Friday, July 1, 2011

Looking with 21st Century Vision at Those Who Came Before Us

Much has been written about Luther and his words against and about the Jews.  Some have tried to make Luther the cause of the rise of Nazism, the pursuit of ethnic purity, and racial genocide.  In more recent times there are those who hold up folks to 21st century scrutiny for their writings on racism or slavery or a host of other causes or issues.  I must confess that I do not get excited about this.  I am NOT justifying wrong but on the other hand I find it foolish and senseless to search through in order to repudiate ever flaw in those who came before us.  They were children of their times (just as we are).  They cannot be held to 21st century sensitivities in what they wrote or said.  We have to take them as they are -- sometimes brilliant, often witty, but all sinners (even the redeemed ones).

I think it is a futile pursuit to rewrite hymn texts to be sensitive to gender issues.  For Pete's sake, we all know that man refers to mankind (oh, pardon moi, "humankind" or "peoplekind").  Some of the women who think they are somehow excluded by such language are so hung up on something that they cannot see for the forest for the trees.  I know that there are many folks who had a terrible father or no father growing up.  So this means we must excise from the Scriptures and hymns every reference to Father?  I don't think so.  No father is perfect and every father is flawed.  Good or bad, our human fathers are not meant to be images that we stretch in order to get the idea of God the Father.

It is terribly unfortunate that Luther did not live through the holocaust or it would have tempered his temper and softened his words about the Jews.  But he did not.  So what are you going to do?  Discard every mention or minimize the impact of the man whose name is mentioned more in history than any other name except Jesus Christ?  Puleeeeeze.  Get over it.  He was a sinner.  God declared him a saint in his baptism but he never achieved this goal personally until heaven intervened to end the struggle for self-improvement.

But we Lutherans are not bound to Luther or his words -- except the few of his many words that form part of the Lutheran Confessions.  So we neither own him or his words nor must we always disown what he said that was either rude, radical, or racist.

A friend raised some questions about statements made by Lutherans in America at the time of the Civil War.  Sadly, some did not condemn slavery and echoed the false opinions of the time that Blacks were less than human.  Their flaws and failings in this area does not erase their contributions in other areas.  We cannot hold them up to 21st century standards when they lived and worked in the early to late 19th century.  Yeah, I wish some of them had said nothing instead of what they said.  But they were who they were.  We are who we are.  We all live and work within the framework and through the lens of the times in which we live and the places where we live.  We all say and think terrible things and wish we had not said them or thought them.  All the moral outrage in the world cannot change the past.  Maybe we can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us but maybe we won't. I can only speak for myself but regret is a powerful emotion and not always a great teacher.

But we in the Missouri Synod (and others) have not adopted the words of Walther or any of our forbearers in the US.  We may honor his faithful words without accepting what he said that was rude, radical, or racist.  Apart from Law and Gospel and his theses on Church and Ministry, Walther's words have no official standing within our church body and even the above and not part of our confessional standard.

Some are rewriting history to fit 21st century perspectives and sensitivities.  This is just as foolish as holding on the flawed and sinful opinions of folks in the past when we should know better.  We will be judged just as we judge those in the past.  It will consume us unless we learn to let loose of this and move on... I am not suggesting that we forget their flaws or failings but simply that we cannot rewrite or correct the past from the vantage point of the present.  We can only deal with things today and make sure that the legacy we leave to future generations is as faithful, honorable, and noble as it can be.

As Christians, this means forgiveness of the sins of those who went before us and daily contrition and repentance for our own flaws and failings.  We cannot correct the past.  We can only forgive it.  This is the lesson of Jesus who gives us a place to lay down every yesterday that we might take up a new tomorrow.  The cross is the place to place failed and flawed people and all their flaws and failures.  So give it a rest.  Every hymn does not need to be rewritten and every flawed word of those who went before us does not have to be righted -- we would better spend our time confessing our own sins and working, with the aid of the Spirit, to become the people God has declared us to be in Christ. I have not even begun to talk about whether our 21st century sensibilities are any less flawed that the constraints of those of yesteryear...  that is for another post...

I know that there will be those who think I am way off base here... Maybe I am... I am a sinner who sins.  I may not be responsible for the sins of Luther or Walther but I am surely accountable for my own.  That is where the majority of my time and energy needs to spent....  That is all I am saying...  Well, have at me....


scredsoxfan2 said...

"Discard every mention or minimize the impact of the man whose name is mentioned more in history than any other name except Jesus Christ?"

"But we Lutherans are not bound to Luther or his words -- except the few of his many words that form part of the Lutheran Confessions."

Pastor Peters, quick question: in your opinion, given these quotes, how do you ensure that you are not following a man's (Luther's) direction rather than God's?

I am also not sure that Luther is the second most oft mentioned name in history. I think Peter and Paul are up there...

God Bless

LPeters said...

The words of Luther or Walther are not above Scripture but are honored as faithful understandings of Scripture... See

The point about Luther and history was from a survey of most quoted names a few years ago -- not mine.

scredsoxfan2 said...

Is it your understanding that the words of Luther are in agreement with the Church Fathers?

Thank you for the clarification one the first quote.

Anonymous said...

The Fabricated Luther

Janis Williams said...

It would help in the 21st century if: 1. half of us realized we are fallible, and 2. the other half realized there is knowable truth.

We cannot live as if there is no truth. It's why we stop at stoplights (or at least some of us do).

On the other hand, realizing we are fallible is helped, not hurt by reading older authors. C.S. Lewis recommended for every few books read, one of them should be old. It's not about nitpicking the mistakes our forbears made. It's about finding the treasure of what they got right, because their generation didn't make the stupid mistakes we do.

Anonymous said...

At the time of the Civil War, Walther
endorsed slavery because his parish
was in Missouri. And Missouri was
a slave state that did not secede
from the Union. Walther did not want
to cause problems with the state
government of Missouri. He also felt that slavery was acceptable in
the New Testament. His stance on
slavery does not minimize his
contribution to American Lutheranism.

Jenny said...

Thank you Pastor Peters. There is some good stuff to think about in your post! Maybe it will also help me explain to people who want to discredit my faith with points that have nothing to do with Christ.

Anonymous said...

You write, “But we Lutherans are not bound to Luther or his words -- except the few of his many words that form part of the Lutheran Confessions.” Based on Scripture, I think it is true that nothing that comes in touch with people is perfect. Therefore, I wonder how we decided that those “few” words are infallible? Is this something that dooms Lutherans to defend a “petrified” belief system in which nothing can change? For instance, the Small Catechism teaches about Ten Commandments, while there clearly only are nine in it. The Second Commandment from Scripture simply is not there. Does it matter? Did God have Moses schlep that Second Commandment down needlessly?

I continue to insist that Luther’s explanation of the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer is wrong. I don’t know what Luther was thinking of, but how can the Kingdom “come to us” while, according to Col 1:13 He has brought us into His Kingdom. Further, according to Luther the Kingdom “comes to us” “when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit.” So do we receive the Holy Spirit every time we pray, “Thy Kingdom come”?

I have not looked through the Confessions to find errors, but I could not help notice them when I ran across them. For instance, the Apology claims that God wrote the Ten Commandments on our hearts. This is based on the Jeremiah 31:33, which, in Hebrew, refers to Torah. Torah includes the Ten Commandments, but the Ten Commandments are never referred to as “Torah”.

This does not even touch on any translation errors. None of the English versions of the Book of Concord correctly translate the word “währt” in The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article III. Of Repentance. Of the False Repentance of the Papists. 40] and in The Solid Declaration of the Formula of ConcordII. Free Will, or Human Powers 34], correctly, leading to a major misunderstanding of the nature of Repentance among English speaking Lutherans.

None of what I have written should affect the high esteem in which we hold the blessed Dr. Martin Luther. The value of the gifts God gave to the Church through Him are incalculable. “About the Jews and their lies” is not one of them, but it is not the only one. Sinners sin; that means they can get things wrong. We don’t even need to forgive centuries old sins, but we should not perpetuate them out of some false piety.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Walther was against life-insurance
but he did not have the 19th century
vision to see that in the 21st
century we would have Thrivent.

Today, Thrivent gives matching funds
to Concordia Seminary, St Louis
and that would make the former
president of the Sem very happy.