Monday, December 11, 2006

Roundtable 1: Reader's Comments

Our readers are invited to respond to the our first roundtable post: The Book of Concord: Lutheran or Christian?


Drew said...

'No particular Church has, on its own showing, a right to existence, except as it believes itself to be the most perfect form of Christianity, the form which of right should and will be universal. No Church has a right to a part which does not claim that to it should belong the whole. That communion confesses itself a sect which aims at no more than abiding as one of a number of equally legitimated bodies. That communion which does not believe in the certainty of the ultimate acceptance of its principles in the whole world has not the heart of a true Church. That which claims to be Catholic de facto claims to be Universal de jure.'

C.P. Krauth, The Conservative Reformation And Its Theology

BL Davis said...

Interesting topic and one that I have wrestled with since becoming a Lutheran about three years ago.

I've recently begun reading Carl Braaten's Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism and I'm interested in the way he speaks of the the Lutheran Church and her confession as a "provisional ecclesiastical order" in exile. I know the teaching of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has been a theme among certain "evangelical catholics" (to use a worn out label) but to the best of my knowledge it's not one heard too often among confessionally minded LCMS Lutherans, or at least it's not one that I myself hear.

I'm curious how the BoC is viewed as an ecumenical document? What would its ecumenical purpose be from a strong confessional viewpoint? Also, what do you make of Braaten's 'temporal' and 'provisional' language?

Thanks. (Ps. Nice blog idea. Look forward to reading the entries)

Bryce P. Wandrey said...

"The confessions understand themselves as addresses to the church catholic, making a few allegedly indispensable points about the discourse and life of the church, points that ought always to be observed but must be made explicitly just because they often are not. That is, the confessions are a proposal of dogma; ..." (3)

"...To speak gospel to my fellows and myself, I cannot, therefore, merely repeat formulas from my days in Sunday School. I must speak of Jesus as the hope of the new possibilities and new threats that open today and tomorrow in their life and mine. Therefore I must think, and not merely recite. 'Theology' is this thinking. ...If an individual addresses...the community, we call him a 'theologian'. But such sentences can also be addressed by the church as a whole, to individuals:... In the proper churchly sense, a dogma is merely a theological proposition addressed by the community to its members, rather than by members to the community." (3-4)

"...Therefore, also, dogma is always ecumenical: it is addressed by the whole church to the whole church. In classical discussions of these matters the point is always made that 'reception' is essential to dogma: the vital theological point may originate anywhere--...--but it becomes dogma in that it is explicity confessed as self-definition by a community that can with some plausibility claim to be the catholic church. It is evident that in the post-Reformation situation no further new dogma can be actual, unless some denomination or territorial church is willing to declare all the others excluded from the church catholic." (5)

"...At the Diet of Augsburg and elsewhere, the Lutheran reformers and their followers proposed further dogma to the church. Many, including groups that reformers could not simply regard as not-church did not accept the offer. Thus the Lutheran confessions remain proposals of dogma. If the Lutheran proposals had been ecumenically accepted, there would be no Lutheranism. As it is, Lutheranism is a confessional movement within the church catholic that continues to offer to the whole church that proposal of dogma which received definitive documentary form in the Augsburg Confession and the other writings collected in the Book of Concord." (5-6)

"...In any case, the Lutheran confessions are not primarily the constitution of an established denomination or territorial church; they are rather the manifesto of a movement whose ecumenical hour--if it has one--is still partly in the future." (6)

Robert Jenson, "An Ecumenical Proposal of Dogma", Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings.

I offer these comments from Robert Jenson on the ecumenical nature of the Lutheran Confessions as a proposal of dogma. I think he has really hit upon something here which deserves great consideration.

Holger Sonntag said...

Drew -- great quote from Krauth.

Bryce -- interesting view point from Jenson. It gets into the question of reception. My question is: is it a form of doctrinal receptionism? That is: does a proposition become binding dogma only if some group that could legitimately claim to speak for the catholic church consents to it, even though it agrees with Scripture?

If I remember correctly, Melanchthon makes the explicit point that instead of listening to an errant church in the present calling itself Catholic and embracing the by far largest part of Christendom, one should listen to the inerrant church of the prophets and apostles that has spoken in Scripture (Ap. XII:66).

Besides, the confessors always pledge themselves to the confessions "because" they agree with God's word. That's really the only reason they give, as far as I can see.

If the Confessions are only a proposal of dogma still awaiting its validation by "the church", why then are we adhering to it? Should we not rather treat them as interesting school opinions open to free discussion and debate? When could we ever arrive at certainty? When would "the church" ever get its act together? Who, after all, is "the church"?

Contrary to Jenson's observation, Lutherans do confess: "We do not concede to [the papists] that they are the church, and frankly *they are not the church.* We do not want to hear what they command or forbid in the name of the church, because, God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and 'the little sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd'" (Sm. Art. III, 12, 1-2). This sounds like AC VII to me, the voice of the Shepherd being the pure gospel and the sacraments rightly used. The "catholic church" has thus not simply vanished into the realm of historical or future realities or provisional "confessional movements". The true church, with true believers and true marks, is, after all, to abide forever (AC VII, 1) -- or does that promise of God only apply to the "invisible church," as some think?

Bryce P. Wandrey said...

I think part of this issue revolves around the original intent of the Confessions and there current usage. Some would argue that there is no distinction here ('we are using the Confessions in the manner appropriate to their authors intent'), others may argue that there is great distinction here ('they are using the Confessions in a way never intended by their authors'), while I am sure there are those who fall (struggle?) somewhere in between.

This is what Jenson seems to be driving at. The Confessions were a 'proposal of dogma' to the church catholic. I don't believe Jenson expounds a "doctrinal receptionism" (a term I must admit that I am not aware) because he says that dogma is dogma because it is used as a community's self-expression, but a community that can somehow say that it is within the catholic church. And so, if the Lutheran confessional movement can make a claim to its catholicity, then Jenson's logic would conclude that for "Lutherans" the confessions are dogma.

But, as I think he rightly states, since there is "Lutheranism" the confessions are not ecumenical dogma. If they had been accepted by the entire church catholic there would be no "Lutheranism", or no Lutheran confessional movement. And so, I believe according to Jenson's logic, the Lutherans either have to concede this point and allow the confessions to remain a 'proposal of dogma' to the entire catholic church or exclude all other "Christians" from the church catholic and declare the confessions to be the Church's statement of dogma (hence, resulting in those who confess the confessions as dogma to be the only true catholic church, hence, setting the confessions up as the only true, right confession of the Christian faith).

If I misinterpret Jenson's 'proposal of dogma' argument here, then I apologize to him. But it appears that he has a good (at least historically good) point.

William Weedon said...

I wonder if it would be helpful to observe that there is a distinction between the dogmas of teh Church and the doctrinal systems or constructs whereby that dogma is "made sense of." Sasse frequently pointed to the difference between the Cappadocians and Athanasius on the how of confessing the Trinity, and yet it was never church divisive, because they recognized that under the different schemata employed it was the same dogma that was being confessed. If that makes any sense, it raises the question of what in the Symbols is classified as "dogma" and what as "doctrinal schemata." I think a fruitful place to examine this is the different ways that the Symbols speak of our Lord's body and blood in the Holy Supper. "Unter dem Gestalt Brodt und Weins" "the bread IS the body of Christ." "Sacramental union." Etc.

Bror Erickson said...

Rev. Peterson,
I have to say, as much as I love the Small Catechism, I think you go a little over board in saying that all pious Christian's will accept it. I don't know it you meant to or not, but it sounded as if only Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are to be considered Christian alongside Lutherans. I don't believe any pious member of either of these two communions would agree with Luther's explanation to the third article of the creed for one. My pious freinds in reformed communions can't stomach the way we number the commandments. They really have a problem with us allowing art in the sanctuary, because we don't have their second commandment as a separate commandment.

Holger Sonntag said...


Thanks for the clarifications! So, are we then perhaps also talking about ecclesiology? Who or what is, according to Jenson, the "catholic church" so that we, once this entity has spoken, could say: ecclesia locuta, causa finita (the church has spoken, the matter is resolved). In his view, then, only this church speaking to its members could "establish" dogma, authoritative teaching. -- Lutherans, because they were just a movement like, say, the monastic reform movements of the middle ages, were just making suggestions for "the church" to decide.

In my reading of the confessions, while they certainly contain documents written for the defense of the faith taught by "*the churches* [not: movements] among us with complete unanimity" (AC I,1) before kings (Ps. 119:46!) and popes -- think of the Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles with the Treatise -- they do not sound to me like mere proposals from which the Lutherans would have been willing to be moved away if "the church" so decided (see, e.g., AC Concl. 5; SA II,5; III,15,3).

For who is "the catholic church"? I think the ecclesiological statements of the confessions are important in this context. Take AC VII; SA III,12; SD X:31. Do they not suggest -- both positively and negatively -- that the "Lutherans" understood themselves (and their confessional documents) to be the present-day mouthpieces of the catholic church of all times and places? I can't see a confessional reform "movement" speaking like this. The reason for this boldness lies in the apostolicity of their doctrine (again Ap. XII:66 as an example of asserting the biblical church of the prophets and its teachings against the corrupt church of the papacy and its claim to be "the catholic church" that ought to be listened to and obeyed in all things).

It is true: this has split outward Christendom even further. The cofessors recognize this, Tr. 42: "To dissent from the consensus of so many nations and to be called schismatics is a grave matter. However ..." Then Scripture is referenced as a reason for following through with this grave matter despite accusations of schismaticism or, in today's world, sectarianism.

Would we call the Christological decisions of Chalcedon anything but catholic because a number of "Christian" churches didn't go along with this council? What made the bishops assembled there a legitimate representation of the catholic church, in Jenson's view? Are we deciding matter of doctrine in the church by majority vote? Or is the approval of the pope decisive, never mind some Nestorian bishops in western China?

Obviously, as I see it, the confessions remain a "proposal of dogma" (or should we say (sounds more biblical): a call to repentance?) to any church desiring to be Christian. And, at least according to some legal truces made in Germany between the churches in the 16th and 17th centuries, we're all still waiting for a German council to settle matters of controversy so as to reunite Germany religiously speaking.

Yet this legal construct did not prevent the Lutherans from condemning (excommunicating: excluding from the catholic church, or?) certain teachings (and teachers). These too don't strike me as provisional sentences, "proposals", that ought to be suspended or treated as "open" until -- when? Until our ecumenical discussions make us believe that, actually, Catholics and Lutherans, for example, meant exactly the same thing, even though they sure sound different, and we can now say: the old condemnations no longer apply to "today's partner"?

Can we meanwhile speak with any kind of authority, certainty, concerning matters that were not decided by any of the "ecumenical councils"? How many would there be? Were Trent and Vatican I or II ecumenical, but Smalcald wasn't? And were they really "ecumenical" (see the Nestorian example)? Luther's discussion and definition of a Christian council in his 1539 "On Councils and the Church" strike me as highly pertinent.

Does not, above all, Scripture establish doctrine and dogma (see only SA II, 15 and SD RN)? Was that not the self-understanding of the confessions and confessors -- that they were teaching God's word correctly in these writings and that they thereby produced documents that are catholic in their doctrine?

Sure, we can say: yeah, but this self-understanding is not shared by all claiming to be Christians, including the holy father in Rome. True. But what does that mean? Certainly, non-Lutherans (and others interested in theological relativity in this area) will speak, at best, of a *claim* to catholicity; but Lutherans should be the ones who've convinced themselves of the truthfulness of the claim and say: the confessions not only claim to be catholic -- since they are based squarely on God's word, they ARE catholic in doctrine.

Bryce P. Wandrey said...

I don't know if Jenson is concerned with defining the paramaters or marks of the "catholic church" and if he is, I don't have the essay in front of me. But, at the heart, the issue is not who is the catholic church but who/what speaks authoritatively on behalf of the catholic church. It is necessary to answer this question in order to know what is accepted and ecumenical dogma.

Here is where the appeal to sola scriptura is wanting. If the claim is made that "we" are the catholic church because "we" teach scripture "purely" and "rightly" and "you" don't, the question must be answered: On what basis does "your" claim to teach scripture more "purely" and "rightly" than me stand? Scripture must be read and interpreted; why is your interpretation more faithful than mine?

If the answer given is that the Book of Concord is our interpretative key it results in a circular argument of the same nature. Why the Book of Concord? Because it is faithful and true to the scriptures? Who says so; who decides this? The scriptures? But once again, they must be read and interepreted and if the Book of Concord is the interpretive key than the Book of Concord must be read and interpreted. So on and henceforth ad nauseum.

And so the question once again appears to be not one of ecclesiology but of ecclesial authority. I do not think that Martin Luther ever intended scripture and the sola scriptura principle to be appealed to for ecclesial authority. And so what makes the Confessions authoritative? Your acceptance? My acceptance? Their agreement with scripture? But then you see we are back where we started. Whose interpretation of scripture is authoritative? The writers of the Confessions? Why?

Paul T. McCain said...

This discussion is beginning to track off a bit into a debate over Jenson's book, but...we'll see how it goes.

The best thing to do to understand what the Confessions claim to be is to let them speak, not Jenson.

There is no question that the Lutheran Confessions understand themselves to be precisely a true and pure confession of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.

I'm not really too interested in what Jenson or Braaten or other modernist Lutheran theologians have to say on the subject, since, to my knowledge, they have not, to this day, retracted the flatly false doctrine that is contained in their book "Christian Dogmatics." Denial of Christian truth on that scale and to that extent never leads me to place too much confidence in their musings over theology.

I frankly don't care what they have to say on this issue.

The point of this post is to explore the self-understanding of the Lutheran Confessions. They are clearly not "proposals of dogma." They claim to be nothing more, nor anything less, than the confession of the truth of God's Holy Word.

One lost in the hopeless mire of higher critical doubt and speculations about the nature of truth and so forth will never be able to come to any certain conclusions or confession of the truth.

Bror Erickson said...

I would also like to apologize to Rev. Petersen, for misspelling his name.

Bryce P. Wandrey said...

The reason I included a methodology presented by Robert Jenson was not because he is authoritative. Instead, I presented his methodology as a way understanding the authority of the Confessions. Jenson in no way denies that the Confessions "view themselves" as pure and true teachings of the one, holy, catholic & apostolic church (and neither do challenge this self-understanding of the Confessions).

But, as I stated in my last post, if the Confessions are to be what they say to be, who decides whether they are "Lutheran" or "Christian" or "catholic" or "ecumenical". The Confessions cannot decide this for themselves. If there is any self-authenticating truth in this world it is the Truth of God in Jesus Christ. The Confessions must be weighed in relation to that Truth and their truthfulness or untruthfulness results from that relation. The question has become here, upon what/whose authority are the Confessions recognized as being dogma for the church? Jenson's "proposal" theory, I do not think, can be so easily dismissed in light of the historical situation of the Diet of Augsburg.

William Weedon said...


I don't agree this:

"I do not think that Martin Luther ever intended scripture and the sola scriptura principle to be appealed to for ecclesial authority."

I'm not sure where you would ever get such an understanding. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther articulates quite clearly what "sola Scriptura" means in a Lutheran sense when he said: "The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so." Second Part, II:15

Now, you are correct that there is a hermenutical circle here. I wrote a bit about it yesterday on my own blog. But the Lutheran Church is not afraid to invite anyone to read the Scriptures and read the Symbols. Do the Symbols or do they not express the same faith that is taught in the Sacred Scriptures? Do they witness to the same hope in Jesus Christ?

I think it was Krauth (but I may be wrong) who offered this insight: we do not say that the Symbols interpret the Scriptures or the Scriptures interpret the Symbols. We read them both using the usual laws of language and find that they both confess the same thing. That's a rough paraphrase, but it gets at the meaning.

Loehe also dealt explicitly with this whole matter when he insisted that the Word which is "a lamp to our feet and a light to our path" IS clear and its clarity is for anyone who bothers to read it. This is not to deny the existence of "dark passages" (who has ever explained adequately St. Paul's reference to Baptism for/upon the dead?), but to note that the "dark passages" do not at all get in the way of the clear message of the entire Scriptures. Our Lord boiled that message down to what He sent His disciples out with: an embassy of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

Holger Sonntag said...

Paul --

I agree with you: Jenson is wrong on many things, and he also seems to be wrong on this matter. But I think it would be helpful to hear what he has to say in this forum and then debate it "on topic" based on God's word and the confessions. That can only sharpen our skills and deepen our appreciation for the confessions and God's word rightly understood. After all, he speaks for a significant spectrum of world Lutheranism. Among ourselves, we know they teach many abominable things. But we still should listen and then carefully craft our arguments (that's what Melanchthon did for the Apology, not?) -- maybe we can win an ELCA fence-sitter or two this way? But, that's just my approach to these guys. The decision is yours.

Bryce --

To your last post: Indeed, it all sounds terribly circular and self-serving. We define ourselves to be the catholic church and our confessions to be the standard of truth; therefore, you can't play along anymore because you're outside the circle of trust. -- But is that an accurate picture? I start with William Weedon's comments: the Lutheran church does believe that God's word, by God's will, is clear in its teachings and accessible to the standard interpretive rules, esp. the clear texts interpreting the less clear ones. This is why it can and rightly does function as supreme judge in the church -- and it is indeed our assertion as Lutherans that the Book of Concord faithfully conforms to this judge.

To be sure, there are many competing and contradictory interpretations of God's word out there (some even say: forget the bible!). There seems to be the need for some kind of 'supreme court' settling the matters for good. Some have found this in the papal office. But don't they then just shift the problem to the next level? First, why the pope? (A biblical text? Huh? Maybe we don't understand it rightly?) Second, if the pope, who interprets the utterances of the pope? (Lesser spirits?) Who guarantees that they, first of all, will be correct always (how can we tell the good ones apart from the bad ones? God's word, councils?) and, second, will be correctly understood by the faithful in the pews? (gift of infallible understanding?) Can bishops / priests think for their people to ensure their right understanding? If not even God can speak clearly enough of matters of faith and life, will man be able to do it? In other words, here you'll run into the interpretive regress ad infinitum just the same. Whenever there are words, there will be arguments over the correct meaning of those words.

It seems to me, in a simplified way the Confessions themselves put it this way: 1. God's word alone establishes articles of faith in an intelligible way; it has the power to convince us of its truth. 2. By God's grace, Luther understood the bible correctly. 3. His biblical teaching was correctly summarized in the 16th century confessions contained in the BoC. 4. These now serve as normed norms for any other human theological writings. -- Clearly, items 2 and 3 will generate much controversy (the others likely no less) and will remain controversial till the end of the age though they can be tested and are thus not arbitrary assertions. Here each will have to search the scriptures and Luther for themselves to see whether it is indeed so.

When you look at the history of the church, beginning with Christ himself, if you will (but you can also go back to the prophets, even to paradise) -- time and again there were contradictory interpretations of what God's word means out there and also contradictory answers given to the questions of who can speak for God and of who is the true church: did the serpent speak for God? was Moses truly sent by the one true God? was Jeremiah the true prophet or was Hananiah it after all? was Jesus God's Son or Joseph's son? was Peter Christ's apostle -- and what about Paul? could he be ignored? is the gospel of Judas true? and who said that Irenaeus or Cyprian were right? what about Leo I or Augustine? why not Pelagius and Nestorius?

Looking back it seems like a no-brainer, but for the people at the time it was of course a tough situation. Just as it is tough for random people today to decide whether you are the faithful messenger of God in your town or whether they should go to the nice lady from the ELCA or the entrepreneurial type from the sprawling non-denom. church campus. Time and again, words are spoken, texts are written, words and texts have to be interpreted. Some get it right, most get it wrong. A remnant will be saved because the Lord knows those who are his.

So, who speaks for the catholic church authoritatively? The answer of the confessions seems to be: Christ as the good shepherd of the sheep speaks authoritatively for the catholic church in his prophetic and apostolic word. Him his undershepherds, the pastors, need to heed, so that they can truly be his mouthpieces as Luther and the confessors of old were his mouthpiece, thus raising up a banner around which the faithful would gather.


Paul T. McCain said...

Holger, I'm sure you are right, and I'm glad others are in fact willing seriously to engage Jenson and his ilk, but it is a shame we have to waste so much precious time responding to these addle-brained theologians, when all that time could be spent simply proclaiming, teaching and aggresively reaching out with the BOC. But, like I said, I'm sure you are quite correct.

I would however like to keep the point of this topic going and not get derailed into a discussion of Jenson and company.

Pastor Olson said...

"I'm curious how the BoC is viewed as an ecumenical document? What would its ecumenical purpose be from a strong confessional viewpoint?"


This true ecumenicity the Church of the Augsburg Confession means to represent, By virtue of the
pure Gospel and the Sacraments taught and administered in her, she boldly claims that her cause
is not her own, "but the cause of Christ and the Church. Her Augsburg Confession is not a sectarian
speciality but ''a genuinely Christian symbol which all true Christians ought to accept next to
the Word of God, just as in ancient times Christian symbols and confessions were formulated in the
Church of God," Her Confessions never speak of a "Lutheran Church,!' but only of the "reformed" or "evangelical or "Evangelical Christian" churches, She is conscious of being not one sect
among others, but, by virtue of the pure Marks of Christ' s Church, the legitimate outward expressior
and representative of Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

-Was -the Reformation Ecumenical?

by Dr. Kurt Marquart+

Eric Phillips said...


> On what basis does "your" claim to teach scripture
> more "purely" and "rightly" than me stand?

It rests on the basis of experience, comparing the Lutheran teachings to competing doctrines in the light of Scripture. After a while, a Lutheran (or someone who is about to become a Lutheran) becomes convinced that the Lutheran Confessions are reliable, and superior to the alternatives.

That's a subjective basis, of course. But any time you ask how a subject knows something, you're making such an answer inevitable. Even if you could say, "This is the considered opinion of 90% of all who call themselves Christians," there would be lots of subjective questions to answer between that statistic and the fact that _you_ believe it too.

> And so what makes the Confessions authoritative?

The Confessions are _authoritative_ only in a Lutheran context--meaning that outside this context, they cannot be quoted in order to settle a question. In that sense, Jenson's "proposal of dogma" terminology works. But they're _true,_ and they _insist_ that they are, so in that sense, "proposal" is far too weak a word. What's really going on is, confessional Lutherans are _insisting_ on certain dogmas, but other Christians receive these demands as _proposals._

William Weedon said...

Some years ago, Dr. Beckwith (whose expertise is Hillary of Poitiers) pointed out that this approach was actually Hillary's:

"Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself." St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book I:1

"It isn't by cleaving to a preconceived opinion, but by studying the force of the words, that we can possess this faith." St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, VIII:33

Studying the force of the words. Hmm. Sound familiar?

William Weedon said...

Oops. Pardon the double "l" - I ALWAYS want to spell the Father the same way as the former first lady. : (

Chaz said...

Lutheranism is not a confessing movement within the church catholic. The confession of Lutheranism is identical with the confession of the church catholic.

If you want to talk about confessing movements you could say that Rome is a movement that confesses against the church catholic.

After the doctrinal articles in the Augustana, Melanchthon makes all this pretty clear, I think.

C. Lehmann