the clouds (the Shekinah!). Alas, I lack the musical formation to put suitably into words the idea of a stirring symphony mounting to a climax that brings the audience to its feet. The first coming in lowliness—yet not without a tremendous measure of signs and wonders—was a huge big deal. Jesus’ current reign in the Paradise that (mostly hiddenly) accompanies the Church on her pilgrim way is an even more humongous deal. And when every foe is placed under His feet upon His glorious return (which needs to be more prominent in our teaching and preaching!) whereupon He delivers the whole kingdom to the Father so that the mystical union goes universally into top gear, why that will be a grand fulfilment that for now can only be faintly registered through the best that poetry, art, and music have to offer. Christ is our Hope, here and now as He is with us in the bodily forms of word, sacrament, and other Christians; upon bodily death, when He ushers His faithful into the heavenly throne room; and when the Father sends Him once more visibly to bring our human history to its close and consummation. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

Finished on the evening of the great festival of Pentecost.

I hope these thoughts are of some value in answering your questions.

Cordially, and fraternally, in Christ our Life,

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John StephensonComment