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The Bondage of Confessional Lutheran Scholarship

01 Feb

Are the Lutheran Confessions “the bottom of a theological well from which… theologians thereafter would draw?”

 

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Question: What is a Confessional Lutheran church?

Answer: A Confessional Lutheran church is one which adheres to the 1580 Book of Concord, a.k.a. the Lutheran Confessions.

But what is that? If you are a 21st century Confessional Lutheran, your answer probably goes something like this: “it is a faithful summation of the theology of the Bible, and a necessary further development of the greatest of the 16th century Reformation documents – which is also a great ecumenical document! —  the Augsburg Confession.

Amen to that! Still, what does Martin Luther have to do with this? In the minds of many of these Confessional Lutherans, not as much as you might think. This tweet from Pastor Todd Wilken is perhaps fair enough….

…but when you hear something like “We don’t subscribe to what Luther says, but what the Formula of Concord says,” what should you think? Is that right?

Well, here’s what my pastor, in a warmly received presentation he recently gave to some of his colleagues, had to say:

From a very practical standpoint, we have, as Lutheran pastors sworn to uphold the theology of the Book of Concord of 1580, also consequently, committed ourselves to the hermeneutic of reading the confessions we find in the Formula of Concord, and that is, if ever a question arises within the Lutheran church, the writings of Luther are to be consulted for the answer. In other words, the confessions understand themselves not to be so much a theology in and of themselves, but a summation of Luther’s theology:

“Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings.”[1]

Thus the confessions are not the bottom of a theological well from which Lutheran theologians thereafter would draw, but instead the confessions are the peak of the mountain, the mountain which is the theology of Martin Luther. But if that mountain remains unknown to us, how then are we to understand our task as pastors today in view of the Lutheran confessions?” (Paul Strawn, “Rediscovering the Theology of the Small Catechism, i.e. Martin Luther”)

A true picture of what the Lutheran Confessions are on about?

 

We can’t. Why? Because, in part, according to my pastor:

Luther has been reduced to a hawker of coffee mugs, an advocate of theological fads, and sound-bites that make us question his true worth.

Experience suggests that Luther, while still respected, usually is presented as an important historical figure, in characterization (on t-shirts and coffee mugs), or as some sort of authority to advocate one theological fad or another among Lutherans. It is enough, so it seems, to grab a few quotes out of What Luther Says[2]–itself an attempt to resuscitate Luther in the Milwaukee area in the aftermath of WWII—to satisfy any theological curiosity that still may exist. Another simply odd phenomenon is open animosity toward the reformer, evidenced by a professor at the seminary I attended routinely becoming agitated about Luther’s drinking of beer, and a recent district newsletter counseling, even in this anniversary year, to quote Luther less and Jesus more.

Luther, to Lazarus Spengler: ” I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology.” — in “Luther Rose,” Wikipedia.

 

Often due to perceived problems with Martin Luther the man, being German, etc., we read and most fully embrace any Lutheran’s theology but his.

“…it could just be, that because the study of Luther has become for us a bit socially challenging, and academically daunting, that we have gravitated to the study of second and third generation Lutherans like Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), 17th century Lutherans like Gerhard (1582-1637) et al, 19th century Lutherans like Walther (1811-1887) and Loehe (1808-1872), or von Harleβ (1806-1879) and von Hofmann (1810-1877) of the Erlangen school,  and 20th century Lutherans like Althaus (1888-1966), Elert (1885-1954) and Sasse (1895-1976). If there is somewhat of a Nazi taint that remains to Elert and Althaus, we can turn to the Swedes Nygren (1890-1978), Aulén (1879-1977) or Hägglund (1920-2015). And if we want to stir things up a bit we can focus our attention on Mannermaa (1937-2015) and “The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther,” Gerhard Forde (1927-2005), the now-retired Oswald Bayer (b. 1939, University of Tübingen), or, if need be, to the most popular “Lutheran” theologian of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)!”

He goes on:

“In other words, as Lutheran pastors in the United States we can take our pick from a goodly array of theologians within the Lutheran tradition from which to learn “Lutheranism”, and thus safely insulate ourselves from the thing called “the theology of Martin Luther.” (And in this regard, the recent attempt to “rebrand” Lutheran theology as “a Wittenberg Way” should be noted.) Of course there are also any number of voices that would encourage and abandonment of such a pursuit of Lutheran theological [thought] altogether, suggesting instead a life of study of other Christian traditions of the past, and the latest insights from the present found in the books on the end caps of Barnes and Nobel or Hobby Lobby.”

Evidently, we do it “Wittenberg Style”: See, e.g, this book: “The Wittenberg Way,” “The Wittenberg method,” “Wittenberg doctrine,” “Wittenberg’s reformation,” “Wittenberg belief,” “The Wittenberg theologians,” “Wittenberg model,” “Wittenberg…reform,” “Wittenberg thinking,” “Wittenberg theology,” “The Wittenberg team,” “The Wittenberg circle”….

 

We need better Luther scholars.

“Absent also among Lutheran colleges and seminaries in the United States have been true experts specifically in Luther studies. Yes, there are those who have addressed one theme or another from the 16th century in their doctoral research, but a true Luther scholar would appear to be lacking. German and Latin in their various iterations remain a challenge. Both take years to learn and by the time a pastor realizes their value, it usually is too late. And even if such language abilities are present, another field of study that must be mastered is what could be dubbed “Lutherana”, that is, all of the still-available sources generated in the 16th century by Luther and those around him. Once that is done, there is then 400 years of Luther research available that cannot be avoided. And finally, there is present-day Luther scholarship, mostly in Germany, which continues to produce new studies yearly.”

Also produced in Germany but this time eagerly embraced by American Confessional Lutherans. Get yours now!

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What is the answer?

“Take, read!” So the words that Augustine (354-430) heard one day, as he sat in despair, wondering what he should do, may also be helpful to us here. Augustine took them to mean he should return to the reading of Scripture. I would suggest that we also apply them to the writings of Martin Luther.

Is my pastor right? Have we underestimated the importance of this great figure? Have we failed to discern the relevance of his writings even for today? Has the inordinate public attention given to his more difficult writings – and perhaps even things like the Luther Insulter – cause us to flee from rather than run towards this man?

Have even some of the most serious Lutherans failed to rightly take account of the measure of the man – of this man’s worth?

Have even they failed to begin to see the real extent of his faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel?

I agree with my pastor — “yes”.

“Although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” — Jude 3

FIN

 

P.S. In a coming series of posts, I will explore the ongoing relevance of writings like Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and the Bondage of the Will for today’s debates – both in theology and culture.

 

Images:

well and mountain from my pastor’s presentation, “Little Luther” pic CC0 Public Domain, https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1361629, Luther rose: https://immanuelchicago.org/the-luther-rose/ ; baton: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0): tabelatny: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53370644@N06/4976497160

Notes:

[1] FC SD VII, 41, Tappert, 576.

[2] St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.

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18 Comments

Posted by on February 1, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

18 responses to “The Bondage of Confessional Lutheran Scholarship

  1. Delwyn Campbell

    February 1, 2018 at 7:58 pm

    So, are we followers of Christ or are we followers of a man? Dr. Luther was a gifted, called man – not an Apostle. I’m not sure that you can make Confessional Evangelical Christian synonymous with Dr. Martin Luther without there being a consequence. To paraphrase an Apostle, “Did Luther die for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Martin?” Like Moses, Luther was a faithful servant in the house, but also like Moses, he did not bring the children into the land, but left that for others.

     
    • Nathan A. Rinne

      February 2, 2018 at 12:33 am

      Pastor Campbell,

      Do you think this, therefore:

      “Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings.”[1]

      …is mistaken?

      The idea is basically that Adam’s theology is Abrahams’s theology is Isaiah’s theology is Jesus’s theology is Paul’s theology is Luther’s theology… We are not talking about having a perfect life, and we are not saying that there were not many others who basically agreed in toto with Luther’s theology. The more I learn about his theology, the more I realize that I agree with — I must submit to — everything he says theologically.

      +Nathan

       
      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        February 4, 2018 at 8:35 pm

        Theology is human reflection on doctrine, and thus subject to human mistakes and failings; doctrine is the teaching itself as revealed in divinely inspired Scripture, and thus inerrant and infallible. Hence I believe it is more accurate to say that Adam’s doctrine is Abraham’s doctrine is Isaiah’s doctrine is Jesus’s doctrine is Paul’s doctrine is Luther’s doctrine. We are not talking about having a perfect theology (except in the case of Jesus), because there is no such thing any more than there is a perfect life (except in the case of Jesus).

        Confirmands confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Scriptures, as they have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true – not Luther’s (or anyone else’s) theology. LCMS members (pastors, commissioned ministers, congregations) accept without reservation the Scriptures as the written Word of God, and the Book of Concord as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition thereof – not Luther’s (or anyone else’s) theology. Why not? Well, how many seminary professors, let alone pastors, let alone laypersons, have read – let alone studied in depth – all of Luther’s incredibly voluminous theological writings? How can they subscribe unconditionally to human (i.e., not divinely inspired) documents that they have never even seen?

        On Twitter, you quoted your pastor as saying, “if ever a question arises within the Lutheran church, the writings of Luther are to be consulted for the answer. In other words, the confessions understand themselves not to be so much a theology in and of themselves, but a summation of Luther’s theology.” My response was (and still is): Yes, the writings of Luther should be consulted, and even given considerable weight, when addressing theological questions; but Scripture alone is the norm that norms, and the Book of Concord is our normed norm. The latter is not a summation of Luther’s theology, but of his doctrine – or more accurately, the doctrine of Luther and the doctrine of the Book of Concord are the same doctrine; namely, the doctrine of Scripture.

         
      • Nathan A. Rinne

        February 5, 2018 at 1:20 am

        Jon,

        Thanks. Doctrine is theology to. If not, why not? That is my first point.

        it does make sense to me that theology can be more deeply developed though, as you say. That said, you say that the Small Catechism itself is really just doctrine and not theology.

        I find that really interesting. I think the Small Catechism clearly has a specific theology on display, that is orthodox Christian theology. The same is clearly true of the Book of Concord, and both of these can be distinguished from other theologies. I think you are on very shaky ground in insisting otherwise.

        Pastors can sign on the the BOC because it is an accurate summary of Luther’s theology which is in line with what the Bible teaches. They will not, however, necessarily understand it quite like they could or even should unless they have a greater familiarity with Luther’s other writings.

        +Nathan

         
  2. Martin R. Noland

    February 2, 2018 at 2:10 am

    Dear Nathan,

    This is a stimulating post.

    Let me say first that the cure to “boring Lutheranism,” whatever that is, is to read Luther himself–who is never boring, and always pokes and shoves at our preconceptions about the limits of Lutheranism.

    Second, the Luther corpus is uneven, as Luther told us himself at the end of his life. We have to go to those self-evaluations first, in order to see what he, in hindsight, considered his best work. Luther’s ideas evolved, as he himself admitted, and did not evolve in an easily explanable way.

    Third, we have to realize that some treatises or letters were an immediate response to a difficult situation, and unless one has all the facts about that situation in hand–as historical background–his comments and prescriptions will be misunderstood. His later writings against the Jews are a case in point. Ken Schurb once did an excellent article in Concordia Journal explaining that historical background.

    Fourth, our biggest danger in reading Luther is “anachronism,” i.e., assuming that the dangers he saw in the church are the same ones we face, or that a Zwinglian in the 16th century is the same as an Evangelical today, or that the papacy hasn’t changed or hasn’t changed appreciably. Of course, this can be a problem in reading the Confessions too.

    Fifth, the Confessions each have different purposes, and have to be read with that in mind. You can’t pose a conflict or difference between Luther and the two Catechisms or the Smalcald Articles, because those are HIS writings. So the distinctions come between Luther’s corpus as a whole on one side, the Augustana and Apology and Treatise on another side (Melanchthon’s work), and the Formula of Concord on the other side.

    Sixth, the Confessions are more accessible in terms of doctrinal issues and controversies for us, because they are organized according to doctrinal topics. So it is EASIER to use the Confessions than Luther, because easier for everyone to find the same statements, and those statements are succinct, not rambling.

    Seventh, we cannot put Luther’s corpus up against the Confessions, as if Luther is superior, because the Formula of Concord was specifically written in order to clarify terminology and ideas that his students were confused about. To elevate Luther about the Formula is to give up that clarity, and “reinvent the wheel” of Lutheran orthodoxy.

    Finally, as to the importance of Luther studies, I agree 100%. One of our best living Luther scholars in the LC-MS honed his skills while at your institution, i.e., Dr. Robert Kolb. He definitely contributed much in this area, as his vast bibliography attests. During my years at CTS-Fort Wayne, Dr. Eugene Klug and Dr. Heino Kadai were our experts, and they contributed lots too. Both seminaries have had leaders in this area of scholarship in the 20th century and still do today.

    Some of our best LC-MS scholars of Luther have worked outside of our system, e.g., Lewis Spitz, Jr. at Stanford University; and presently Christopher Brown at Boston University.

    I guess my biggest disappointment has been with our colleges. There are some exceptions—like Timothy Maschke at CU-Mequon and John Maxfield at CU-Edmonton, and Bob Kolb at CU-Saint Paul before them—but there have been a number of Luther scholars in my generation of LC-MS, with all the necessary skills and credentials, and they either never received a call to teach, or not for any long term. These guys have, in every case I can think of, been faithful, orthodox, smart–even brilliant, but the colleges have passed them by, to their own loss.

    I am thinking in particular of Dr. Scott Bruzek, a student of Lewis Spitz and PhD. from Princeton; and Dr. Ken Schurb, a protege of Robert Preus, Eugene Klug, Heino Kadai, and James Kittleson, with a Ph.D from Ohio State, and I could mention others. Either Scott or Ken could have easily taught in the secular academy, or in another denominational college, but they have remained committed to service to their synod, which has pretty much ignored them.

    Anyway, the best thing that could happen is that people read Luther on their own, and that preachers read Luther’s sermons (the postils) regularly. Thanks for the stimulating post!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

     
  3. E M

    February 2, 2018 at 2:13 am

    Could you please explain more about the “Wittenberg Way”? I’m not familiar with this approach. If I read you correctly, there are problems with it?

     
  4. E M

    February 2, 2018 at 2:16 am

    It is refreshing and rare to read something like this. Although I have just begun to dig deeper into theology, the more I read Luther’s actual writings, the more I, too, respect and agree with him.

     
  5. Jon Alan Schmidt

    February 5, 2018 at 2:11 am

    Nathan, you have this odd habit of writing “to” when you mean “too.” Is it intentional?

    Doctrine is not theology. Doctrine is divine revelation, theology is human reflection on divinely revealed doctrine. In that sense, doctrine is what theology studies.

    I did not say that the Small Catechism is “really just doctrine.” I said – in accordance with the traditional rite – that all confirmed Lutherans have learned to know the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church from the Small Catechism.

    It is simply false that LCMS pastors “sign on to the BoC because it is an accurate summary of Luther’s theology.” They subscribe unconditionally to it because, having read and studied it in depth, they recognize it to be “a true and unadulterated statement and exposition” of Scripture as the written Word of God. Again, there is indeed much to be learned from Luther’s other writings, but they are not authoritative in the same way.

     
    • Nathan A. Rinne

      February 5, 2018 at 12:00 pm

      Jon,

      The answer to your question is that my grammar is terrible. That has never gotten pounded out of me. Hopefully, your helpful correction will take hold. : )

      “It is simply false that LCMS pastors “sign on to the BoC because it is an accurate summary of Luther’s theology.””

      Well, if that’s all I had said, it would be a very incomplete statement. But that is not all that I said.

      And I am saying that persons not only get doctrine but theology from the SC and the BOC. How could anyone think otherwise?

      Here is my view (from the post I linked you to):

      “Veith also quotes a part of the Wikipedia article on Oswald Bayer. Here is the part that stood out to me:

      The center of theology is the promise of God to man to which man responds in faith. Faith is therefore always, to Oswald Bayer, a speech act, a spoken exchange between God and man. The exemplary center of this exchange is the Divine Service, the source and aim of all theology. Christian theology is therefore regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner.

      Here is my question: Is simply confessing what God says to us back to Him theology or not? I ask because I am reading the book by mid 19th century Lutheran theologian August Friedrich Christian Vilmar (ELCA theologian Walter Sundberg, in the intro says the book “could have been written today”, so contemporary does it sound), and he says the following: “The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God. And speaking from God goes forth into the world, into human life.””

      I am with Vilmar, not the moderns. I have no time for them.

      +Nathan

       
      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        February 5, 2018 at 7:44 pm

        I have spelled out what I mean by doctrine, theology, and the relationship between them. Could you please do likewise, for the sake of clarity?

         
      • Nathan A. Rinne

        February 7, 2018 at 3:17 pm

        Jon,

        I don’t see any difference between doctrine and theology other than that “a doctrine” can be a simple statement while it would seem that “a theology” generally is thought to be more.

        Still, I repeat:

        “Here is my question: Is simply confessing what God says to us back to Him theology or not? I ask because I am reading the book by mid 19th century Lutheran theologian August Friedrich Christian Vilmar (ELCA theologian Walter Sundberg, in the intro says the book “could have been written today”, so contemporary does it sound), and he says the following: “The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God. And speaking from God goes forth into the world, into human life.””

        In sum, I don’t think hard and fast definitions between doctrine and theology are possible. There are only good theologies, and are false theologies.

        I think that your definition is unhelpful, and, at bottom, wrong, opening the door to error.

        +Nathan

         
  6. Jon Alan Schmidt

    February 7, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    Well, I think that conflating doctrine and theology “is unhelpful, and, at bottom, wrong, opening the door to error” – specifically, the error of unconditionally subscribing to fallible human theology (such as that of Luther), rather than inerrant divine doctrine (as revealed in Scripture and summarized in the Book of Concord). To what specific error(s) do you see my careful distinction “opening the door”?

     
  7. Nathan A. Rinne

    February 9, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Bayer’s error, mentioned above. We can’t say, simply, that doctrine is from God while theology is from man. Theology is teaching as well, this or that word from God as well. I understand what Bayer is doing, and before reading August Friedrich Christian Vilmar agree with him, but I no longer do.

    This series talks more about Vilmar and why I think this is so important: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/what-athens-needs-from-jerusalem-the-theology-of-facts-vs-the-theology-of-rhetoric-writ-large-part-i-of-iii/ (especially parts II and III).

    +Nathan

     
    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      February 9, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      The Word of God and the divine doctrine that it reveals serve as the source and norm of theology, not as examples of theology themselves.

      I cannot discern from your comments here what exactly you see as “Bayer’s error.”

       
  8. Nathan A. Rinne

    February 10, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    Jon,

    If the Scripture, or “norma normata” (“the normed norm”) serves as the norm for our theology and God’s word, is clear (as Luther also asserts), then there is no excuse for having a theology with errors. This is not to say our theology, as contained in the book of Concord (norma mormans — “norming norm”) is inerrant. That said, a statement of doctrine is also a theological statement, that is, a statement which *teaches* — and which we are to mediate and study — about God and His creation. Therefore, there is no hard and fast line like you and Bayer want to make here.

    +Nathan

     
    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      February 10, 2018 at 4:36 pm

      You have it exactly backwards – Scripture is the norma normans, “the norm that norms,” and the Book of Concord is the norma normata, “the norm that is normed.” “Doctrine” is just a synonym for “teaching” – in fact, the exact same German word (Lehre) is used for both – so any statement of doctrine is, by definition, a statement that teaches. “Theology” is broader, encompassing the fallible presuppositions of each individual human being who engages in “the study of God.”

       
      • Nathan A. Rinne

        February 11, 2018 at 1:00 am

        Jon,

        Yes, I see I got that backwards — Scripture is of course the “norming norm” and the BOC is the “normed norm”. That said, my point is that theology can be doctrine and doctrine is theology, not that theology is only this or that statement of doctrine.

        +Nathan

         

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