Thursday, April 21, 2016

The problem of judgment. . .

Lutherans are getting all excited about the prospect of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the start of the reformation with the real or imagined nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church on All Hallow's Eve, October 31, 2017.  I'm excited, too, but also concerned.  When we look back we look at history through our own lens and it makes it harder, not easier, to understand what happened in the past.

Lord knows that Luther has suffered too many judgments.  There are a few who think him a heroic figure, sort of a modern day cultural warrior fighting to bring enlightenment, humanistic virtue, German might, and the full virtues of a true renaissance man to bear.  Gag.  There are some who make Luther out to be a true medievalist in the face of a world on the brink of change.  Gag.  There are those who would describe Luther as a deliberate thinker and strategist who planned it all out from the get go.  Gag.  There are those who describe Luther as mostly mentally ill who translated his own brokenness into a cause that merged his personal struggle with the unfolding of a new Europe.  Gag.

Luther was not a god.  He was just a man.  But he was God's man, captive to God's Word, and, within the framework of human frailty, Luther was an agent of renewal (one of many whom God used and still uses to recall His Church to the unchanging truth of the Gospel).  He was certainly not a perfect man, maybe he was even a troubled man, but God worked through all his flaws for a moment of light to shine in darkness.  Would that those who wear his name today were a bit more Lutheran (like him) but that is another topic.

Between 40-50 years ago, a long smoldering struggle became a flash fire in Missouri.  It was a time of great suffering for many, dividing families and friends.  It took down a seminary, consumed the principal figures in the struggle, and defined our church body for several generations.  It is still an open wound among those old enough to recall it.  My own life and friendships were forever changed by what took place at 801 between Jack and John and pastors and parishes and convention sides for nearly a decade.  In the end, Missouri lost a hundred thousand people and some of our more prominent parishes and a couple of districts were reduced to a shell of their former selves, even having had their District President deposed from office.

We have struggled to understand it all, make sense of it all, and put it all behind us without forgetting to learn some lessons from it.  But there is the problem of judgment that does not necessarily become clearer after the passage of time.  It would have been impossible to come up with a coherent answer to the questions of what happened and why then.  It is just as difficult today.  Some place the whole thing into the cultural context of America and make it a churchly sample of the overall turmoil of life in the 1970s in the US. Everything from Vietnam to the sexual revolution to feminism to civil rights to drugs to rock music was behind the explosion in Missouri. We had traditionalists trying vainly to hold on to the past and control the future and we had revolution detaching us from yesterday and determined to bring a brave new tomorrow.  But was that what happened in Missouri?

We had those who psychoanalyzed Missouri and made it all about Freudian foibles and dysfunctional leaders and their families finally escaped from the asylum.  It was a personality cult and a struggle between personalities too rigid to compromise and too proud to admit wrong and perfectly willing to take down an entire church body in the process.  From Otten to Preus to Tietjen we did have strong personalities who certainly played prominently in the struggle but iss that what happened in Missouri -- all that happened?

Worst of all were those who said it was all a turf war, a power play, the raw and unfettered egos of people out not for principle or truth but for self.  I refuse to give this much credence for the major figures in the struggle even though I would well admit that there were bit players in history who acted in this regard.  Was it all a power play among those throwing their weight around that defined Missouri's conflict?

Was it about truth?  Was it about the Gospel?  Was it about the Bible?  Even some from within the struggle discount the theology involved and say that the folks involved had more in common than in conflict.  Surely, however, the people involved were not playing at things trivial or were they so shallow as to be willing to dismantle schools and traditions and a church body over small points and not big ideas!  I believe that it was primarily a theological struggle.  I believe that behind the times and the people were major conflicts of important truths and I am unwilling to credit the principal players in the struggle with mere egos devoid of conviction.  In fact, it was not only theological but it was a theological battle still being waged within Missouri albeit on different fronts.

Yet the point remains.  If we cannot agree on what happened in Missouri a couple of generations ago, while many of the second tier of players are still around, how can we depend upon accurate judgments from historians to define Luther and his legacy?  If you are looking for consensus and agreement, you will surely be disappointed.  There is no short cut to history.  We want a quick PBS video to make it all clear and plain, a paragraph to explain the centuries, but there is none.  Only the honest legwork of reading and thinking. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe that it was primarily a theological struggle. I believe that behind the times and the people were major conflicts of important truths and I am unwilling to credit the principal players in the struggle with mere egos devoid of conviction. In fact, it was not only theological but it was a theological battle still being waged within Missouri albeit on different fronts.

Dr. Francis Schaeffer was prophetic many years ago on several issues. He sided with our "battle for the Bible" back then. Although this clip is primarily directed toward the evangelicals, it applies to us -- now -- as well., "The Watershed of the Evangelical World"