Friday, September 10, 2010

Lutheran CORE Theological Conference: Enthusiasm is the solution to Enthusiasm?

Check this out:

Lutheran CORE (as if you're shouting the second half) had a highly disappointing theological conference. Someone named David Neff covered it for Christianity Today.

Guess what? They're all disappointed the the ELCA is institutionally liberal and, that we in the LCMS (and by proxy the WELS and ELS) are (get this!) Fundamentalists! Wow, I've never heard that before. What a devastating critique.

So, being the enlightened, creedally orthodox folks as they are, but not wanting to be too orthodox and get the label of "Fundamentalists," they've decided to try to come together to forge a path forward and create a via media between liberalism and evil, evil fundamentalism. By which they mean make a church body that resembles the ALC ca. 1980, which within a similar time spade will look like the ELCA ca. August 2009.

Of all the presentations, I find Carl Braaten's the most interesting because of the theological sleight-of-hand. His argument is that the ELCA is Gnostic because (to put it briefly, he gives a number of reasons) they rely on the inner word or spirit, and not, the external Word. In order to counteract this, Braaten suggests that we undertake the same tactics as the early Church: Insist that the Word is to be found in the canon of Scripture, have clear creedal rules which the Scriptures are to be read on the basis of, have Bishop who will enforce those readings.

Couple of observations about this.

1. In light of the Lutheran Reformation, it is difficult disagree with canon, creed, and teaching office as the proper structure of authority. What one should take exception to is where the later two derive their authority. As Sasse notes, obviously we need creeds and confessions because the Word is always being challenged. In the beginning the Apostolic keygma as a guide to the OT was enough, then the NT was enough, then the Apostles creed was enough, so on and so forth. Nevertheless, Sasse observes that the regula fidei must be derived from Christ and the biblical authority which he established. Similarly, the office of ministry must be predicated not on some abstract concept of apostolic succession (as in Catholicism), but rather on the basis of call of the true visible Church (that is, the Church that holds to scriptural truth) to properly teach the gospel and administer the sacraments.

Braaten by contrast wants to make the regula fidei and the teaching office independent of the Scriptures and talks about the movement of the Spirit in Church history. Because Braaten does not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and believes in the the HCM, he takes it for granted that the Bible doesn't really say what creedal orthodoxy says that it does. In his book Mother Church, he tells us all that Roman Catholics have now accepted that dogma evolves by the motion of the Spirit apart from the Word, so we Lutheran should accept it as well. He makes a similar argument about the hierarchy of the Church and insists that we need to figure out a way of reuniting with the Catholics so that we can have a clear and unambiguous teaching authority. In this schema, the Church is able to add meaning to the Bible because of its history of Spirit-guided reading. The regula fidei is not then a simple exposition of the content of the Bible, but rather something impose on it.

As one can observe, most of their problems could be solved by a return to the traditional Lutheran doctrine of plenary and verbal inspiration. Promoting the special inspiration of the Church Fathers and the Bishop simply makes up for a deficiency of the Bible. Nevertheless, not wanting to be laughed at by other mainline Protestants and have the social stigma of being "Fundamentalists," they can't.

Granted the LCMS has a lot of problems. We have nothing to brag about. But we don't have sermons promoting state-run socialism every week and we have yet to vote for gay marriage and ordination- neither does that even remain a remote possibility in the near future!

2. This is why I refer to this as a sort of sleight-of-hand on Braaten's part. Why use the term "Gnosticism" instead of Enthusiasm? Well, because that would damage Braaten's own theological proposal! In other words, instead of returning to the Word, Braaten wants another sort of Enthusiasm, a high-churchy one, rather than the Liberal one proposed by the institutional leadership of the ELCA.

3. Of course, appeals to the Spirit apart from the Word is what caused this whole mess in the first place, so why would more of the same be the solution?


  1. Without plenary and and verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura fails. I am not suprized when someone who believes in the historical critical meathod converts to Rome or Constaniople because the HCM makes hash out of Sola Scripturea. If you wanted to stay protestant you would have to retreat from sola scripturea to the Anglican tripod or the Weslyan quadrilateral.

  2. Good point Gregory.

    What I've found interesting in my studies of Melanchthon and Lutheran orthodoxy's use of the analogia fidei and the loci method is how much Reformation theology is dependent on a certain methodology- i.e., that there are clear passages, that those clear passages possess an inner analogy and coherence with one another and so forth. None of this works without the assumption that God is the author of Scripture. Without a single divine author, Scripture can't be analogous to itself and your doctrinal claims go to pot. The neo-orthodox solution of unifying Scripture by saying that all is a witness to a common event of revelation doesn't work, because anyone is then free to say how much the text reflects the "event" of revelation, and how much is just human. We can see this in the ELCA liberal's argument that Paul's condemnations of homosexual practice are merely "cultural."

    Also, I might add, all these claims by the liberals and Catholics about the ambigious nature of Scripture only works if you reject the loci method. Both using this common method for reading the Bible, basically the Reformed and Lutheran scholastic agreed on pretty much everything except election and the Lord's Supper. They didn't because the Reformed violated the method by insisting on something more than the literal, grammatical meaning of texts (i.e. interpreting on the basis of human reason).

    Also (though I am exaggerating here a bit) in western Christianity, you only get a proliferation of sects after the late 17th century (with the possible exception of the Anabaptists) when you have lay preachers and sectarians in Britain, Holland, and America, abusing sola scriptura, by not following the proper rules of interpretation (loci method), and not taking into account the catholic witness of the Church.

    Hence, sola scriptura has created a lot of sects because it never occurs to anyone that sola scriptura only works with the methodological presuppositions of the Reformers.

  3. Not to mention the irony that it was Gnosticism that introduced women's priesthood in the heretical churches and abrogated the created differences between men & women.

  4. It seems like the spirit of Newman is hovering behind all of this. I wonder if CORE will observe his upcoming beatification.

    "...a church body that resembles the ALC ca. 1980, which within a similar time spade will look like the ELCA ca. August 2009."

    It seems to me that, given the fact that the NALC emerged in opposition to homosexual ordination and blessings, the first error they will slide into will likely not be homosexuality. I am sure that their errors will manifest themselves somehow, but I don't think they'll appear in quite the same manner as the ELCA. I'm not sure what I'd expect to happen, though.

  5. Jack -- Nice blog. And though I'm sure I don't have the academic firepower to keep up here, you've certainly piqued my curiosity with some of you latest posts.

    Two thoughts -- First, I'm interested to read your critique of Forde's theory of Atonement.

    Second, I was at the Core Theological Conference, and certainly didn't detect an "LCMS, WELS....are fundamentalist" message there...though you might ask the same question Herb Chillstrom has recently and bluntly put it to those leaving the ELCA: "why not just join up with the 'other' Lutherans, rather than start a new denomination?"

    But I wonder, and am quite curious to find out in the future too...does Braaten (as an evangelical catholic) form the theological/ecclesial identity of CORE or the NALC? I don't think so, but time will tell. (and if he does, wouldn't this be more LCA circa 1980, than ALC?)

    Which brings another question -- didn't you get a sense from Braaten...a kind of unexpected admission in his presentation that the model of espiscopal oversight had failed in the ELCA, and was not the one-stop shop for ecclesiology? (which might be an admission that what he wrote in "Mother Church" represented some poor assumptions)

    Finally though -- quite right that any appeals to the Spirit apart from the Word only lead to mischief -- no matter what your 4-letter church name is.

    Anyway -- thanks for your work here.

    Jason Burggraff (Greta's Cousin)

  6. Jason- Good to hear from you. It's been a while. If you're interested in my critique of Forde, I have some articles (one which will be published this winter in CTQ) that I can send you. So contact me for them via e-mail.

    In response to your other points, here's some thoughts.

    1. The "fundamentalism" thing comes from the article that I gave the link to. It's a fairly common insult within these circles. It usually goes along with the claim that Luther held a "gospel is only authoritative" theology of the Bible, whereas orthodoxy cooked up inerrancy and plenary inspiration. I would encourage anyone to read the really brilliant scholar, Richard Muller's treatment of the question in the third volume of "Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics." Basically he shows this isn't true and that although there were differences in how Christian theologians thought about the psychology of inspiration, there was a uniform view of God as the author of Scripture prior to the Enlightenment.

    Of course the whole problem is that when you say that the Scriptures are partially errant, then you can play the game of when and where you think they are. Prior to the 90s (with some exceptions) white upper-middle class culture was less inclined to accepted homosexuality. Hence, in the Mainline denominations, those passages which condemn it were viewed as not being in error. Now that they accept it, those passages are in error, just like the ones about women's ordination starting being in error in the early 70s or the ones about special creation in the 50s or so. You see how this works. The Scriptures start being in error whenever they disagree with your culture's values.

    2. I said "ALC" and not "LCA" because the level of institutional conservatism they want was more proper to the ALC rather than the LCA, which was always institutionally liberal. Remember, the LCA was having trouble back in the 40s and 50s with pastors openly saying that the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation didn't happen. The ALC never had any of these problems, though they were always a bit more loose on things like the role of women and on confessional orthodoxy.

    On the level of institutional culture, you are absolutely correct though. I believe prior the merger Braaten was LCA and he would like the institutional culture of the LCA with its Bishops, ecumenism, and general high-churchy-ness to be how things work.

    With regard to whether Bishops failed, I think you could read it that way. In any case, people like David Yeago have been critical in the past about the Bishop's looseness. Yeago suggested, for example, that if there was going to be real ecumenical unity, that the ELCA Bishops should start excommunicating en masse people who rejected CCM and JDDJ. So, I think what a lot of the Evangelical Catholics would say is that Bishops are good, it's just they need to be stricter in their use of power under article 28 of the CA (their favorite article of the Augustana!)

    Any how, happy that you like the blog and I encourage you to continue to comment in the future. I'll search for you on facebook and friend you if your on there.

  7. If you look at this comment below from Braaten, one would have to wonder how he cannot see the root of the ELCA problem. His own logic gets in the way of the answers he seeks.

    "I will leave it to smarter historians than I to explain how it happened that the ELCA could slide so quickly down the slippery slope of liberal Protestantism. Meanwhile, I would hazard two suggestions. First, Lutheranism may contain within its origins the seeds of its own instability. When the first Lutherans lost the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, it had no sure authority to put in its place. The solas sounded good in theory, but it finally comes down to who who has the authority to interpret and apply them in changing times. In the history of Lutheranism the locus of official authority has been wandering all over the place. In the ELCA final authority lies in the hands of a quota-selected majority of lay members who could, if they chose, decide to merge with the Moonies or Mormons, just as they have decided in favor of altar and pulpit fellowship with Methodists and Moravians. Far-fetched? Not any more than the decisions taken at the 2009 Assembly in Minneapolis. In the church the leaders are supposed to be successors of the apostles and not echoes of majority opinion."