Friday, July 27, 2012

Theological Discourse in the post-Modern Era

“You wait in vain for a disputation over things you are obligated to believe!”

It is a simple and inconsequential matter to engage in discourse when parties to the discussion agree beforehand that the matters at hand are merely “opinions.” Indeed, often a ridiculous game of charades is played, seemingly by double jointed circus acrobats, no-less, to either reduce matters of genuine consequence to inconsequential matters of “opinion,” or to at least agree to treat them as such throughout discussion. People are allowed to differ on matters of opinion. They can come to the discussion table with their opinions, and leave the table afterward still clinging to them. This is because all opinions are equal – equally invalid and equally inconsequential. But the moment matters are recognized as more than this, the moment it is realized that there may well be a correct party and an incorrect party who come to the table for discussion, tolerance for good-faith discourse plummets. To differ in matters of consequence can only lead to a compulsory change in thinking or to separation. Pride will not allow the indignity of being wrong, especially when being wrong means the wrong party must change or be blamed for the resulting separation. Thus, meaningless discussion is far more preferable to those who are intolerant and prideful.

“Agreement” in our post-Modern Era: Argumentation or Negotiation?
And, of course, the prevailing winds of post-Modern culture play right into the weaknesses of human pride. These days, the greatest sin against one's fellow man is, first, to claim, and even worse, to demonstrate, that he is wrong about something. How arrogant! Post-Modernism teaches that everyone is “correct” from his own point of view – such views being informed by, and, as a pragmatic matter, only extending as far as, one's immediate social context. As a result, it is utterly disrespectful for anyone to tear another away from the security, happiness and social utility of his point of view, especially given that, by definition, neither his point of view, nor anyone else's, is, or can be, one that is “correct” or “true” from any transcendent or objective standpoint. Unless a matter is one of absolute or objective truth, it is not worth arguing about; and since post-Modernism cannot allow any such thing as a truth which transcends one's immediate social and linguistic construct, there is no truth having any aspect which qualifies as worthy of argument at all. Hence, to do so anyway, for any reason, is by definition utterly offensive, one of the worst social sins a person can commit against another.

So how can two parties possibly come to agreement, when agreement of some sort is necessary for at least practical reasons? Consulting any basic Communications Theory textbook will provide the answer. There are two methods via which opposing parties may come to agreement. The first is argument. When parties to such a discussion “make their argument,” their objective is to persuade members of opposing parties to their position through honest debate. Thus, the agreement that is sought via the method of argument is “agreement in principle.” There are really no advocates for this method anymore, though it still gets brief treatment in the textbooks. Post-Modernism has succeeded in eliminating argument as a relevant method for arriving at agreement, since it has reduced the idea of truth to a self-referential socio-linguistic construction of no more substantive content than what is dictated by the pragmatic social need requiring its justification. In other words, post-Modernism tells us that there are no issues requiring “agreement in principle” since no such issues can be defined – all matters of so-called “Truth,” or Conscience, are nothing more than expedients, and expedients are not worth arguing over, certainly not worth the trouble of disrupting existing “political harmony.” Thus, argument is just an artifact of the West’s unenlightened past, deserving honorable mention and brief description in the textbooks due to it’s recent and prominent role in Western Society, but otherwise deserving little emphasis.

The method of securing agreement between parties which most textbooks give great attention to is also the method which is most widely used, the method which most respects the opinions of the parties involved by allowing them to retain their perspectives after the process has concluded. This second method is negotiation. When negotiating parties meet, they have no interest in principle. They are immediately prepared to compromise, as this method requires them, while they seek to induce opposing parties into greater compromise – which is the “victory” offered by negotiation. Knowing this, parties involved in negotiation initially come to the table deliberately misrepresenting themselves, expending great effort to defend far more than their genuine interests, in order that they may more easily compromise the views they publicly represent to satisfy opposing parties. Thus the method of negotiation, unlike the method of argument which requires honest debate from its participants, is not an honest method at all, but is fundamentally dishonest. When all parties are satisfied, the “agreement” reached by them is merely that – a satisfaction with the mutual compromises opposing parties express a willingness to live with. But such “agreement” never lasts, as “satisfaction” and “willingness” are subjective and fickle criteria; and such “agreement” never results in genuine peace, as the negotiating parties depart with the same fundamental disagreements that brought them together in the first place. At the conclusion of the process of negotiation, all parties know that they will meet again in the future, to seek further compromise from their opponents.

Confessional Christianity is founded on and requires Argumentation as a method of resolving differences
The matters at issue in the method of argument are the matters to be resolved and agreed upon in principle. The matters at issue in the method of negotiation are inconsequential matters to be compromised – they are expedients to be disposed of for other purposes. Yet, negotiation and compromise seem to be the first words mentioned when “peace” is desired. What a pity that matters of Conscience can be reduced to matters of opinion, used as political or financial leverage, or defiled as some other form of expedient; but such is, and has been, the treatment Scripture Teaching and Christian Conscience has seen throughout the ugly past of the visible Church’s political history. Luther himself warned of “compromise,” being credited with the saying, “Compromise never leads to peace, it only postpones conflict.” Indeed, the April 2011 essay published on Intrepid Lutherans entitled Differences between Reformed and Lutheran Doctrines recounts one of Luther’s experiences with compromisers in the Church:
    ...even though they approached the Scriptures from essentially incompatible starting points, Zwingli and Luther found themselves in such agreement that they desired to meet, to debate those points of disagreement in hopes of resolving them and of declaring their unity under the teachings of Scripture. They met in 1529. The event is known as the Colloquy of Marburg. With fifteen critical points of doctrine separating them when they met, after their debate the separation was reduced to only one, that of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist – Zwingli and his followers having conceded every other point of doctrine to Dr. Luther. On this final point, Luther opened the discussion by drawing a large circle on a table and within it writing the words “This is my body.” Zwingli objected to the plain meaning of the words offered in Scripture on the basis that “the physical and the spiritual are incompatible,” and that therefore the presence of Christ can only be spiritual. He insisted that the words must be symbolic, and no more. Despite their fundamental disagreement, however, Zwingli conceded to the same use of language as the Germans under Luther, if only between them they understood that while Luther meant that Christ was both physically and spiritually present, Zwingli meant that He was only spiritually present. At this, Dr. Luther became incredulous. It was one thing to misunderstand Scripture – to be a weak and erring brother – but it was quite another to knowingly allow a misrepresentation of Scripture to stand for the sake of outward unity. The result is not Scriptural unity – full agreement regarding what the Scriptures teach. On the contrary, such a compromise would result in a purely outward, political unity. That Zwingli was willing to compromise regarding what he was convinced, as a matter conscience, the Scriptures taught, signaled to Dr. Luther that all of his concessions at Marburg were just that – compromises. Thus Dr. Luther pronounced to Zwingli, “Yours is of a different spirit than ours,” cutting Zwingli to the bone, and ending the Colloquy. Six months later, Dr. Luther was proven correct: Zwingli reversed all of the concessions he made at Marburg, announcing that he never really agreed to them in the first place.
It is fair to say that Luther was an advocate of argument, not negotiation, in the Church. It is also fair to say that the future of confessional Lutheranism depends on it. Such would be consistent with the definitions of confessor and martyr, would it not? We covered the significance of these terms recently, in our essay The Theological Disciplines, and the nature of theological discourse... The Roman Catholic Church, as we see in the video clip above, was hardly interested in good-faith discussion over the substantive issues concerning Martin Luther, but was, rather, bent upon leveraging political connections, economic pressures, and institutional authority for the sake of inducing compromise among its adherents. Contrary to this, we see in the video clip, below, how Luther, and how true confessional Lutherans, would like matters of Christian Conscience, matters of Scripture Teaching, matters of doctrine and practice, disputed and resolved among us:

Luther and Eck Debate Doctrine – In Public!

The process is simple. First, have the courage to identify issues divisive of unity; second, have the courage to publicly admit that they are divisive of unity; third, publicly debate those issues with the purpose of persuading opponents, while being open to being persuaded; fourth, resolve the issue with genuine agreement, or, have the courage to admit that agreement has not been reached and that separation must occur. In either case, whether unity or separation results, peace prevails for all parties who no longer have to suffer under disagreement in matters of Conscience.

A World at War... united against Christ's Church
Yet our post-Modern culture militates against the methods of argument that are so needed by the Church. Today, so-called “Conscience” and the Confession which follows from it is nothing more than “socially informed opinion,” a disposable thing of no consequence to anyone, either specifically or generally. It is certainly nothing which merits recognition by the State anymore, much less legislative or executive consideration. And it's a foregone conclusion that matters of principle are nothing to wage war over anymore, either – the only national interests that seem to be justifiable are pragmatic concerns ultimately impacting a nation's ability to remain profitable. Sadly, such hopelessly self-referential thought patterns of post-Modern Western Culture now dominate the minds of average Christians, too, eroding any semblance of a distinctly Christian, much less Lutheran, Worldview, especially among those who are addicted to mass media entertainments which serve as the prime conduits through which these worldly philosophies are being disseminated and reinforced.

The World is not a friend of Christ’s Church. It is her sworn, mortal enemy. We at Intrepid Lutherans touch upon this frequently, but most directly in our series "Relevance," and Mockery of the Holy Martyrs. Those who are consumed with the World’s thinking bring that thinking into the Church, to defile its most precious possession, the pure teachings of Christ preserved for us in His Word, as expedients for Wordly and temporal purposes.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Dresden Catechism for Dresden Lutherans

Since we've been on the topic of "Dresden" recently, I thought it might be interesting for our German-reading readers to see a copy of one of the Wisconsin Synod's first official catechisms, which was based on the Dresden Catechism (Dresdner Kreuzkatechismus). Below is a link to a scan of an 1881 copy, published by Northwestern Publishing House.

Dr. Martin Luther's




based on the Dresden Cross Catechism

and published by the

Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin and Other States

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Theological Disciplines, and the nature of theological discourse in WELS from a layman's perspective

When Lutherans confess orthodox teaching, we are not merely confessing that we "believe and teach everything the Bible says." All Christians who confess their faith do this. Yet, Christians disagree regarding what the Bible specifically teaches, and not in inconsequential matters, either. This is what makes "Confessions of Faith" necessary. Rather than asking whether a Christian "believes everything the Bible says," a Confession answers the question, "What do you say the Bible says." And when others agree, without reservation, to such a Confession, they are said to share the same Confession.

Thus, when Lutherans confess orthodox teaching, we are confessing what we are convinced as a matter of conscience the Bible says – and not only that, what we are convinced that it teaches in the face of those who are convinced otherwise. Making such a Confession is not an insignificant matter; it is not a so poorly considered act that, as if by the mere "formality of agreement," we are finally able to enter into voting membership of an organization or receive some other temporal benefit. Instead, a genuine "Confession of Faith" reaches to the convictions of Christian conscience itself – it is a Truth upon which the confessor is willing to sacrifice his life.

Indeed, the term "confessor" is closely related to that of "martyr:" in the Early Church, during the Ten Persecutions, for instance, the confessor was the one who was subjected to all manner of torture and threatened with eventual death in order to secure a denial of his Confession, who nevertheless stood on his Confession; the martyr was the one who went on to meet the death he was assured of as confessor1. Even today, our Lutheran hymnals hold catechumens to this very high standard of confessional subscription in the Rite of Confirmation, which requires them to answer in the affirmative, with the help of God, the following question:
    "Do you also, as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran church, intend to continue steadfast in the confession of this Church, and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?"2
To agree to a given Confession of Faith is not, nor has it ever been, considered an insignificant thing. Yet, at the time of the Ten Persecutions, it wasn't necessarily dogma for which Christians died, but the very facts of Christianity themselves.

Shortly after the Persecutions were ended by Constantine, the Ecumenical Creeds were adopted, as necessary for the separation of orthodox Christian teaching from heterodoxy. At the time of Luther, the Augsburg Confession was necessary to distinguish ourselves from the errors of Rome, and he did so with the certain prospect of his own martyrdom. Though he escaped martyrdom, many Reformation Lutherans wear that crown having met their death clinging to their Lutheran Confession. Today, we continue, necessarily, to hold this Confession in the face of Rome, in the same terms expressed by Luther and other Lutheran Confessors and Martyrs. At the time of Chemnitz, the Formula of Concord was necessary to distinguish orthodox teaching from the errors of the Crypto-Calvinists who had crept in among the Lutherans, and also from the excesses of some of the Gnesio-Lutherans, along with direct repudiation of Reformed errors which were being directed at us from outside Lutheranism. It is necessary to continue to do so – especially as some modern Lutherans seem to be enamoured with Calvinist and Arminian teaching and with the sectarian practices which descend from it. At the time of Johann Gerhard, the vigorous academic offensive mounted by the Jesuits as part of the Roman Catholic counter-Reformation, in addition to the development of rather rigorous Reformed systematic theology, required that a shift in theological expression occur in Lutheranism as well, from the form of confessional "exegetical theology" (the Loci of Melanchthon and Chemnitz considered by them to be an essentially historical theological discipline) to that of scholastic "systematic theology" (a constructive theological discipline)3. This Lutheran response precipitated the 17th Century Lutheran "Age of Orthodoxy," prompting Dr. Philip Schaff, the renowned 19th Century church historian, to characterize Lutheranism with the words, "The Lutheran Church is a Church of theologians, and has the most learning and the finest hymns"4. Yes, we still recite the words of our faithful theologians, almost verbatim – and it remains necessary for us to do so in order to maintain our distinction from errorists and to maintain pure doctrine.

Yet, some Lutherans so sufficiently doubt their confession that a "fresh look" at the Scriptures always seems necessary, and it certainly seems a mark of credibility among them to feign objectivity, as if their conscience and confession are disposable things. Such an attitude seems to be a result of embracing the historical theological disciplines while despising the constructive. But if one discovers that his "fresh look" results in the same thing Lutherans have always confessed, then how fresh is it, really? It isn't fresh at all, it's just an intellectual exercise in rejecting one's confession for the purpose of rediscovery – raising the question of whether his confession was made as a matter of conscience in the first place. If on the other hand, one discovers that his "fresh look" results in some teaching other than what Lutherans have always taught, then he ought to have the decency to count himself among those who do not apply the label "Lutheran" to themselves.

Some Lutherans, however, rest so securely in dogmatic formulations, the mere suggestion that re-examination may be in order – perhaps, among other reasons, because there is evidence that such formulations were not entirely in harmony with Scripture all along, or because such formulations are sufficiently lacking in context that they are misunderstood and misapplied today, or because new arguments against certain dogmatic positions require additional clarification of the doctrine – strikes so severely at their sense of security that they are prompted to suspicion and anger, and adamantly refuse to entertain any discussion on the matter. Such an attitude seems to be a result of embracing the constructive theological disciplines while despising the historical. It was this attitude which (necessarily) reigned in confessional Lutheranism during the 19th Century in America, and it contributed to the rise of the more thoughtful approach of the Wauwatosa Theologians of the early Wisconsin Synod, whose purpose was not to overshadow or despise the constructive disciplines, but to bring them back into balance with the historical. As a result, it is said, a peculiar practice developed within WELS regarding the question of dogmatic concerns: when a Brother clergyman brought forward a dogmatic concern, his concern was taken seriously by his Fellows, and together they studied the issue.

This seems like a good idea – a practice which displays a healthy balance between historical and constructive disciplines and a genuinely conscientious effort to keep sound doctrine. In fact, one cause for my personal optimism upon first becoming involved with Intrepid Lutherans two years ago was the belief that this practice was alive, if not in every part of the WELS, then in at least some important quarters:
    “Finally,” I thought, “a public platform upon which vitally important concerns can be voiced! Surely, at least those who naturally resonate with these concerns will now hear them, and these issues can finally get the respect of concerned attention!”
Apparently this belief was rather naïve. The fact is, to date, I can say that I've only heard of this practice. In the past two years I don't think I have ever witnessed it – if I did, it was unrecognizable to me – and I am now under the distinct impression that, at best, stories of such a practice are merely historical artifacts, passed on from person to person and distorted slightly with each retelling of them. Instead, while I have observed both theological disciplines used in WELS, I have not observed them used in a balanced or coordinated fashion. Rather, it seems that either one or the other is practiced, depending on its immediate utility. For example, as our detractors in other Synods are quick to point out, Wauwatosa seems to have devolved into a virtual abandonment of the constructive disciplines and of true Confessional ardor, as if in an attempt to reinvent the present through continuous "rediscovery." After all, such is an incredibly useful approach if one is looking to excuse incessant and "innovative" change – of the sort those beguiled by the Church Growth Movement demand, for instance – and this seems to be its most effective and frequent use among us. On the other hand, I have witnessed the bald application of "dogmatic formulas," quite apart from genuine discussion with the one raising the questions, and apart from seriously offering to study the issue together with the questioner, but instead with what seems to be cross-armed and set-jawed suspicion followed by authoritative and final demands that the questioner cease with his questions and recant immediately and fully, or forfeit the blessings of fellowship. In fact, we have all very recently witnessed horrific examples of this "non-evangelical use of dogma" (as Rev. J.P. Koehler seems to have described it5) play out before us in public, as such tactics have been employed by WELS pastors against laymen; and we are likely to see such occur again.

True confessional Lutherans conscientiously endeavor to believe, teach and confess as the church catholic always has. This catholic continuity requires an historical perspective in our doctrine and practice, just as peaceful unity in all matters of doctrine and practice requires that concerns regarding them be taken seriously.

Are there any more WELS pastors who resonate with our concerns over doctrine and practice, who are willing to put their name on a public call for examination of the matters of doctrine and practice which we at Intrepid Lutherans have attempted to articulate in our What we Believe page, and in three hundred blog posts over the past two years? Laymen? Time is rapidly growing short – so is our optimism.

Click here to Stand With Us.

  1. For more information, see the Conclustion to the series of posts: "Relevance," and Mockery of the Holy Martyrs
  2. For more information, see the Agenda to The Lutheran Hymnal: The Lutheran Agenda. (1946). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. pg. 24
  3. According to the Wauwatosa Theologian Rev. J.P. Koehler, the “historical theological disciplines” are historical and exegetical theology, while the “constructive theological disciplines” are systematic and practical theology. Please see the Introduction of my paper, Why is this happening to us? How the culture wars become religious wars among us, that was delivered at the 2012 Conference of Intrepid Lutherans: Church and Continuity, for more details.
  4. Schaff, P. (1996). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 7, The German Reformation: The Beginning of the Protestant Reformation up to the Diet of Augsburg). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. (Reprinted from the second edition, originally published in 1888). pg. 26.
  5. Koehler, J.P. (1997). The Importance of the Historical Disciplines for the American Lutheran Church of the Present. In C. Jahn (Ed.), Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. 3 (I. Habeck, Trans., 1975). Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. (Original work published in German, 1904). pg. 436.

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