Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Form and Substance...

In reading about Lutherans and other Christians (especially evangelicals) who have chosen to swim the Tiber or the Bosporus (i.e. go to Rome or Orthodoxy) I find myself increasingly thinking in terms of the problem of form and substance.

The truth is that many who seek out Rome or Constantinople are coming out of churches that have neither form nor substance. They do not have form -- the liturgy, creed, confession, Eucharist, priesthood, etc. They do not have substance -- the fullness of the catholic faith in proclamation or in teaching. For many of these people the journey is one that begins with the emptiness of what most of Protestantism has become (whether mainline or evangelical). With worship centered on the "me" of the person in the pew - uh make that theater seat -- and with preaching and teaching that has evolved into social justice or personal happiness, their rebellion leads them to find something that has roots, depth, Truth...

For Lutherans (and Episcopalians) the journey is somewhat different. It is not so much a turn from emptiness to something as it is a determination that either form or substance is lacking in their tradition and so they seek that which they believe is gone. For Lutherans it is often a move toward form -- a tradition in which the Mass (Divine Liturgy) does not have to be introduced, defended, or justified. It just is. For Lutherans it is often the frustration of substance (present in the Lutheran Confessions and the catholic identity of the Great Reformation and its most significant teachers) that is not reflected in practice (non-communion Sundays, contemporary worship without identifiable liturgy, and a me-too ideal that gravitates either toward non-denominational evangelicalism or mainline Protestantism).

For Episcopalians it is the form that increasingly lacks substance -- the Prayer Book, liturgy, the three fold ministry of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon -- in a church body that seems to stand for nothing specific and tolerates such a diversity of truths that the one Truth of Jesus Christ is missing.

I understand the frustration. It is tiring to have to remind Lutherans who they are -- over and over again. Or to teach them who they are for the first time. Our Confessions have become distant from us -- they are there, they are the doctrinal standards of our Synod and congregations, yet we so often do not know them well enough so that they truly inform and define the practice of our faith (the form).

I understand the frustration. My own parish stands out not only from the Baptist/Church of Christ/Nazarene landscape of the city in which we reside but also from the bulk of other Lutheran and LCMS churches in the surrounding cities, states, and District. It is a constant fight to keep our liturgical identity rooted in our catholic confession. I know all too well that the work I have undertaken for nearly 17 years here could all be gone if another kind of Lutheran Pastor replaced me.

Yet I am not so sure that a boat trip across either the Tiber or the Bosporus would yield any substantial gains on either front -- form or substance. I love the liturgy, the Western Mass, which is the heart and soul of Lutheran and Roman Catholic worship. Truly the Roman does not have to defend the ceremonial practices of the liturgy as a Lutheran must. But... I am not so sure that Gospel speaks so loudly and clearly in the average Roman Catholic parish as it does in the average Lutheran parish. My own experience is that the form itself has been corrupted by a lack of participation of the congregation, a lack of singing, a shallow musical tradition of anything goes, and a determined need to get 900 people through the Mass, communed, and on their way home in 55 minutes or less. I believe that even in form, the trade off for leaving is really an exchange of one set of problems for another.

When it comes to substance, I think a swim in either direction of Rome or Constantinople, may bring with it a certain fuzziness about this Gospel that means, again, the exchange of one set of problems with another. Rome's reintroduction of indulgences even as Lutherans and Roman Catholics were supposed to have some solid agreement on justification stands out as a sign of this fuzziness. The ethnic and cultural identity of Eastern Orthodoxy as it is practiced in most parishes is often a hidden barrier to anyone whose worldview and perspective are distinctly Western. The tradition of a church body shaped by the first seven Ecumenical Councils is noble but 1200 years have passed since that last council and Orthodoxy has suffered much from that distance.

I continue to believe that a liturgically vibrant, confessionally confident, theologically informed, and liturgically catholic Lutheran parish offers me the best combination of form and substance. And I would offer it to those frustrated with their current church home... give us a look see...

Like Transformers... more than meets the eye...


Anonymous said...

Fr. Peters,

Thank you for your thoughtful post. If only our COP would listen to your wise words.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

Excellent, heart-felt, well-thought out comments. As a former LCMS Pastor, I would note however that your observation, "For Lutherans it is often a move toward form -- a tradition in which the Mass (Divine Liturgy) does not have to be introduced, defended, or justified. It just is"- bespeaks of a view from the outside of E. Orthodoxy. Priests in this Tradition are often under pressure to cut, shorten, keep out foreign elements,etc these services.

Also many other facets of the Tradtion are contended for generation after generation (like fasting on Wed/Fri, Episcopal Celibacy,and keeping the tri-partite rites of Baptism, Chrismation and Communion for all of the faithful (regardless of infancy or age) intact. But thank God that the Holy Spirit continues to abide in His Church.

For a good read on one the reasons why I converted, purchase J.D.C. Fisher's book, Baptism in the Medieval West off of

The unworthy Presbyter,

Fr Daniel Hackney

Anonymous said...

But... I am not so sure that Gospel speaks so loudly and clearly in the average Roman Catholic parish as it does in the average Lutheran parish. My own experience is that the form itself has been corrupted by a lack of participation of the congregation, a lack of singing, a shallow musical tradition of anything goes, and a determined need to get 900 people through the Mass, communed, and on their way home in 55 minutes or less.

Pastor Peters, be assured that your words ring loud and clear. As a Lutheran who was raised in a family of Lutherans and Catholics I should have known better than to swim the Tiber but I did so for ten years only to find exactly the situation you describe. The last Lutheran parish I belonged to before leaving for Rome was an ELCA parish so there "seemed" to be some common ground there.

I should have headed straight for an LCMS church but had forgotten the worship I knew in the LCMS in childhood.

What a shock it was to find that the Roman liturgy in most Vatican II parishes was a curious blend of reformed/catholic worship with a veneer of tradition.

I'm back in the LCMS. Yes, we have problems. Too many of our people have forgotten what it is be to Confessional, evangelical and catholic or were never taught to begin with. Nevertheless, we have treasures that we dare not discard. With you I also continue to believe that a liturgically vibrant, confessionally confident, theologically informed, and liturgical catholic Lutheran parish offers the best combination of form and substance. I'm very grateful for faithful pastors like you and so many others who are doing the hard work in the vineyard.


Steven said...

Thank you for this post. I am an LCMS Lutheran currently looking into Eastern Orthodoxy. Your article is mostly critical of Roman Catholicism. Your only real argument against Orthodoxy is when you state:

“The ethnic and cultural identity of Eastern Orthodoxy as it is practiced in most parishes is often a hidden barrier to anyone whose worldview and perspective are distinctly Western. The tradition of a church body shaped by the first seven Ecumenical Councils is noble but 1200 years have passed since that last council and Orthodoxy has suffered much from that distance.”

What about Lutheran churches that have hidden cultural barriers? How has Orthodoxy suffered from not having another council? You make this assertion without offering any examples.

What would be, in your opinion, the best Lutheran arguments against Orthodoxy?

Pastor Peters said...

Steven, My Lutheran parish rents our chapel to an Orthodox mission and I have had extensive contacts and conversations with the priests and the people there in addition to Lutheran friends who have converted and Orthodox priests I have known from 13 years near St. Vlads in Crestwood, NY. What I learned is that the Orthodoxy of your desire is like the Lutheranism of my desire -- it exists in places here and there but as a whole Orthodoxy struggles with the very same issues as Lutheranism. People want to shorten the Divine Liturgy, don't know it, don't want to come to Vespers, resist the fast, are uncatechised, see the Church in ethnic and cultural terms, read evangelical literature, etc... The current priest has told me many horror stories of his time as an assistant to a priest whose quirkiness is no different than Lutherans who do their own thing... so your desire for a monolithic communion surrounded by icons, in love with the Divine Liturgy, living in close community, and well informed about the faith is as much a dream for Orthodox as for Lutherans. That is not my judgment but theirs. I have great sympathy for Orthodoxy and shelves of books by the great authors, knew Schmemann and Meyendorff personally. I do not say this out of any spite but with the same regret I speak of my own communion.

Unknown said...

Fr. Peters,

With all due respect, I think you undercut the reasons people may jump ship to swim either the Tiber or Bosphorus. It is not about form, althoug that does give impetus to many. The abandonment of the historic Liturgy has, without question, not only caused many to think that Lutheranism is no different than modern Evangelicalism, Methodism, Presbyterianism or Baptist (i.e. it's become unidentifiable by its own characteristics) but has also caused a rapid decline in baptized and confirmed members in the church. Of course, His Excellency Pope Kieschnik will try to sell you that the reason the LCMS is declining is because of lack of contemporary worship and other entertainment style accomoodations. But that is ridiculous. As a corollary, after the RC abandoned the Tridentine (extraordinary) Rite for the Novus ORdo and pseudo-Protestant Mass (6 Lutheran "theologians" assisted in its creation), the number of converts to Catholicism plummeted and lost those even whom it held.

Now, as far as substance goes, the Lutheran Church lacks that as well. How many things are relegated as adiaphora or open questions? Or how many things that have been so intrinsic to Christianity, such as use of incense, prostrating, kneeling, reading the fathers, kissing the icons, invocations of the saints, monasticism, making the sign of the cross even have been made as optional because to insist upon them is a restriction of Christian freedom? So, rather than preach the good use of these things and how they are beneficial to the Christian life, they are brushed aside so as not to impugn anyone's freedom.

The BoC is given lip service. William Weedon will ever agree with this. Check out on his blog his post "quia eye for the Lutheran guy" where he goes through 18 or so statements that should be held by the Christian because (quia) they are Christian tenents. But how many of those things are disregarded or thrown out simply because "we're in the 21st century and that has no place here?" Too many. I left the Lutheran Church because it was not grounded in substance but by the egoism of individual parishes which are not held to any accountability save for their own interpretation of what it means to be Lutheran!

Lutheranism's problem is lack of both form AND substance. I left Lutheranism for the fullness of the faith as found in the Holy Orthodox Church, not because there was a lack of bell ringing in Lutheran churches.

Orthodoxy has its problems. Its lack of catechesis for those born into the faith really needs to be addressed and the "church is only on Sunday mentality" also needs to be addressed. It is the converts who are insuring that Orthodoxy is not merely an enclave of ethnic Arabs, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Ukrainians, Romanians, etc. As an aside, I do speak Greek so I my assimilation was easier but even for those who do not, they were welcomed in as well. It is the converts who are revitalizing the cycle of services. Converts make the best Orthodox, as the proverb goes.

Pastor Peters said...

Chris obviously speaks from his pain and I respect his decision but I think some of his points speak more from his pain than objective truth... Converts make the best Lutherans, too. Lutheranism, for all it faults, reflects some of the fluidity of the early church on the things the Confessions label adiaphoron. Chris does not admit the development of some of the things upon his list to show Lutheranism lacks form and substance. I remain concerned for his points but not convinced of his conclusions... we respectfully disagree.

Chris said...

Fr. Peters,

Please do not refer to me in the third person. It is rude.

Fluidity is often used as a codeword for "let's do what we want." That is why the canons came to be, though with respect to traditions in synods and dioceses.

But, Fr. Peters, you do not address the complaints I had made. How else do you attribute the exodus away from the LCMS to either Rome or Constantinople or other Protestant bodies or even to atheism if it were not for the continued abandonment of the anchor of the historic Liturgy? Again, look at Rome. Praxis has been replaced by intellecutual assent, which even the demons can do. And areas of doctrine which are settled and codified, even in the Lutheran Confessions are hastily thrown aside as not in step with the modern spirit. Even Fr. Weedon agrees with that and I even referenced one of his (many) posts to which he successfully pointed out just how many Lutheran confessional teachings have been removed or watered down or condemned as too Roman.

To comment further, converts make the best Lutherans or Orthodox or Catholics.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

You seem to a have a broad background, and have served the Lord for seventeen years as a pastor. I would be interested in your own studies on the initiatory rites of the Church. Have you found in your studies that the undivided Church of East and West in the first millenium administered Baptism/Chrismation/Communion as one rite? Have you read J.D.C. Fisher's book (that I referenced earlier in this thread), which is replete with patristic evidence of this norm?
My contention is that unless these rites are kept intact, faith inevitably is seen either as intellectual assent (= decision theology or "saying yes' in confirmation), or as passive, forensic prounouncment; instead of faith's basic meaning of trust. Even a little two year old child (for example) trusts as he reaches out his hands for Christ in the Eucharist.

Your thoughts?


Father Daniel Hackney

Anonymous said...

Chris needs to relax. Hows that for third person?

Pastor Peters said...

Sorry Chris, but since this is not a direct conversation but postings open to all, I used the third person....

Fr. Hackney... you raise some good questions... and while I don't have the time at this moment, expect some stuff about this soon...

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to the Orthodox participants here, what continually amazes me is how Lutherans who go East feel the need to keep coming back to Lutheran blogs and reaffirm their conversions over and over.

Now that I have returned to my Lutheran roots I will certainly continue to engage my Catholic friends (and family, of which I have several) in meaningful discussion about Christianity but you won't find me going back to Catholic blogs engaging in verbal circular loops about why I am no longer Catholic.

And for what it's worth, I also investigated the Orthodox Church before my decision to head to Rome. There's nothing like hands-on experience to point out the essential differences.


Chris said...


Since your comment was directed at me, I will respond. I read A LOT, both books and stuff on line on subjects that are as diverse and range as far as the east is from the west. I was directed to fr. Peter's blog by Fr. Weedon, whom I know as a friend so I added it to my bookmark. SInce his post did mention the EO, I decided to give my $.02 worth. Doing so was not an attempt to talk down to Lutherans or to disparage them. I will rarely comment on anything that has to do with inter-Lutheran or intra-Lutheran politics or dogma. But since the EO was mentioned, I chimed in.

If Fr. Peters wishes to ban me from posting on his blog he is certainly entitled to do so. I have a blog too and I do not mind others, especially Lutherans, posting their thoughts there though the content is Orthodox theology and belief.

It seems that the only person who has a problem with this is you. So, I'd spend some time removing the plank in your own eye rather than use it as a 2x4 especially since no problem seems to exist.

As you would end your posts: Satis est.

Anonymous said...


I don't believe I specifically singled you out. But in all charity, I've seen you posting at several Lutheran blogs and it sometimes seems that unless you can convince the propriety of your conversion to Orthodoxy it's all going to fall down around you.

I'm sure Pastor Peters isn't about to ban anyone. From firsthand experience I know enough about Catholicism and Orthodoxy that I just don't feel the need to go on either Orthodox or Catholic blogs. Nor do any of my Catholic friends do it either.

The only Orthodox I seem to see commenting on LCMS Lutheran blogs seemsto be Lutheran converts to Orthodoxy.

I wonder why that is?

As for reading, I'm glad to hear that you read a lot, I consider myself a reader too. But, as I said, reading can't always take the place of hands-on experience. I think you found that out, too, when you investigated the Catholic Church before going East.


Chris said...


You couldn't be more wrong and you're assumption of my motives are even more groundless. I post on blogs that I read and where I feel like it. That's it, plain and simple. If you wish to read more into that, fine. I cannot stop you.


Dixie said...

Pastor Peters, you bring up several important points...someone considering conversion has to understand that there are imperfect people East as West...swimming in either direction will not cure that. There are Catholic and Orthodox alike who are not adequately catechized. And I can promise you I have seen plenty of Orthodox quirkiness myself. Fortunately, the almost year it takes to be received in either offers sufficient time for this reality to surface.

As I read your piece what I understand is that evangelicals go East or West because they come from church backgrounds which offer neither but Lutherans swim not because there is a lack of form and substance but because that form and substance is not practiced. Because the guys in the pew next to the future swimmer don't know the Book of Concord, etc. That is a very interesting approach to the problem...and one that I haven't seen so adequately expressed before.

It would be a way to explain the number of pastors and knowledgeable Lutherans who took the plunge and swam in either direction. But somehow...I still think that kind of analysis is only at the surface level.

A lack of form and substance can be the precursor to putting on a bathing suit, either longing for it or thinking one's communion will never return to it, but generally I think it is insufficient to actually go forward with the swim. I would suspect that usually in the process someone identifies an untenable belief in the communion which gives them the push required jump in. Father Daniel infers to exactly the same issue that had me jump head first into the icy waters of the Bosporus...infant communion.

If what you say were true...that once one makes the journey and realizes that what is on the other side is no better than what one left...there would be more reversions. But that's just isn't happening. Father Peter Gilquist of Campus Crusade fame said there are only two things in life that get better over time...marriage and life in the Orthodox Church. My experience would be the same.

Now maybe some of those Lutherans in those contemporary wannabe congregations go East or West because they lack form and substance in where they are. But I don't think anyone who is really knowledgeable of Lutheranism would leave unless some doctrinal point was at issue. Knowledgeable Lutherans are all about the doctrine.

Byzantine Dixie

Pastor Peters said...

As long as people are respectful in their posting, I will not limit their posting on this blog...

Byzantine Dixie has captured part of my point -- that Lutherans do not lack form and substance but these are not practiced as our substance (Confessions) say or according to the forms (liturgy, ministry, etc.) expected in our Confessions... but that is true wherever you go... I said that I believed the best place for both was where I was at -- though I grant you it is a battle continually fought...

Why do people not revert? Well in one sense I think those who leave find exactly what they are looking for -- and that is the only thing they see. For example, Neuhaus freely admitted the poverty of what passed for the Mass in so many Roman parishes but he also chose NOT to focus on that but on the parishes where liturgy and preaching exhibited the best of Rome. Pelikan was under no illusions about trading Lutheranism for Orthodoxy and as he breathed his last breath, his heart was still firmly planted in the great Lutheran evangelist JS Bach. It is like a pastor who leaves one parish because of all the problems he has identified there and is happy in the next -- not because there are no problems but because they are different problems and he has chosen not to focus upon them in his perception of his place. Finally, to revert would be in some measure to admit someone was wrong. I have a good friend who was lay among the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcoplians, priest among the Orthodox and is now Eastern Rite Roman priest. He would insist that none of his incarnations were wrong or mistaken and that he was the same person all along but looking for the place where he fit. I have no quarrel with this but I know that sometimes we explain things in ways that avoid conflicts within us.

As to your last comment, Neuhaus became a Roman's Roman Catholic and yet never defined his Lutheran days or ministry as defective -- in fact he insisted that those led him to become the Catholic he always was...

Dixie said...

Yes, Pastor Peters, some converts are far more gracious than others and never speak of the negatives that may have influenced their decision. I wish I had the same strength of character!

I am interested in exploring your comment about Pelikan. What do you mean he breathed his last breath, his heart was still firmly planted in the great Lutheran evangelist JS Bach? Are you saying he still believed Lutheranism was correct?

I have tried to read everything I can find on Pelikan's conversion--but he was one of those gracious types...not speaking so much about it. The best text I have found that seems to give a bit of a glimpse as to why the conversion and why it took so long is in an essay, "A Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar’s Autobiography."

[The Spirit of Eastern Christianity (600 – 1700)] was one in a series of books over several decades by means of which, I may quote myself again, “while others were reading their way into Orthodoxy, I wrote my way into Orthodoxy.”…

After all of these hundreds of published pages it may have been something of a shock, but I cannot believe that it came to anyone as a surprise, when, on the Feast Day of the Annunciation to the Theotokos (25 March) in 1998, I was received by chrismation into the sacramental fellowship of the Orthodox Church in America. As I said to my friend and father in Christ, His Beatitude Metropolitan Theodosius, who chrismated me, “any airplane that circled the airport for that long before landing would have run out of gas.” Quoting more broadly than it’s originally meaning the commandment “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called” (1 Cor. 7.20), I had long been resisting the ecclesiastical conclusion to which the force of my ideas and beliefs was increasingly pressing me.

He seems to indicate that his beliefs were a component of his conversion.

I don't know much about Neuhaus but what he says about Roman Catholicism and choosing not to focus on the bad things is the same I hear from Lutheran pastors today.

Most former Lutheran converts to Orthodoxy I know personally speak similarly to Neuhaus in that they are quite grateful for their Lutheran years and that it was these that led them to Holy Orthodoxy. (That's another area where I have been slow to catch on. Mentally I am there but heartfelt? Not so much...yet. Hopefully soon.)

Anonymous said...

I suspect that the Lutheran side of Father Neuhaus never really went away.

He freely admitted that he still longed for the rich hymnody he knew as a Lutheran in an interview with AD2000, a Catholic publication:

On the negative, I would refer you to the book "Why Catholics Can't Sing" by Thomas Day. I find the liturgy and music of contemporary Catholicism depressing. But that is something I will have to bear with.


I am keenly aware of the tensions within the Church right now and allegations of the oppression of those whose allegiance is with Rome. My eyes are wide open to the conflicts within the Church

But it is this comment that shows forth his Lutheran spirituality the most as he wrote:

Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways - these and all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will…look to Christ and Christ alone.

Richard John Neuhaus. Death on a Friday Afternoon

Nevertheless Father Neuhaus found the roots in Catholicism that I could not after ten years in the Church of Rome. When I finally realized my allegiance would never be “from the heart” I knew it was time to come home.

The same journeys have taken place across the denominational spectrum, Lutherans becoming Catholic/Orthodox, Catholics becoming Orthodox/Lutheran, Orthodox becoming Catholic/Lutheran, Anglicans going both ways.


Anonymous said...

Dixie's Comment he breathed his last breath, his heart was still firmly planted in the great Lutheran evangelist JS Bach. Are you saying he still believed Lutheranism was correct?

Robert Louis Wilkens, a friend of Pelikan's, wrote:

I saw Jaroslav Pelikan for the last time a few weeks before his death. I knew that he was gravely ill, and I wanted to have one last conversation with him. . . . He said he had been reading again Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Milton's Paradise Lost (even though Milton was an Arian and probably a Pelagian, quipped Pelikan), and Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit. But it was when we came to music that his eyes shone and he spoke from the heart. He said that he was listening mostly to Bach and in particular to the B-minor Mass. As we talked about Bach, he told me a story about the conductor Robert Shaw. On several occasions Shaw had invited Pelikan to give a theological lecture in connection with the performance of a great religious choral work at Carnegie Hall in New York. On the evening Shaw conducted Bach's St. Matthew Passion, before he lifted his baton to begin the performance, he addressed the audience. He said that for some in the audience this evening, this will be the first time you will hear the St. Matthew Passion; for others, it will be the last time. Then he turned to the orchestra and choir to begin the opening chorus.

Jaroslav Pelikan will not hear again the serene boys' voices high above the full chorus in the opening strains of the majestic choral “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig.” Now he joins the “great number, which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.”

Pelikan was very much aware of the Church catholic. His book, “Bach Among The Theologians” is a good read.


Pastor Peters said...

I know Bob Wilken and we spoke about both Neuhaus and Pelikan when I saw him in January... what is important in both is that they were nurtured in the Gospel and grace of God within the communion into which they were confirmed as youth and into the communion into which they were received at the end of their lives. I do not intend or presume to claim them as Lutherans but their own words speak volumes of their respect for their first tradition... and, to those who are listening, Lutheran music has to be the best of the best of who we are... I can think of no nobler context to close your eyes in this life and awaken them in eternity than Bach (be it the B-minor Mass or the Matthew Passion). And I know for a fact that the great Lutheran chorales and the Lutheran setting of Evening Prayer were dearest to the heart of Neuhaus.

Anonymous said...

I do not intend or presume to claim them as Lutherans but their own words speak volumes of their respect for their first tradition... and, to those who are listening, Lutheran music has to be the best of the best of who we are...

Amen to that, Pastor Peters.

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