Sunday, January 10, 2010

The present ELCA as secularized Pietism.

I've been reading the Loscher book (Timoetheus Verinus) against the Pietists and have come to some interesting conclusions regarding the present state of the ELCA.  I think authors of the translation thought it would be useful to WELS and LCMS Pastor having to fight off some of the negative effects of American Evangelicalism on their congregation.  The irony is of course that the Liberalism is merely a more rationalistic form of Pietism (Schleiermacher was after all a Pietist who then read Kant!).
Having once been a member of the ELCA and having many friends in it still, I know the people very well and their mind set.  What is interesting about them (by this, I mainly mean the left wing of the denomination- there are multiple factions, more on that later), is that they perceive themselves to be either on the cutting edge of progress or simply coming to turns with the irrefutable arguments of modernity.  Modernity (by which I mean the culture of the modern west that emerges after the peace of Westphalia and that continues to dominate North American culture, even with onset of post-modernism) provides arguments  (like evolutionary biology, the historical critical method, individual autonomy being the highest good, the progress of civilization) that just can't be refuted.  What's best is for the Church to simply accept the bad news that the Christian metanarrative isn't totally true and work on making Christian values the best representatives of secular western values.  Hence the obsession with diversity or homosexual activism- among other strange obsessions.  It's little know outside the ELCA, but the ELCA leadership is also for some unusual reason obsessed with the Palestinians.  When I was in seminary I knew a number of people who went over to Israel in order to serve as human shields.  Why this conflict (perhaps because there Palestinian Lutherans?), is beyond me- but I digress.
Anyways, now that we've established what they accept the question is why do they accept it.  Part of this seems to be me to be tied up in simply wanting to look good and be accepted into American culture.  If you go to the big ELCA cathedral in downtown Minneapolis, it looks Episcopalian and there are flags from all nations in the stained glass window.  The people who originally went there were of course not from all nation- they were Swedish- and they were peasants, not WASPS.  But they wanted to be good Americans and seem like they were WASPs, so everyone would accept them.  WELS and LCMS people historically just wanted to practice their religion and be good "Old" Lutherans as they were called in the early 19th century so they were less tempted by this (although not totally free from the temptation either- a little on that in a future post!).  After all, you have Franz Pieper writing a systematic theology in German in the 1910s and 20s- 70 some years after the LCMS moved to the English speaking United States.  The emphasis among the LCMS theologians (Pieper being the chief example) was on founding schools- not just for evangelism (which it later claimed to be the rationale for)- but as Pieper put it, to shield orthodoxy Lutheran children from the Reformed cultural influence in the US.  A good goal.  But you also see my point.
In light of studying Pietism in general the Verinus Timeotheus in particular is the second major factor as to why the ELCA accepted modernism was the influence of Pietism.  Part of the reason behind this is that the majority of the Lutheran immigrates who made up the ELCA's predecessor bodies were Pietists, whereas this was less the case in the WELS and LCMS (though the WELS actually had a rather large number of Pietists, in fact it was originally a Pietistic group, which some what explains its quasi-sectarianism and its strange doctrine of the Church).  Why do I say this?  Well, let's look at the characteristics of Pietism that Loscher notes.  Bear in mind, these were only doctrines of certain Pietists, the ones he was arguing against.  The movement was wide and different groups within it.  In fairness, this should also be said of the ELCA.  Below, I am mainly arguing about its left-wing which controls most of the Church government:

1. Some Pietists said that people from non-Christian religions could be saved- so does the left of the ELCA.

2. Pietists believed in double justification.  In other words, justification was dependent on sanctification.  The two main theological schools in the ELCA hold something like this as well. Gerhard Forde and his followers held that the cross inspires faith which satisfies God's demand in the law (though one is imputed with the forgiveness of Christ, it is actually faith fulling the law which makes one holy in God's sight).  On the other side, the "Evangelical Catholics" hold to the Finnish school of Luther interpretation, that mystical union and the indwelling Christ make one holy before God.   According Loscher, certain Pietists also liked this model.

3. Millennialism- Pietists believed in a literal millennium were Christ would rule on earth.  The present ELCA is obsessed with political activism which is a secularized form of Millennialism.  Through government poverty programs, the UN, and all the rest, many of them believe that we can build the kingdom on earth (some of them have said things like this to the effect of this or that we can build it to a point, and then Jesus will come back and complete of efforts).   

4. Pietists rejected closed communion.  So does the ELCA.

5. Pietists were willing to relativize all doctrinal differences, hold that those who taught heresy were just as good Christians because of their holiness in living.  The ELCA will compromise anything to enter an ecumenical agreement.  If you look at their list of days celebrating different figures in the history of the Church in the hymnal- you get weirdos like Julian of Norwich (probably because she calls God "Mother" at one point of her book of visions) and Grundvig, who taught that the NT was not authoritative (only the Apostles Creed for some reason!) and that once you went to hell, you had one last chance to get out.

6. The Pietists taught that there is no difference between the priesthood of all believers and the office of ministry.  The ELCA uses the line from Galatians "there is neither male nor female, etc.." to justify the ordination of women.  Again, this also presupposes that there is not difference between the office of ministry and the priesthood of all believers, since the priesthood of all believers and not the office of ministry is what the verse is about.

7.  Now here's an interesting one that I would never have expected (thought it makes total sense in light of Pietist principles as I will explain below).  Christian Thomasius, a Pietist leader and theologian wrote a book saying that Christians were only subject to the natural law (that is the moral law, not the civil or ceremonial law), but that sodomy (by which I assume he means homosexual acts, not just homosexual rape as it has come to mean in the past 30 years or so) and incest do not violate the natural law.  The present ELCA allows each synod(for Missourian, this would be the equivalent of district) to do as it like regarding homosexual practice.

8. The Pietists claimed that the word "Lutheran" was sectarian.  They also claimed that the Symbolic writings (the Book of Concord) were unnecessary and that the Book of Concord was a "shame book."  The present ELCA gives lip service the Lutheran symbols but really has very little use for them.  Most reject total acceptance of the confessions (quia subscription).  They call the LCMS and other confessional Lutheran "sectarian" (I've heard this on numerous occasions).  They also describe confessional Lutherans as "confessional fundamentalists."

9. The Pietists were not keen on the inerrancy of the Bible- neither is the ELCA.  Again, Lutherans who accept the doctrine of the historic Church (going back to the NT and beyond) are "Fundamentalists" who believe in a "paper pope."

Now, I think it's fair to say these some pretty interesting parallels.  The next question we should ask is, what's the red thread running through these theological propositions.  My answer would be "Enthusiasm."

"Enthusiasm" means literally "God within."  It assumes that God is given to us in some non-external, something that is not objectified or concrete. 

In other words, you can see why women's ordination and gay marriage would make sense to people who also reject the inerrancy of the Bible.  What's at stake in both cases his concrete realities and whether or not they matter.  For women's ordination and gay marriage, the claim is that there is something spiritual that transcends the fact that the people don't have the right body parts for what they want to do.  God's concrete order established in the beginning (whether that be of Adam as the first minister of the Word and Eve as the first Church as Luther says, or one man and one woman in marriage) doesn't matter, because the essence of ministry doesn't have anything to do with a concrete external order of creation which God has established.  In the same way, there is a spiritual "essence" to the Bible which makes it irrelevant whether every word of it is true or whether one can strictly identify with the Word of God.  Again, for them, there must ultimately be a Word of God above the Word of God!

One could of course use other example, like the claim that doctrines don't matter or acceptance of open communion ("spiritual" unity matters, concrete doctrinal and intellectual agreement doesn't!), but I think that we get the point.

Ultimately, this all goes back to a rejection of the central truth of the Christian faith- namely the Incarnation and the work of Christ.  The Lutheran claim in particular is that the fullness of divine glory is alone to be found in, under, and with, the flesh of the Incarnate Christ (genus maiestaticum).  It is not to be found elsewhere.  Consequently, it may be observed, that the ELCA is not compelled to hold their position by the supposedly "knockout" arguments of modernity (of which their are none) but rather by a theological commitment to secularized Pietistic enthusiasm.  


  1. "For women's ordination and gay marriage, the claim is that there is something spiritual that transcends the fact that the people don't have the right body parts for what they want to do."

    I'm assuming you'd follow Nicea in saying that eunuchs can be clergy (provided they hadn't castrated themselves), so are the essential body parts for preaching the Word and administering sacraments merely a penis and a prostate? Can't say I've seen the operation of those body parts in the exercise of clerical office, but then maybe I haven't seen any real preaching yet.

  2. "essential body parts for preaching the Word and administering sacraments merely a penis and a prostate?"

    No- what my point is is that ministry isn't something merely functional, but rather a bodily order established by God in the beginning. Adam as the first minister of the Word and Eve as the first Church.

    You're objection partially makes my point for me. The Pietist/ELCA acceptance of the women's ordination only works if you assume that ministry is merely a functional. That is, it's not part of the order of creation, but rather an arbitrary office established within the priesthood of all believers to "function" as a means of getting out word and sacrament. If function is the issue, then clearly women are write sermons and all that other stuff. But my point and Luther's is that it isn't- ministry is an order of creation.

    Of course, this creates massive problems for your Christology. If ministry belongs to males, then Christ's maleness makes sense, since he is the supreme minister of the Word. He succeeds where Adam failed. If not, the Christ's maleness is arbitrary and therefore is something inessential about him. He becomes more of an abstraction, and less of a concrete historic person. A spiritual Christ, not a bodily one. Again, Feminist theologians want to say that Christ is "human" and not "male" and the results are Pietist spiritualism.

  3. As a former member of the ELCA now LCMS I think you hit the nail on the head, especially with your last paragraph. My background is Swedish and the old non-pietist expressions in high-church Augustana.

    I sense that there is a a growing movement within the ELCA to adopt a quasi-docetism, in which the maleness of Jesus was just an outward manifestation of the Logos coupled with the in-dwelling Spirit enthusiasm you describe. This also manifests itself in the heresies of HerChurch where the desperation to find anything female in the Trinity, i.e. Sophia imagery for the Spirit, has taken them past the threshold of orthodox Christianity and into some type of neo-panentheism.

    I remember being in meetings or discussions where the Holy Spirit was said to be moving us towards (name your ELCA position). It had the same impact as saying to a Polish peasant in 1939, "The Werhmacht is moving." If you had any objections you were working contrary to the Spirit.

  4. Well, you brought up body parts.

    As to the Christology, if Christ's maleness (as opposed to femaleness) is essential to his human work, I'd say a bigger problem would be that what is not assumed is not saved, in which case I wouldn't blame erstwhile Christian feminists going off and trying to uncover alternative female dieties to worship.

    On the other hand, if maleness fully includes femaleness (and not the converse) such that Christ needed to be male to be Christ for all humanity, then the female is simply a defective male. While that might solve the Christology problem, I don't see what in the bible would necessitate that anthropology.

  5. Michael,

    Christ was celibate in His earthly life, so you might consider that Christ's maleness was not operative in the usual, generative sense. To ask an equivalent question to yours, one might ask what the operative relationship is between femaleness and Christ's maleness.

    To me, the answer seems to be that Christ's maleness is operative as Bridegroom relative to His bride, the Church. If Christ assumed human maleness and therefore saved maleness (yet not through the typical, generative way in which maleness is operative), Christ also saved the Church by (1) performing His own saving work and (2) proclaiming that this saving work was, is, and will be to the end of time for His bride, the Church. And this is generative, in its own new way.

    So on the one hand we have the maleness assumed and consequently redeemed, and on the other hand we have the for-you-ness of Christ's work for the Church.

    Dr. Kilcrease, I suppose you wouldn't want to take this so far as to say that Christ's relationship to men is different than His relationship to women, would you? If not, where does one get off that train?