ELDoNA and a Return to Balanced confessional Lutheran Scholarship
My comparison of WELS and LCMS scholarship cultures, in the previous post in this series, is meant to express my general impressions based on my observations, as I have been exposed to WELS and LCMS scholarship, not as a characterization of every single author, nor as an absolute or “objective” conclusion regarding their character. I know for a fact that there are many individuals in both WELS and LCMS who are very capable, well-balanced, orthodox scholars. Nor is it meant to say that it is necessary for every single author in the ministerium to be a “top scholar;” there are many simple parish pastors – good, faithful pastors – who, though perhaps called upon to deliver a paper, do so making no pretenses. But on the whole, based on my exposure to them, my subjective appraisal is as a I had expressed it, which, when compared to the traditional reputation of confessional Lutheranism – that of “having the most learning” (as I had indicated at the beginning of PART V) – seems to exhibit a general character not quite living up to our reputation or our confession.
What I observed while at the 2013 Colloquium and Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA) confirmed for me that many of what I consider to be the best characteristics of both LCMS and WELS cultures of scholarship are present within the Diocese, and for me, form my impression of its own culture of scholarship.
- They're small (and in my experience, from the standpoint of maintaining unity and fostering collegiality, smaller is better), but the individuals are unrelated to one another, and seem to be mostly unknown to one another outside of their “professional association” – so it is their status as fellow-confessors, as fellow-students of the Word and as fellow-workers in the Ministry, and their history together as fellow-collaborators, that seem to serve as the primary factors in their credibility with one another, rather than, say, family reputation, long personal or family history, or gossip.
- There is a statistically significant percentage of doctoral degree attainment among ELDoNA clergy, along with other, additional academic pursuit – so there is strong academic experience to drive and maintain the high standards they have set for themselves.
- While centered on the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, their academic investigation also includes areas of study which impact the Church and her teaching from outside these two norms – areas of study like philosophy, history or sociology. Such investigation, however, does not appear to be the product of a discontentedness with the strictures of a static text and a fixed theology, or motivated out of a desire to “discover” additional meaning and room for broader or alternate application, but to preserve pure doctrine and conserve catholic and evangelical practice.
- Their research displays an exceptional cultural awareness.
A conclusion like this is not necessarily unfounded, if one is under the impression that the study of history has as its purpose merely the cataloging of stale trivia. But this is not its purpose, and the scholarship that I was exposed to during the Colloquium, and that I have taken in from their books, and papers on the internet, testify to the fact that they understand very well the purpose for studying history: to understand the present. Many folks forget this fact. The reality is, our “present” is merely a position on a continuum of events, which extend to the present from the past and lead to our next, future position. That is to say, if we want to understand the present, and have an idea of where the future leads, we must understand our position on the arc of history – must have some understanding of the forces that have brought us to the place and time that we occupy. And knowing position and arc, it is thus also possible to have some reasonable idea of our trajectory (this is, incidentally, a “Conservative” view of history – a topic that has come up frequently on this blog, including our recent post Confessional Lutheran Evangelism: Confessing Scripture's Message about Advent & Christmas). Such a perspective cannot help but be eminently more culturally aware and relevant than that which advocates of the Church Growth Movement boast as “Real, Relational and Relevant,” to the exclusion of anything historical: a narrow and shallow perspective which descends from a studious fixation on the microcosm of the present. Such perspectives say nothing about our true position, dismiss any “arc of history,” and can thus give no indication of where we might be going.
There were nine papers delivered at the Colloquium. I will conclude this series of posts, by briefly reviewing five of them.
Bishop James Heiser:
“An Overview of the Distinction of Grades of Sin in the Book of Concord and the Early Lutheran Fathers”
Grades of Sin... I've always wondered about this, since my Bible distinguishes between certain kinds of sins and others, and certain kinds of sinners and others. My Bible teaches me that God is not blind to sin, and that on account of their sin, He turns His gracious countenance from certain kinds of sinners, instead turning them over to the lusts of their own flesh. My Bible even has a special word for these types of sinners: My Bible identifies them as Reprobates (you’ll strain your eyes and waste your time looking for this perfectly good, and desperately needed, word in your NIV – they expunged it, along with a whole host of other important, though older, ecclesiastical terms). Reprobates are different from apostates, who are guilty of a positive denial of evangelical doctrine. Apostates are also known as, “those who are guilty of the sin against the Holy Spirit.” Reprobates, however, do not deny but know and profess the doctrine of Christ, yet act in utter disregard for it.
- 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. 24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: 25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. 26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. Romans 1:18-32
5 Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? 2 Cor. 13:5
Inquiring of Lutheran pastors over the years, I've received only dismissive and totally inadequate responses: “All sin separates mankind from God. God has atoned for all sin. All sin is forgiven through Jesus Christ. It is a pointless exercise to divide sin into grades. Focus on the forgiveness.”
Bishop Heiser, in his brief essay, however, makes clear that neither Chemnitz, nor Melanchthon, nor Luther, nor first-generation Wittenberg theologians, like Professor Leonard Hutter, thought that observing “grades of sin” in the teaching of Scripture, such as what I have just pointed out, was a pointless exercise. Indeed, they seem to have agreed with C.F.W. Walther, who Bishop Heiser quoted as saying:
- “We have already seen that a distinction must be made between mortal and venial sins. A person failing to make this distinction does not rightly divide Law and Gospel” (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, pg. 325.).
- “In the case of venial sin, one is dealing with actual sins, where the sinner is not deliberately acting against conscience. ‘At this point if you fight against sin so that you do not give way against your conscience, you shall retain grace and the Holy Spirit’ (Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 127). In this context, Melanchthon directs his readers to St. Paul's words in Romans 7: ‘But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.’ In such a person, sin is not being willfully tolerated; rather, its unwelcome presence torments the Christian. As Chemnitz explained, ‘Therefore there is sin dwelling in us which tries to keep us in captivity... But if they fight against it and are in Christ Jesus, even though sin is still in their members, yet for them there is no condemnation’ (Chemnitz, Loci Theologici, 672).”
- “A venial sin, therefore, is a fall or action of the regenerate, which conflicts with the law of God, but does not cause the loss of grace, the Holy Ghost, and faith; for those who have been born again, in their spirit strive that they may not be led astray contrary to conscience, and they grieve over their corruption, and believe that for the sake of their Mediator, God regards them with favor, and gratuitously forgives them all their sins, through and on account of Christ” (Compend of Lutheran Theology, 70.).
- “The point at issue in the distinction between venial and mortal sins is that there are some sins which are so grievous that they can cause a person to lose their salvation. ...[T]he distinction between venial and mortal sins is found in the cooperation of the will in the commission of the sin.”
- Luther: “It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are certainly not present” (S3:III:43-44).
Melanchthon: “Nor, indeed, is this faith an idle knowledge, neither can it coexist with mortal sin, but it is a work of the Holy Ghost, whereby we are freed from death, and terrified minds are encouraged and quickened” (AP:IV:115).
Chemnitz: “We believe, teach, and confess that, although the contrition that precedes, and the good works that follow, do not belong to the article of justification before God, yet one is not to imagine a faith of such a kind as can exist and abide with, and alongside of, a wicked intention to sin and to act against the conscience” (FC:EP:III:11
Hutter (borrowing from Melanchthon's Loci):“In those who have not been born again, every sin is mortal, whether it be original or actual, internal or external. But in those who have been born again, a mortal sin is either a fundamental error, or an internal action, contrary to the law of God, committed against conscience, and depriving its subject of the grace of God, faith and the Holy ghost.” (Compend of Lutheran Theology, 69).
- “The most important thing for us to remember as Christians is that the door of repentance remains open for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour. David's adultery and murder offer a striking example of mortal sin, but his restoration shows us that even those who fall away in mortal sin can be restored. As we are promised in 1 John 1: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (v.9)... The Christian can, however, by the grace of God avoid mortal sin. All sin needs to be repented of, and there is a particularly pressing need in the case of a lapse into mortal sin that we repent and believe again the promises of the Gospel.”
PERSONAL THOUGHTS: Up to this point, I had been under the uneasy suspicion that contemporary Lutheran preachers have divested their preaching of God's Law. After taking in this paper, I have become convinced that this is increasingly the case. “In such a person [a Christian, conscious of his dual nature and the war his old man wages against the new man], sin is not being willfully tolerated; rather, its unwelcome presence torments the Christian.” That is, because sin inheres in the fleshly nature, because sin is always with the Christian, he ought to be tormented by it and earnestly desire to be rid of it! Yet, evidence of such a conviction is almost entirely absent from Lutheran preaching these days, where many are loathe to mention the Law in a way that might even make people feel just a bit “uncomfortable.” One of the most egregious examples of this that I have personally witnessed, occurred in 2009, when a WELS Circuit Pastor preached a sermon in which he stated, sheepishly, “and we all commit sins,” and immediately fell over himself making sure no one was offended by that statement, “but that's okay, it's okay, shh shhh shhhhhh, don't worry, don't worry, we are all forgiven...” Yes. He actually shushed the congregation as if people were convicted mortally terrified by his statement that “we all commit sins.” That statement was the only Law in the sermon. I was infuriated not only with his condescension but the man's clear misunderstanding of real human sin and complete non-application of the Law. I remember it because this sermon was the straw that broke this camel's back, and left me completely disillusioned with the WELS ministerium. Up to that point, noticing the obvious encroachments of evangelical sectarianism into the preaching and practice of WELS congregations, I had been making note of it as an exception (though growing in frequency), rather than the rule. Not after this. As a result of hearing this man's wretched sermon (and there were many other things wrong with it, too), I have since regarded the opposite as true, and finally acknowledging the opposite as the rule, have discovered it increasingly difficult to find exceptions to it.
Absent a genuine torment over Venial Sin, and an earnest desire to repent and be rid of it, Christians fall into Mortal Sin – into the habit of sinning against what their better judgment tells them is wrong, and excusing such actions: “It's really okay – I am already forgiven. I'll just focus on the forgiveness and be happy.” This attitude strikes me as imbalanced, approaching an Antinomian regard for sin and grace, and threatening to lead people into excusing and becoming comfortable with a lifestyle of manifest habitual sin.
Click here to Continue to PART V.4