Sunday, July 11, 2010

Historical Documents, Historical Baggage or Living Identity

For most Reformation churches, their confessions no longer have any normative authority.  They are relegated to the status of historical documents.  So, for example, the Episcopal Church sees the 39 Articles not as living confession but as historical documents that are related to who the Church is today but certainly not normative for that church body.  In the same way, the Westminster Confession has lost its normative voice for Presbyterians and the Reformed of a Calvinist stripe.  The Heidelberg Catechism has likewise become merely an historical document, part of a church's past but not its present.

For some within these traditions, this has gone a step further.  The confessions of the past are not only historical documents but historical baggage.  Like the old, worn suitcases sitting in the attic, they have become outmoded, irrelevant, and are seen as baggage best discarded.  Oh, sure, you can remember them as history but they are antithetical to whom the church today has become.  Not only are they cast aside, but what they contain has been cast aside and has become descriptive only of what was and not what is.  Even if this has not functionally happened by resolution, it has happened by the way these church bodies make decisions and the criteria used to implement choices which are in clear conflict with their doctrinal positions of the past.

Even though this has not yet happened for Lutheranism, we are certainly in danger of this happening among us as well.  We have certainly not gone very far down the passageway of making the Concordia an historical document, but some Lutherans seem to be heading in that direction.  In the ELCA we noted how the decisions were made to allow, in effect, a new definition of marriage and to allow for gay and lesbian clergy in PALMS.  The ELCA recognized that it was departing from the established position of the Lutheran Church and chose to follow this path anyway.  In some respects, it was more honest to recognize this departure from Lutheran practice and catholic tradition than to see it somehow justified or approved in history.  Many were heard to delight in the "new thing" God was doing under the power of the "Gospel."

In Missouri we see a different track.  Here the question comes down to the separation of substance (doctrine) from style (practice) and this has become the new shibboleth for those who are trying to quick start a seeming reluctant Missouri to growth in numbers.  No one in Missouri is saying that the Confessions should be discarded.  No one in Missouri is saying that these Confessions should be ignored.  In essence what many in Missouri are saying is that the Confession can be maintained with a broader diversity of practice in the areas of communion fellowship, what happens on Sunday morning, methods of outreach, evangelism, and stewardship, and a vague Lutheran identity in new mission starts.  Over and over we hear from them that the Confessions were not written with a modern day situation in mind and that these Confessions allow a diversity of practice that does not break or divide the fellowship.

Read the excellent book called The Lost Soul of American Protestantism by D. G. Hart to see how he tracks this movement among Protestants and how it might go for Lutherans as well.  When our Confessions are no longer normative, when they no longer speak to practice as well as doctrine, we risk being unhooked from our identity and we unleash a host of alternatives to what has been without any real mechanism to reclaim our identity or the authority of those Confessions.  Some have described this as Museum Confessions.

Clearly Lutheranism will soon have to come to terms with this.  Will our Confessions be something we pay lip service to or will they continue to be the formative and definitive confessional identity for us as Lutheran Christians?  For many, this choice was already made in Minneapolis for the ELCA.  For Missouri, it may well be one of the consequences of choices made in Houston that, while not directly stating such, will effectively turn aside the voice of our Confessions to shape and define what we believe, teach, and confess, and how we live it out in parish practice....


R. R. Mueller said...

If the Book of Concord is cast aside by the LCMS I will resign my membership. I will still be a lutheran, but, at the point that the LCMS ceases it's use of the BOC it will cease to be lutheran in any meaningful sense.

Pr. D. Bestul said...

Excellent post, brother! Oh, how I long for a synod of congregations whose worship and practice conformed to the Confessions to which we owe our identity.

Anonymous said...

Much of Hart's work is very good. If you liked this I would also recommend Recovering Mother Kirk, and in particular his treatise on the separation of the Kingdoms (and the history of their co-minglinging in the USA) called A Secular Faith. Deconstruction Evangelicalism is also interesting (and more accessible than his more scholarly works).

Anonymous said...

Very timely, especially for our Middle Tennessee Churches. I wonder if the Confessions can be found in many of our churches' libraries.

Andrew Grams

Brian Yamabe said...

A certain district president told a group of us that AC 14 was meant for 16th Century Germans. Sounds like a setup to making at least certain parts of our confession simply historical.