Saturday, January 12, 2013

Is the Book of Concord "Canon Law for Lutherans"?

My seminary friend Donavon Riley (now an LCMS pastor in Minnesota) wrote another excellent piece for BJS here:

Pr. Riley's basic point in the post (as I read it) was that the Lutheran symbols are not some sort of odious authority, stifling our theological freedom (a claim often made by ELCA folks and other liberal Lutherans), but are rather a guide to true doctrine.  True doctrine is regulative of good preaching and good preaching conveys the gospel and the freedom that it bring.  Hence, the authority of the Lutheran Confessions is ordered to the creation of the freedom of the gospel, and not meant to create more law-based bondage.

An unknown person calling himself "BOC Fan" left a series of comments on the blog in response to Pr. Riley.  I will not speculate here as to who this individual is (persons on the website seem to have a good idea, but these things are never 100%).  Nevertheless, I will deal with the theological claims made by this individual.  Believing that Pr. Riley was leading to some sort of laxed view of the Lutheran Confessions (certainly a misreading), this particular author asserted that we must understand that the Confessions are real norming authorities for the Church.  Of course, this is true and indeed this is not a point which pastor Riley wished to dispute.  The author went farther though and claimed that the Lutheran Confessions are "canon law" for Lutherans.  There were a number of responses to this claim (before the author was asked to leave), including my own.  Here below I'd like to flesh out my own response a bit more with a series of points.

1. First of all, the claim that the LCs are "canon law for Lutherans" is a bit odd.  It is odd because it comes off as the acceptance of a kind of caricature of confessional Lutheranism promoted by its liberal opponents.  I remember one of my Confessions profs. in seminary (Pat Kiefert- a Seminex grad!) claiming that that is how Arthur Piepkorn had taught the symbols to him (that is, as canon law) and therefore, because of freedom of the gospel, we shouldn't take them too seriously!  In other words, in this individual describing the LCs as canon law, he comes off rather like a Catholic proudly announcing that they are a bread-worshiper, idolator, and Pelagian!  Or a Baptist fundamentalist proudly announcing that he or she is an anti-intellectual killjoy!  BOC Fan is in effect accepting a caricature or false representation of the confessional Lutheran perspective.  Therefore, I do not think describing the LCs as "our canon law,"  helps our cause as confessional Lutherans.  The analogy between canon law and the LCs probably should be avoided since it plays into liberal caricatures and polemics.

2. A second (and minor historical point- brought up to me by my wife!) is that the LCs cannot be canon law for Lutherans, insofar as (despite Luther's public burning 1521) Lutheran Church continued to use canon law (to the extent that it did not conflict with Scripture or Christian freedom) throughout the early centuries of its establishment.  For this reason, the LCs can't be canon law for Lutherans, because canon law was canon law for Lutherans!

3.  Thirdly, I would comment that I think to a certain extent that BOC Fan's heart was in the right place.   Many of the responses that he received on BJS were something like "well no, you're wrong because the code of canon law is law and not gospel- and the LCs are gospel!"  And I don't think this is entirely the correct approach to take.  The approach I would take is that of Pr. Riley and that is to assert that the Lutheran symbols are real authorities (albeit normed by Sacred Scripture) and therefore they are law as well as gospel.  In this sense, BOC Fan is indeed correct: The Confessions contain God's truth and God's truth is obligatory, and not optional.  This is an important, because there has been confusion on this point as of late.  I recently heard a Lutheran theologian whom I have a great deal of respect for (I will not name him here, in case I have misinterpreted his remarks) say that telling laypeople that it is obligatory to believe in one doctrine of predestination (for example) or other propositional truths, is a form of legalism and incompatible with the freedom of the gospel which the Church is based on.  And this is incorrect.  The gospel justifies and sanctifies- sanctification means obedience to all God has revealed, including all the propositional truths of the faith.  If I have faith, then I trust in the word of justification and therefore I also have to acknowledge that God is true and that what he has revealed is also true. To not believe these things is the same as to persist in sins of the flesh after I have been justified.  Intellectual sins are no less sins than the sins of the flesh.  This being said, again as Pr. Riley observes, this law of propositional truth is ultimately ordered to the freedom of the gospel.  By imposing that law of true doctrine on the visible Church, such a law leads to a clarification of the gospel which brings freedom from the condemnation of the law. 

4. Fourthly, the analogy between canon law and the LCs breaks down on another level, that is, on the basis of how our norming norms and normed norms function in light of how we understanding the phenomenonology of the Word. 

The Lutheran act of “confessing” is inherently different than the Roman Catholic notion of “Decrees” and “Canons”- the latter being assumed in the formation of canon law. The issue is how one thinks about the subject/object relationship when dealing with the Word of God. For Roman Catholics, Scripture is a lifeless object, interpreted by special persons who have the Spirit (Pope, Councils, etc.). The person judges the object’s qualities based on their gifts of the Spirit and then decrees what the content is. In this schema, the reader is in control of the read object.

In confessing, the person of faith responds to the Word which is he or she has suffered. The Word is God’s Word and therefore omnipotent. The person of faith suffers God’s Word and becomes the object of its address. The consequence is the derivative response of the Confession. One proclaims with their mouth, what through the omnipotent power of the Word they have come to believe with their heart. In this schema, God and his Word are in control, and the reader suffers this Word passively.  Hence, the law/gospel nature of the Word means that the Church in every age suffers the Word passively and then proclaims that Word.  The confession of the Church in response to certain polemic situation has become authoritative not because it is the decree of the Church, but because it is the spirit-induced confession of the Church's continued faith in the Holy Scriptures within a given situation.


  1. Good article. Though I think you could have cited the theologian, and with your caveat not held him responsible for any misinterpretation.
    I think my problem with Confessions as Canon Law, is not so much as it is a completely wrong approach, there is perhaps as you bring out a bit of truth to it. But it seems rather counter to the ethos in which the confessions came about, robbing them of their confessional Character. And Synod these days, seems to be a bunch of guys combing the confessions to find some way of hanging their brother. Rather than trying to find unity in the "Satis Est", they seem to be trying to establish a unity based solely on a legalistic understanding of the confessions that robs them of mercy and charity. They would have us, not walking together, and perhaps carrying each other, as the pilgrims venturing to the promised land, but marching lockstep as we try to take France, or Poland. It is all rather tiring, and frankly, boring, as if they comprehend the gospel themselves not at all.

  2. As a canon law website begins: “Canon law is the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the western world.” The Book of Concord is not a legal system. The Book of Concord does not promulgate a canon law or a hierarchy to enforce them, but, as one brother-pastor noted, a “Logocracy”, the rule of God’s Word as correctly professed in the Book of Concord ... that pastors, not priests, are called and ordained to correctly teach, preach and administer according to the Word as it is rightly believed, taught and confessed in the Book of Concord.

    If the Lutheran Confessions are interpreted as canon law they are rendered dead. A Christless, Spiritless letter. Then it is left to the church writ small or large to express their meaning for neophyte laity (and not a few pastors)

    But the premise of the Confessions is God's Word, specifically Christ crucified. And, as Jack remarked in relation to this:

    In confessing, the person of faith responds to the Word which is he or she has suffered. The Word is God’s Word and therefore omnipotent. The person of faith suffers God’s Word and becomes the object of its address. The consequence is the derivative response of the Confession. One proclaims with their mouth, what through the omnipotent power of the Word they have come to believe with their heart. In this schema, God and his Word are in control, and the reader suffers this Word passively.

  3. I find it funny when Lutherans degrade canon law when most of us have probably not read a single word of medieval canon law. True, some of it is only fit for the fire, but some of it is quite good, used by Lutherans (our confessions claim that we are better at keeping the canons than Rome!), and much more theological in nature than our synodical constitution and bylaws which could probably stand to learn a thing or two from canon law.

  4. If the Confessions aren't canon law for Lutherans (and I'm not suggesting that they are), then what is canon law for Lutherans?

    "And if any one will consider it aright, we conform to the canons more truly than do the adversaries." Ap XV:39

    Perhaps that's only descriptive and not prescriptive.

    What happened to canon law in Lutheran lands, especially Scandinavia?

  5. I would opine that the Confessions *contain* "canon law" - and which has been reformed for the sake of the Church qua earthly institution rather than the Church qua divine institution as per Article XV (VIII): Of Human Traditions in the Church.

    In other words, instead of canon law regulate the process of justification in the Church (i.e. justification in the Roman sense); it now regulates the process of vocation in the Church.

  6. Thus, canon law properly speaking has a different understanding than the original form.

    Roman canon law binds the conscience of the faithful, and thus plays a part in shaping the consensus fidelium (as source of Roman theology).

    Lutheran "canons" expresses the freedom of Christians from the confusion of Law and Gospel in Mother Church.