What follows began as a comment on the blog of a fellow LCMS Lutheran. It got a little long. And then it got longer. The more I wrote, the more I began to think of different things which (to me at least) seemed very much related. And then…and then I started to footnote. Old habits die hard. In any event, I have decided that my footnotes are a tribute to David Foster Wallace. However, it should be noted that even though my piece is long, it is not infinite, and even though it is leavened with what I hope could be considered humor, it is the farthest thing from a jest. For the sake of clarity I do ask that any who read this piece also read the footnotes. Simply click on the small numbers and you will be directed to the appropriate note; after reading the note, click the arrow and you will be returned to your spot in the text.
Second — this is an extremely critical piece. Some who read this might find it hypocritical, in fact, as I have developed a penchant for scolding my fellow Lutherans (often recent converts) for bashing their evangelical-Protestant former overlords. “You’re so police, Trent,” said one friend. Anyway, I have no problem busting my own people. That’s the simple explanation. If you want to sell your birthright for a fisherman’s stew of half-baked heresies and warmed-up postmodern kitsch, that’s fine (well, not really) — just do it outside. Don’t bring it into the house. If you do bring it into the house, it is the job of your family in the faith to call you out.
Did I just say that this is a hypercritical hypocritical piece? I think I did. Wow.
In all seriousness, I hope you understand my rationale.
Finally, I would ask you to share this piece if you find that it resonates with your own sentiments and convictions. Email it, tweet it, like it, plus-one it…uh, tumbl it? Man, my generation needs some more elegant verbs. Print it out, roll it up, strap it to a pigeon. If you think it’s worth reading, send it around. And, as always, feel free to leave your feedback in the comments.
Oh, and special thanks to Gottesdienst for some of the media in this post, but, moreover, for all of the catechesis. I have the deepest respect for the work that you do. — admin
+ SDG +
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
“The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master— that’s all.'”
~Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking Glass)
“O tempora! O mores!”
~ Cicero (Oratio in Catilinam Prima in Senatu Habita)
Dear Mr. Grunewald,
Let me first say that I am a great admirer of your ancestor, Matthias Grünewald. The Isenheim Altarpiece is one of the most arrestingly beautiful works of art to come out of the Northern Renaissance. You should be honored to bear such a name. I would suggest that you consider bringing back the umlaut over the “u”, as it would strike fear into the hearts of your enemies and make you seem like an all-around badass.
I see that you’ve recently started following me on Twitter. Thanks. Thanks? I don’t know what the proper response to a “follow” is. I guess I should really say “I hope you enjoy reading my tweets because you probably aren’t going to enjoy reading this rather long letter.” That last sentence was exactly 140 characters, including the quotation marks. I could have tweeted it. But if I tried to put the rest of this letter into tweets, I would have to tweet 653 times, and I don’t think that would be the most efficient mode of delivery.
I always try to figure out why people choose to follow me on Twitter. Well, not always; only if I notice when they start. Sometimes it’s easy: I recently tweeted a picture of a pair of sneakers that I own which happen to made out of hemp; ergo, I am now followed by some cannabis-legalization advocacy groups. I listen to a wide variety of music and often tweet links to songs and albums from Grooveshark; ergo, I am now followed by a few dozen starving and talentless musicians (sorry, guys, but I doubt you’re even reading this), as well as a few good ones (who aren’t reading this, either). Aside from these oddball exceptions, and a few that are more ordinary but random, I want to say that most of my followers are fellow Lutherans— some lay, some clergy. If my Lutheran followers indicate that they have a blog or a website, then I almost always take a look at it.
This is all sort of a long and boring prolegomena. I just want you to know why I’m writing to you. If, however, you’re wondering why I’m writing you an “open letter” which more people who aren’t you (~7 billion) than are (1) will be able to read, at least in theory, then please read on with the rest of them:
My curiosity was piqued when I saw a link to a post on your site entitled “What’s Up With Lutherans?” However, I was disappointed with what I read, as by the end of your piece it was clear to me that you have no idea what is up with Lutherans. I am sorry for my blunt estimation of your work. I do not mean to be rude; however, unlike you, I am not a relativist on absolute things. I am a relativist on relative things and an absolutist on absolute things. On absolute things touching the heart of “the faith once passed down to the saints,” as I have been taught to confess it from the Small Catechism and (more fully) from the Concordia, I have become quite pertinacious. I have been to many doctors, and they all agree that the prognosis is grim: my condition shows no sign of amelioration. I hope this does not come across as a boast, as I simply intend for it to be a description. Some people don’t care about the things that I care about, and these people don’t wish that they were like me. I am under no delusions about this. That’s fine.
There’s an interesting charge which is often leveled at the Lutheran Church by former Lutherans who have gone over to Eastern Orthodoxy. It pops up in various forms, but the following example is a fair epitome of them all. You’ll pardon the length, but I must ask you to read the whole thing, as it will be serving as a sort of heuristic device throughout the rest of my letter:
Thesis: There is no Lutheran Church
Propositions concerning the Lutheran Church:
- The Augsburg Confession and those other writings assembled in the Book of Concord (1580) were initially the confession of a group of territorial churches in northern Germany.
- These territorial churches were not merely congregations, but trans-parish entities, each united by the same administration and the same liturgy within itself, and all alike were trans-parish entities.
- These territorial churches did not understand themselves as a new denomination, but as the continuation of the catholic Church in the west.
- They intended their writings to be understood as an unalterable confession of faith, with which they would stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
- These confessional writings constituted them not merely as a corporation, but as a living, organic entity, as “the churches of the Augsburg Confession.”
- The principle of unity of the churches of the Augsburg Confession is the quia subscription to, and confession of, the articles of the Book of Concord. (To develop this point a bit: the principle of unity in Romanism is the papacy. The principle of unity in the Pentecostal churches is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Other features may change, but the principle of unity is essential to each body and may not be changed without the body’s being essentially changed. Remove the papacy, and Romanism is no longer Romanism. Remove the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and Pentecostalism is no longer Pentecostalism.)
- This act of subscription and confession is not mere intellectual assent, but the ordering of the lives of congregations according to this principle of unity.
Propositions concerning change:
- There are two sorts of change: accidental and essential.
- Accidental change:
- Occurs when a thing is modified, yet remains what it was before. For example, when someone paints a blue chair red, it changes (color), yet it remains what it was (a chair).
- Occurs to living entities when they grow, move, or alter in any way which still allows one to say, “It remains what it was.”
- Essential change:
- Occurs when a thing is modified in such a way that it no longer is what it was before. For example, when a chair is run over by a steamroller, it is no longer a chair, but a pile of wood, or metal, or plastic.
- Occurs to living entities when they change in such a way that one can no longer say, “It remains what it was.” For example, a human being changes into a corpse at death, or (if it were possible) the humans making up Frankenstein’s monster were essentially changed when they were sewn together to make the monster.
- Accidental change:
- It is not necessary fully to know or to understand the circumstances of an essential change in order to affirm that such a change has taken place. All that needs to happen is to show that what was essential to the being of a thing has altered.
- In the case of a living being which appears to have undergone essential change (i.e. death), charity requires us to make efforts to restore quickly what was lost.
- There comes a time when those making such efforts recognize that the patient has died.
Propositions applying the latter to the former:
- The churches of the Augsburg Confession have changed since the Book of Concord was adopted.
- Some of those changes have been accidental: they grew, they moved etc.
- Some of those changes have been essential — i.e. the principle of unity (the Lutheran Confessions) no longer describes any existing trans-parish entity.
The description of Lutheran practice found in the Confessions:
- A. “Churches” of the Augsburg Confession refers to trans-parish entities, i.e. territorial churches.
- B. The true body and blood of Christ are present under the bread and wine.
- C. Luther excommunicates a pastor who mixes consecrated wine with unconsecrated following the service.
- D. Private confession “ought to be retained”; it is practiced as the norm. No one is admitted to the Sacrament unless he is first examined and absolved.
- E. Only those rightly/”ritely” (rite vocatus) called should administer the sacraments and preach.
- F. The traditional usages of the Church which may be observed without sin ought to be observed. There is uniformity of liturgy within territorial churches (i.e. not merely a parish-by-parish decision).
- G. The Mass (i.e. the historic liturgy) is maintained, observed with greatest reverence, and ceremonies exist to teach the unlearned.
- H. The Scripture principle (“The Word of God alone shall establish articles of faith”) is maintained in tension with the catholic principle (“In doctrine and ceremonies, we have received nothing new against Scripture or the catholic church”). These two principles are not, of course, two “sources” of doctrine.
- A. “Churches” refers to congregations, but not to trans-parish entities.
- B. Grape juice is offered in many places as an alternative to the Dominically-mandated element (i.e., wine).
- C. Plastic disposable cups are used widely, tossed out unwashed after the service.
- D. Private confession scarcely exists — in most parishes, not at all; in some parishes, just barely. Open communion is the norm.
- E. Unordained laity both administer the sacraments and preach.
- F. The traditional usages of the Church may be observed, but need not be (NB: “ought” and “need not” are logically contradictory).
- G. The Mass is not maintained, reverence is discouraged by “creative” services, and ceremonies are instituted to entertain the bored.
- H. The catholic principle is gone.
Our formerly-Lutheran brother is not correct on all counts in what he says above. Moreover, I’ve removed some of the points that he raised because I did not deem them to be particularly relevant, even though I may agree with him on them. Fortunately for us Lutherans, in spite of the preponderance of bad news which he accurately reports, his thesis does not follow: the Lutheran Church does exist— it’s just in bunker-mode. And some churches which identify or affiliate as Lutheran are not in fact Lutheran. And while for the sake of good order the Lutheran Church may not (and should not) completely disregard neat ecclesio-political lines, it isn’t determined or demarcated by them, either. However, the lines which it must follow— “the marks”, if you will— are very definite. They just have little to do with synodical politics as such, and the “little” is growing less every day.
Be that as it may, the foregoing dour assessment is very largely correct. Why do I even bring this up? The reason is very simple:
The destruction and denigration of Lutheranism in the modern American context which is detailed above is the very thing that people like you are celebrating. I cannot imagine a stronger juxtaposition than to put your words next to his.
In your imaginary interlocution with Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition, the following exchange occurs:
KD: With their high church, confessional tradition, Lutheranism has always been a little out of place with the sometimes rootless, low church expressions of evangelicalism.
[RJG]: High church, confessional tradition is not equivalent to Lutheranism. While there are certainly good reasons for stereotypes of a very catholic-feeling church service, this is not what makes a church Lutheran. What makes us Lutheran is our understanding of the scriptures, our unique view of the sacraments, our commitment to preaching Law & Gospel, and plenty of more things [sic] that we could spend a long time listing out (the long version of what makes us Lutheran is the Book of Concord). But our doctrine is what makes us Lutheran, not our styles and traditions… I’m sure there are some Lutherans who don’t feel the same way though.
Kevin DeYoung evidently sees the problem of American evangelicalism— i.e., its rootlessness— more clearly than you do. He also recognizes that Lutheranism stands apart from American evangelicalism, notably on account of its “confessional tradition.” Yet in your response it seems that you cannot wait to assure him that this is not the case. You’re in such a big hurry to demolish “stereotypes of…very catholic-feeling” church services that you don’t even bother to pause and concur with his mildly critical assessment of evangelicalism. This is very disappointing.
Yet it is also very revealing. By the time one is done reading your piece, and done clicking on all the links you provide, the reason for your silence on this point is abundantly clear: you wish that Lutherans weren’t so “out of place with…rootless, low-church…evangelicalism.” The problem is with us, apparently, not with them. Fie on us Lutherans and our roots! Oh, to be rootless and “free in the Spirit” like the church-growthers, the emergents, and the “Christ-followers”! Oh, for a portion and a place of “relevance” among the evangelicals. Then we could help them “transform the culture for Christ”, “see God’s kingdom do incredible things“/be a Tim Keller knock-off, or whatever else need your money for.
Try as you might to play the part of Brian McLaren to your fellow Lutherans, these statements of yours sum up the whole problem. Here they are again, in a slightly modified order:
- High church, confessional tradition is not equivalent to Lutheranism.
- The long version of what makes us Lutheran is the Book of Concord.
- While there are certainly good reasons for stereotypes of a very catholic-feeling church service, this is not what makes a church Lutheran.
- Our doctrine is what makes us Lutheran, not our styles and traditions.
These four statements epitomize the errant theology that is destroying the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod from the inside out. (Well, one of the things. There are several. But this is one of the doozies.) They epitomize the thinking which sends so many Lutherans packing — often to Rome, but usually to the East. See the following video for why they go East, and not usually to Rome…
Yes, that was a clown censing the altar with bubbles. I know many Roman Catholics who take extreme umbrage at such sacrilege, yet I know just as many who will hold their noses and sit through a Dr. Demento-themed Novus Ordo mass, because “at least it’s valid!” And thus a box is checked. In short, there’s more of the same in Rome, so if that’s your Kryptonite and you’re not really into checking boxes, you’re not going to chance it. Given what I’ve seen at the links you posted, however, I may have just given you a whole bunch of ideas for this coming Sunday. I sure hope not.In any event, it’s about time that I told you what I’m about to tell you, so here goes:You cannot drive a wedge between lex orandi and lex credendi and remain Lutheran in anything but a nominal way. The two stand or fall together. Doctrine is not something that is speculatively held apart from practice. It is something that is manifest and confessed in particular words and acts; otherwise it is a dead letter.
Pursuant to a demonstration of this thesis, I will be treating your statements in the order in which I have listed them above.
Error #1: “High church, confessional tradition is not equivalent to Lutheranism.”
I can take or leave the epithet “high-church” — it’s just a condescending puritan (and originally Puritan) shibboleth used to discredit those who believe in being faithful to the Church’s historic liturgy. What you call “high church” is just what the rest of us have called…you know…church, for about twenty centuries. Point is, “high-church” is a term that is abused about 95% of the time it’s employed, and without appropriate context it doesn’t mean a hill of beans. Since you are A) in seminary, and B) presuming to speak on behalf of Lutherans to a non-Lutheran audience, I’m going to go ahead and say that you should know better. Those who presume to teach are held to a higher standard.
You couldn’t be more wrong when you say that the “confessional tradition” is not equivalent to Lutheranism. Lutheranism is the confessional tradition par excellence. In fact, one should say that it is “the tradition of the good confession.”
What does this mean?
It means that the confession of “the faith once passed down to the saints” (Jude i, 3) has continued to be passed down to and among us Lutherans. The one faith. The catholic faith. The orthodox faith. The faith defended at Nicaea and Constantinople against the Arians, at Chalcedon against the Nestorians, at Orange against the Semi-Pelagians, at Augsburg against the Papists. Specifically, it is the tradition of the Augsburg Confession, and by extension and synecdoche the tradition of its content, the iterations of which comprise the Book of Concord or Concordia.
In this sense there is literally nothing which is more qualified to be called the “equivalent” of “Lutheranism” (an abstraction which I dislike but will make use of, since you do) than the “confessional tradition” which you are so quick to push to the side as though it were so much non-essential pablum. That’s like the pope saying “Who am I to judge?” to a bunch of Roman Catholics (which, incidentally, he did say, but that’s not our problem).
(NB: There is another sense in which the Confessions can rightly be said to be the material cause of the Lutheran Church per se, while tradition is the efficient cause. I will get into this later.)
Error #2: “The long version of what makes us Lutheran is the Book of Concord.”
The Book of Concord doesn’t make you, me, or anyone else Lutheran. If the Book of Concord makes us Lutheran, then spoons made Thomas Aquinas fat.
The whole subset of hip, chic, worldly (a.k.a., “seeker-friendly”), and “relevant” LC-MS churches like “The Alley“, “CrossPoint“, and “SoulThirst” (none of which even include “Lutheran” in their name) actually love the stance towards the Book of Concord that you articulate in your piece.
Because this stance allows them to bury their confessional subscription deep within their constitution and bylaws, or perhaps consign it (via a degree of separation) to a link somewhere on their webpage which announces (in 4-pt Trebuchet), “Believe it or not, we’re actually a part of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and they’re ‘confessional’, so I guess that means we are, too!” Or some similarly bold proclamation of Lutheran identity. The Book of Concord is hiding out somewhere, emanating its aura like a magical amulet and making the church Lutheran, just like the quantum physics textbook on my bookshelf is making me Stephen Hawking.
Yes, such a view of the Concordia (maybe “vision” would be more apropos) opens one’s eyes to a great multitude of ways to check the “confessional subscription” box and allow a church to put “LC-MS” and that hideous purple cross1 on their message board, all the while teaching and practicing whatever they want.
However, if one looks at the following excerpt from the rite of ordination which is in use in our synod, a different attitude toward the Confessions on the part of those who are about to shepherd the flock of Christ is assumed — and, incidentally, sealed with oaths before God:
P: Do you believe and confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession to be a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? And do you confess that the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord — as these are contained in the Book of Concord — are also in agreement with this one scriptural truth?
R: Yes, I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God.
So far so good. After all, this is just boilerplate stuff for an ordination service. “Yes, yes, Lutheran Confessions…blah, blah, bl–” …wait just one hot minute — does the ordinand even know what’s in those things that he just made his own “because they are in accord with the Word of God”? The quia subscription is a very audacious claim. Let’s hope he does…
P: Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?
R: Yes, I promise, with the help of God.
Having just affirmed that the Confessions are in accord with the Word of God, the candidate now promises to teach “in accordance with [them].” How, pray tell, is he going to make good on this promise? Did he take a really good mental snapshot of the Triglotta when he was in seminary? Sort of a once-and-done sort of deal? How is he going to ensure that his preaching and teaching are in accordance with the Confessions if he never studies them? Does “with the help of God” mean “without the help of ongoing study of the Confessions”? Judging by current LC-MS practice, no one could fault you for thinking so.
And then there’s that old chestnut: “Do you promise that…your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?” Well, he can’t speak for the unordained “youth pastor” that he’s going to tell to “do communion” on occasion, and he does plan on offering the sacrament to people who don’t share our doctrine (the ubiquitous “Eucharist as ‘sociological group hug'” theology) because he doesn’t want them to feel “unwelcome”, so…yes, of course he promises. Because as far as he remembers, there’s nothing in the Confessions that says he can’t do all of that. Brilliant.
P: Will you faithfully instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?
R: Yes, I will, with the help of God.
It may come as a shock to some Lutheran pastors that the chief articles of Christian doctrine are not “Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and Scripture Alone.” These are slogans, not articles of faith.2 Helpful to a point, but beyond that point…unhelpful. No one thinks that explaining the Luther Rose on the cover of the catechism to the children is the same as teaching them the catechism. Well, I don’t. That would be, in a word, reductionistic.
So what is a “chief article of the faith,” then? As it turns out, the Preface to the Augsburg Confession provides some insight into what is meant by this phrase,”the chief articles of faith”:
[A] brief and succinct confession was prepared from the Word of God, and the most holy writings of the Prophets and Apostles, and at the Diet of Augsburg, in the year 1530, was offered, by our most godly ancestors, in the German and Latin languages, to the Emperor Charles V, of excellent memory, and laid before [all] the deputies of the Empire, and finally, being circulated publicly among all men professing Christian doctrine, and thus in the entire world, was diffused everywhere, and began to be current in the mouths and speech of all.
Afterwards many churches and schools embraced and defended this Confession as a symbol of the present time in regard to the chief articles of faith, especially those involved in controversy with the Romanists and various corruptions of the heavenly doctrine [sects], and with perpetual agreement have appealed to it without any controversy and doubt. The doctrine comprised in it, which they knew both to be supported by firm testimonies of Scripture, and to be approved by the ancient and accepted symbols, they have also constantly judged to be the only and perpetual consensus of the truly believing Church, which was formerly defended against manifold heresies and errors, and is now repeated.
As it turns out, the “chief articles of faith” referred to in the rite are comprised by the Augsburg Confession itself. So when the ordinand promises to “instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine,” he’s literally promising to tradition the Lutheran confession to them — which, as I have said already, includes the Augsburg Confession, and (by extension and synecdoche) the iterations of its content which comprise the Book of Concord or Concordia (at least in the LC-MS, where pastors subscribe “quia” to the Formula of Concord). And this traditioning, this handing down, isn’t a once-and-done sort of a deal. If it’s to be done at all, it must be done through ongoing catechesis. Repetitio memoria mater.
P: Finally, will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life? Will you be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions? And will you be constant in prayer for those under your pastoral care?
R: I will, the Lord helping me through the power and grace of His Holy Spirit.
Notice that what cinches the ordination vows is a promise to be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions. Both together. You’re not being ordained as “just a pastor.” You’re not being ordained as a Reformed pastor. Or a Baptist pastor. Or Rick Warren. Or Rob Bell. You’re being ordained as a Lutheran pastor, which is to say (drumroll) a bonafide catholic priest. And that which establishes the catholicity of your ministry is the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, contained in the Book of Concord. Depart from it, and — as our Orthodox friend suggests above — you remove the sine qua non of Lutheranism: “Other features may change, but the principle of unity is essential to each body and may not be changed without the body’s being essentially changed.”
So, how badly can the ordinand do on this test and still pass the class? Wrong question. These are vows.
Our Orthodox critic raises another point which is most piquant when he says that “it is not necessary fully to know or to understand the circumstances of an essential change in order to affirm that such a change has taken place. All that needs to happen is to show that what was essential to the being of a thing has altered.” It isn’t important, nor is it needful or even possible, to identify an exact point in time when a Lutheran pastor forsook his ordination vows and a church ceased to be Lutheran. “On March 5, 2005, at 3:29 PM…” No. But there just comes a point when it’s patently obvious that it’s happened. It’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio in which he defined “hard-core pornography”: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
I would amend the good justice’s words only slightly: in the matter at hand, you first “know it when you see it,” i.e., the absence of “the principle of unity”; then, you undertake the process of creating a more detailed pathologist’s report in order that it may be determined whether the church in question should be allowed to keep its affiliation with the “trans-parish entity,” territorial church, or synod, whatever the case may be. I hope I have sufficiently tipped my hand.3
What is more, if you don’t “know it when you see it,” the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of sufficient evidence. The problem may very well be with you. It has been wisely stated that those who most stridently demand proof of things are often the same to whom no amount of proof, no matter how overwhelming, would ever be convincing. “That there can be no proof” is an indefatigable a priori for such men.
Make no mistake — the pastors (or the vision-gurus, or Brad, or Lance, whatever their preferred “relevant” nomenclature may be) of the churches in question took their ordination vows to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments “in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions” in their mouths like so many bitter pills to be swallowed and gotten out of sight, out of mind, as quickly as possible, rather than sacred oaths which they swore as priests of the Most High God to hold fast to this confession, and — if God grant it — willingly and gladly endure death rather than forsake it. Either that, or they’re playing Humpty-Dumpty. Or quite possibly both. They have their own personal Lutheranism. Reach out and touch faith.
If it sounds like I’m judging at this point, it’s because I’m judging. Something about walking, quacking, and ducks. There just isn’t another explanation for the crisis of coherence which is currently going on in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.
In an earlier day and age in the Lutheran Church what was stipulated by the ordination vows was somewhat taken for granted: “Of course I’m going to teach the chief articles of faith reverently and carefully to my parishioners! They’re our precious inheritance!” Maybe, “Our doctrine is what separates us from those Palatinate Reformed iconoclasts who whitewash our stained glass, smash our pipe organs, and pitch our crucifixes into the river!” Or perhaps, “Our doctrine is what separates us from the nativist WASPs in New England who don’t celebrate Christmas!” Doctrina est vita. Warm fuzzies and “unity” in a miasma of platitudes? Not vita. Not even close.
While I do not believe in a Golden Age of the Church in general or of the Lutheran Church in particular, the lack of one does not undermine my point. It is normative for Lutheran spirituality that pastors and laymen together “make the Confessions their own” by continuing to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, and by using them as their guide for reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Sacred Scripture. You might even say that the pastor’s role is to act as a “steward of the mysteries of God” — mysteries which are worthy of meditation, contemplation, and awe.4
Of course reading Scripture together with the Confessions is always a two-way street, and if a pastor or layman finds that he can no longer square his understanding of the faith with the content of the Concordia without doing violence to his conscience he should at least have the decency and honesty to stop identifying as a Lutheran. On the other hand, if he doesn’t know the Confessions well enough to be able to tell whether such a conflict exists, there’s little risk of his private heresies being indicted. (Hmmm. Methinks I see an incentive for not studying the Book of Concord.)
Yes, all of that is the norm. Yet in many ostensibly Lutheran churches today, there is no familiarity with the Concordia whatsoever, to say nothing of actual subscription. None. Many people don’t even know that the Concordia exists, and Pastor isn’t about to go ruining the surprise. Take me, for example — I didn’t know that the Lutheran Confessions were even a thing until I was a freshman in college. And I’m a cradle Lutheran.
But let’s say that people are more informed than my eighteen-year-old self (not a terribly hard thing to be), and they do know their Concordia from a hole in the ground. Well, then they simply assume that they believe it. Even that’s a stretch, though, as many who “know that the Concordia exists” know not much more about it than that, and probably don’t ever think about it or wonder if they ought to agree with it. They don’t read it, and their pastor doesn’t teach it.5 Sure, the denizens of this group could up and buy a Concordia on a whim, but, honestly, why would they? What or who has ever commended the Lutheran Confessions to them? Nothing and no one.
The grand assumption in the present LC-MS hot mess, whether or not it’s stated outright (though it often is), is that “you can’t expect people to read those old things anymore.” They’re “hard to read” and they’re “boring.” They’re not “fresh” and “relevant.” So instead of pastoral catechesis you get lay-led studies on The Prayer of Jabez or The Shack (or whatever the new terrible book that’s trending is that’s trending among evangelicals—I hear a lot of talk about Beth Moore) that have been run awkwardly through a Lutheran filter—a filter which, incidentally, makes them even worse, not better, much like running Heaven Hill vodka through a long-expired Brita-filter makes it even worse, not better. Ask me how I know. (Answer: college.)
On occasion, though, reality just…sets in, as it so often can. And Lutheran laymen start thinking, “Wow. This vodka is terrible.” They start getting tired of pop-psych life-improvement “sermons”, sick of alternating waves of simpering moralism and pat Gospel-reductionism, and soured on saccharine, insipid muzak in the house of God. They become conscious of how cut off they are from the Church catholic by these things. Little by little, they start sleuthing for more substantive answers—yes, one can honestly say that they begin craving “a more authentic Church experience”—that’s actually a very good way of putting it. And hopefully at least as often as not, these internal exiles rediscover Lutheranism for the first time. Again, this was me.
But “Lutheranism” is not a church (more on this in a bit) any more than protein-powder is a workout, so the newly-dissatisfied high-tail it out of places like GracePatch and SpiritJoint, a little bewildered as to how such places are getting away with identifying as Lutheran (hint: blame their derelict and feckless District Presidents), but nonetheless glad to be gone from them. Have you ever read Plato’s “Allegory of The Cave”? It’s like that. Republic, Book 7. Check it out.
So they hie to a real Lutheran church…unless there are no real Lutheran churches within 100 miles (random example). If this is the case (and it often is), then one has a boatload of options—none of them particularly great, some of them less bad than others, but pretty much all of them better than “GracePatch” and “SpiritJoint.” Statistically, there’s a good chance that the best church within miles of some of these circuses is a Roman Catholic parish. The more traditional, the better: half the time when I’m traveling, the Lutheran churches are so bad that I end up searching out an extraordinary form/Tridentine rite Roman Catholic mass, the supreme irony of course being that it’s actually more Lutheran than anything happening at the various Lutheran churches in the area. Wow—think about that one! There’s reverence, awe, and solemn joy, and there’s the liturgy, the same one which has been sung for two millenia, which cannot help but preach the Gospel even in spite of its corruption under the papacy. Sometimes—but not usually—they’ll even preach it in the homily, too.
But I digress, once again.
The glib concession you make by saying that the Book of Concord is the “the long version of what makes us Lutheran” betrays a shoddy postmodernism which corrodes and deracinates the content of the faith itself. In light of the churches which you enjoin your reader to check out, I can’t think of another plausible explanation. If this is a good intention, it’s the kind of good intention that paves the road to hell. And I’m just being metaphorical by saying “hell.” But it certainly paves the road to the disintegration of the LC-MS, which will end not with a bang, but with a quarter of a million voices whimpering, “I want to touch you.” And I’m not being so metaphorical there.
Error #3: “While there are certainly good reasons for stereotypes of a very catholic-feeling church service, this is not what makes a church Lutheran.”
While a “catholic-feeling” service does not make a church Lutheran, a particular kind of public worship service (which you stigmatize as “catholic-feeling”) does indicate that a church is Lutheran.
Also, if it feels like it’s catholic, it’s probably because it is. Which is good, considering that the antonym of “catholic” is not “Protestant”, but “sectarian” or “schismatic.” Think about it.
All you have said in the foregoing statement is that an effect is not the same thing as a cause. Some might argue with you on that one, but not me. Still, I know what you’re trying to say. You’re implying that particular causes do not have particular effects. But in this context especially, you could not be more wrong. To whit, the Lutheran Confessions, beginning with the Augustana:
[A]mong us, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed. For it is a false and malicious charge that all the ceremonies, all the things instituted of old, are abolished in our churches…[I]t can readily be judged that nothing would serve better to maintain the dignity of ceremonies, and to nourish reverence and pious devotion among the people than if the ceremonies were observed rightly in the churches (CA XXI, 7,8,15).
“The ancient rites” and “the ceremonies” here refer not to mere preferential and formal aspects of the liturgy, but to those things which manifest the unity of the Church’s confession throughout space and time. They are not inventions of private piety, but prayers and proclamations that have been carefully and corporately composed by the whole church, traditioned throughout the ages, and received by every generation. Yes, in fact, they are “the prayers” which St. Luke refers to in chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and communion in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” “The prayers” does not refer to something spontaneous, disordered, and “creative”, but to the nascent liturgy of the Church (cf. The Apostolic Tradition, attr. Hippolytus of Rome). They are “the communication / Of the dead” who have died in Christ, “tongued with fire beyond the language of the living” (Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets). When we take these selfsame words in our mouths, we sing “with all the company of heaven,” not just with the company of the building we’re in, or of the time in which we live with its transient and temporary mores. We pray and we sing with the saints at rest.
Again, Melanchthon writes:
Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned be taught [what they need to know of Christ]. And not only has Paul commanded to use in the church a language understood by the people (1 Co xiv, 2-9), but it has also been so ordained by man’s law. The people are accustomed to partake of the Sacrament together, if any be fit for it, and this also increases the reverence and devotion of public worship. For none are admitted except they be first examined. The people are also advised concerning the dignity and use of the Sacrament, how great consolation it brings anxious consciences, that they may learn to believe God, and to expect and ask of Him all that is good. [In this connection they are also instructed regarding other and false teachings on the Sacrament.] This worship pleases God; such use of the Sacrament nourishes true devotion toward God. It does not, therefore, appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries than among us (CA XXIV, 1-9).
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let me offer two in sequence here as commentary on the above excerpt:
These churches have very similar altars. Both have the missal stand placed for ad orientem celebration—one of the pastors knows what that means; the other couldn’t care less, because he’s busy playing the drums. The chancel of one of these churches has been partially destroyed by a bomb, yet somehow it remains more beautiful than that of the other, which is in the process of being besmirched by a cornball rock concert.
In one of these churches, the Mass—which is to say, the traditioned and received liturgy of the Holy Church—has been faithfully retained and is kept with reverence worthy of the house of the Lord. In the other, the Mass has been replaced with an impious man-centered spectacle, worthy of Chuck-E-Cheese’s.
In one church the ceremonies cannot help but proclaim that “God is present in this place.” The traditional order of celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon confesses the Trinity even as it wordlessly sings, “Holy, holy, holy.” In the other, the “ceremonies” are devoid of any reverence whatsoever; they proclaim, quite verbosely and loudly, “Look at us.”
In one church the entire assembly—clergy and lay—is oriented towards the altar, on which the crucified Body and shed Blood of Christ the Lamb of God are soon to rest. The deportment of the ministers, the servers, etc., teaches “the people…concerning the dignity and use of the Sacrament, how great consolation it brings anxious consciences, that they may learn to believe God, and to expect and ask of Him all that is good.” The setting urges us to “be still and know, that [He] is God.” In the other church, we are urged to think of God as a fun and cool guy and of church as entertainment. We’re not even thinking about the Sacrament at all. The setting urges us to “rock out” and “get down” with Jesus.
Of one church, it could rightly be said that “[i]t does not…appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries than among us”; of the other church, it could only be said, “You were right.”
I trust that you can tell which church is which.
Moreover, it is disputed whether bishops or pastors have the right to introduce ceremonies in the Church (CA XXVIII, 30).
[O]nly those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches (CA, Conclusion, 5).
Right. See, I think we often overlook this one. Historically, we Lutherans are not the innovators. We are the restorers of what was lost.6 Our church qua discrete ecclesial communion was born out of objections to the doctrinal and liturgical innovations which the papacy had foisted upon the churches of Western Christendom—objections which we maintained even in spite of the pope’s excommunication of our bishops. That is how much our forebears hated doctrinal and liturgical novelty. Yet today in the Missouri Synod the situation is worse, for now we have one pope per church. And it’s the voters’ assembly.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
The point is that bishops and pastors, at their own behest or that of their flocks, regularly introduce ceremonies into the Church willy-nilly, ceremonies with one purpose and one purpose only: to get more butts in the pews. You might object to this characterization, opting instead for the presumptuous euphemism “reach more souls for Christ,” but it’s bad theology, no matter the clothes it might wear. (That there is a link you’ll want to click—the one about butts and pews.)
It is often stated by opponents of liturgical uniformity that the Lutheran Confessions, by recognizing an entire category of liturgical rites as adiaphora—that is, neither commanded nor forbidden—give license to any and all forms of worship under the Lutheran banner. Yet this is akin to saying that the First Amendment right to free speech allows one to say whatever one wants, whenever one wants. Of course this is not the case. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You can’t verbally threaten the President of the United States. You can’t lie under oath in a court of law. Invoking your “right to free speech” in any of these instances would be preposterous. Freedom never comes without responsibility.
So, too, it is preposterous when Lutherans say that the freedom afforded by adiaphora is absolute and unfettered. Writing in response to the Confutatio Pontificia in 1530, the redoubtable Phillip Melanchthon clobbered the false accusations concerning the use of adiaphora which the papalist party had continued to levy against the Augsburg Confessors. His words from the Apology float like butterflies and sting like bees:
And nevertheless we teach that in these matters the use of liberty is to be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended, and, on account of the abuse of liberty, may not become more hostile to the true doctrine of the Gospel, or that without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience.
First of all, who is the “we” to whom Melanchthon refers? Well, it’s the churches of the Augsburg Confession. The Lutherans. Not just “the Lutherans then,” but the Lutherans now, as well. We Lutherans—we do not change customary rites without a reasonable cause. How is a “reasonable cause” assessed and determined? According to the catholic principle, articulated in the conclusion to the Augustana: “[I]n doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.” This was not just a starting rubric to make sure that the foundation was plumb before we started building willy-nilly; no, this is an abiding rule. “[W]ithout a reasonable cause,” writes Melanchthon, “nothing in customary rites is to be changed.”
Secondly, let us look at how great an emphasis in laid on harmony. “[I]n order to cherish harmony, such old customs [are to] be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience.” If that doesn’t make sufficiently clear just how great a desideratum our fathers in the faith considered liturgical uniformity to be, then read on:
[I]n this very assembly we have shown sufficiently that for love’s sake we do not refuse to observe adiaphora with others, even though they should have some disadvantage; but we have judged that such public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages [all other less important matters]. (Apology Article XV (VIII): Of Human Traditions in the Church; 49-52).
Let’s ponder what this means: “public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages.” So it appears that liturgical uniformity is not just good, but vital: it manifests “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” which we possess together as Lutheran Christians. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph iv, 3-6).
Error #4: “Our doctrine is what makes us Lutheran, not our styles and traditions.”
I must admit to a bit of a bias against the use of the term “style” in reference to liturgy. The liturgy is not something that a local church sports like a unique hairdo or ensemble of clothing in order to catch the eye of onlookers or make a statement. But this is exactly how it’s treated by these churches who have perverted our Lutheran liturgical inheritance in order to gain cachet with various “unchurched” clientele. Such would do well to heed the wisdom of C. S. Lewis, whose writing on the topic of liturgy would send his most ardent Protestant admirers scurrying to the hills in an anti-Catholic tizzy. “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore,” he writes;
And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was “for what does it serve?” “‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.”
A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”
Dr. Gene Edward Veith’s words dovetail nicely with those of Lewis when, writing in the Lutheran context, he suggest that “if congregations don’t have the understanding that the Spirit’s activity is in ‘I’-centered subjectivity, they shouldn’t use worship forms that teach that it is.” With that said, I’m sorry if this hits a little close to home:
Of course, part of the problem is that ostensibly Lutheran congregations do have the understanding that the Spirit’s activity is in ‘I’-centered subjectivity. For such “Lutherans” the Blessed Doctor has harsh words:
[W]e must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may thus be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did, and many still do at the present day, who wish to be acute judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they say or declare. For indeed the Papacy also is nothing but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands within his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word. All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the outward Word of God to spiritualizing and self-conceit (Smalcald Article VIII, 3f-5).
Indeed. Again, it looks like we’ve traded the enthusius maximus in Rome for several hundred thousand enthusiasts in pulpits (more likely aisles) and voters’ assemblies all across the United States. Nice work, LC-MS.
Though his words are not as rhetorically rough as Luther’s, the late Rev. Dr. Kurt Marquart (whose brother is reading this, I am honored to say), concurs in his superbly erudite and dispositive assessment of the rash of enthusiasm known as “contemporary worship”:
We must think in broad vistas here. It is no good snatching up some piece of detail and saying “No harm in that, is there?” Liturgical gestures, practices, customs, and “styles” are not items in a cupboard full of interchangeable bric-a-brac. They are part and parcel rather of larger complexes of meaning and must be seen in that light. Superficially it might seem, for instance, that folding hands, clapping, kneeling and foot-tapping are all pretty much the same thing. They are all neither commanded nor forbidden in Holy Scripture, and so are indifferent things or “adiaphora.” It’s all just a matter of what people are used to, right?
Wrong! Folding hands and kneeling are really very much unlike clapping and foot-tapping. They and other traditional gestures, like bowing or making the sign of the cross, are deliberate acts, in which the body obediently follows the direction of the mind and spirit. Even if they have become thoughtless and mechanical, they were once adopted quite intentionally. It is otherwise with rhythmic clapping and foot-tapping. Here the body and the senses are in the lead, with the mind and soul in tow, drifting who knows where. Kneeling and folding hands, therefore, are appropriate to the sobriety of the church’s worship, while the more involuntary, instinctual foot-tapping and hand-clapping, typical of atavistic nature-cults, fits the emotionalism of anti-sacramental sects.7
It is useless to object that clapping is, after all, “scriptural,” since Ps. 47:1 says: “O clap your hands, all ye people.” This biblicism forgets that we have no “feel” for the ancient Hebrew sacral culture. Clapping today does not convey, as in the Psalm, that “the Lord most high is terrible” (v. 2). On the contrary, in our culture such behavior evokes the folksy self-indulgence of a karaoke singalong, and of a sectarianism which apes such popular pastimes (Church Growth as Mission Paradigm, p. 104).
All of this brings me to my final point:
Our doctrine, practice, and tradition make us Lutheran—all together, and no one thing by itself to the exclusion of the others.
Back to “Lutheranism” being intrinsically confessional and traditional, a confessional tradition, a traditioned confession, a confessed tradition, and how the law of praying (lex orandi) is bound up with the law of believing (lex credendi).
Part of the problem with the term “Lutheranism” is that by being classed as such—that is to say, as an “ism”—it is made out to be an idea or a concept, much in the same way that “courage”, “triangularity”, and “world peace” are ideas and concepts. And maybe that’s appropriate. But as I said above, abstract Lutheranism in-the-raw is not a church; far less is it the Church. No idea is the Church, not even if it’s the best idea ever. I’m not saying that Lutheranism is a useless term; it’s just that much like the term “high-church” it obfuscates meaning rather than elucidating it if it’s not wielded with precision.
What, then, does Lutheranism have to do with the Church? What is the relationship between concept and reality here? In order to answer these questions we must do a recap of basic metaphysics.
What makes a chair a chair? Well, a few things do. (Maybe one more than a few, if you’re asking Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas.) For starters, its form makes it a chair. It’s shape. The universal idea of a “chair” which is instantiated in a particular chair. Plato calls this the “form”; Aristotle calls it the “essence.” Call it what you want—”the idea of a chair”, “chair-ness”, “chair-ism”, etc.—it is a sine qua non: without it, a chair just isn’t a chair. Je ne sais quois, it’s just not a chair. It could be a stork, a bowling ball, or a Russian sub. “What’s that?” “I don’t know, but it’s definitely not a chair.”
But have you ever tried sitting on the essence of a chair? If you’re like me—and in this sense you are, like it or not—you end up on your butt. This is because the formal cause (chairness) must be reified for us flesh-butted creatures in and with the material cause (plastic, wood…whatever else chairs are made out of…metal, I guess). I could get into how this pertains to the sacraments, and it would be an interesting tangent—at least for me to write, if not for you to read—but it wouldn’t really be all that germane to the matter at hand.
You may have anticipated what I’m about to say: “Lutheranism” is like “chairness.” It’s an abstraction. It doesn’t—it can’t—exist by itself. It has always existed in a concrete, historical entity, of which it has been but one of several causes, all of which are necessary, but none of which is sufficient by itself. And that entity is the Church.
That’s right—the Church. Not just “the Lutheran Church”—for we are not schismatics or sectarians, nor are we a “denomination”; rather, we are Christians belonging to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church professing the one orthodox faith. “So long as there has been an orthodox church on earth there has also been a Lutheran Church,” C. F. W. Walther wrote to the Saxon Lutherans emigrés of his day;
She is (as strange as that sounds) as old as the world, for she has no other doctrine than that which the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles received from God and preached. Certainly the name Lutheran first arose three hundred years ago, but not what is signified by the name. So as often, therefore, as the question is put to us: “Where was the Lutheran Church before Luther?” It’s so easy to answer: She was everywhere that there were Christians, who believed in Jesus Christ and His holy Word from their hearts, and would not let themselves be dissuaded from this faith, which alone saves, by any human institutions or who finally in their tribulation in death still also took their refuge in Him (Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther “On the Name ‘Lutheran'”, English translation of Der Lutheraner) p. 116.
Dr. Hermann Sasse, writing some fifty years later, concurred:
Lutheran theology…lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church…[and] is really identical with the orthodox Catholic Church of all times (Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand: Nature & Character of the Lutheran Faith) p. 102.
The formal cause of the the Church is at all times and all places “the catholic faith.” If you want to say that “Lutheranism” is the equivalent or a synecdoche of “the catholic faith”, that’s fine; just remember that this formal cause can only be distinguished logically, not temporally: it has never existed in abstracto (except in the Mind of God, which we don’t have a security clearance for). With that said, we need this idea of “the catholic faith” (the sixteenth-century confessors knew nothing of “Lutheranism”) to have some sort of definition.8 This need for definition leads us to the material cause.
The material cause of the Church in all times and in all places is the inspired and written9 Word of God—i.e., “the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. As Lutherans we maintain that the Book of Concord is a faithful and true exposition of the doctrinal content of the Scriptures. This is to say that our Lutheran confession of the catholic faith is defined and described, but not exhausted, by the Book of Concord, which is the “norm that is normed” (norma normata) by Scripture (norma normans). As we’ve already discussed, believing in the doctrines which we comprise the Lutheran Confessions is necessary if you are to be a Lutheran. It’s sort of a truism. But it isn’t sufficient, in the same way that believing in food is not in any sense sufficient if you are starving to death.
The efficient cause of the Church in all times and in all places is, quite simply, tradition.10 Historically, our confession has literally been traditioned—from the sixteenth-century confessors at Augsburg, through succeeding generations, to us (cf. Latin trado, tradere: to hand down, to hand over). If we’re going to get from “Lutheranism” to “Church”, we’re going to need an efficient cause.
Let me pause to say that without an efficient cause, the Church—and, by extension, the Lutheran Church—only exists in what my college philosophy prof called “metaphysical hyperspace where the forms live.” In short, it doesn’t exist any more than unicorns do. It’s all in your mind, just like a “personal (i.e., ‘subjective and autonomous’) relationship” with Jesus Christ.11 It is not real; it is merely ideal. Usually a “Lutheran” church which has cut itself off from the efficient cause and cauterized the stump cannot help but eventually lose the material cause, as well. If you’d like to know how such churches are bound to end up, then take a gander at the ELCA. Here’s a nice example:
Yes, that’s the transsexual pastorette of an ELCA church leading the music for the “Hey Jude” mass while another pastorette (presumably with all original plumbing) “consecrates” the “sacrament.”
Let’s move on!
No tradition, no Church; no Church, no Lutheran Church. If a church is not receiving, handing over, and enacting that which our Confessions describe, then there is literally no reason to consider it Lutheran. You might be able to call it a church, but you also might not be able to call it a church. It’s up in the air and it’s uncertain—which is not a great way to be, as any skydiver whose chute has jammed will tell you. The traditioning, the “handing over” of orthodoxy (a word which is no doubt anathema to such places as “The Alley”, “CrossPoint”, and “SoulThirst”) from generation to generation, is also a sine qua non, a necessary cause. If you’re not handing down Lutheranism, then it’s still all in your head, or up in the clouds, or in metaphysical hyperspace where the forms live. If you’re not handing down the catholic faith, it doesn’t matter if your synod is nominally part of the Church which got free from the papacy in the 16 C. Now you’ve got a house possessed by seven demons, all more powerful than the first.12
And lest I be accused of making up these attitudes and imputing them to pastors and laymen without cause, let me get anecdotal once again: I was the lay delegate for the parish I attended for three years (in the Washington, D.C. area) at the LC-MS Southeast District Convention in June of 2012. I sat at tables full of pastors who didn’t know what was even in the Book of Concord and laughed at me when I said that I enjoyed reading it. Why? They literally thought that I was joking, and they felt very awkward when I explained that, no, I was serious. So much for “ice-breakers”; that one sunk the Titanic. Incidentally, they also didn’t know basic Greek.
But don’t worry: what they lacked in basic theological acumen and ongoing consideration of their ordination vows, they more than made up for with “hearts for God”, “visions to see God just really do a work in this place,” and “a real passion for ministry.” In short, they were just happy to be there. I was not.
And that video? There were definitely some delegates present who might have moved to adopt it as the convention theme.
My friend, I have nothing else to say. I am deeply distressed that you are actually promoting what I can only describe as abominable doctrine and practice. I suppose I knew that such things were actively promoted in our synod—indeed, how else would they have arisen and persisted?—I’ve just never seen it done so earnestly and seriously.
I would urge you to consider just what it is you are promoting under the banner of Lutheranism. Take the long view. Be a good historian. Ask yourself the hard questions. Consider whether the anemic substance of evangelicalism is a valid continuation of true catholic tradition, or whether it is inimical to this tradition. Because the birds are coming home to roost. The data, if you’re into data, is out there. Evangelicalism, post-evangelicalism, the “emergent Church”—these are the same old wineskins that have been drug up over the course of two millenia under different names. They are not fresh. Contrary to all appearances, they are decrepit. Their sides cannot hold. And they are ultimately vainglorious, for they drive man to look for God where God has not promised to be. To try to hold to the Lutheran confession of the faith while at the same time plumbing the depths of these formless voids for gems is just going to make you lose your balance. Gravity is on the side of the void, and what is more, there is something terrible in each of us that lusts after the void, longing to project into it a thousand gods made in our own image. We’re confident that we can “make it new”, see through the “accretions of tradition” to the “heart of God.” But we can’t. You can’t; I can’t; no one can. All you see when you see through everything is…nothing. The void yawns on ceaselessly on the other side. But if you stare into the dark long enough, if you peer into it with hope, soon your eyes will begin to think that they see glimmers. This is no surprise, for the devil himself masquerades as an angel of light. For false Christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.
The demons of modernism that beset the Lutheran Church today beset all communions of the shattered outward visage of Christendom. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something. But our battle is our own to fight, and fight it we must. And you know what Christ says about some demons: they do not come out except by much prayer and fasting.
Let us pray, brother, and let us fast. It may be, as Milosz writes, that in this century it will be our lot to “take refuge…in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth.” Faith in a fun God will not sustain us in such an exile. We will need strong medicine. We will need the tradition of the true faith binding us to Christ and to the brethren throughout space and time, now and unto ages of ages.