Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Certainty in an ambiguous world

The whole issue of doctrine has been rendered difficult if not impossible for modern conversation.  On the one hand, we are less convinced than ever that anyone or any church can ever know the truth completely or with certainty.  On the other, we are less convinced than ever that agreement in doctrine is even a possibility, much less necessity, for fellowship.  So we are left with a "conservative" view that agreement is good, that it ought to be pursued, but that it is possible only for core or essential doctrines.  Disagreement in non-core doctrines or nonessential dogma is not an expectation.  In this view diversity is anticipated but limited to the non-core aspects of the faith.  The "liberal" view is that since no one can know all or know with certainty much of anything, diversity -- even diversity which directly contradicts or conflicts -- is not only tolerated but celebrated.

Now there are a few anachronisms to these points of view; Missouri, being one of them.  These antiquated groups actually hold that doctrine can be known, that it can be known with certainty, and that it can be known to a rather high level of completeness.  This is what we say in theory, at least, although the practice is something we struggle with.  The tensions in Missouri center around how much diversity can be tolerated.  Some in the LCMS have resigned themselves to a high level of diversity and others still demand a more rigid uniformity.  The Orthodox have limited doctrinal certainty to the first seven ecumenical councils and have left the balance of the question to episcopal discretion and collegiality to decide.  Rome seems to have substituted communion with the Pope for doctrinal uniformity.  Like an umbrella, the Roman Catholic Church tolerates a certain level of disagreement and diversity as long as the central spine that holds it up (Papal authority) finds ready agreement.  Lord knows what might happen if that central authority of the papacy were to be dismantled.  What would hold Rome together?  Meanwhile, the rest of Christendom seems largely untroubled and even somewhat amused by the questions of what we can know of God, with what certainty we can know it, and what level of uniformity in confession and practice is required of those who claim fellowship.

Missouri and the smaller confessional Lutheran bodies are either dinosaurs of a past era or prophetic voices to the modern mess of ambiguity and relative truth.  It all depends upon who you are.  We in Missouri believe we are being prophetic; the rest of Christianity sees us as artifacts of an ancient and lost theological position.

So what then shall we do?  That is what Missouri is now considering.  In the so called "Koinonia" Project, we are being asked to discuss this basic question first and foremost.  Sure, some have already written off this conversation as fruitless or pointless -- a wasted effort.  Others have already gone past this and cannot figure out why such a big deal is being made of this issue.  They have come to accept this diversity and even frame it in the context of modern or old fashioned approaches.  Some believe the old style Lutherans will eventually come around.  Most of Missouri lies in the muddle, I mean, middle.  We recall an era when we were more confident, more certain, and more united -- we would like to go there again but we are not all that sure how you can recapture something  like this and we worry that we just might be missing something while we look away from the pressing matters of the parish and Church to pursue doctrinal clarity and doctrinal unity.

For my part, I think the potential far outweighs the cost or the distraction.  I cannot for the life of me see the future to a Christianity in which the Gospel means one thing to some and another thing to others and something completely different to many other groups within the whole.  Doctrinal clarity, doctrinal conviction, and doctrinal unity are not some impossible dream but the key to the revitalization of a Christianity which has grown fuzzy and complacent about the very truth that defines this faith.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Remind me where this diversity came from.
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Unknown said...

“Missouri and the smaller confessional Lutheran bodies are either dinosaurs of a past era or prophetic voices to the modern mess of ambiguity and relative truth.” It is estimated that there are upward of 30,000 denominations in the world today that call themselves “Christian”. There is only one point, with all of their diversity, which they all, without a single exception, believe to be true: “that they are right, and everybody else is wrong.” To be a “prophetic voice” you have to be “a voice crying in the wilderness”; in other words you have to proclaim what nobody else proclaims.

It would be absurd to proclaim, “We are wrong about everything”, but if we admit, “we may be wrong about some things,” we would indeed be a prophetic voice. But we cannot do that; we are “quia” confessors. Just like the ex cathedra Pope, we cannot be wrong. Here are a few thought starters:
1. Is the Apology correct in teaching that God wrote the Decalogue on our hearts?
2. Is there something wrong with the fourth item under Luther’s explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water signify?”
3. Is there something wrong with Luther’s explanation of the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism?
4. Is there something wrong with the idea of “faith and the Holy Spirit departing from David” in the Smalcald Articles’ section “Of the false repentance of the Papists”?

No, I don’t make it a point to search for errors in the Book of Concord. I go there for answers, and every once in a while I come across something that makes me ask, “can this be true”? It will not destroy the Lutheran Church if we admit that we could be wrong about some things. But it may be destroyed if we claim to be the only organization in which humans take part that does not make mistakes.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

George offers thoughtful and interesting ideas. However, those who lament the "diversity" in practice in Missouri or elsewhere are utterly unconcerned about and uninterested in such things. They are interested in results in this world. Such as whatever they need to say to get people in the door.

elmhurst erik said...

Excellent post. I think both camps make their arguments based on this notion: Man cannot define truth.

I draw comfort from being a member of a confessional church that stands by its Christological confessions and is built upon the ancient church firmly based on Scripture.

It befuddles me to no end why Christians would attend a church that attempts to refute Sacrament, confessions and creeds while their faith is being shepherded on the whims and fancies of a singular pastor. (And what happens when that singular pastor dies or retires and leaves a flock of believers to "shift" to another pastor with different theologies? I want an answer on that one.) Why throw away hundreds of years of finely-tuned, Scripturally-rooted liturgy for the desires and wants of people today in this culture? And it's just plain sad to see people missing out on the wonderful salvific gifts of the Sacraments.

Unknown said...

Any contributor to a blog like this one is limited in what he may write by the number of characters permitted. Therefore it may become awkward to write everything you want to. After making my earlier posting, I began to think that someone might interpret my words as concern for doctrinal purity per se, as if the most important work of the Church is to be guardian of the truth, and as if really pure doctrine will solve all of the problems of the Church here on earth. My memory is not precise, but I think it was Robert D. Preus, who wrote words to the effect that any deviation from orthodoxy affects the Doctrine of Justification. I am sure he was right, but if he was, this is also true of the entire Gospel. That is my concern.

At the same time, having read “Freed From the Shopkeeper's Prison”, by
Rev. H. R. Curtis, I am also convinced that nothing any of us do, will do, or fail to do affects the number of God’s Elect who will enter Paradise. Not even preaching an impure Gospel. But what is affected is life in the Church, in the Kingdom that is populated by God’s Elect. I suspect that if we do not proclaim the pure Gospel, then we may deprive ourselves of some of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.” And every one of the items I mentioned in my earlier postings affects how we define the Gospel.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart