Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Script of Faith

Over the past several days I noted a blog discussion of whether or not to write out, take with you, and preach from either an outline or a full blown manuscript AND a question of whether or not someone can "read" themselves out of the faith by reading the wrong books.  It also connected with a line from the introduction of last week's sermon about the script of our faith.

It would seem that there are two very different kinds of theater -- one which is improvisation and the other scripted.  While there are those who very much like improv, the outcome is often unpredictable and consistency impossible to sustain.  While there are those who like a script, slavish dependence upon someone else's lines often sounds like the actor is reading a part instead of playing one.  The romance of the theater is definitely tilted toward improvisation -- the spontaneity, the thrill of its surprising twists and turns, and the sheer skill of the actors on stage.

When it comes to faith, our heart might be tilted toward improv but our heads should be firmly rooted in a script.  This is especially true for a confessional church like the Lutheran Church.  We are not good at improvisation nor are we comfortable with novelty and innovation.  We are best when we are who we have claimed to be and confessed to be (in words).  Our whole identity and our unity is based upon a common script from which we are all reading and in which we all have confidence.  When we deviate from this script we tend to go astray and lose not only our distinctiveness but also our basic identity as Lutheran Christians.

One of the great problems with following a script is that there are so many scripts to choose from.  Sure, there are those who say our script should be the Bible (the nude Scriptures) but surely we can all see how every Christian tradition, indeed, every heretic, has claimed to be following Scripture.  The Scriptures are never naked but are always surrounded by the orthodox creeds and confessions that identify what it is that Scripture teaches that is faithful and true (or, to use classic language, holy, catholic, and apostolic).  So it is not sufficient to say I follow Scripture without placing that Scripture within the context of that which is the catholic and orthodox tradition.  We as Lutherans hold to our confessions not in so far as these confessions are Scriptural but because they are faithful and orthodox expositions of what Scripture says.

It would seem to me that one of our modern problems is the script we are reading.  Too many Lutherans are reading scripts that either have nothing in common with our confessions or conflict with those confessions.  Take, for example, the reading lists of such agencies as TCN (Transforming Churches Network) or PLI (Pastoral Leadership Initiative).  It would seem that the bulk of this reading (the script) is by non-Lutherans and not by non-Lutherans sympathetic to the Lutheran confessions but either oblivious to or writing against what these confessions say we believe, teach, and confess.  Our vocabulary and our very identity are being shaped more by church growth methodologies and evangelicals than by the documents that we claim say best who we are and what we believe.  Even if what we read there is not in conflict with those confessions, by giving our attention to them and by investing them with authority, we distance ourselves from our own confession, history, and identity.

The same is true of the folks in the pew.  The abundance of books, magazines, and web resources by non-Lutherans have become a treasure trove of new found wisdom and insight by the people in our pews.  Their script has been shifted away from the Catechism and hymnal to other scripts and other authors who do not hold to the same confession and values we hold as Evangelical Lutheran Christians.  Some of it is not particularly evil or wicked but the problem is that we learn to speak in non-sacramental and non-creedal terms and we learn to value other things more highly than the Word and the Sacraments.  The internet is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to providing information to us (information whose source, presuppositions, and values we do not know and may not be in a position to evaluate clearly by ourselves).

It is our practice to ask of those youth to be confirmed that they write a two page essay on an assigned topic (such as "What is baptism and how does it shape my life as a child of God?").  Catechumens use a variety of sources and some from the internet.  Once I had to spend most of a day with a youth who inadvertently drew the majority of his source material from a non-sacramental source (actually Mormon) and was led far afield of the catechism and our Lutheran identity.  He did not know nor did his parents realize what was happening (perhaps they were mostly concerned that it simply be finished on time).

It is not that I disdain other scripts or believe them all to be lies.  If I read them, I must read them through the lens of my own familiar script as a Lutheran Christian (namely the confessions).  I must be careful when reading from these other sources lest I be led away from basic identity and the faith I have confessed.  The script we read our faith from is not something indifferent but of basic and essential importance.  I caution our folks (Pastors and lay) from reading these other things without a critical eye for what is being said and how that relates (or conflicts) with what it is that we as Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.  There are some dangerous things going on out there...

I once had a family whose child was dating a fine young person not of the Lutheran faith.  Over time, this Lutheran was regular in the Sunday morning, evening, and Wednesday worship services and Bible studies of this church.  They were young and in love, at least they thought so.  The parents were happy the teen was going to church so often.  Until doubts about this person's infant baptism, about whether they had been saved, about the formalistic sins of Lutheranism, and growing pressure nearly blew this family apart.  The child had been reading from another script, did not filter what was heard through the knowledge base that had already been supplied to them through the catechism, worship, and Sunday school in a Lutheran parish, and this had grave consequences.  Eventually the family fell away entirely and only after a move began to reclaim the faith they had once confessed.  Even so, this family and the youth (now an adult) are not nearly as regular as before this happened.

It is not all a matter of interpretation.  That is why we Lutherans have a written script (the confessions).  We are anchored in this faith and it is THE standard of doctrine and practice (not just in some formalistic sense but in the most practical way).  Watch the script you are reading and make sure that it is not calling you away from the script that you know confesses faithfully and Biblically the one holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.  This is not a small problem.


Anonymous said...

How many LCMS pastors are leading
Sunday Bible classes on the Book of
Concord and the Lutheran Confessions?
How many LCMS pastors are leading
any Bible class on Sunday morning?

One of the qualifications for an
overseer/pastor in 1 Timothy:
"able to teach". He is to be
"trained in the words of faith and
of the good doctrine". Our clergy
need to be in the Word/Confessions.

Paul said...

Those are good questions for a District President and/or Circuit Counselor to be asking.

Cheryl said...

"Once I had to spend most of a day with a youth who inadvertently drew the majority of his source material from a non-sacramental source (actually Mormon) and was led far afield of the catechism and our Lutheran identity. He did not know nor did his parents realize what was happening (perhaps they were mostly concerned that it simply be finished on time)."

Pastor, I would respectfully suggest that you might want to reconsider that practice (of having confirmands write essays, at least essays of that sort). I think it is setting them up to wander off task by asking them to do something they may not be ready for. I don't consider myself to be a classical teacher in the strict sense, but one of the things that has helped me as a homeschool mom is to keep in mind the classical definitions of the stages of learning: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The stages vary from person to person depending on individual cognitive development, but they roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school. Grammar (elementary school) involves learning the basic building blocks of knowledge--the vocabulary. With the catechism, this would equate to learning by heart the commandments, creed, and Lord's prayer. Logic corresponds to learning the why and how of something--in the catechism, this would equate to learning "what does this mean." Rhetoric is the taking of the grammar and logic and turning around and expressing them in one's own words and applying them to other situations. Most people are not ready to do this in junior high. It is a high school or beyond skill. One of the problems with public schools these days is that they often ask children in the grammar and logic phases to do things that would be more suited to the rhetoric phase.

Just a thought! I worry that in asking the confirmands to write an essay they may not be ready for they will in desperation seek out sources beyond the catechism. Instead, maybe come up with research assignments that direct them back to the catechism or other confessional writings: "What does Luther say about . . . ?"

Anonymous said...

Excellent thoughts, Pastor Peters and a timely reminder that we should never take our precious Confessional Lutheran heritage for granted.


Pastor Peters said...


I sit with the students to go over resources, Bible passages, etc, they can use and this comes at the end of 2 1/3 years of instruction in catechism class. In addition, I ask them questions to outline how they might/should respond...

Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

As one who has completed PLI, and since repented, I resonate with a lot of what is said in this post.

As pastors, it's not only critical that we know our confession, but we also need to know what's on the market and have a response for it. The folks to whom we minister are undoubtebly bombarded by aberrant confessions, as well as those purporting to be part of our confession, but, in reality, aren't.

At the same time, there is a certain amount of caution needed. By that, I mean that we must know ourselves and our own weaknesses. I was once told I needed to preach from the heart (I'm a manuscript guy). My response was that my heart was sinful and what I'd preach from there didn't need to be publicized. Our confession is rock solid, but my own tendencies inevitably get me into trouble. I'm reminded of one of my favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. After a particularly difficult game of "hide and seek," in which Foghorn Leghorn appeared where he hadn't been, he went to the corn crib to check his original hiding place. "No, I better not. I just might, I say, I just might be in there."

Cheryl, I'm one of the pastors who doesn't always do the essays. My reasoning is purely selfish: it's not my job to teach these kids how to write, and that's often what I have to do.

Anonymous said...

This article reminds me of the sad fact that many Lutheran pastors refuse to uphold the vows that they willingly took to teach that script. I was raised in an LCMS church my entire life and went evangelical for a few years because I didn't really see a difference. It wasn't until my husband and I returned to the LCMS for him to attend the seminary that we learned what that script truly I could never go back.