The Bondage of Confessional Lutheran Scholarship

The Bondage of Confessional Lutheran Scholarship February 1, 2018
Are the Lutheran Confessions “the bottom of a theological well from which… theologians thereafter would draw?”

Post by Nathan Rinne

+++

Question: What is a Confessional Lutheran church?

Answer: A Confessional Lutheran church is one which adheres to the 1580 Book of Concord, a.k.a. the Lutheran Confessions.

But what is that? If you are a 21st century Confessional Lutheran, your answer probably goes something like this: “it is a faithful summation of the theology of the Bible, and a necessary further development of the greatest of the 16th century Reformation documents – which is also a great ecumenical document! —  the Augsburg Confession.

Amen to that! Still, what does Martin Luther have to do with this? In the minds of many of these Confessional Lutherans, not as much as you might think. This tweet from Pastor Todd Wilken is perhaps fair enough….

…but when you hear something like “We don’t subscribe to what Luther says, but what the Formula of Concord says,” what should you think? Is that right?

Well, here’s what my pastor, in a warmly received presentation he recently gave to some of his colleagues, had to say:

From a very practical standpoint, we have, as Lutheran pastors sworn to uphold the theology of the Book of Concord of 1580, also consequently, committed ourselves to the hermeneutic of reading the confessions we find in the Formula of Concord, and that is, if ever a question arises within the Lutheran church, the writings of Luther are to be consulted for the answer. In other words, the confessions understand themselves not to be so much a theology in and of themselves, but a summation of Luther’s theology:

“Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings.”[1]

Thus the confessions are not the bottom of a theological well from which Lutheran theologians thereafter would draw, but instead the confessions are the peak of the mountain, the mountain which is the theology of Martin Luther. But if that mountain remains unknown to us, how then are we to understand our task as pastors today in view of the Lutheran confessions?” (Paul Strawn, “Rediscovering the Theology of the Small Catechism, i.e. Martin Luther”)

A true picture of what the Lutheran Confessions are on about?

 

We can’t. Why? Because, in part, according to my pastor:

Luther has been reduced to a hawker of coffee mugs, an advocate of theological fads, and sound-bites that make us question his true worth.

Experience suggests that Luther, while still respected, usually is presented as an important historical figure, in characterization (on t-shirts and coffee mugs), or as some sort of authority to advocate one theological fad or another among Lutherans. It is enough, so it seems, to grab a few quotes out of What Luther Says[2]–itself an attempt to resuscitate Luther in the Milwaukee area in the aftermath of WWII—to satisfy any theological curiosity that still may exist. Another simply odd phenomenon is open animosity toward the reformer, evidenced by a professor at the seminary I attended routinely becoming agitated about Luther’s drinking of beer, and a recent district newsletter counseling, even in this anniversary year, to quote Luther less and Jesus more.

Luther, to Lazarus Spengler: ” I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology.” — in “Luther Rose,” Wikipedia.

 

Often due to perceived problems with Martin Luther the man, being German, etc., we read and most fully embrace any Lutheran’s theology but his.

“…it could just be, that because the study of Luther has become for us a bit socially challenging, and academically daunting, that we have gravitated to the study of second and third generation Lutherans like Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), 17th century Lutherans like Gerhard (1582-1637) et al, 19th century Lutherans like Walther (1811-1887) and Loehe (1808-1872), or von Harleβ (1806-1879) and von Hofmann (1810-1877) of the Erlangen school,  and 20th century Lutherans like Althaus (1888-1966), Elert (1885-1954) and Sasse (1895-1976). If there is somewhat of a Nazi taint that remains to Elert and Althaus, we can turn to the Swedes Nygren (1890-1978), Aulén (1879-1977) or Hägglund (1920-2015). And if we want to stir things up a bit we can focus our attention on Mannermaa (1937-2015) and “The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther,” Gerhard Forde (1927-2005), the now-retired Oswald Bayer (b. 1939, University of Tübingen), or, if need be, to the most popular “Lutheran” theologian of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)!”

He goes on:

“In other words, as Lutheran pastors in the United States we can take our pick from a goodly array of theologians within the Lutheran tradition from which to learn “Lutheranism”, and thus safely insulate ourselves from the thing called “the theology of Martin Luther.” (And in this regard, the recent attempt to “rebrand” Lutheran theology as “a Wittenberg Way” should be noted.) Of course there are also any number of voices that would encourage and abandonment of such a pursuit of Lutheran theological [thought] altogether, suggesting instead a life of study of other Christian traditions of the past, and the latest insights from the present found in the books on the end caps of Barnes and Nobel or Hobby Lobby.”

Evidently, we do it “Wittenberg Style”: See, e.g, this book: “The Wittenberg Way,” “The Wittenberg method,” “Wittenberg doctrine,” “Wittenberg’s reformation,” “Wittenberg belief,” “The Wittenberg theologians,” “Wittenberg model,” “Wittenberg…reform,” “Wittenberg thinking,” “Wittenberg theology,” “The Wittenberg team,” “The Wittenberg circle”….

 

We need better Luther scholars.

“Absent also among Lutheran colleges and seminaries in the United States have been true experts specifically in Luther studies. Yes, there are those who have addressed one theme or another from the 16th century in their doctoral research, but a true Luther scholar would appear to be lacking. German and Latin in their various iterations remain a challenge. Both take years to learn and by the time a pastor realizes their value, it usually is too late. And even if such language abilities are present, another field of study that must be mastered is what could be dubbed “Lutherana”, that is, all of the still-available sources generated in the 16th century by Luther and those around him. Once that is done, there is then 400 years of Luther research available that cannot be avoided. And finally, there is present-day Luther scholarship, mostly in Germany, which continues to produce new studies yearly.”

Also produced in Germany but this time eagerly embraced by American Confessional Lutherans. Get yours now!

+++

What is the answer?

“Take, read!” So the words that Augustine (354-430) heard one day, as he sat in despair, wondering what he should do, may also be helpful to us here. Augustine took them to mean he should return to the reading of Scripture. I would suggest that we also apply them to the writings of Martin Luther.

Is my pastor right? Have we underestimated the importance of this great figure? Have we failed to discern the relevance of his writings even for today? Has the inordinate public attention given to his more difficult writings – and perhaps even things like the Luther Insulter – cause us to flee from rather than run towards this man?

Have even some of the most serious Lutherans failed to rightly take account of the measure of the man – of this man’s worth?

Have even they failed to begin to see the real extent of his faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel?

I agree with my pastor — “yes”.

“Although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” — Jude 3

FIN

 

P.S. In a coming series of posts, I will explore the ongoing relevance of writings like Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and the Bondage of the Will for today’s debates – both in theology and culture.

 

Images:

well and mountain from my pastor’s presentation, “Little Luther” pic CC0 Public Domain, https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1361629, Luther rose: https://immanuelchicago.org/the-luther-rose/ ; baton: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0): tabelatny: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53370644@N06/4976497160

Notes:

[1] FC SD VII, 41, Tappert, 576.

[2] St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.

"There are issues with some of the scriptures you are quoting.Romans 4:25 - He was ..."

The Doctrine of Objective Justification
"My goodness, this violation of the 7th commandment went on for decades, "Thou shalt not ..."

Karl Barth is Overrated
"Wow. A brave Lutheran among the cucks and wilting flowers wrote this."

The Truth About Being A Prodigal ..."
"I actually didn't get much of a response to that offer, so no I have ..."

Four Fantastic Theology Lectures from Joel ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment