Friday, April 6, 2012

A Preliminary Report on "The Lutheran Confessions"

I've been reading over the last week or soThe Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord, by Arand, Kolb, and Nestingen.

I'm currently about half way through it. I figured I would give a preliminary report and make a small critique of it so far.
1. Despite the fact that these scholars worked have worked together in the past, and were friends when Kolb was at Concordia St. Paul, they actually operate with rather different understandings of how the Lutheran Church arose. Nestingen was taught by Forde and Harry McSoreley.He came of age while existentialism, Neo-Orthodoxy, and the Luther Renaissance were still hot stuff. Many of his theological judgments and scholarly understandings of the Lutheran Reformation werepretty clearly defined in the 60s and 70s, and haven't change much since. From this basis, Nestingen asserts number of things that are theologically and historically problematic. For Nestingen, there is a profoundtheological difference between Luther and Melanchthon. With Luther, one has a pastor concerned about pastoral care. Though there is a forensic aspect to his doctrine of justification, basically justificationis conflated with sanctification by the effective Word of God. Melanchthon corrupted Luther's Reformationby bringing in Scholasticism, Humanism, and the straight-jacket of orthodoxy. His concerns were not pastoral, but intellectual. He was also a legalist in that he taught the third use of the law and the doctrineof lex aeterna (it is often admitted by these types that Luther did use the term "lex aeterna," but it is claimthat he did not mean the same thing by it as Melanchthon).
2. Kolb and Arand are not children of this era, but come out of the trend in Reformation scholarship since the late 70s and early 80s. The trend in this era (primarily on under the influence of Heiko Oberman)was to see a continuity between the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. Moreover, scholars of this era have also increasing seen a continuity between the period of Orthodoxy and the Reformation. The Luther Renaissance (which Nestingen is still under the spell of) followed Ritschl and Holl (and the earlierPietist theologians!) by seeing in Melanchthon and Luther- as well as the Reformation and Orthodoxy-vast theological differences. This judgment has largely been reversed. Kolb in particular has overcomesuch stereotypes by his close readings of the original sources (just take a look at the bibliography of the Bound Choice book!). According to their perspective then, although Melanchthon is recognized as having made mistakes theologically, he is understood as having made major contributions to the formation of Protestant theological method. He is also seen as having been motivated by genuine pastoral concerns (just as Luther was, after all, heavily influenced by Humanist methods!). This is true particularly with regard to his doctrine of the third use of the law, which is understood by Arand and Kolb as simply being a natural outworking of the Luther and Melanchthon's understanding of the distinction between active and passiverighteousness. It is not a betrayal of Luther's understanding of the law, but rather a basic recognition that regarding things "below us," we are free and rational, and therefore can be instructed by God in whichspecific works he wishes us to perform.
3. When these differences are appreciated, the text becomes an interesting read. Having heard bits and pieces of the text in Nestingen's lectures at Luther Seminary, I can usually tell when he's writing. If I had toguess, I think I would say he wrote the sections on the Catechism, Augustana, and the Smalkald Articles. Arand probably wrote some of things on the Catechisms as well. Most of the rest I think (so far) is Kolb.The use of the phrase "Wittenberg Circle" (his description of the culture of theological-cross pollination during the early Lutheran Reformation) is used in a lot of these sections. The interesting part is that it appears that the historical judgments of Arand and Kolb have largely won out. Nestingen has beenable to repeat many of his historical characterization here (much of which I consider to be false), but Arand and Kolb have clearly gone over them and toned them down. We see absolutely no hint that the thirduse of the law is a bad thing. We see no demonization of Melanchthon-which is actually quite surprising. In fact, there is a defense of Melanchthon on several points. Unfortunately, one of the Nestingen more problematic assertions about the contrast between Melanchthon and Luther in fact does make it through. According to Nestingen, Luther's theological method was to infer the bondage of the will from the actuality of thecross. If the whole person was redeemed by Christ, then the will must be bound and sin must have totally ruined humans. In contrast, Melanchthon studied the text of Scripture and quotations from the Fathers, and built his case from there. This is basically false. Luther of course does argue this way in Bondage of the Will towards the end, but it's only after he made a series of arguments which are largely philosophical, and a few which are exegetical. What Nestingen is actually doing here is attributingthe methodology of post-Kantian German Protestant dogmatics to Luther: Since one cannot know the "ding-an-sich" (in this case God) one infers it through it's effects on one's consciousness. What is the effect? A consciousness of salvation. Who is the agent of this effect? Jesus- so all theology must be deduced from the second article! In class, Nestingen also tried to make this claim on the basis of the ordering of the Catechisms and the Augustana. As Richard Muller would point out, such a contrast is makes little sense if one actually studies why confessions of faith or dogmatic text books were writtenin the way that they were: Mostly they were simply ordered on the basis of the Creed or in the caseof the first Loci Communes, according to the structure of the Epistle to the Romans. Drawing outimplication as to what the theologian's starting point is from the structure of the articles of the faith areis highly problematic. As Lewis Ayres points out, talking about a "starting point" to almost anytheologian's theology is itself non-sensical. It presupposes that people think as systematically as text-books when forming their actual ideas.


  1. Thank you very much for this helpful analysis!

  2. I just ordered my copy, I assume that the book incorporates AF's strict gender neuterizing policy and perpetuates the misnomer "crypto-Phillipist" which was used in the ELCA's edition of the BOC, in the notes on the Formula.

    At only 350 pages, I can't imagine it provides anywhere nearly as thorough a job as Bente's treatment of this subject, but I'm looking forward to the insights from more recent scholarship.

    I also expect there is a defense in the book for the disastrous decision to put into the ELCA's edition of the Book of Concord a version of the Apology of the AC that was specifically rejected for inclusion in both the German BOC of 1580 and the Latin BOC of 1584.

    It is interesting that Wengert was not involved in this, but good, since he denies the third use of the Law and has become an advocate and champion of the ELCA's homosexual agenda. Nestinggen is rather famous for rejecting that agenda, so again, a bit surprising he is involved with the volume.

    Picked mine up on Amazon.

  3. "At only 350 pages, I can't imagine it provides anywhere nearly as thorough a job as Bente's treatment of this subject, but I'm looking forward to the insights from more recent scholarship."

    Well, it's certainly good for the latter. I think it probably is as thorough since Bente spends a lot of time on several side issues, such as whether Luther ever renounced his belief in the bondage of the will (a common meme in late 19th century American Lutheranism).

    "It is interesting that Wengert was not involved in this, but good, since he denies the third use of the Law and has become an advocate and champion of the ELCA's homosexual agenda. Nestinggen is rather famous for rejecting that agenda, so again, a bit surprising he is involved with the volume."

    I think probably if your read the beginning you'll get the answer. Kolb and Nestingen were friends when they were both in St. Paul and decided to work to create 1. a new translation of the BoC. 2. Translate untranslated sources of the BoC. 3. Write a new version of Bente. I don't think they have as close a relationship with Wengert.

    Also, I think Wengert is quite a good scholar and I don't think his view of the homosexual issue would play much of a role in his description of the controversies. As for the third use issue, I'd be interested to hear about where he rejects the third use. I've only read one thing where it sounds like an implied critique of the idea (the end of the book on the Antinomian controversy, which was really good). In any case, as I've pointed out in the past, when people say that they reject the third use, it usually means they simply have a more expansive idea of the first use. Almost no one (except for the Seminex folks) really rejects the idea in practice. Usually they reject some false version of it.

  4. I really appreciate your succinct, clear analysis of the books you are reading. I find it to be very helpful. Keep up the good work.

  5. I have read Wengert's book on the Antinomian Controversy ("Law and Gospel") and his "Formula of Concord for Parish Practice". In both these books his own view is stated - that the "third use" of the law is the "first and second use applied to Christians".

  6. Jack, just received my copy and have spent some time with it today. What really shocks me about the book is that there is nearly nothing about the publication of the BOC, in fact, none at all, as far as I can tell.

    A very striking omission in a book titled, "History of the Book of Concord." A sentence or two on the final form of the Formula in 1577 and then...nothing. Nothing about the work on either the German 1580 or Latin 1584 Book of Concord.

    Of course, such an omission avoids having to address the rather, in my view, embarrassing problem with the ELCA edition of the Book of Concord using a text of the Apology never included in either the German 1580 or Latin 1584 edition of the BOC.

    There is quite a lot of quirkiness introduced, for instance, referring to John Frederick the Elder and John Frederick the "Middler" ... odd ways of referring to them.

    All in all, I've not found anything of any particularly revelatory significance that changes any assertions and history offered in Friederich Bente's much more detailed, and frankly, much more interesting historical introduction.

    I do like that the book provides a lot of references to more modern secondary sources.

  7. Any hint on when your final analysis of the book will appear?