Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Confessional Question

In my previous post, I discussed the perpetual identity crisis of Lutherans in America, drawing on Mark Noll's article in First Things. Noll writes that:
Lutherans do have much to offer to the wider American community, but only if they can fulfill two conditions. First, to contribute as Lutherans in America, Lutherans must remain authentically Lutheran. Second, to contribute as Lutherans in America, Lutherans must also find out how to speak Lutheranism with an American accent. Falling short of either condition means that, though Lutherans as religious individuals may contribute much to Christianity in America, there will be no distinctly Lutheran contribution. The task is to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation. If such skillful navigation could take place, the resources that Lutherans offer to Americans, especially to other Protestants, would be of incalculable benefit.
So what guides should Lutherans employ to help them "navigate" such dangerous waters? The logical answer is, of course, the Lutheran confessional documents contained in The Book of Concord. But this solution is not as straightforward as it seems, as there has never been agreement amount the precise role of the confessions in the church. To what extent are we "bound" to the confessions, and how should they be used in the church (as Law or Gospel)? Moreover, as our history demonstrates, the more "confessional" churches tend to be more sectarian and legalistic. Is this necessarily so?

Carl Braaten addresses these issues in his Principles of Lutheran Theology (1983), noting that:
As Lutherans we have no magisterium that can impose an answer from above. Lutherans have frequently reacted to this dilemma of self-definition by claiming to take the confessions more seriously than all the others, thus becoming the "scribes and Pharisees" of a Lutheran sect... Lutherans now separated do not trust the sincerity of each other's confessional subscription. For some people confessional subscription is not enough; it must be done "seriously." Some require as a condition of altar and pulpit fellowship a certain amount of confessional good works. It is ironic that a church can become absolutely legalistic about a set of documents that condemns all legalism and not see the point.
Braaten then goes on to label four misuses of the Confessions in the Lutheran churches:
1) Repristination: "The basic aim of this type of Lutheran confessionalism is to repristinate the theology of orthodox Lutheranism... Confessional statements are applied as rules and laws to govern what ministers and officers of the church say publicly."

2) Liberal Nonconfessional: "This position leaps backward over the period of 17th-century orthodoxy and The Book of Concord to the creative years of the young Reformer, Martin Luther... It is much easier to modernize Luther than to try to prove the relevance of 'The Formula of Concord' or Lutheran scholasticism."

3) Hypothetical Confessional: "According to this view, our modern situation has been so drastically modified by the revolutions in the natural and historical sciences that any confessional statements conceived in a prescientific age can no longer be ours in a direct way. Nevertheless, we can still accept these confessions as part of our heritage... Moreover, these confessions are still our in a hypothetical sense. Were we to confront the same issue as our Lutheran forefathers, we would adopt their identical positions... But, of course, times have changed; and so there are certain strings attatched to our confessional loyalty."

4) Anti-confessional Biblicism: "Contemporary Lutherans locked into American Protestant neo-evangelicalism have no use for the confessions, but prefer to go right back to the Bible."
Whereas the conservative Lutheran churches (LCMS and WELS) are primarily guilty of #1, the ELCA suffers from both #2 and #3 (with an emphasis on the latter). Meanwhile, many of those sitting "in the pews" probably opt for #4. Against all of these approaches, Braaten proposes an alternative that he calls "constructive confessional Lutheranism", which incorporates the principles of continuity and contemporaneity: "continuity with the substance of the catholic tradition" and the ability "to preach the gospel and actualize its reality within every new situation." To use Noll's words, Braaten's constructive confessionalism is trying "to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation." It sure sounds nice, but it's tough to figure out how this approach would work in practice. Since it involves a balancing act, people will inevitably disagree about which side should be emphasized more. And where will we turn when the debates begin? After all, an argument about the role of the confessions cannot be decided by the confessions themselves.

In the end, my fundamental question is this: is it possible to take the confessions seriously without using them in a legalistic fashion? Or is it inevitable that these documents, which were originally written to promote the Gospel, will become Law in the hands of our church leaders? I would really like to hear what people have to say about this question, because it cuts to the heart of all issues concerning identity, mission, ecumenical relations, etc. Without the confessions we really aren't Lutherans, but if the confessions are more of a hindrance than a help (as many seem to think), then we shouldn't want to be Lutherans. If the confessions no longer advance the Gospel, but only serve as Law, then we should abandon them and move on. But if they still hold the Truth of the gospel message, then we can't afford to compromise a single word. So which is it?


CPA said...

I'd argue in favor of #1, except that it would be seen as too self-serving :). So let me say a word for #4 -- properly interpreted.

How do most people learn the Bible? Through a kind of respiratory process of reading it in small groups, and then by themselves. This is helped along by the liturgical reading and preaching. Through these processes of implicit or explicit commentary, certain verses get understood in certain ways, often even as something else entirely seems to be the topic of the discussion.

So what does that mean for Lutheran identity? That (to give practical examples), the most important thing is to get John 3:5 read and insert into the minds of the parishioners that "water" here means baptism. Then make sure that when they read John 10:28 they think how ridiculous it is to say "no one will snatch them out of my hand -- but you can jump out of my hand". Yet also when they read the parable of the Sower, they are taught to fear that riches and the cares of this world may indeed lead them to lose their salvation. Etc.

And at key times, the small group leader asks them, where the Gospel in this passage? Where's the Law? How does this speak to us of what God is doing to realize His purpose, and so overriding all of ours? Etc.

In other words, the confessions are a set of commentaries on the scriptures -- both on specific passages and on the general interpretive method -- and the primary vehicle of Lutheran teaching is then directed reading of the Scriptures. The Book of Concord is thus instantiated within the reading of the Scriptures.

Now this can be done is a sectarian way (for example, where the pastor thinks the key thing is to take something that is obviously Law and turn it into Gospel -- as seen in the Lutheran readings of the Prodigal Son, etc.) but I have confidence in the Book of Concord that it can also be done in a way that doesn't force the meaning of the texts, but is responsible

Duh, that's why I'm a Lutheran :)

The result is a congregation of Bible readers for whom the BoC is the "Rule of Faith". And that's what I'd say is the aim of Christian teaching, in its intellectual aspects, at any rate.

Thomas Adams said...

CPA – I really like your response. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the BoC functions as a hermeneutical key that aids in interpretation of the Scriptures. Interestingly, Braaten says much the same thing in his Principles of Lutheran Theology: “The heart of the confessions – justification through faith alone apart from works – gives is the key to the right interpretation of the Scriptures… The confessions possess hermeneutical significance for us because they act like a signpost or a compass. They point beyond themselves to the saving revelation in Christ and to the main events and authoritative interpretations of those events in the history of salvation.” The advantage of this hermeneutical approach to the confessions, in my opinion, is that it discourages people from viewing the BoC as a Lutheran rule book. Instead, it liberates the confessions for their true function – preserving and conveying the Gospel message. And as you suggest, once a person becomes adept at reading the Scriptures in a Lutheran fashion, the confessions themselves become somewhat superfluous.

Finally, to my way of thinking, this approach is quite different than #4, which ignores the confessions altogether and assumes that the Scriptures are so clear that no “hermeneutical key” is necessary. I would like to think that we Lutherans are smart enough to realize that there is no such thing as a “direct” or “unmediated” reading of the Scriptures, as everyone brings their own presuppositions. So we should never encourage a movement that seeks to free the Bible from the baggage of tradition. Instead, we should honestly admit that our entire reading of Scripture is colored by justification through faith alone, which acts as our controlling principle.

Paul T. McCain said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I enjoyed reading it and thinking about it. I would like, respectfully, to take issue with Dr. Braaten's "Point 1." Frankly, it's a straw-man argument, and a throw-away kind of line.

I would say that if in fact the Lutheran Church, or any branch of it, does not with any longer to require its ministers to embrace and reflect what is confessed in the Book of Concord, than, precisely to that extent, a church ceases to be Lutheran.

Why do I say tha? I would like to invite anyone who has not done so already actually to read the Lutheran Confessions.

What is found there, much to the delight of many who have never had the opportunity to study the Confessions carefully before, is a veritable treasure of profoundly Biblical and deeply Evangelical and hearty catholic confession of the truth of the Logos Incarnate.

I think we have seen the disastrous consequences of what happens when a Lutheran church drifts free from its historic theological moorings.

There is of course plenty to lament i my Synod, and we never can forget that "confession" embraces that necessary and ongoing act of repentance for all the ways we fail to live up to, and in accord, with all that the Scriptures teach, but when it comes to insisting on a genuine confessional subscription to the Book of Concord, this is nothing to be sorry about, or for.

Anonymous said...

An uninformed quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions is the same thing as a Baptist's "choice for Christ." It betrays an arrogance in the person subscribing. Position number one is worded pejoratively. The duty of seminarians is to test the confessions to the utmost. They should put them to the fire and see if they can really subscribe to them. If they can make a quia subscription, then they will be some strong stalwart Lutherans. They have tested and found them to be in accordance with the Scriptures. I think the manifold problems in the Lutheran Church with regard to the confessions is that seminarians are too lazy or too fearful to really test out the confessions. More seminarians should be encouraged to be critical and skeptical while in seminary. If they can't subscribe, then they will not be Lutherans. I know that this is ridiculously idealistic, but any other approach does not do justice to the nature of Scripture and the nature of confession. Correct understanding is a gift, not an accomplishment so much.

My two cents on this old post.