Saturday, August 13, 2011

Could We Revive the Synodical Conference?

After the Emmaus conference and President Harrison's recent moves to get closer to the other confessional Lutheran church bodies in the US, I've been wondering if it would be possible to revive the synodical conference.   About a month ago, my wife and I had lunch with a group of ELS, WELS, and LCMS pastors and it was a great experience.  We had much in common.  Moreover, the reason why the synodical conference went down (LCMS liberalism) has been largely dealt with after 1974 (although I would not deny that there are still problems!).

Anyways, here's the problem.  The WELS and the ELS have false doctrines of Church and ministry.  They are nonetheless correct about most everything else.  So, is this a deal breaker? 

To think about this problem, let's clarify how our Lutheran tradition works.  Historically within Lutheranism, fellowship has been predicated on the basis of levels of doctrinal agreement.  This was all worked out by Nicholas Huinnius in the early 17th century.  According to Huinnius, there are two kinds of doctrine.  Fundamental doctrine and non-fundamental doctrines.  So, for example, states Huinnius, the doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental dogma of the Church since it has always defined the Church.  Moreover, it would be impossible for the Church to fulfill its mission without reference to the Trinity, since the gospel is about the advent of the Triune God in salvation.  On the other hand, the Church has not always had the dogma of the Anti-Christ and if someone doesn't believe that there will be an Anti-Christ (for whatever reason) they'll still go to heaven.

Fundamental dogmas are divided up into two categories: primary fundamental dogmas and secondary fundamental dogmas.  Huinnius names the Trinity, Incarnation, atonement, creation, sin, and justification by faith as fundamental dogmas.  In other words, if you don't buy into these you're not a Christian.  Later Lutheran theologians (notably Quenstedt and Hollaz) shorten the list to everything above except justification by faith.  Justification by faith is not a fundamental dogma because a person can intellectually not believe in it, but in practice have justifying faith.  I see this in most Catholics I know, who have the very minimum of creedal orthodoxy and in practice do trust in Jesus as their savior.  This of course would not be possible if they did not hold to the minimum belief in the Trinity and Incarnation- but it is possible without an intellectual commitment to the specific doctrine of justification by faith.  

Sharing fundamental dogmas is enough to be considered Christian, but not enough to have fellowship.  There must be a total agreement on secondary fundamental dogmas.  Huinnius includes among these belief in the sole authority of Scripture and a proper understanding of the sacraments.  He does not mention Church and ministry.  Later Lutherans would of course include belief in the article of justification.  These dogmas are necessary for fellowship (pulpit and altar) because they define the Church's praxis in its proclamation of the gospel.  Though a person could intellectually not believe in justification by faith and still have justifying faith, it is hard to see how the true visible Church could maintain a pastor who rejected the dogma from his pulpit.  Moreover, it is hard to see how the Church could allow people to receive the Lord's Supper or a pastor to preside at the Lord's Supper if they did not believe in the real presence or that the mass was a sacrifice.  It would contradict the fundamental praxis of the Church which is the proclamation of the gospel. 

Nevertheless, in Huinnius' context we can see his point: Lutherans can acknowledge that Catholics and Reformed folks are still Christians.  Nevertheless, they are not worthy of fellowship because fellowship is predicated on the basis of total agreement on fundamental dogmas (primary and secondary).

How does this relate to our context and the possible revival of the synodical conference?  Well, here's my question to you (and I don't know the answer and I'm trying to figure it out myself): Can Church and ministry properly be understood as a primary or secondary fundamental dogma?  If they are not, then I can see a way forward to revive the synodical conference and if not then its impossible.  I guess, I would say at this point- how does holding a wrong understanding of the office of ministry or certain aspects of the dogma of the Church impede the proclamation of the gospel?  I could see how it might, but I'd like to see people's reasoning.

Give me your reasoning.  I'd be very interested in hearing it!


  1. I am old enough to remember when there was a Synodical Conference. I regard the break-up of the conference as an unfortunate occurrence and I would be happy to see it restored. I have never felt, even after all of these years, that there was good reason for the Conference to end.
    The church and ministry arguments are, to my mind, quite meaningless. There are two ways, at least, to look at this question and neither idea needs to prevail.
    There is, I feel, unity between ELS and WELS leadership on things but the unity is more social and cultural. There is no feeling of unity with WELS for those who are mere pew sitters.

    The biggest obstacle between ELS and WELS people is worship in the WELS. ELS people whom I know shake their hands in disapproval when WELS comes up in conversation.

  2. If Missouri is willing to say that WELS' doctrine of the Ministry is Biblical, and if WELS is willing to say Missouri still agrees with the Chicago and/or Thiensville Theses, then the Ministry question should not be a problem.

    The bigger problem is Missouri's entangling alliances with LWR, joint campus ministry, etc. Should the day come when Missouri must bow out of LWR, I think WELS and ELS would see this as one large obstacle put out of the way for a return to fellowship.

    As far as Missouri and WELS being able to discipline false teachers, well, we both are no longer able to do it. Cf. the most recent WELS convention and the Mark Jeske debacle.

  3. "Later Lutheran theologians (notably Quenstedt and Hollaz) shorten the list to everything above except justification by faith. Justification by faith is not a fundamental dogma because a person can intellectually not believe in it, but in practice have justifying faith."

    How do you think Quenstedt and Hollaz explain Luther's insistence in the Smalcald Articles (Part II, I, 1-5) that justification by grace alone through faith alone is the chief article upon which "...all things depend which we teach and practice..."?

    1] That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.

    2] And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.

    3] Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f

    4] Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.

    5] Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.—Smalcald Articles II I 1-5

  4. David, I don't think it is possible for Missouri to say that WELS' doctrine of ministry is biblical, insofar as it is not. So, I think if it hinges on that, then we're done.

    Jim- What Luther is talking about is the heart and meaning of Christianity. The later Lutheran theologians I mentioned would agree with all that and certainly signed onto that document. Their point is rather to question what is the minimal level of propositional belief one can hold and still in practice hold to the gospel. Their conclusion is that if you hold the Trinity, Incarnation, and atonement-resurrection, then you can still in practice hold to the heart of the Christian faith, even if you do not intellectually hold a doctrine of justification by faith. A Catholic who intellectually believes in the merit of works can in practice look alone to Jesus and trust in him. I think this is true of my Catholic friends quite uniformly and therefore I fully expect to see all of them in heaven.

    Luther I do not think would disagree insofar as he repeatedly insisted that the true Church was present even under the papacy. I think we must affirm this today, even if we still insist on agreement on primary and secondary fundamental dogmas for Church-fellowship.

  5. Thank you for the response, Dr. Kilcrease. The following statement of yours was most helpful: "Their point is rather to question what is the minimal level of propositional belief one can hold and still in practice hold to the gospel." It helps me to understand this point, since it isn't our propositional beliefs which justify us, but we do like to categorize our propositional truths and assign them greater or lesser degrees of importance; even though they are all important.

  6. Thanks for the post Dr. Kilcrease. The WELS/ELS view of the ministry does seem to be something that should be examined by the synods and an agreement in doctrine sought before we enter into some sort of fellowship. I don't know if you can call it part of a secondary fundamental dogma, but it is a part of the one Doctrine of Christ's Church. From the perspective of WELS/ELS (I'm LCMS), it seems to me that they've rightfully got as many "issues" with us as we have with them (such as the whole host of issues catalogued by the ACELC).

    I attended the Emmaus Conference. President Harrison alluded to joint talks with the two other synods in the future, which it seems was a thought lurking in the background, pointing out that we've got our own intra-synod problems to straighten out before we can begin a whole lot of inter-synod dialogue.

  7. The doctrine of church and ministry is certainly not a primary fundamental doctrine, as people have been ignorant of what the church is and still could be saved. For example, many a pious Christian who looked to Christ as their Savior thought that it was their Christian duty to be in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. They did so out of respect for the only ecclesiastical authority they knew.

    But does that make the doctrines of church and ministry secondary fundamental or non-fundamental doctrines? I would argue that the uncertainty arises because we are trying to squeeze all of the dogmas associated with the doctrines of church and ministry into one category. Thus, there are certain dogmas taught under the locus of church and ministry (e.g., the church is all who believe in Christ, the ministry speaks with the God’s authority) that must be considered secondary fundamental doctrines, for if one denied them, how would the church know how to behave or ministers carry out their vocation? But there are other dogmas (e.g., on ecclesiastical order or on the Antichrist—which could fit under the doctrine of ministry as much as under eschatology) that would not fall into the category of a fundamental doctrine of any type.

    This approach is confirmed by the early history of the Missouri Synod. Originally there was a certain willingness to work with Loehe and others despite the different tendencies in Loehe’s and Walther’s view of the ministry. The break seems to have occurred when they could not agree on what constituted an open question and when Loehe insisted on some post-confessional doctrinal developments in the office of the ministry. (Loehe recognized that Walther had the confessions on his side, but argued that the confessions had not sufficiently thought through the matter.) Thus, it seems not to have been the doctrine of the ministry per se that caused the break in fellowship, but rather Loehe’s insistence on going beyond the confessions, even in a somewhat contradictory direction to them.

    This may be where we stand vis à vis the WELS and increasingly the ELS. There are certain tendencies in Wisconsin’s doctrine that are contrary to the Scriptures. However, enough of the essential core of the doctrine is preserved that it is probably not divisive of fellowship. That said, WELS has become increasingly insistent that one must accept their notion of church and ministry in order to be in fellowship with them. They have precipitated a house cleaning in the ELS of all who disagreed with their doctrine—or even just raised questions about it.

    By the way, your question is prompting me to blog later this week about the Wauwatosa theology. The shift in the WELS doctrine didn’t come out of a vacuum and I think it is high time for Missouri to realize this and to grapple with the good and the ill that Wauwatosa brought about.

  8. "But does that make the doctrines of church and ministry secondary fundamental or non-fundamental doctrines?"

    Are you speaking in the broad or narrow sense?