Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Happens When Lutherans Cease to Be Lutheran

Although it was a personal decision it does have far reaching consequences.  Dr. Michael Root, a lay theologian teaching at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC, has been received into the Roman Catholic Church.  This was an evolutionary choice for Dr. Root but outlines well what happens when Lutherans cease to be Lutheran in identity and practice -- they start looking around for other denominations which offer what the Lutherans lack.  In this case, part of it may have been a church body which stood for something.  While the situation in Missouri is not the same as the ELCA, we also run the same risk of loosing folks who grow weary of a church body no longer confident of its confession and identity.

The Seminary website lists the following bio for Dr. Root:

Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC.  He served as Dean from 2003-2009, after having earlier served on the faculty from 1980 to 1988. He is also Visiting Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, where he served as Research Professor and sometimes Director from 1988 to 1998. 

He also has taught at Davidson College in Davidson, NC and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH.   Since January 2006, he has been Executive Director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.
Root is a native of Norfolk, Virginia.  After attending public schools in Chesapeake, Virginia, he studied at Dartmouth College (B.A., summa cum laude), and Yale University (Ph.D. in theology).  He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Wittenberg University (Springfield, OH) in 2002 in recognition of his contribution to the unity of the church.  

Root is a member of the US  and international Lutheran-Catholic dialogues and has served on the US Lutheran-United Methodist dialogue, the Anglican-Lutheran International Working Group, and the Angican-Lutheran International Commission.  He was the Faith and Order Commission Observer for the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.  He served as coopted staff at the 1990, 1997, and 2003 Assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation and the 1993 World Conference on Faith and Order and was a consultant at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.  

He served on the drafting teams that produced the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and Called to Common Mission, which established full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church.  He is the author (with Gabriel Fackre) of Affirmations and Admonitions (Eerdmans 1998) and editor of Justification by Faith (with Karl Lehmann and William Rusch, Continuum 1997), Baptism and the Unity of the Church (with Risto Saarinen, Eerdmans 1998), and Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword: Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible (with James Buckley, Eerdmans, 2008).

What is significant is that Dr. Root was a voice against the devolution of the ELCA from confessional Lutheran identity and practice and was a strong figure in the fight for those within the ELCA against the actions of the CWA in August 2009.  His departure surely weakens the position of those who believe that you can stay in the ELCA and make a difference.

There have been those in Missouri who left for Rome or Constantinople because they became convinced that Missouri was not serious about being the Church her Confessions claim her to be.  There is no one reason or argument for those who have left but the common conviction of those leaving was that Lutheranism no longer offered a viable choice.

While I would disagree with that conclusion, I am not insensitive to the issues and struggles within Lutherans to remain true to the documents which confess who they are, what they believe, and how they practice that faith in their liturgical life.  My point is this, what good is a Lutheranism detached from her confessional statements, a Lutheranism which no longer has confidence in her answers, or a Lutheranism no longer assured that God comes to us in Word and Sacrament to accomplish His saving will and purpose?  

The battle in Missouri is one that detaches style and substance from each other to allow us to believe like Lutherans while worshiping like evangelicals, evangelizing like fundamentalists, and practicing our piety like the local contemporary Christian radio station.  The battle in the ELCA is the same -- but the parameters are different.  The ELCA believes that you can worship faithfully in the form of the Mass with its attendant ceremonies and even have Bishops but that you don't have to believe the things these imply.  So you commune with folks who believe in the real absence of Jesus and you adopt as mission the cutting edge social justice movement of the day.

What happens when Lutherans cease to be Lutheran in faith and practice?  They start shopping for another version of Christianity that lacks the thing that attracts them most.  So some head to Rome for authority and liturgical tradition (though sloppily and lazily practiced in the local parish) and some head to Constantinople for antiquity (though somewhat isolated and ethnically frozen) and others head to the mainstream of Protestantism or the pulsing heart of evangelicalism in search of social justice or relevance.  And this is what has been happening.
We cannot afford not be the Lutherans our Confessions claim we are (in practice as well as belief).  The emptiness that is left is unsatisfactory to those on every side and will eventually die -- either by attrition in which the last left simply turn out the lights when they pass on or by becoming an empty shell that has an exterior but no heart or mind or soul or by exchanging Lutheran identity for whatever seems to be the prevailing (and therefore successful) theological fad of the moment.

Is there another choice?  Well, yes, we could try being the Lutherans we are.  I am not suggesting that we repristinate a specific era or epoch of Lutheranism (though Lutheran Orthodoxy appeals to me) but taking our theological identity, heritage, and conviction and living it out within the present moment.  That means for Missouri we must get over the idea that theology began and ended with the 100 years between 1847 and 1947 and for the ELCA it means getting over the idea that this is just history and nothing more.  We Lutherans ought to be vibrant, strong, and liturgical -- with our passion for the early church fathers, our commitment to catholic faith and practice, our penchant for reform and renewal, and out history of educating our people through catechesis and Bible study.  Couple that with the great history of Lutheran compassionate ministry and it would seem that we would be a powerhouse... if we wanted to be... the Lutherans we say we are...


Anonymous said...

Your blog should be required reading for all LCMS members. Great stuff!

Adam Koontz said...

Pr. Peters,

I think the case of Dr. Root and other "evangelical catholics" within the ELCA is somewhat different from the frustrations with the Mo. Synod on which you post often. Dr. Root has been teaching for years that Aquinas and Luther had the same doctrine of justification, even as others such as Braaten or Jenson push the theosis-as-justification that is the child of Finnish ecumenism. Dr. Root wasn't a Lutheran before he became a Roman Catholic.

Simply because someone believes that homosexuality is morally wrong doesn't mean that he is a confessional Lutheran. The ELCA's strife isn't the same battle as Missouri's because the ELCA has never been a doctrinally Lutheran church body, whether you look at its quatenus subscription or its tolerance of public teachings from Dr. Root's Thomism to herchurch out in San Francisco. If there were someone in the Missouri Synod who insisted on the "historic episcopate," whether or not women were ordained to that episcopate, and thought that Rome now taught the same as we do on justification, we probably wouldn't think he was a Lutheran. I don't think folks in (or out of) the ELCA should be called "confessional Lutherans" because they oppose same-sex relationships or (in the case of Word Alone) the necessity of ordination by a bishop.

Steve said...

I'm not sure about the ins and outs of other faiths but I will say that if we leave the roots of who we are, of our belief in the Scriptures, of our interpretation of that belief as found in our Confessions and of our liturgical worship; we will leave the truth as it is in purity. I don't believe these with all my heart because they are Lutheran. I believe them because they are in fact true and right. I'm Lutheran because it accurately believes Jesus Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and returning.

Pastor Peters said...

I did not mean to presume something about Dr. Root which is not true -- simply that he was a voice against the devolution of the ELCA and against the CWA actions of a year ago... The point being, that in absence of a strong confessional Lutheran identity and practice, people will look elsewhere... Dr. Root looked to Rome...

Anonymous said...

So some head to Rome for authority and liturgical tradition (though sloppily and lazily practiced in the local parish) and some head to Constantinople for antiquity (though somewhat isolated and ethnically frozen) and others head to the mainstream of Protestantism or the pulsing heart of evangelicalism in search of social justice or relevance.

A bit of a generalization, I would think. Not all are burdened by "sloppy or lazy" liturgy anymore than all LCMS churches today offer the historic liturgy.

As far as liturgy, strictly speaking, goes in the Roman Catholic Church we'll see what happens in a year or so when the third edition of the Roman Missal is implemented. The language of the Mass will again have a numinous and prayerful foundation that has been lacking over the past several decades.

I heard a talk given by Dr. Root years ago at my then ELCA parish. He was very interesting to hear. At that time that particular congregation still offered a liturgy that was soundly catholic and evangelical and both the pastor and members adhered to a solid Lutheran ethos connected to Luther's Large and Small Catechisms. It is very sad that that is no longer the case.

I am not at all surprised that Dr. Root has embraced the Roman fold.

Anonymous said...

It is also interesting to hear what Dr. Root says of his own reasons for becoming Catholic:

Anonymous said...

Sorry for posting again, it would have been better just to share the quote to begin with:

"On Monday I shared with the faculty the news that in the near future I will be received into the Catholic Church. I now wish to share that news with you. This action is not one that I take lightly. The Lutheran church has been my intellectual and spiritual home for forty years. But we are not masters of our convictions. A risk of ecumenical study is that one will come to find another tradition compelling in a way that leads to a deep change in mind and heart. Over the last year or so, it has become clear to me, not without struggle, that I have become a Catholic in my mind and heart in ways that no longer permit me to present myself as a Lutheran theologian with honesty and integrity. This move is less a matter of decision than of discernment.

No single issue has been decisive for me, but at the center of my reflection has been the question of how God’s grace engages the justified person and the church in the divine mission of salvation. How are we redeemed as the free and responsible agents God created us to be?

Catholic theology speaks of God elevating the justified person and the church to participation in the divine life and mission, so that God grants the Christian and the church participation in God’s actions in a different way than Lutheran theology affirms. Catholic teachings do not follow from that vision with deductive force, but they do hang together with that vision in ways that I have come to find deeply convincing."

That Missouri Synod Lutherans will disagree with him is, of course, expected.

I will post no further :)

Carl Vehse said...

Adam Koontz provides the needed context, "Dr. Root wasn't a Lutheran before he became a Roman Catholic." Insofar as the column discusses Dr. Root swimming the Tiber, the title should be, "What Happens When E_CA people Cease to Be E_CA."

As for the part of the column dealing with the Missouri Synod -- "That means for Missouri we must get over the idea that theology began and ended with the 100 years between 1847 and 1947" -- a Lutheran can only ask, "What does this mean?"

Was Missouri Synod Lutheran theology, as expounded near the close of this period in Pieper's Christian Dogamtics volumes and summarized in "A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod" outside of Lutheran Orthodoxy?

Pastor Peters said...

In some ways, Missouri has confused its own history with all of Lutheran history. Sadly, people who know Pieper and JT Mueller or Koehler know nothing of Chemnitz or Gerhard except as a footnote. I am not diminishing Missouri's teachers but asking Missourians to widen their vision -- is it a choice or a both and?

Anonymous said...

Where does one start?

Quite frankly, I think LCMS has been standing on the banks of the Rubicon for quite a while.

Over the past 30 years, I have witnessed a sprint from St. Louis to Rome, maybe not in print, but definitely in practice.

There are serveral examples that indicate that some LCMS worship services are embracing Catholic practices. For example, the practice of chanting the Collect and Psalms, as opposed to speaking it by the presiding Pastor; the practice of using the word "catholic" as opposed to "christian" in the creeds (I know, "catholic" means whole, blah, blah, blah...; what does "christian" mean? not as whole?); the practice of dipping one's hand in the font once a year to commemorate baptism; the replacement of the terms "service" with "mass" and "pastor" with "father" by some recent confirmands and adult members.

My home church even went so far as to give illustrations in the Sunday service bulletin how to properly genuflect!

How about the use of incense, so much so, that some elderly and well, not-so-elderly, members frequently inquire when incense is going to be a part of the service so they know when NOT to come.

And one of the best about referring to the District President as Bishop (which begs the question, does that make the Synod President Pope, or at least a Cardinal?...but I digress)

These are all traditional Catholic practices, yet they are embraced by some LCMS congregations (as opposed to parishes), and quite frankly, leaves some of us confused and to a degree, disgruntled. But, in the deep south, what are we to do? Endure the discomfort a few times during the service, or desert the faith that has surrounded us for our whole lives?

LCMS and ELCA, LCMS particularily, have long been on the road to Rome under the guise of maintaining liturgical and confessional service. And when on ELCA professor becomes officially Catholic, we are surprised?

Perhaps instead of chastising someone who followed up on what is being taught, we should turn away from looking at the city of Rome across the Rubicon, embrace St. Louis from the banks of the Mississippi.

Pastor Peters said...

Dear Anonymous... My heart goes out to you but not for the reason you surmise. You have confused the Missouri history from 1847 with Lutheran history and identity. Missouri always looked good on paper but compare the practice of monthly or quarterly Holy Communion with our Confessions that say we have not abandoned the Mass?

Luther and the Lutherans into the next centuries chanted everything in the Gottesdienst -- including the words of institution (and all the English hymnals included directions for the Pastor's chanting parts going back to 1917).

The word catholic is the original; it was always used in the Athanasian and the substitution of Christian was a late medieval departure from the accepted wording of the creeds.

The remembrance of baptism (with or without water but always with the sign of the cross) was directed by Luther every morning and night.

Some Lutherans never gave up calling their Pastors "Father" (the Swedes for example who saved German Lutherans from losing the 30 years war and being exiled from the land of Luther). What about Luther's names for the Divine Service -- Formula Messae or Deutche Messe?

Calling a man your bishop is describing his relationship to you -- one of doctrinal oversight - or episcopal supervision -- even though his office is that of District President. People who call me Pastor are calling me a term of relationship, which, although it is not necessarily appropriate for a stranger to call me, I do not challenge them.

My point is this... When we judge all of Lutheranism by our own limited experience, then we make a mistaken judgment. The Lutheranism that I grew up with had the justification and may other parts right on paper but in practice did not look much like the Church of the Augsburg Confession. We have the same problems today when our Confession and our Practice are at odds... that was one of the points of my post...

I am not castigating you nor do I mean to offend you. Read the Augsburg Confession or Luther's Large Catechism and let these be the things that define us and not what the church was like when you or I was growing up.

In this respect Lutheranism is always semper reformanda -- always being reformed...

Rev. Rod Zwonitzer said...

Enjoyed and concur with your analysis. What you are contending for is the reluctance in our synod for decades now of an unwillingness to challenge those who demand they be called Lutherans who do not want to be Lutheran. When some try, they are called names, e.g. uncompassionate, etc. We have stopped Visitation and any real examination of their ministry after sem graduation, the infamous "cooperate and graduate" works.

Nice parallel to what you are saying is found in Richard Neuhaus' book: Catholic Matters, which describes why he left Lutheranism for Rome. One might want to check out my review of this on under "rodboomboom."

Anonymous said...

The real question for me is "What happens when Lutherans cease to have a passion for lost people?" Does it really matter to God that many believe all the right doctrines but no longer seek to fulfill the Great Commission in their lives? I believe it does. He is a missionary God who desperately wants to save people from their own sin through His Son Jesus. Why are many leaving the LCMS? For some it is because their congregation no longer exists for itself. For others, it is because their congregation no longer stands firm on the bedrock of the Scripture and Confessions. Which comes first, missions or confessions? This question is chicken-and-egg-esque in nature, but when one is missing, it is an unbearable climate for those who are passionate about both.

Anonymous said...

Correction, "For some it is because their congregation no longer exists for itself." should read "For some it is because their congregation only exists for itself."

Pastor Peters said...

Could we agree that a congregation which exists only for itself is unrelated to the worship forms used or the music? It is unfair to describe this as related to the Sunday morning format... and related entirely to the people (and pastor) of that congregation...

Hans said...

I read the writings of Martin Luther and others, and considered becoming Lutheran. I heard the liturgical music of people like Bach and Praetorius, and considered becoming Lutheran. I attended Mass in Lutheran churches in Europe before exploring churches in my native USA, and considered becoming Lutheran. Then I DID visit several Lutheran churches here, in America - and was disappointed. Nice people, socially involved etc., but with (IMO) lame liturgies, watered down liturgies, trendy liturgies, clergy wearing ugly vestments or no vestments, services with little sense of the sacred - one of these parishes had photos of its church building on its website, with views of everything in the church EXCEPT - the altar! Sorry folks, but externals and a sense of continuity and tradition are important, even for a liberal leaning person like myself. European Lutherans kept much that was "catholic". An altarpiece in Norway with a carving of the Virgin Mary on it, acceptable and beloved there, would make some American Lutherans spin on their heads if it showed up in their church in lake Minnihaha, WI.

Frank Sonnek said...

Amen! And the homo issue is driving even LCMS confessionals into the arms of saint Thomas via his natural law theories which are inseparable from the theology our apology can be read as dismantling thomist Aristotelian quasi augustinian categories, terms and definitions , brick by brick and rebuilding on St Paul .

Frank Sonnek said...

Let alone a serious relationship and intimacy with the apology .....