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.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Mr. Lindee.

"And how we watch and struggle, and now we live in hope,
And Zion in her anguish with Babylon must cope;
But He Whom now we trust in shall then be seen and known,
And they that know and see Him shall have Him for their own."

Peter Prange said...

Dear Mr. Lindee:

On October 26, 1926, Professor John Ph. Koehler penned a letter to Pastor William Beitz, commenting on the rather strident paper Beitz had recently written and presented to his pastoral conference in September of that same year. In that paper, Beitz lamented about the many things he saw wrong with the Wisconsin Synod of his day, especially the mechanical way in which so many seemed to undertake the pursuit of theological questions. As a student of Wauwatosa, Beitz felt he had been called to rouse the Synod (especially her pastors) from her slumber and to bring about a new theological day within the Synodical Conference. But Koehler basically responded: Your approach is all wrong.

The old professor wrote words to his former student that will continue to be applicable to the body of Christ and his members until the day Jesus returns: "Lamenting and criticizing is the easiest thing to do; mostly everybody is going to pick up that habit, and it isn’t going to rouse the rest from their security. What is called for is getting down to joyful work with a purpose. To make that happen, a whole new attitude has to come about, and that is what we must strive for. How to begin? By pointing out the great, joyous prospect; by actually proclaiming the Gospel. This is the only way a sharp critique will gain the cutting edge. I know that I don’t have to explain something so elementary to you. You yourself make the same point in the tract. But mentioning it isn’t enough, the tract itself should have demonstrated this. Don’t you see that [your] Gospel of faith, even if not exactly Law, nevertheless amounts to an ordinance? ... Don’t think I don’t know how a humor like this develops, because I have experienced it in myself. A man sees what is going wrong, and observes the wrong turns taken again and again, and how the mistakes saturate everything. One comes to realize what is the right position, and takes for granted that the communion of saints ought to know about it. But people who live by the book don’t share this assumption. That is why they ascribe their own incorrect views to the opponent; and all this terminates in a futile feud. It is really getting to be a nuisance for me to have to spell out in detail self-evident matters, and to repeat them over and over. But still, you have to do it. … When all is said, that is our principal assignment, to publicize the glory of the Gospel in the face of every detraction" (see Faith-Life, 74, No. 3 [May/June 2001]:20-21).

Koehler makes much the same point in his "Sanctification is Not Hurrah" in the second volume of the Wauwatosa Theology, where he warns against making loud, frontal attacks within the Church; something of which we can all become guilty. The Church Militant, which includes our dear Synod, is not perfect, and it will never be. Will banging the drum loudly and incessantly improve her?

No, Koehler reminds us that sanctifying the Church is ultimately God's job, and the Holy Spirit works quietly through his Word and Sacrament. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Ro 8:28). What more do we need? Let's remember that each one of us is a beggar; this is most certainly true.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Peter M. Prange

Pastor Spencer said...

Thank you, Peter!

I certainly appreciate your historical viewpoint, and it is something to always consider. Maybe I have it wrong, and I'm not going to take the time right now to look it up, but didn't J.P. Koehler end up defending Beitz, and paid for it by getting tossed out of the Wisconsin Synod?

Be that as it may. As I said in my piece, I fully understand that many have the same concern as penned by Koehler, and I can appreciate their point of view. I wonder, however, about other quite "frontal assaults" in the history of the church - Luther, the Formulators of Concord, Krauth, Walther, Bading, etc... I know, it seems less the humble to put our meager efforts in the same class as those. But again, they were fairly frontal attacks, and I think we would say that they turned out - in the hindsight of history - to be correct attacks.

Also, I don't really think our little Intrepid Lutheran blog rises to the level of a frontal attack anyway. We are raising questions and concerns and making our views known, and also giving others a forum in which to discuss their questions and concerns. That - it would seem to me - is much different from either nailing theses to the church door or calling an entire synod to repentance over some rather unsavory hijinks at a synod school.

Please rest assured that we are trying - sometimes successfully, other times not so much - to carry out this effort in as Christian and charitable manner as we can. Our readers seem to appreciate our efforts, and more than one hundred fellow WELS members have openly signed on with us.

We will strive to continue to make this a brotherly and respectful forum.

Thank you, again, for your very fine comments!

Pastor Spencer

Peter Prange said...

Dear Steve:

While the short version of synodical history may have led to believe that the Protes'tant Controversy was all about dormitory thieves at Northwestern College, Beitz's paper was hardly prompted by "unsavory hijinks at a synod school." The issues surrounding the Protes'tant Controversy ran much more deeply than that, and in some ways, Mr. Lindee's original post is very reminiscent of what Beitz wrote many years ago, touching upon some of the same issues. That shouldn't be surprising since they share a common interest in some of the things that the Wauwatosa men were thinking about and writing about between 1900-1930.

It's also an oversimplification to suggest that Koehler defended Beitz. In his Ertrag, which was Koehler's personal "Gutachten" (opinion) of Beitz's paper, he was highly critical of Beitz's whole approach, arguing that when someone steps into the public arena of debate within the Church, he "must be restrained and moderate, avoiding that which is inflammatory." Koehler opined that Beitz "got himself all worked up ... and thus he was carried away into exaggerations which, upon more sober consideration, he must regret." When Beitz was unwilling to submit to any correction of his words, Koehler saw it as refusal to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Koehler's oft-repeated ideal for synodical walking together). The old professor eventually became quite frustrated with Beitz and many of the other Protes'tants who supported him. For a time, Koehler even "dumped" them altogether, much to their chagrin. In time, however, Koehler was lumped in with the Protes'tants when he insisted that they be treated fairly. That being said, even after his suspension from Synod in 1933, Koehler remained famously critical of the approach that many Protes'tants took in churchly matters.

Finally, the reason Koehler was ultimately dismissed from the Seminary in 1930 is because he refused to abide by the faculty Gutachten's conclusion that Beitz was a false teacher and worthy of excommunication. Koehler's suggestion was this: "The writer (Beitz) should simply acknowledge (the faculty's) critique of the paper [in the Gutachten], if he is conscious of the fact, and if he emphasizes that in many respects he has not been understood correctly. Likewise right-minded readers need to have called to their attention, especially in our times, that much is said that is earnest and worth heeding, and that one dare not cast to the winds."

Many years later, Professor J.P. Meyer is said to have lamented, "As we look back, we see that there was really no doctrinal difference between us and the Protes'tants. In the last analysis, it was an error in judgment." He concluded: "Prize the brotherhood!" (see Joel Gerlach, "Two Pastoral Educators: John Meyer & Carl Lawrenz," 16). ...

Peter Prange said...

As for your examples of others who, in your opinion, have conducted frontal assaults on the church, I would submit that in so far as they were truly frontal assaults, they accomplished very little. In his Invocabit sermons of 1522, Luther famously concluded that he had done nothing. God's Word did it all. "In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool's play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work" (AE 51:77-78).

When Luther preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit used it and continues to use it to win the elect, but I'm not sure how many converts Luther's frontal attacks (i.e. incendiary and scatalogical language) have ever claimed. God only knows. All I do know and confess is that the Holy Spirit calls the remnant together through the gospel. Of that I'm sure!

Have a blessed weekend in Christ Jesus! We Midwesterners are about ready to vacation in Arizona in the summertime to escape the heat!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Peter M. Prange

Pastor Spencer said...

Rev. Peter -

Thanks much for the historical notes. Everything old is new again, eh?!

Watch out for haboobs while you're out here this time of year! Enjoy!

An old desert rat -


Anonymous said...

"Time is rapidly growing short – so is our optimism."

Meaning what?
That those who held to historical confessions concluded that their time and optimism is rapidly growing short?....... if that is not what is meant, then could someone explain what is being refered to?

Jon R.

Warren Malach said...

As a new member of the WELS, I don't necessarily know how doctrinal concerns are brought to the attention of the district or synod at large, but I would assume that the conventions can be "memorialized" to examine such concerns. In another thread I have already stated my wish that Intrepid Lutherans would at some future conference examine the subject of "Loehist" teachings about the doctrine of the Ministry, teachings which I assume from the reading of Prof. Brug's THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD, as well as THIS WE BELIEVE, are rejected by the WELS, while being disseminated in the LCMS. The doctrinal statements adopted by the WELS are, I understand, the synod's response to doctrinal concerns which have surfaced since the organization of the synod. Does Intrepid Lutherans believe that there are doctrinal teachings or practices in the WELS which are not correctly based upon Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and therefore want the synod to restudy the synod's position on them? If so, is one supposed to be able to understand what those concerns are from the invitation to join with Intrepid Lutherans, or elsewhere at the website? Thank you for your information!

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