Monday, July 28, 2003


A quick comment on the Atlanta Youth Gathering, Do Life! Ubuntu. As a pastor, it was a very helpful trip to share quality time with the group, get to know the youth and chaperones more deeply, all of that. I can't say enough how much I appreciated going away on retreat, just being with the group. The same might have been accomplished at a outdoor ministry center or on a service trip, but Atlanta was the center of this trip, so...

But I continue to be surprised by these two things: (1) the whole gathering is a media extravaganza of gigantic proportions (by my estimate, the program, not even counting hotel, travel, and food costs, runs to about $5 million per week) apparently because the gospel, in order to be communicated to this generation, needs the assistance of flash and noise (much of the flash and noise I enjoyed, to be honest), and 2) all youth gatherings seem to be centered around social action and certain political pet projects of the ELCA. Again, I happen to agree with the politics, and support the causes the Gathering supported. Nevertheless, I feel that my underlying theological presuppositions are radically different. Why can't there be a youth gathering that doesn't deal with politics? Why must all confession of the faith move immediately to- "so you can do this and that because of your faith". Why can't it center on this- "Christ has done thus and so for you". Why mightn't it not be more evangelical, focusing on the repentance and the confession of sin. That is likely a better place for the beginning of "renewal", in any event.

No postings this coming week as we are in Newfoundland.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Excursus on Confessional Authority

An observation: when ordained to serve the ELCA, a new pastor has to promise to teach and preach according to the Lutheran confessions. This means the whole Book of Concord. Does this mean that the pastor is now bound to respect as equals the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord? Not exactly. My German forebears are now turning over in their graves but my Danish relatives leap for Joy.

When the Reformation spread to other countries, including Denmark in Luther's lifetime, the main tool used was the Augsburg Confession. The Danes and eventually the Norwegians also took on the Small Catechism. After all, you have a formal document for public use and then the catechism to teach the faith. I don't know the situation in Sweden or in Finland.

This arrangement in confessional documents extended to many of the immigrant churches in the United States. When asked to list their confessional documents some Lutherans would say: "Augsburg and the Catechism," others would say: "Augsburg, its Apology, and the Catechism," while some would insist until blue in the face: "the whole Book of Concord." The latter would make fellowship dependent upon the whole Book of Concord, and that is the situation, at least in the letter, that we find ourselves in the ELCA, at least on paper.

Early in this interchange between this various Lutheran parties in the United States there emerged another problem: do I subscribe to the Confessions because they agree with Scripture or only insofar as the agree with Scripture. The parties that held to the whole Book of Concord scheme usually landed in the former camp and others across the spectrum. This question affects which confessional documents you recognize. It is worth mentioning that the Formula of Concord begins with a statement on Scriptural authority and that it more or less says: "in the case of a shootout between the Scripture and the Confessions, the Scripture wins."

Confessional authority, like Biblical authority, is a matter that emerges in the communities that used the documents after their writing and being brought together. Thus, it is difficult to look at the German situation with its collusion between the church and the rulers who adopted the confessions as legal norms for governing the churches and see this arrangement as the evangelical norm for confessional authority. Adherence to the Augsburg Confession was the bare minimum norm for the legal existence of Lutheran territories after the Peace of Westphalia. As Karl Barth repeated numerous times, "'back to' is never a good slogan."

When professing to teach and preach in accord with the confessions it makes sense to identify a hierarchy of authorities. The Augsburg Confession first and then the Catechism, and then the rest of the Confessions with the Formula at the 'bottom.' This is respectful not only of the non-German Lutheran traditions but also the Confessions themselves.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Article XV: Of Ecclesiastical Usages.

Of Usages in the Church they teach that those ought to be
observed which may be observed without sin, and which are
profitable unto tranquillity and good order in the Church, as
particular holy-days, festivals, and the like.

Nevertheless, concerning such things men are admonished that
consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance
was necessary to salvation.

They are admonished also that human traditions instituted to
propitiate God, to merit grace, and to make satisfaction for
sins, are opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith.
Wherefore vows and traditions concerning meats and days, etc.,
instituted to merit grace and to make satisfaction for sins,
are useless and contrary to the Gospel.

This is an interesting (and seemingly light and innocent) topic of the Augsburg Confession, but one heavy on the minds of most worshippers. Essentially, the Reformers are here talking about liturgical or pious actions performed during worship or at other times that are supposed to observed for the sake of "acting out" the faith. Feast days of the church year like Easter and Christmas are included here, plus feasts for the saints. I imagine also would be included things like fasting before worship on Sunday mornings, abstaining from fish on Friday, giving up some kind of food during Lent, etc.

The rule is also quite simple- if the usage draws people into sin and temptation, don't do it. What is temptation and sin? When the usage is confused with the work Christ alone does for us in propitiating God, meriting grace, or making satisfaction for sin. In other words, when the usage is perceived as a human work that accomplishes salvation apart from or above and beyond the work of Jesus Christ, it is a usage that should be gotten rid of. I imagine they also mean any usage that leads people to other kinds of sin.

Here's my current short list of usages that trouble me, some because I feel drawn to do them, others because I think they show something false I wish weren't shown through action:

1. The tri-fold crossing over forehead, lips and heart before reading the gospels. I believe this is a wonderful non-verbal response to the gospel on the part of the congregation and pastor. It should be re-instituted.

2. The lifting up of the offering basket in front of the altar or cross- get rid of it.

3. Genuflecting, and bowing during the words of institution- yes, use it.

4. Old versus new Lord's Prayer- this is one of the most common topics to come up in our congregation. Almost everyone believes the old should be used. I tend to agree.

That's enough of a list to get us started. I believe the point is that the usages are for the sake of good order in the church, and they are encouraged if they teach the Christian faith purely rather than teaching that our actions merit salvation. They are there for building up our faith by doing things that we believe let us freely show our love of God and honor His Word, not to get anything, but simply because we are called to worship in that way.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

XIV. Order in the Church

It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call.

Now by a regular call I imagine the person preaching and teaching has been called by the local congregation and this person's ministry is recognized as regular by the broader church body. The emphasis here is not on intelligence, right doctrine, education, qualifications, etc., per se, but rather on the regularity of the call. The person hasn't jumped up up into the pulpit, pushing the normal preacher out of the way, or grabbed the elements and run to the back of the sanctuary to administer them from there.

This is trite, but also, this kind of thing has happened. The emphasis on a regular call has helped keep congregations in order in terms of relationships and right ordering of who does what.

The problem with the order, though, is when lots of things are attached to what it means to prepare for a regular call. In the ELCA, currently, a regular call includes graduation from an M.Div. program (4 years) after completion of an undergratduate degree, plus all of the other stuff- approval interviews, interviews, and more interviews, essays, psychological and identity examinations, etc. Now, we're all for regularity, but if your sphincter is too tight you won't be regular, you'll be constipated.

Regular call must and needs to be oriented towards getting the gospel out, providing ministers for the people, and these preparations, though worthy at times, can end up in the way. Ice bergs are powerful but they move awful slow.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Their Very Working...

One of the aporias that face theology of the sacraments in the West is how they bear fruit; when do they do what they say the do? In other words, is baptism administered by just anyone legitimate baptism? What if someone is rebaptised? What if the person baptizing doesn't belong to the church or doesn't use the proper rite, doesn't baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit? What if someone's baptized and doesn't go to church or even actively disbelieves the gospel? All these questions came together in a crisis of the church in fourth century North Africa. This collision of question and crisis more or less has created the problem the Reformers considered: by the act of the sacrament, do they by their very working do what they intend to do? Does baptism, for instance, just flat out save?

The answer the West has usually given is that baptism given in the proper form (therefore baptism in any other name isn't baptism) by anyone for whatever purpose is a valid baptism. That's the key. But it is not an effective baptism until the person believes it. And this is the basic position of this article. Though the Reformation position here espoused does correct some late medieval understandings of the sacrament's efficacy by their very working, but on the whole, the Reformation agrees with the west.

Dissent from this position comes in many ways: the original Baptist position in the Reformation did not deny the efficacy of baptism but the validity of its administration in infant form. Wesley was scandalized by the fact that slave traders and other folk walked about England baptized. To him, it was proof enough that the validity of baptism doesn't mean a thing.

These categories--'validity' and 'efficacy'--are important for understanding the sacraments and their administration. But they do deserve amplification and further integration. Especially because the article says most radical of all: baptism and other sacraments are there to be used. They are there to be used by faith. While pastors and others in charge of splashing their water, Christians should welcome again their baptism, rejoice in the gift of public forgiveness, and believe with their mouths! For as surely as the taste of wine stays in my mouth, I am a believer!!
Concerning Church Order

Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.

We get two loaded terms here to deal with depending on whether we are reading the German or Latin versions of this article. The German is "On ordentlichen Beruf", Beruf meaning both call and vocation. This translates as proper call, certainly, and then the 1531 edition of the AC inserts the word "public". In Latin, we have "Rite vocatus", which Tappert says means "called in a manner by a proper public authority", not simply the ordination ritual. In either case, whether public is spelled out or not, it is certainly implied and assumed, because all vocations, all callings, take place through public means.

The argument in the case of the 1500s probably revolves around who has the right to call, and therefore perform the rite of ordination. All involved saw the value of proper calls. Who defined proper was in question.

This brief article has a lot of impact. It has shaped a majority of the ELCA full communion statements, because in the end it is the article we're most concerned about when we say full communion. What we really mean, it seems, when we say full communion, is "can we share ordained ministers?" Our laity by and large already operatively assumed full communion. The hang up was who gets ordained by whom and how.

Furthermore, this hang-up doesn't address a more democratic model of church that needs just as much a list of confessions of church government, how we should organize and make decisions as congregations and synods and as a church, and to be honest, the issue of ordination has become a Shibboleth in what should be a much broader conversation on the issue of Kirchenregiment .
Concerning the Use of Sacraments

Or as my translation of Article XII has it, "not only to be signs by which people may recognize Christians outwardly". I generally use the 1 Corinthians quote following the Words of Institution, "As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." So the reception of the sacrament is itself a form of preaching, though we may not generally think that way.

I imagine this is similar to the Orthodox assertion that the proper work of the laity in the liturgy is to say the "Amen!" Except here the Amen is signified by feet shuffling towards the front of the sanctuary, mouths agape as the body of Christ is received, heads dipped towards the chalice, and all kinds of other actions performed before and after (Amen, thanks be to God, thank you, oops...) I imagine we would more clearly understand reception of the sacrament as a form of testimony if we did it under duress- say, illegally, furtively, at night. The irony being this, that by doing it in that way, it would cease to become testimony, for the neighbors wouldn't see us loading up in cars in the bright daylight of Sunday morning to do our Christian duty.

Nevertheless, this is a valuable clarification, that a part of the Use of the Sacraments is itself proclamation, not simply the proclamation that occurs when the prayers and Words of Institution are spoken, but the proclamation of many bodies receiving the sacrament, a visible word receiving a visible word. A better understanding of this aspect of the sacrament would also go a long way towards helping us understand the sacrament as itself something that awakens and strengthens faith. Each week at the table, we are not doing something habitual. We do a new thing; we preach the gospel.