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
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!”
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.
- For more information, see the Conclustion to the series of posts: "Relevance," and Mockery of the Holy Martyrs
- For more information, see the Agenda to The Lutheran Hymnal: The Lutheran Agenda. (1946). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. pg. 24
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.