Monday, December 11, 2006

Roundtable 1: The Book of Concord - Lutheran or Christian?

On this blog site we will have two types of posts. The first kind are generated by our blog authors, on whatever topic pertaining to the Lutheran Confessions comes to their minds. The second type of post will be a "Roundtable" post. Here, yours truly as administrator, will post a question or topic and ask this blog's authors to react and respond. Expect a cordial give and take on an issue or whatever else one might expect from a lively discussion of an interesting topic. Comments on these posts are reserved for the site's authors. I'll immediately then post a "Roundtable" discussion post so our readers can comment on the Roundtable question, but I would like to keep the two separate. Here then is our first "Roundable" topic, provided courtesy of Dr. Holger Sonntag. Again: if you are an author of this blog, submit your comments on this post, at this post. If you are a blog reader, use the "Reader comment" post that follows just above this post. Thanks for all the great participation and contributions. We are off to a very fine start indeed.

The Book of Concord: Lutheran or Christian?

A little detail almost always is overlooked when we talk about the Book of Concord:the "Lutheran" confessions really aren't (just) "Lutheran!" It is important to highlight this in our relativistic, subjectivistic culture where everybody seems to have their truth -- and so, why shouldn't (some in) the Lutheran church have their Lutheran confessions (so long as the Reformed get to have their confessions and the Catholics their Council of Trent -- and non-denominational groups their bible)? But that understates the ecumenical claim of the "Lutheran" Confessions. The "Lutheran" confessions are not interested in formulating some particular truths (really then: "truths"); they're interested in reasserting the catholic, universal, Christian truths of Scripture. In other words, on the one hand, it does make sense to call the Book of Concord the "Lutheran Confessions" to distinguish them from the, say, Anglican Confession or the Reformed Confessions. Yet that only touches on one aspect. Even though it historically emerged out of inner-Lutheran arguments after Luther's death in 1546, the 1580 Book of Concord was not originally entitled: Lutheran Book of Concord (then the Catholics would have won: "Ha! See? You Lutherans only run after Luther's private opinions -- the "ecumenical councils" are us!"). It is entitled: Christian Book of Concord (as can be seen on the beautiful title page of the German Book of Concord that graces this blog: the German word "Christliche" (Christian) is the biggest, most ornate word on that page -- and that is so for a very good reason!). It gave an account of correct Christian, catholic, universal teaching of the Church precisely because it was drawn from the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. Building on the three "ecumenical creeds," the Book of Concord now formulates the standard of what is considered Christian in the Christian church. That is, at least, the assertion of the churches bearing Luther's name. This claim is indeed controversial, as everybody can easily understand. But since we are now in the time of the church militant -- which truth / interpretation of Scripture is really uncontroversial? In fact, if there's any reason for there being a distinct Lutheran church, then it can only be found in the catholicity of this church's doctrine, once confessed in the Christian Book of Concord of 1580. So we're really saying: even though it sounds very parochial and particular, this one confession defines what is Christian to this day because it correctly expounds Scripture, God's word. Many, no doubt, will call this "sectarianism" (as opposed to the "ecumenical" denominationalism where every "denomination" is just a different, but equally valid denomination, kind of like different dollar bills in your wallet). But in the church of the Crucified, truth is not found in generalizations and abstractions many can agree on "by their own reason or strength". It is found in offensive details, in agreeing on what God's word actually means. What say you authors? How do we teach the faithful what it means to be a genuinely small-c "catholic" Christian who is pledged, at the very least, to Luther's Small Catechism, and that their pastors and other church workers are pledged to the Book of Concord? In what sense is the Book of Concord "Lutheran"? And in what sense is it "Christian"? What's the difference? How do we avoid sectarianism while maintaining an unconditional subscription to the Lutheran Confessions? Let the Roundtable begin!

9 comments:

William Weedon said...

Just a quick aside - this has parallels to the liturgy. I remember when I was at Concordia Bronxville (donkey years ago now) attending the St. Dunstan Liturgical Conference and the speaker was supposed to deliver a paper on what was unique about Lutheran liturgy. He laughed and said it would be a short paper: nothing. Nothing was unique about Lutheran liturgy. Now, as with our prayed confession (the liturgy), so with our confessed prayer (the Symbols): the Symbols own self-understanding is that they are not the confession of a particular branch on the Christian tree (thank you Newman, I believe). Rather, they are simply the Christian faith. They don't claim to say everything there is to say about that faith, but they claim that what they say is just the same old catholic and apostolic faith that the Church has always lived from. They were so confident of this, that they challenged their Opponents not only to show them their errors from the Scriptures, but even from the writings of the holy Fathers. In every sense what Lewis called "mere Christianity" - and THAT is what makes them Lutheran!

Holger Sonntag said...

Regarding the charge of sectarianism, let's first define what sectarianism is! There's much confusion on this out there. Some believe that it excludes any claim that we must agree on "the gospel and all its articles" (Solid Dec. X, 31) to consider each other Christians. The existing differences are then often downplayed as merely different customs, opinions, or traditions of men. Then texts like Rom. 14 are applied and those who don't want to bow under this forced fellowship in generic Christianity are then excluded from the discussion as Pharisees. What is thereby fostered is a notition of common Christianity that is generated either by looking at the gospel defined in the narrowest and shallowest possible terms or by looking at what existing churches have in common. This is then hailed as truly Christian while "Lutheran specialites" among Protestants like baptismal regeneration or real presence or absolution are labeled "sectarian" teachings. We may hold them for ourselves but not require them of other sincere believers unless we want to be called "sectarian" in our attitude toward fellow Christians.

Let it be known to all: The Book of Concord is Christian in that it teaches plainly Christian doctrine because it summarizes God's word on controversial issues for the purpose of better teaching the truth and better defending against error. We don't claim it to be Christian because we want to make some personal likes and dislikes of Luther binding on all Christendom.

A historical example: Did Arius sincerely believe in Jesus? He probably did. He even believed him to be the Son of God. Unfortunatly, "hot-heads" like Athanasius had to get into all these nasty details about "being of one substance." That messed up church unity at the time real badly. They should have given Arius' sincere error equal right in the church and not inquired into details sincere Christians should be able to hold different opinions about.

Now, if we define sectarianism as the *unnecessary* destruction of Christian unity by making particular human opinions, traditions, universal, then it is not sectarian to adhere to the Book of Concord and assert its truly catholic, Christian character. Asserting its universal, Christian character comes natural to those who've become convinced that it agrees with God's word and who therefore endorse it in an unconditional, quia-manner. Insisting on the catholicity of the Book of Concord is really a call to repentance, a call back to God's word rightly understood to all who do not now endorse it. Confessing the truth of God's word in all its articles is always necessary, never just optional, because nowhere does God give us permission to teach something other than his word rightly understood or to permit others to cling to their human misunderstandings of his word. And could we imagine that the new man in us would ever consent to *not* confessing the truth of God's word fully and purely? This is addressed in the Second and Eighth Commandments (cf. the Large Cat., Ten Comm., para. 53 and 262). And confessing God's word in this way unites -- but it also divides, as can be seen today. And divisions in the faith that are due to God's word are necessary, objective divisions we have no authority to ignore in "Christian love."

Another historical example: Paul Gerhardt, Lutheran pastor and hymnwriter extraordinary, engaged in dialogue with the Reformed in Berlin, Germany, asserted that he considered them Christians insofar as they were baptized and confessed Christ as the promised Messiah; but he refused to consider them as Christians insofar as they didn't have the saving faith pure and unadulterated and didn't show the fruits of such a faith. These fruits of course include confessing the pure truth of God's word and avoiding false teachers. This is AC VII in action. We can easily imagine that generations after the 1660s when these discussions where held at the behest of the Reformed Elector of Brandenburg, and the elector himself, hated Gerhardt for saying such a thing. Unsurprisingly, Gerhardt was soon relieved of his pastorate in Berlin.

We might also remember Luther who denied the right hand of Christian fellowship to the followers of Zwingli because they didn't agree on half an article of faith. Luther, quoting James 2:10, commented on this often, always maintaining that we cannot compromise even on one teaching of Scripture (he gave the historical fact of Abraham's circumcision as an example -- quite powerful when you consider that liberal OT scholars are not sure Abraham even existed!) because it would invalidate the whole of our teaching. God's word is one as God is one -- both don't have parts.

Enough said.

mqll said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Petersen said...

The question being begged here is what makes something a truly ecumenical document? The Formula of Concord did not come out of a council of bishops, nor did any of the other documents. That is a problem for some. Can content alone make a standard?

It does seem a bit unfair to hold the Confessions before the East and say they are the ecumenical standard. But even if the history is different in the East or even in Cantebury, and our standards can't serve as THE standards, the doctrine they confess cannot be denied.

On a side note I really think the Small Catechism is like unto the Creeds. No Christian would deny anything in the SC. It is so simple, so clear, and so essentially Christian that it borders on inspiration. Certainly no pious person the Roman or Eastern communions would hesitate in agreeing with every word.

William Weedon said...

Piggybacking onto what Pr. Petersen said, Sasse wrote somewhere about the Lutheran Church never requiring a group to adopt her particular symbols, but simply to teach the faith as confessed in them (because that faith is the truth of the Word of God). And we have examples of this in our own history! Is it not the case that the Lutheran Church for quite a while enjoyed communion between those areas where the AC and SC were accepted without requiring subscription to the FC, provided that the doctrine of the FC was not being rejected?

As to the point mqll raised, that is precisely the point of Apology VII and VIII, 20, 21. The question to ask of any body that has embraced false teaching is: "Does it overthrow the foundation?" "Nevertheless, because the weak do not overthrow the foundation, they are both forgiven and corrected."

Paul T. McCain said...

Just a reminder, on two points:

(1) Readers should put their comments on the reader response post provided after every Roundtable post for the authors of the blog site.

(2) We do not allow anonymous comments. Even those who use a blogger account are expected to provide their full name. Always identify yourself. Thanks.

Bror Erickson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Holger Sonntag said...

I agree with David: we're primarily after the catholic content, the Christian teaching that is confessed in the Book of Concord, not after a set of historically contingent documents containing this teaching. We don't require of other churches the acceptance of these documents per se, but we do require consensus in the doctrine they confess prior to granting the right hand of Christian fellowship. This is indeed, as William suggested, what early Missourians did when they encountered Scandinavian Lutherans who officially hadn't adoped the Formula of Concord but did agree to interpreting the AC along the lines of the FC.

On the other hand, really, if you recognize the doctrine confessed therein as ecumenical, catholic, biblical, then you might as well accept the documents themselves, not? Who would believe a person if they said: ok, we believe the doctrines confessed in the Athanasian Creed but we don't want to adopt this particular document for our church? After all, the confessors of 1577/1580 pledged themselves and their successors not just to the teachings per se but also to the very words of these confessions. See the Preface to the Book of Concord, para. 23: "... we are minded not ... to depart *in either substance or expression* to the smallest degree from the divine truth, acknowledged and professed at one time by our blessed predecessors and us, as based upon the prophetic and apostolic scripture and comprehended in the three Creeds, in the Augsburg Confession" etc.

It seems that they here place the Creeds and the other writings contained in the Book of Concord on the same level. Why? Because the same Spirit as in Scripture was recognized in these churchly writings. And it is that Spirit that makes them catholic in doctrine.

So, I guess, I'm confident that once people have seen the truly biblical doctrine confessed in "our" Book of Concord they won't mind officially adopting the documents as theirs that contain this doctrine. Until then, there will be much procedural quibbling about the human who, when, and how of these documents to get around the question of the biblical truth of them.

Methodically, it is also noteworthy that the old dogmaticians did write commentaries on the confessions; but in their doctrinal tomes, where they engaged the Catholic or Reformed or Schwenkfelderians, they set forth the doctrine confessed in the Book of Concord based on Scripture which is common to all claiming to be Christians. The argument based on the Book of Concord has force only among those already pledged to it (unconditionally) -- in this sense it is "only" "Lutheran," of course.

William, I always wondered about those two paragraphs you quote, Ap. VII/VIII, 20-21, where Melanchthon talks about the foundation, which he identifies as "true knowledge of Christ and faith." How do you relate this to SD X:31 where it talks about churches not condemning each other (i.e., denying each other the name Christian, or?) because they are "united in teaching and in all the articles of the faith as well as in the proper use of the holy sacraments."

Does Melanchthon speak about individual teachers who out of weakness may get caught up in personal opinions here and there, while the church as a whole continues the pure teaching of the gospel (see context in para. 20)? And does the Solid Decl. then focus more on the church, not on individuals overcome by their weakness?

And: what really is the extent of "true knowledge of Christ and faith"? Just Articles III and IV of the Augsburg Confession? But why does the AC contain 28 articles?

I've started to think about confessing doctrine along the lines we think about Christian love in general: we are Christians by faith in the gospel alone, not by our correct confession of that gospel or by others services of love we might render to our neighbor. But it's also true: justifying faith is never alone (see SD III:41). Love serves both God and neighbor and is a sign that faith is genuine. Christians do and believe certain things, not others. (And here we can use the Small Cat. as a laybible, minimum.)

So: just as the breaking of commandments IV-X obscures a person's claim to be a Christian, would we not also say that breaking commandments II+III, which have very much to do with teaching / confessing and learning God's word correctly, does obscure a person's claim to be a Christian, perhaps even more so given the importance of doctrine?

Imagine a member of a non-denominational community who, of course, claims to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian. At the same time, he, taught by their pastor, denies baptism, the Lord's Supper, original sin, and believes in the millennial kingdom of Israel. There is a contradiction: the person claims to be one thing but then does (confesses) another in contradiction to what he said he is. A similar contradiction exists where a person claims to be a Christian but lives in a homosexual relationship (her pastor said it was ok).

These folks might well be convinced in their minds that they're doing / believing / confessing the right things, but objectively they fall short of God's word.

Defenders of these folks might also allege ignorance / weakness: how could they know any better since they were brought up / taught this way? What about every Christian's duty to test the spirits? What about Christ's word that "they" have Moses and the prophets -- let them hear them?

Obviously, we're moving into the question of whether there are Christians in heterodox churches. I believe there are such. But what do the Confessions have to say about that? Do they ever discuss that question? What does the oft-quoted statement in the Pref. of the BoC, para. 20, mean in this context where it is stated regarding "the condemnations, criticisms, and rejections of false teachings (particularly in the article concerning the Lord's Supper)": "it is likewise not our intention thereby to mean *persons who err naively* and do not blaspheme the truth of the divine Word, much less whole churches, inside the Holy Empire of the German Nation or out. ... We do this so that pious hearts may be warned against [false teachings and teachers], since *we have no doubt at all that many pious innocent people, even within the churches, are to be found who up until now have not come to agreement with us on everything.* They walk in the simplicity of their hearts, do not understand the matter correctly, but take no pleasure in the blasphemies against the Holy Supper as it is celebrated in our churches according to Christ's institution and about which is unanimously taught according to the words of his testament. It is further hoped that *when they are correctly instructed in this teaching,* they with us ... will give themselves over to and turn toward the infallible truth of the divine Word."

Are these timeless principles, or are these concerns that now, 450 years later and after many failed attempts to bring about this joint turning toward the divine truth in the particular doctrine of the Lord's Supper, do not apply in that same way anymore?

What do we do, in this context, with Luther's famous assertion that Zwingli had a "different spirit"? If he had a different spirit, could he still bestow the Holy Spirit if he happened to preach the truth in law and gospel? What about Luther's assertion that the Antinomians, thought they taught so exceedingly well of Christ, also didn't have the Holy Spirit? Could they bestow on their hearers something they didn't have themselves?

Clearly, the point is not Donatism. Denying Christ's real presence and the ongoing validity of the law for the Christian are not primarily moral defects. They are false teachings. But can teachers who teach both truth and error be said to be representatives of Christ (Ap. VII-VIII:28)? Does not their error invalidate whatever truth they might teach? Did Luther, especially in the reference above to the historical fact of the circumcision of Abraham (AE 37:26), have a "narrower" understanding here than Melanchthon who speaks about overthrowing the foundation and grants that not every false doctrine does that?

Many questions for your bright minds! Have at them.

Rev. Ryan Fouts said...

With respect to what extent our Symbols may serve as "ecumenical" documents...

A lot depends, perhaps, on what is meant by an "ecumenical document."

First, it is worth noting, that barely a generation ago the AC was taught in our seminaries, and in Missouri Synod journals, as if it were the "birth certificate" of the Lutheran Church, or our "divorce certificate" from Rome. This is sort of standard "Missouri" speak with respect to the Augustana. Prior to recent years, it was only the ALC (now ELCA) who had advanced the argument that the Augsburg Confession was actually an ecumenical proposal. That is, when it was delivered to the Emperor on June 25, 1530, it was delivered in hopes of preserving (to some extent, restoring it) unity in the Church.

Frankly -- if you look at the text itself -- Missouri of "generations past" had it a bit wrong here. I think this is largely due to a bit of a phobia about any language that uses the word "ecumenical" due to the abuses of the word that have been entertained during the last century.

The AC was, in fact, an ecumenical proposal.

You could make the case that, to a point, the Smalcald Articles were written with a sort of an ecumencial spirit insofar as they were prepared as articles to be presented at the long-awaited council (though Luther, more than Melanchthon, at this point had pretty much given up realistic hope of reunification... Melanchthon's lingering hope is evident by his "provisio" to his subscription to the SA).

And, the Formula, which in its original title (and in its introductory words) explicitly maintained that it was nothing other than a "reptition" of the faith of the Augsburg Confession in the light of recent controversies, also becomes by way of its heritage, a player in whatever ecumenical role the AC might still have had at that time. It was also ecumenical in the "micro" sense that it was written for the sake of unifying the disputing parties in Lutheranism.

Now -- they obviously aren't ecumencial in the same sense that the Creeds are. But, perhaps, they could continue to be used as a sort of "ecumenical proposal" in our continued discussions with Rome, the Orthodox, or whoever. Any time there is an ecumencial discussion, it is helpful to know what the other guy really thinks. On the other hand, these are historical docuements that must be read with a certain understanding of their own historical context before their meaning is wholly intepreted for today. As such, one can hardly hand someone a Book of Concord if they are completely ignorant of the history behidn the texts, and FULLY expect it to serve as a reliable indicator of the faith we confess. However, it at least provide US with a certain authority when we engage in ecumenical conversation. In a sense, insofar as we confess it properly, each of us can speak authoritatively in ecumencial dicussion for our confession.

There is nothing worse than speaking to a Methodist who cannot presume to speak for what his sect happens to teach regarding this or that article of the Faith.

We CAN do that. As such, even if our Symbols do not wholly serve as effective ecumencial documents, they serve faithful ecumencial discussion in that they allow each of their adherents to speak on behalf of the faith contained therein.