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Day Two of the AARSBL

Day Two of the AARSBL

To read the round-up of day one, click here.

Today was my Luther Day. Ever since the schedule was released I had the “Luther and Justification” section circled on my calendar. This enthusiasm derives not so much because it’s Luther but because it was being conducted by Bible scholars. For the longest time, Luther has been an easy target for Pauline students. Having “Lutheran spectacles” or a “Reformational bias” is an insult of the highest degree. For many it seems as though Luther’s reading of Paul was the original sin of Pauline scholarship—the place it all went so terribly wrong….

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2017 DC Conference Recordings

Thank you again to everyone who helped put on the “500 Years of Grace” event two weeks ago in DC, especially our friends at All Saints Chevy Chase! What a truly special time it was.

The audio from the event is now available on The Mockingcast feed and our Recordings page. As per usual, we are making the recordings available for free; we only ask that those who were not able to be there consider making a donation to help cover the cost of the event. Individual links are as follows:

Watch this space over the coming weeks for the video.

Major thanks go to Meaghan Ritchey, Nate Lee, Ed Kelaher, Liz McReady, and James Villarreal for going so far above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks also goes to Wole Akpose and Jeff Dillenbeck for capturing it all on camera! A few highlights below:

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ALSO, earlybird pre-registration for our Spring Conference in NYC (April 26-28, 2018) is now open! Just click here. More details coming soon.

p.s. Registration for our 4th annual conference in Tyler, TX (Feb 23&24, 2018) opens next week at

Four Points About Martin Luther on 31 October 2017

Prof. Simeon Zahl weighs in:

I’ve spent so much of the past ten years reading, thinking with, and writing about Martin Luther’s theology, and teaching his thought at three universities. But I confess at this point I have very little interest in the idea of Luther, or in hagiography, or in his specific denominational legacy, or in his personality, or in his politics, or in his insults or his beer or whatever. And I disagree with quite a few of his main insights, and that’s before we even get to the hateful stuff.

But there remains no theologian I learn more from or I am more keen to teach. In the end if I am honest I am interested in Luther as a kind of artist who at his best transmuted his personal sufferings into theological ideas that can inform an utterly compassionate vision of Christianity as a religion of honesty and mercy for suffering and screwed up human beings. At his best – and he was very often not at his best – Luther remains unsurpassed here.

If I wanted to boil what I think has been most worthwhile for me down to a few points, on this quincentennial day, they would be these:

1. As a theologian, I return again and again to Luther’s theological method, especially his highly dynamic and creative way of transmuting his own sufferings and experiences into theological insight on behalf of others, in dialogue with Scripture. In this again I think he is usefully understood as a kind of artist or poet rather than simply as a thinker or exegete, and I think this is part of what Kierkegaard meant in his journals when he called Luther an ‘extremely important patient for Christianity’. As Luther puts it, ‘in tribulation [the exegete] learns many things which he did not know before; [likewise,] many things he already knew in theory he grasps more firmly through experience’ (WA 3:44; LW 10:49). We can seek to follow this method without having to agree with what Luther actually concluded at any given point. And I do personally think that a dose of this kind of experientialism, done well, is what theology today needs more than anything.

2. Luther’s account of the persistence of sin in the Christian in the later parts of Against Latomus is probably the darkest such account we have anywhere in the tradition, and in this it is enduringly profound. ‘[T]he motion of anger and evil is exactly the same in the godly and the godless, the same before grace and after grace’ (WA 8:91; LW 32:207). Luther argues at one point here that the way that sin persists in Christians is quite precisely analogous to the way that physical death persists: its ‘reality’ and ‘substance’ is unchanged, but its ‘sting’ is taken away. In this he is taking a major strand of Christian tradition and turning it up to eleven. In practice, the account in Against Latomus can and should function as a kind of firewall of divine mercy for Christians who feel like failures; there is no circumstance it cannot encompass. These bits of Against Latomus are not all that Luther had to say on the subject of the Christian life but they are the parts that have stood out the most to me over the years.

3. Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel, loosely held and experientially/affectively understood, remains one of the most powerful diagnostic tools for making sense of what people I see around me actually do in their lives – all the anxious striving – and why it so rarely feels like ‘enough’, and for explaining the power of Christianity as a clear-eyed but utterly compassionate response to this. It is a shame that this aspect of his thought which pastorally-speaking has dated so little in 500 years (in our cultural moment of performancism and overwork) has been so misunderstood in recent theology.

4. The theology of the cross, as expressed with such simplicity and depth in the Heidelberg Disputation, seems to me to match the reality of life as it is very often experienced by human beings in the world, better than any other such category I have come across. ‘God can be found only in suffering and the cross’ (proof of thesis 21). Whatever their tradition (or anti-tradition), students always respond to this extraordinary text, which (with the Disp. Against Scholastic Theology) is I think the paradigmatic example of Luther’s art.

Other people can talk about his theology of the Bible, his view of the sacraments, his relationship to modernity and authority and all the rest, but for me these are the reasons I continue to be interested in the legacy of Martin Luther in 2017.

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin ~ Simeon Zahl from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

The Hidden Link Between Martin Luther and… Peter Parker?

Can’t say I was expecting the following (timely!) illustration to pop up in the Substitution chapter of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, ht RS:

A substantive argument against the motif of atonement and substitution is that people in other cultures around the world do not see themselves in the categories we have been discussing–guilt, incapacity, bondage, shame, failure, defeat. Yet the more one hears this, the more the categories seem to pop up. Here is an example that originated in American comic-book culture and spread around the world. In a highbrow essay review of Spider-Man, the blockbuster movie of 2002, Geoffrey O’Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, harks back to the original comic of 1962:

The crucial plot point in the original episode was that Peter Parker’s initial burst of unwonted arrogance on receiving his spider powers led… to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. The notion of a moral lapse (his momentary hubris) that could never really be atoned for gave the comic book its air of perpetual dissatisfaction; being Spider-Man was… a perpetual reminder to the hero of his own shortcomings, a kind of penance. There was always the possibility that he would fail again, and so he was condemned to a vigilant monitoring of his own reactions and impulses. In such a situation an unqualified sense of triumph was by definition impossible. In its goofy way, The Amazing Spider-Man acknowledged the tragic sense of life.

This remarkable paragraph from a secular journal incorporates much of what we have been trying to say all along. Moreover, it mirrors in an almost uncanny way the struggle of Martin Luther to monitor his behavior and his consequent discovery that an “unqualified sense of triumph” is “by definition impossible,” and can only be experienced through the victory of Christ…. In his reference to the “tragic sense of life,” O’Brien means to set the guilt of one individual into its context, that of ubiquitous human failure. In great novels of universal significance such as those of Joseph Conrad, the same dynamic is revealed. Conrad’s narrator Marlow tells stories showing that the guilt and shame of one man (Lord Jim) are made to stand for us all, and the guilt of the British Empire (Heart of Darkness) is drawn into the larger saga not only of the individual soul but also of cosmic entrapment in the infernal stream… of darkness.”

If this be “Western,” make the most of it. (pg 491-92)

Navigating the Denominational Food Court

Navigating the Denominational Food Court

One of the mixed blessings of Martin Luther’s 500-year-old legacy is finding one’s place among the hundreds of denominations which roughly fly under the Protestant banner. In other words, how does one find the “right” denomination, assuming you profess faith in the lower-case catholic church? This is a particularly acute question for me, born and raised by Southern Baptist parents and educated and ordained in Southern Baptist institutions. As you might have guessed, Southern Baptists are rarely invited to sit at the cool tables in the denominational cafeteria (and often for good reason). A pastor friend once led his well-heeled…

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This Weekend in DC: Talk Titles and Lineup! (T-Minus 4 Days and Counting)

For those who haven’t yet been wooed, take a look at the unbelievable lineup for our event this weekend in DC. Things kick off on Friday evening with a talk from Nick Lannon, dinner courtesy of Broad Branch Market (with Starr Hill beer & wine from Keswick Vineyards), and music by Mark Miller. The party continues Saturday morning with with coffee sponsored by our friends at Anchor Coffee Roasters, followed by talks from Jacob Smith, Sarah Condon, Daryl Davis (of Accidental Courtesy fame), and, post-lunch, David Zahl. We’ll have books for sale and cheer aplenty.

Pre-registration closes this Wednesday. Last minute walk-ins are more than welcome; we just can’t guarantee food. Oh and there’s still some limited scholarship funds available – hit us up at if that’d be a help. Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 27

5:30pm  —  Registration
6:30pm  —  Welcome Worship Service
7:00pm  —  “No, Actually, I Don’t Work Out: Good News for Unwilling Hearts” – Nick Lannon
7:30pm  —  Dinner catered by Broad Branch Market & Music with Mark Miller

Saturday, October 28

8:00am  —  Coffee (courtesy of our friends at Anchor Coffee Roasters!)
9:00am  —  Morning Talks

  • “Robert Barnes and 500 Years of Justification by Grace Alone” – Jacob Smith
  • “When Katie Met Luther: A New Kind of Love” – Sarah Condon

10:45am  —  Daryl Davis speaks on Race and Grace
12:00pm  —  Lunch courtesy of Broad Branch Market
1:15pm  —  “Can’t Stop the Signal: Enduring Hope in Divided Times” – David Zahl
2:00pm  —  Mockingbird Panel Q&A and Closing Communion Service
3:30pm  —  Book table closes

Sunday, October 29 (Post-Conference)

7:45am, 9am, & 11am — DZ preaches at all three Reformation Sunday worship services at All Saints


No, Actually, I Don’t Work Out: Good News for Unwilling Hearts (A DC Conference Preview)

I don’t have any acquired tastes. I don’t drink coffee, or smoke a pipe, or do anything else that I didn’t like the first time. And no, actually, I don’t work out, either. I used to think that I was just weak…but now I’ve realized that while I am weak, I’m not just weak. I am also human.

Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer and first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, knew a lot about this connection between weakness and humanity. When he was formulating the theological expressions of the post-Reformational church in England, he realized that the old way—which, of course, remains the predominant way—of thinking about the human person was completely backward and insufficient to explain the struggles of real life.

So, as a good reformer might, he reformed it.

I’m so looking forward to Mockingbird’s Washington DC conference at the end of this month (Oct 27-28), celebrating 500 years of grace, the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. My talk is entitled “No Actually, I Don’t Work Out: Good News for Unwilling Hearts” and in it, I’ll attempt to translate the Reformation insight about the human person—that we are way more bound and twisted than we ever thought we were—into Good News for sinful people 500 years later. To do it, I’ll talk about a couple of episodes from the life of the Apostle Peter, discuss the (very real) Crotchety Associate Rector Syndrome, lament the fact that gyms have mirrored walls, fix WWJD bracelets, and confess weakness in the face of Oreos and General Tso’s Chicken. Through all that—and the Reformational lens—a portrait will appear: a savior God who came to Earth, not waiting for the weak to become strong or for the sinners to become saints…a Christ who came to set the captives free.

Click here to register for our Fall Conference in DC on October 27-28—you won’t want to miss it!

Pobody’s Nerfect: On Performance Anxiety and (Not) Giving Advice from the Pulpit

With both the Reformation’s quincentennial kickoff and our DC conference mere weeks away, we’ve put our feelers out for all things smacking of the reason for the season, that “harsh doctor,” Martin Luther. Today we were pleased to find just that from our friend Phillip Cary, who is featured in the latest issue of First Things. Below I’ve re-posted a handful of memorable excerpts from his piece “Luther at 500” (ht RS):

The great pastoral aim of Luther’s doctrine of justification is to free us from the kind of performance anxiety that arises whenever our salvation depends in any way on us, our hearts, our will, or our doings. For anything we do is something about which we can ask, “Am I doing it well enough?” And for Luther the answer is always “not well enough to save you from damnation.” No act of our free will, and hence no decision of ours, is an exception to this rule…

How we have always been justified by faith alone is best seen in light of Luther’s distinction between law and Gospel. Both the law of God and the Gospel of Christ are God’s word, but the former only gives us instructions while the latter gives us Christ. For the law tells us what to do, but the Gospel tells us what Christ does. The distinction grows out of Augustine’s insistence, in his great treatise On the Spirit and the Letter, that telling us to obey the law of love does not help us do it from the depths of our hearts; only the grace of Christ can give us such a heart. Luther merely adds: The place to find the grace of Christ is in the Gospel of Christ.

A great many preachers, Protestant as well as Catholic, overlook the distinction between law and Gospel, thinking they can change people’s lives by giving them practical advice—as if telling them how to be inwardly transformed could help them do it. Augustine already knew better. Luther’s addition to Augustine’s insight is merely the glad recognition that there is indeed something preachers can do to help us be transformed: Instead of advice, they can give us Christ.

Catch more of this gospel-centered good news with Mocking-friends from all over on October 27-29 in Washington, DC. You can register for the conference here—hope to see you soon!

Reformation Celebration: I Will Drink Your Tears With My Champagne

Reformation Celebration: I Will Drink Your Tears With My Champagne

In late October, every year, without fail, a group of well-meaning people (men) in mainline denominations go into an official state of mourning because the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is fast approaching. They bemoan (this particular) schism in the church. They talk a lot about Christian Unity (preferably with people who vote the same way they do).

This October is going to be especially difficult for them, because it marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Sad.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Mrs. Condon (wife of the Rev. Mr. Condon) will be somewhere all:

I first noticed this we-don’t-feel-good-about-the-Reformation gang when I was in…

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Is There Any Comfort? Remembering the Reformation 500 Years Later

Is There Any Comfort? Remembering the Reformation 500 Years Later

We are now less than a month out from our upcoming conference in D.C.! Come celebrate 500 years of grace with us, October 27-29—you can register here.

With the Reformation on the brain, here is a fantastic piece written by our friend, Jonathan A. Linebaugh.

In 1519, Thomas Bilney sat in a small Cambridge college with a book in his hands. It had been two years since a German monk named Martin Luther was said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg—hammer blows that were later remembered as the start of the Reformation and were rumored to have shaken…

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What Made Paul Tillich a Conscious Protestant

A timely dose of the controversial theologian doing what he did best, i.e. taking the theology of the cross to its existential limits. Via the introduction to The Protestant Era:

“You cannot reach God by the work of right thinking or by a sacrifice of the intellect or by a submission to strange authorities, [ed: religious or not]… You cannot, and you are not even asked to try it. Neither works of piety nor works of morality nor works of the intellect establish unity with God. They follow from this unity, but they do not make it. They even prevent it if you try to reach it through them. But just as you are justified as a sinner (though unjust, you are just), so in the status of doubt you are in the status of truth. And if all this comes together and you are desperate about the meaning of life, the seriousness of your despair is the expression of the meaning in which you still are living. This unconditional seriousness is the expression of the presence of the divine in the expression of utter separation from it. It is this radical and universal interpretation of the doctrine of justification through faith which has made me a conscious Protestant.” (pg XV)

Yet Another "New Start": Karl Holl on Luther's Vigorous Reinterpretation of the Christian Life

Yet Another “New Start”: Karl Holl on Luther’s Vigorous Reinterpretation of the Christian Life

The following is an excerpt from Karl Holl’s booklength essay, “What Did Luther Understand by Religion?” (trans. Meuser & Wietzke) in which Holl draws out Luther’s theology beginning with his history. As you’ll see, Holl maintains a refreshing emphasis on everyday heart-level matters, compared to other scholars of his caliber. Still, you might want to put on your academic spectacles for this one—but it’s worth it. I started transcribing the first paragraph and just couldn’t stop there. Enjoy!

Like Jesus, [Luther] tried to show his contemporaries that their apparently intense piety, the piety of good works, devotions, and mortifications, was actually…

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