Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Converts - Part 3: "The Church Without Wheels"

Those who leave Lutheranism often level variations of the same charge:

The church of the Book of Concord does not/no longer exist(s). The Lutheran Church, as expressed in its confessional documents does not exist.

I submit that this observation by our critics is proof of the correctness of our confession. Since it is impossible for us as sinful individuals to measure up to the requirements of God's Word for even a few minutes it only makes sense that it is impossible for large collections of sinful individuals to measure up to the only modern church that purely expresses God's Will in her confessions without error.

While other confessions have resorted to creating human doctrines, practices, and methods to make church more rational and easy, Lutherans have embraced the narrow gate of truth which renders a perfectly orthodox church in all places at all times virtually impossible this side of heaven. All other churches adapt to the whims of human invention. As men err, their churches adapt and err with them. Confessional Lutheranism, grounded on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, will not follow sinful men as they stray. Thus people abandon her and cease to embody the confession.

Take the Roman church as an example. As her people fall into various forms of error, she makes her doctrine conform to those errors. As new false doctrines are introduced over the years, she adopts them and makes them appear legitimate. She then forces her faithful to conform to her imperfect version of the truth. Men have put wheels on that church. Rome is driven by her human occupants. Romans who want to leave the point where pure truth exists simply have to take their church with them. Even when everyone adopts human error, the church, as she is identified by her ever-evolving confession, remains occupied and true to her faith (though inconsistent to her previous traditions and documents). To the casual observer, the Roman church practices what she preaches. This is because she preaches only what she practices for the season that she practices it. In those places where she has not abandoned the truth for error, she finds herself in agreement with her Lutheran opponents.

Bound by Law and Gospel, the catholic, orthodox, and evangelical church does not do this. As her people fall into various forms of error, she remains steadfast in doctrine. She does not compromise with reason, bad exegesis, and novelty. She does not have wheels. Confessional Lutherans who want to leave the point where pure truth exists must leave their immovable church and go to one with wheels. If every Lutheran was to adopt error, the church, as she is identified by her confession, would be abandoned and cease to exist. To the casual observer, the Lutheran church can never perfectly practice what it preaches. This is because, as long as she is still truly Lutheran, she preaches what God has revealed... which no man but Our Lord Jesus Christ can faithfully accomplish, fully comprehend, or steadfastly keep. Since all Christians are hypocrites and failures it makes sense that when Christians gather around pure doctrine and try to practice it, they find themselves speaking hypocritically and failing to realize God's ideal.

This is why this one criticism, of all of the criticisms that Christians level against each other, is uniquely reserved for those who profess what has come to be known as Confessional Lutheranism.

If we confessed the human standard that there is nothing special about the Lord's Supper or Baptism as many protestants do, most of our battles over Sacramental practice would not be an issue. We would be unified like many protestants, but at what cost? Since we confess God's Standard which He revealed in Holy Scripture, we find that sinful man continues to contest and rebel against it.

If we confessed the human standard that men are justified by works as everyone else does in one form or another, most of our battles over preaching and evangelism would not be an issue. We would be unified like many other churches, but at what cost? Since we confess God's Standard regarding salvation, which He told us was foolishness to men, we find that sinful man continues to contest and rebel against it.

And so, God's church, the purified bride of Jesus Christ, exists in those places where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are properly administered. These are the marks of the church. Since they are from God--not men--we humans find them difficult to achieve and even harder to preserve among us. It is easier for us to create our own definition of the church. It is easier to create a standard that we can meet or erect an earthly kingdom in which to house The Church. We strive to make it understandable and tactile. Those things may make people feel better, but they are merely human distinctions that are neither true nor helpful.

We who still remain are the Ecclesia Militans. It is going to be a struggle as long as we are here where sin and error remains. This struggle is that of truth against error. It only makes sense that the struggle will be the most extreme here where the most truth is found.

Thanks be to God that Christ saves us by faith and not by our feeble works. Thanks be to God that Christ preserves the church in spite of us.

4 comments:

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Hi, Mike! Just stumbled across your blog...

You've made one of the logically possible moves here, Mike: to change the Lutheran confessional writings from statements of faith to divine imperatives. That way, given the Lutheran notion of law, one can say "no one ever lives up to them."

But in so doing, you abandon the way they themselves want to be understood: as descriptions of (not prescriptions for) the faith and practice of a set of territorial churches.

When the AC said, "Our churches teach that nobody should preach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless he is rightly called," it didn't mean, "We're doing our level best to reach that state of affairs." It was describing the state of affairs in their churches, and bolstering it with an imperative, over against the anabaptists.

When AC 28 says, "According to divine right, therefore, it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest..." it is describing the state of affairs that existed within Lutheran communion fellowship. (Something that is by 'divine right' must exist always, everywhere and by necessity.) But the state of affairs that obtains today is that the Supreme Voters' Assembly excommunicates, and the pastor announces that decision.

Similar things could be said wrt private confession and a number of other issues.

The move to make the confessions' statements into moral imperatives is tempting, and solves some Lutheran problems--but at the expense of destroying the intentional integrity of the writings themselves.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

Mike Baker said...

The Lutheran Confessions are not divine imperatives. They are human confessional writings from statements of faith to divine imperatives that happen to be more faithful to Scripture than other human confessional writings.

Fr. Hogg:

But in so doing, you abandon the way they themselves want to be understood: as descriptions of (not prescriptions for) the faith and practice of a set of territorial churches.

Response:

I would not know how the confessional writings want to be understood because I've never thought to personally ask them. My copy of the Book of Concord is not very talkitive about its motives.

I conceed your point that in the time that they were written, they were largely descriptive in nature. You and I disagree on what is being described.

Narrowly defining the intent of the confessions as "descriptions of (not prescriptions for) the faith and practice of a set of territorial churches" ignores the expressed intent and theology of the authors of the confessions.

Your interpretation creates (for lack of a better term) a "Lutheran Rule" that is to be followed by the Lutheran churches. This understanding of what type of description is going on in the BOC specifically undermines what the authors were attempting to communicate.

The description that is occuring in the confession is not just the doctrine and practice of the territorial churches in Germany. The description that is occuring in the confession is the doctrine and practice of the one, holy, and apostolic church as it is understood by the Lutheran reformers.

If you are saying that the confessions are descriptive in that they say, "This is what we believe and are doing" as if to defend their church body, you are correct, but such a thing is not completely true. The reformers were saying, "This is what is true for the church in all times and places, and we are doing just that. Repent and do the same." This was a defense of what the reformers believed the church taught and had always taught. This was not a defense of "Lutheran" doctrine. It was a defense of the one true doctrine which Rome had abandoned. This is why the reformers worked so hard to defend themselves with Scripture, the creeds, and quotes from church fathers. This is why the confessions also contain an instructive tone.

Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches.

The above articles we desire to present in accordance with the edict of Your Imperial Majesty, in order to exhibit our Confession and let men see a summary of the doctrine of our teachers. If there is anything that any one might desire in this Confession, we are ready, God willing, to present ampler information according to the Scriptures.
[AC: Conclusion, 5-7]

When understood using the specific words of intent by the reformers, the confessions become imparative apart from the practice of their authors.

It is true that, by the grace of God, significant numbers (but certainly not all) of the churches of the confession held to confessional doctrine and practice for quite some time. It is also true that, because of sin and error, significant numbers (but certainly not all) of the churches who claim that confession today do not follow it perfectly. When considering the validity of what is being said in the Book of Concord, the question is: So what?

A man declares that stealing is wrong and that he does not steal. He then goes and steals. That does not make his previous deleration and description inaccurate. Truth is objective.

Stealing is wrong.
He did not steal.
He steals now.
He is a hypocrite.
Stealing is still wrong.

The BOC is true.
Lutherans followed the BOC.
Lutherans do not follow it now.
Such Lutherans are hypocrites.
The BOC is still true.

The temptation here is to say that a confession is only true as long as the people who claim to follow it adhere to it. This is subjective reasoning that ignores the fact that there is objective truth and it is possible for ideals to be right apart from how rightly or poorly they are put into practice.

If you believe that Holy Scripture is the authority by which all doctrines are measured, and if you believe that the Book of Concord is an accurate interpretation of scripture, then the behavior of people who refer to themselves as Lutherans hundreds of years later is totally irrelevant.

If the writing is true then it is true. If the writing is false or contains error then it is specious.

Once you conclude that it is true, then it is imperative because all Christians are directed to be lovers of truth.

If you conclude that it is false, then that is the reason for not being Lutheran. Going into the controversial issues of Lutheran practice after that is a moot point.

Paul McCain said...

Mike, FYI, Fr. Hogg is a former LCMS clergyman who left the Missouri Synod, after a well planned and highly orchestrated effort to recruit others to follow him out. He makes a habit of cruising Lutheran blogs, trying to pick up disaffected Lutherans, in an effort to pull them over into Eastern Orthodoxy.

Mike Baker said...

Pr. McCain,

I am well aware of the situation and have read many discussions that include the two of you.

I choose not to guess at his intentions regarding his presence on Lutheran blogs, but even if it is as you say, he is certainly wasting his time here.

I am far from disaffected. I am capable of addressing the many problems within Lutheranism without abandoning my principles. Intellectual honesty prevents me from falling into the faulty arguements agaisnt Lutheranism.

For example: Fr. Hogg has neglected to consider that the early foundations of the Lutheran confessional writings were composed while the authors were still members of a heterodox communion. In doing so, he has divorced the context in which those writings were composed and lost the imperative nature of the truth declared amid papal error to a papal monarch against papal assersions by partisans like Eck.

This is far from the descriptive nature that he is trying to assert to defend his own mistake. It is obvious to anyone who reads the discourses between the reformers and their papal opponents. Clearly much of Lutheran doctrine is imperative because it was composed by those who were attempting to reform the entire western church from within the broken communion--not working to establish an independent german territorial rule that was pure and sterile.

This descriptive-only interpretation sets imperfect Lutheran bodies up as strawmen with which to attack the confessions themselves. The most unfortunate thing is that such an arguement makes no sense to people who care about context.

Look at the confessors. All of them were Roman Catholics. Dr. Luther was a member of the catholic clergy at the beginning of the reformation. They were beacons of doctrinal light amid a church of darkness who were eventually cast out by excommunication. How is that different than Lutheranism today?

This is where the thesis of his departure falls flat on it's face: You can espouse Lutheran doctrine from within a church body where many oppose it. The prefaces of Martin Luther's Catechisms clearly point that out as the founder, himself, battled inadequate teaching and practice.

It seems foolish to even think that progressive churches today invalidate the descriptive nature of Lutheranism when it is clear that the authors of those confessions were in the same situation beneath their Roman Catholic bishops. To say that they were unified and pure while still attached to the Holy See but we are not now because we have churches who entertain much less grevious errors is historically inaccurate and just plain silly.