Fanaticism

The learned and wise John T. Pless, a professor at  Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, warns against fanaticism.  He is discussing the recent controversy over a pastor participating in an interfaith service, showing that some on both sides have slipped into fanaticism, as described by both Hermann Sasse (the anti-Nazi confessional Lutheran theologian) and Steven Paulson (the radically Lutheran ELCA theologian).  If you remain interested in that particular controversy, which seems to have run its course with the pastor’s apology followed by the synodical president’s apology, follow the link.

However, this is not a post about that, nor do I want that to be the subject of the discussion in the comments.  We have exhausted that topic.  I will instead excerpt what Prof. Pless says about fanaticism, a far broader and more applicable topic that deserves our reflection.

From John T. Pless in Fanaticism is Not the Answer | Blogia:

In a very instructive essay of 1965, “The Ecumenical Challenge of the Second Vatican Council,” Hermann Sasse wisely observes: “We have been too much influenced by a certain type of sectarian Christianity which for a long time flourished in America. The sect cannot wait; it must have everything at once, for it has no future. The church can wait, for it does have a future”. . . .

Speaking to a situation in his own church body, the ELCA, Steven Paulson’s observation also fits Missouri’s liberal Pharisees: “[T]he ELCA has become enthusiasts, fanatics, who swallow the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. They are not immoralists; instead they are on a quest for a greater holiness than yours—and you ought to be ready, since they are ready to fight you on this particular matter.” Paulson continues “At the root of this fanaticism lies a confusion of law and gospel, and so a demonic lie—that justification is by love—unconditional love.” Fanatics cannot be convinced from the Scriptures. Their righteousness is already established and, make no mistake about it, they are on a crusade, and they cannot wait. They must have the church of pure and unconditional love now and nothing, not even the First Commandment, dare stand in the way.

But the problem does not reside with. . . liberals only.  [Conservatives] can also be lured into fanaticism. . . . They want a church free of [problems in doctrine and practice] and they want it now. No waiting on the Word to do its work, no imploring the Lord of the church to look down in mercy on this poor, wretched, and miserable band of sinners known as the Missouri Synod. Instead there should be an apocalyptic show down. The church cannot wait. This is a fanaticism to be repented of.

So what are some other examples of fanaticism in this sense?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    I’m not sure how we talk about fanaticism without talking about specific examples. But the only specific example given us to start this conversation is the LCMS controversy. Which we’re not supposed to talk about. Which, of course, makes me really want to talk about it. Oh well. Where’s a comment by Carl Vehse when you need one?

  • Hanni

    That’s probably true, fanaticism needs examples, of which there are many, I am sure. I can think of two documentaries discussing this topic. One I saw years ago and actually taped but can;t remember the name: a series on religious fanatics (not sure they used the actual term): Islam, Judaism and Christianity., very interesting. The other: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero had an anecdote from a young Jewish rabbi who descsribed what it was like to become a fanatic. He had, as student in Jerusalem several years before, been one of the young Jews who had stormed a mosque and killed Muslims. His account of how he had become able to kill these people was a story of living in a bubble with increasing anger and becoming increasingly agitated the environment of others also getting worked up daily (a school), never hearing another side or possibility, even not knowing the truth until finally they were all able to leave and kill people who really werent harming them. This is poorly stated by me, but his sorrow at having done this was touching.

  • SKPeterson

    Well, Paulson’s critique of the ELCA is still valid – they have become pietist fanatics in which they have elevated unconditional love into not only a nomous of antinomianism, but they have declared that the love of Man can trump the sin of Man. They want to eliminate the sin of Man, and the most effective way to do that is to eliminate Sin. Not through the work of Christ on the Cross who has defeated Sin and rescued us from it, but through the works of Man; we Men, operating under the guiding principle of unconditional love, can then, in love, declare in God’s name what was once sin as declared by God, to no longer be sin.

  • Pete

    It strikes me that fanaticism is closely linked to the concept of tolerance. Not the modern, meaningless, “we’re all God’s children” kind of tolerance. Rather, the, “I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, but I’m willing to let you continue to hold and promote your point of view” sort of thing. Fanatics tend to characterize the opinions of their opponents as lies from the pit of Hell which makes tolerance difficult for them. Makes for 9-11′s.

  • Carl Vehse

    “Missouri’s liberal Pharisees” being associated with terms such as “self-righteous indignation,” “violent verbal attacks” [oxymoronic?], “ex-president… fanned the flames” [good play on words!], “Zealous defenders of syncretism,” “enthusiasts,” “Fanatics,” “demonic lie.” Wow! The Lufauxrans on Cranach would really get their pants in a wad if I used those phrases.

    But Pless’s attacks against the “voices of the right” need to be focused a little more than just “a few private emails” and “scan the blogs.” Are we talking about the “right right” or the “drunken-peasant’s-other-side-of-the-ditch right”? Is this a reference to some organized groups of Lutherans within the Missouri Synod, or one of its seminaries, with stated goals and agendas for the LCMS and its polity, or to various individuals, not part of any Lutheran sub-organization, who post on Lutheran blogs? Or does the term refer to individuals or groups outside of the Missouri Synod?

    Discussions that include criticisms of the various actions and statements made by Synod officials involved in addressing the Newtown interfaith heresy, calls for decisive action according to the provisions of the Missouri Synod constitution which members have promised to support, and questions about the nature and specifics of various apologies are not necessarily “intoxicated with fanaticism.” To generally apply the label to any and all such discussions suggests… well, being lured into fanaticism.

    Some discussions from the right are also related to topic areas to be addressed in the Koinonia Project, according to the latest draft concept paper.

  • David Rufner

    Can anyone point me to the primary source from which the Paulson quote was taken?

  • DonS

    I am not Lutheran, and I stayed out of the previous discussion because it was clearly a Lutheran matter. However, I will say this. The community of Newtown has suffered an unimaginable blow which caused those who likely have never before seriously considered spiritual things to question the entire basis and purpose of their existence. They are spiritually seeking, as many Americans were after 9/11. These kinds of events are opportunities for the Holy Spirit to work, and for the Body of Christ to represent Him and the Hope of eternity to hurting, open people. If an interfaith service is a response to this seeking, then it seems as if the true Hope of Christ should be represented. If that can’t be in the service itself, because of justified fears of syncretism, then those who decline the opportunity to participate in that interfaith service, MUST find another way to reach out to community at large. It’s not enough to sit within the four walls of your church building and wait for the hurting people to show up. Christ and his disciples went out among the hurting people, and so must we.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Fanaticism, I get it. I have been one, and find myself being one. When the secular fanatics rant and rage against religious believers of any stripe for being a fanatic, I get it. Fanaticism is something I try to keep in check, even as I try to retain zeal for God’s word and his house, which brings to mind a more “fanatical” outbreak on behalf of Jesus.
    But I can’t help to associate fanaticism with panic. It is the panic I despise. It can be hard to keep it at bay. I look around and see people going to hell, a world condemned, and I see the Way, I see salvation being ignored. I want to help, I want to bring salvation to others, be an instrument in the work of the Holy Spirit. It is easy to let fanaticism derail that. It’s easy to let the panic take over. But when you do you do not communicate the gospel, you do not communicate the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. you communicate fear. Fear is at the root of fanaticsim, fear at the root of panic. And God is not a god of fear, the Holy Spirit is not about fear, he does not give us a spirit of fear. So if fear is leading you it is not the Holy Spirit.
    You may be wanting to call the sheep into the fold, but when you run crying that the sky is falling, you do nothing but scatter the sheep, you terrify them and drive them. Yes you can drive sheep with fear. You cannot lead them.
    I’m often at a loss. Pastors seem to be afraid, filled with fear just all too often. Afraid they are going to hell for being part of a church body that “tolerates” this and that, contemporary worship, or some interpretation of the scriptures and confessions that differs from Walther. They lose their calm. I remember once watching Cascione with his veins bulging from his neck and thinking, you know I agree with most of what this guy has to say about the liturgy, but why is he so angry? Do I need that. I was repulsed. I think most people are. It’s fear mongering, and that is not what we as pastors are called to do. We come with the gospel, to bring peace, ambassadors of peace, to bring rest for weary souls. Panic does not serve. Fear does not serve. Fanaticism does not serve the gospel.
    Jesus laid down his life for the sheep, he came to save the world because the world was condemned already, he did not come to condemn, but to save. His sheep here his voice, he calls them by name. He puts them at ease. If we are to run around screaming and blowing every controversy up in the manner of Fox News, we do a disservice to the sheep and to Christ. Preach the gospel and let Christ worry about the end of the world. He gave us today, He may give us tomorrow too. Bring the gospel to those you can, and let him worry about all those for whom he died and yet reject his forgiveness.

  • SKPeterson

    David @ 6 an extended excerpt can be found here: http://wlsessays.net/files/BrugELCA2012.pdf on pages 62 and 63, which are comments Prof. Paulson made at the Lutheran Free Conference
    in New Ulm, Minnesota, November 10, 2011. A further expansion of Prof. Paulson’s remarks provides and indicator of fanaticism and motive:

    I also want to thank [Professor Brug] for recognizing that we must learn from the sickness in the ELCA for the good of all Lutheran institutions and their people. I join with him, and yet suggest a different root to the problem. No doubt he is right, that ELCA lost track of the original source of Scripture, which is the inerrancy in the letters that come through an inerrant Holy Spirit. But we must go one step deeper, which is that ELCA has become enthusiasts, fanatics, who swallow the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. They are not immoralist, instead they are on a quest for a greater holiness than yours.

    ELCA is a runaway train of piety which they believe is conducted by the Holy Spirit, who is the Perfector of the Law. To them, law is not universal and unchanging, but imbued by the Spirit with the power to evolve, develop, adapt and so to make new laws—that is, they have discovered what they consider to be the greatest part of divinity, which is the future, not the past—the Spirit, not the
    Father. They consider themselves to be the Pharisees, and you the Sadducees— and remember no Sadducees have survived.

    Here they have tapped into a truly American principle: it is not the past, but the future that will save. This is called “zeitgeist” and it is a powerful brew. They have discovered that the laws of Scripture and nature that are universal, unchanging, permanent—kill (2 Cor. 3). But they think they have discovered an escape. Old laws kill, but new ones can give life if the new laws are merciful and full of grace—specifically because they are inclusive—not exclusive. Thus, these new laws adapt to the one, future, perfect law of above all: love! They posited that God could not possibly have meant to kill with Scripture because God is love, not hate. God means to make us better—better Christians, better disciples, better churches that are a light to the nations, and who are the true body of Christ because they embody love etc.

    Therefore, in order for God to reveal himself truly he must work, not only in Scripture, but beyond it, in the form of merciful, graceful, unconditional love. So, at the root of this fanaticism, lies a confusion of law and gospel, and so a demonic lie—that justification is by love—unconditional love. You can catch this in the quotations …from Timothy Lull: “We confess what we have learned there [in Scripture]—that God’s chief purpose has been to shower love and salvation on us, not primarily to fill us with information nor to make us moral people.” [All of Dr. Brug’s quotations from the Lutheran magazine represent what is called foundationalism, rather than fundamentalism. There must be a foundation outside Scripture by which we are guided in Scripture.]

    Once they discovered love, the ELCA tied Christ’s love to an episcopal ordering like you would find all the way back with Basil of Caesarea, and I daresay even our dear Irenaeus, in which historical succession of bishops is the means to get rid of fundamentalists, and brings us to the fulfillment of Christ’s promise, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12 NAS).

    This verse has wreaked havoc, as it did with Rome, because its sets the limit, for them, of written Scripture and introduces the ecclesial power of bishops as those who are given a special spirit power bestowed through the laying on of hands to unfold the hidden, gnostic truths. And if that were not enough, a competing congregational eccesiology was also introduced that says true church is a congregation of people who meet in moral deliberation under the Spirit’s gift of discernment by which they can adjudicate new, better laws of love.

    The ELCA churchwide votes are a collection of these two fanatical movements. The problem is deeper than inerrancy. The chief article is confused here since we are justified by faith, not by love. Once love becomes the chief article, the gospel is confused for a law. For love is the fulfillment of the law.

    Heady stuff, but a ripe diagnosis.

  • shell

    Bror Erickson @ 8,
    Well said!

  • fws

    skp @ 9.

    insert “doctrinal purity” for the LCMS and WELS whereever this article says “love”.
    It , amazingly, even fits when Paulson talks of “new and better” and church hierarchy to bring the Project to fruition!

    are love or purity of doctrine or even inclusion and exclusion wrong or contrary to God´s Will? God forbid!
    Depending upon the context, God commands us to do all of these things!

    But when we place our fear, love and trust in such things to drive out what we fear, then we have lapsed into idolatry just as Bror correctly identifies in comment 8!

  • SKPeterson

    Frank @ 11 – Yes, you bring up a good point. Although, I would hope that doctrinal purity for the LCMS and the WELS (and our friends in the ELS, etc.) would be a careful and humble adherence to both Law andGospel. I think that Paulson and Erickson (good Swedes there btw) describe the dangers of fanaticism from both sides. I think that what Pless is warning against is that the confessional or traditional or the “right” side could become a rigid parody of the ELCA described by Paulson. I don’t think it will come to that, but the warning should be heeded nonetheless.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    “that the confessional or traditional or the “right” side could become a rigid parody of the ELCA described by Paulson. I don’t think it will come to that”
    I think all to often it has come to that, already. That is the problem. I’m all for pure doctrine and good practice. But when it leads to the hysteria we saw for the last month, and the dog being wagged by the tail, well it has come to that. It is that. It is a rigid parady of the ELCA. It would be funny if it wasn’t such a serious matter.

  • C-Christian Soldier

    pious-ism – in the MS vs. pious-ism – in the ELCA is different –How?!!???
    C-CS-
    LA LFL–

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Richard Strickert, aka Carl Vehse, is a prime candidate for what Pless rightly points out as the fanaticism on the right of Missouri. A layman who apparently has so little to do with his time that he can devote himself to the kind of verbal assaults on any real or imagined error, conspiracy theory or who-knows-what-else that pops into his unoccupied mind.

  • Asterisk

    cf. Matthew 7:5

  • Joanne

    Your husband apologized for upseting you because you saw him out with other women. He really, really, really is sorry you were so emotionally hurt by this. His very good friends told him you would be likely to see him with them and she was likely to be upset, but you just couldn’t believe that your need to be with these other women was such a big deal, so you did it any way and your friends, your very devoted friends, strongly suggested that you apologize to your wife, and you did, but only for causing her to take offense at your action.

    Then your very, very, very good friends forced forgiveness on you. They declared you forgiven for an activity you declare is no sin and for which you have no repentance, though, because it bothers so many people, he won’t do it again he promises although he is going to give a keynote address to a group of people who were not bothered by his being with lots of women who were not his wife. In fact they have been known to encourage that sort of thing. It will happen in about a month and I’m calling it the Enola-Gay speech and can hardly wait.

    If this man complains bitterly that forgiveness was forced upon him when he did not acknowledge any sin and did not repent of what is no sin (I can hear the applause all the way from here) that measly apology for upseting his wife is going to seem so very, very small. But, that forced forgiveness for doing no sin, is just going to look so weak and puny and dumb. “You gave forgiveness to someone who did not want your forgiveness for doing what he and his friends say is doing gospel love work with strange women.

    You can call me a fanatic all you want to, but I’m not stupid and I’m not taking my eyes off of the one and only man in the center of this whole kerfluffle, without whom none of this would have happened, yes, the man who belongs to his town Club of Reverend Strangers, and who seems rather bonded to this group, rather more impressed by their approval than ours. And now another group clamoring to hear his “story of healing crises with strange women.”

    We have a new star in our firmament, and I wish very much that we were not his wife. I don’t like the way he’s been treating us, and no, I don’t trust him not to do it again, his reason is that it’s my fault for feeling bad. Have any of you worked with battered wives and how their stray dog husbands blame the wife for causing their needs to do stuff that upsets people. How can I be the only one who sees a faithless man blaming everyone elses’ feelings for his troubles, if he has any.

    Watch this space for your favorite fanatic’s reaction to the keynote address expected next month.

  • Joanne

    You remember the Piano Bar scene in Pillow Talk where Doris Day is being lied to by Rock Hudson and the piano bar player has gotten wise to his lying ways. Uh-huh. “You lied, you dog, and you’ll be sorry; you lied you hound, and that’s not fair.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XJRliF_IRA

    I’ll be wacthin’ you, every move you make, EVERY VOW YOU BREAK, every smile you fake, every step you take, I’ll be watchin’ you.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1x7hc6d2bY

    Pastor Morris, you have a fan club.

  • Joanne

    Ooooo, can’t have too many links to this: http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=27437
    Pastor Fisk does his thing on U&S. Repent now so it won’t be so painful to watch.

  • Carl Vehse

    In his article, Prof. Pless’s first three paragraphs discuss 1) Sasse’s 1965 description of a certain type of American “sectarian Christianity,” 2) the fan-the-flame ex-SP attacks on Pres. Harrison’s attempts to deal with the “problematic incidence of syncretism,” and 3) the demonic lie of ELCA fanaticism. These are certainly all very reasonable and valid points.

    It is in Pless’s fourth paragraph that (rather suddenly) “fanaticism” is applied to those Missouri Synod Lutherans who recognize “how lethal synocretism is”… oh… and also whose “voices on the right” dare criticize or question President Harrison. The paragraph then equates such criticism with “[n]o waiting on the Word to do its work,” “no imploring the Lord of the church to look down in mercy on… the Missouri Synod,” and wanting “an apocalyptic show down.”

    In a comment on Blogia, Rev. Dennis Bestul (Lutheran Church of Our Savior, Cupertino, CA) noted, “I would hope that the sincere request for clarity isn’t being labeled ‘fanaticism’.” You can say that again!

  • Joanne

    I know of two apocalyptic showdowns in the Missouri Synod. One happened before the synod was even formed and involved a pastor and lots of women who were not his wife (his wife and children never left Germany to follow him to America). Souls were searched, rights were claimed, corrections were made, a very painful repentance was made, the Scriptures were searched and the church was saved.

    Then a little less than 150 years later, the second apocalyptic event happened, and the whole St. Louis seminary walked out claiming they could teach whatever they thought was right and were not bound by the doctrines long agreed upon in this humble, very small, and in the eyes of the whole world, pathetic voluntary association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. That was painful, but none of us today would want to be where those who walked away are today. No, not one.

    In fact a good argument could be made that our lost boys are the worst of the lot in bringing the current Church of Neverland to be as universalist as it is today. In my puny little town, we are blessed with a married couple of women and one of them is the pastor of the Church of Neverland here. The whole gay community for 50 miles around is now attending this church, including our family doctor and former employers. One watches, is constantly asked to attend, and wonders where it will all end.

    So, apocalyptic sound like a terrible thing, but Missouri has been especially blessed with two that saved it’s soul, both times. And yet, we still have a fractured soul at war with itself. That last apocalypse was rushed through and put on the low back burner very quickly before it was really cooked. There are still lots of raw bits in the stew. So are we in a 50 year apocalypse that was never allowed to do what a good properly done apocalypse can do, and the Lost Boys are still carping at us from Neverland or inviting us in for a round of strip poker.

    So, let’s just finish the apocalypse, put the stew pot back on the boil, and go ahead and grow old and pass on to our sons what we received from the apostles.

  • Carl Vehse

    “Apocalyptic” is probably a little bit of “overkill” in describing major conflicts and “showdowns” which have occurred in Missouri Synod history. The deposition of Stephan as Bishop of the Missouri Saxons occurred about eight years before the LCMS was founded, but the ensuing battle over the doctrine of church and ministry continued for another two decades, with the Missouri Synod battling Wilhelm Loehe. who eventually broke with Missouri, and J.A.A. Grabau and the Buffalo Synod, with Grabau eventually claiming to excommunicate the entire Missouri Synod. Even today church and ministry battles are again breaking out against PLI/CGM proponents on the left and episcopists on the left and from neo-Loeheist sympathizers.

    In the last half of the 19th century Walther and the Missouri Synod also battled the Ohio Synod and the Iowa Synod over issues of chiliasm (aka millennialism) and other issues. There were also several major defections of prominent Missouri Synod Lutherans in both the 19th and 20th century. And there was the “trauma” of changing from German to the English language. In the 20th century, there was the Statement of ’44, as well as the battle against RIM, a charismatic movement within the LCMS.

    In the 21st century there is the Benke/Yankee Stadium heresy, and more recently the Morris/Newtown interfaith prayer service heresy, and the battle over Lutheran understanding of unionism and syncretism and ecumenicism.

    The Missouri Synod is not a boring synod.

  • Becky F.

    I would say the formation of ELDONA would be an example, regardless of their good intentions.

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