Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Hemeneutical democracy. . . NOT

Richard Beck wrote a fascinating post about his work consulting with denominational and non-denominational leaders working on a response to the same sex issue.  He wrote:

Here’s the situation, I told the group, you have to own the fact that you are Protestants (as am I). Which means that you are never going to land on an uncontested “biblical view.” Protestants have never agreed on what the Bible says. Just look at all the Protestant churches. Underneath the conversation about the “biblical view” what you are searching for is a hermeneutical consensus, the degree to which your community can tolerate certain hermeneutical choices.
Stretch the hermeneutical fibers too thin and the consensus snaps. People can’t make the leap. The view is deemed “unbiblical.” But if you keep the changes within the hermeneutical tolerances of the community the consensus holds and the view is deemed “biblical.”
His conclusion is extrapolated by Rod Dreher here:
what Protestant churches and organizations are really doing in these [contemporary] debates [about same-sex marriage] are trying to find out if its membership wants to change, and if so, how much change will it accept. The truth is, says Beck, is that Protestantism is a “hermeneutical democracy,” in which the individual consciences of believers determine what is true and what is false. This, he says, is the “genius of the tradition,” and having to do all this “relational work” is a key part of what it means to be Protestant. The Bible doesn’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and for Protestants, that means that everybody gets a vote. 
In other words, Biblical means what we deem it to mean and usually that means what the folks in the pew will stomach.  Surely this has been the weakness of Protestantism for half a millenium but it should not be the problem for Lutherans.  In fact, this is why I do not believe it is at all accurate to include Lutheran among those who fit under the generic heading of Protestant.  Yes, the radical end shape of most of Protestantism, certainly of all non-confessional Protestantism, is that the individual, reason, and the democracy of what people will tolerate at the moment has become the chief means of defining what is Biblical.  Indeed there is little mechanism within the non-confessional groups to resist such an outcome.

But not for Lutherans!

Lutherans insist that the principle of the Reformation is the refusal to depart from catholic doctrine and practice -- that everything deemed new to the Reformers was in essence ancient and catholic.  So our Confessions spend as much time with the church fathers as they do Scripture, making sure that we get it.  We are not a democracy of voice or vote and the definition of what is catholic and Biblical is not a fill in the blank left to those at the time to complete.

Martin Chemnitz, the second Martin of Lutheranism listed seven different types of traditiones which Lutherans not only grudgingly accept but wholeheartedly subscribe to…
  1. Scripture itself, i.e. the things that Christ and the Apostles preached orally and were later written down. Then follows:
  2. the faithful transmission of the Scriptures;
  3. the oral tradition of the Apostles (which by its very nature must agree with the contents of the New Testament canon);
  4. the proper interpretation of the Scriptures received from the Apostles and “Apostolic men”;
  5. dogmas that are not set forth in so many words in Scripture but are clearly apparent from a sampling of texts;
  6. the consensus of true and pure antiquity;
  7. rites and customs that are edifying and believed to be Apostolic, but cannot be proved from Scripture.
This well completes what Augustana left as almost a footnote -- we have not departed from any catholic doctrine and practice.  Show us and we will correct ourselves.  In fact the charge against Rome was that it had innovated, departing from Scripture and the catholic tradition over and over again to invent what had not been.  While it is surely true that Lutherans have not defended or even articulated this very well over the years, this is the lens through which we view our Confessions, tradition, and what it means to claim something as Biblical.  Novelty, creativity, and spontaneity are  not qualities highly prized among Lutherans.  That said, we have for too long been dissatisfied with this aspect of our Confessional witness and identity and have acted like those who get to decide what is Biblical, what is Lutheran, at the moment.

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide, as Pelikan so aptly noted.  The past may not have veto but has a vote that carries at least as much weight as the moment.  As Chesteron put it, "Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."  Lutherans are fully conversant and comfortable with this (except those whose itching ears have led them to believe and act more like the Protestants.  Protestantism has eliminated one pope in favor of everyone being a pope while Lutherans refuse a papacy while allowing that catholic doctrine and practice -- THE tradition -- with Scripture is pretty close to our papacy and is certainly our magisterium for sancta mater ecclescia.


Anonymous said...

Dear Pastor Peters,

I don't quite know how to break this to you, but you are standing in a rather lonely place. You said, "Lutherans insist that the principle of the Reformation is the refusal to depart from catholic doctrine and practice." You are the only Lutheran of any strip that I have ever heard saying anything at all about holding to catholic (that word!!) doctrine and practice.

I spent 25 years as a Lutheran, some ALC, some LCA, some LCMS, and some WELS. The closest I ever observed to catholic faith and practice was in the ALC and LCA. The very utterance of the word "catholic" was grounds for stoning in both LCMS and WELS.

In my view, Lutheranism is entirely congregational, with every individual congregation deciding doctrine for itself. Look at th power of the LCMS "voters assembly" and the "Board of Elders" (I have been a part of both, and I shutter to think of the power wielded there!).

I rather suspect that Pastor Peters' congregation is quite catholic, by its own choice and under his leadership. But we would not have to drive far to find another LCMS congregation that looked much like the local Baptists or Methodist. I see no reason at all to think LCMS as holds to catholic faith and practice. It is very much a matter of local option.

Fr. D+
Continuing Anglican Priest

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters. You wrote, “Lutherans insist that the principle of the Reformation is the refusal to depart from catholic doctrine and practice -- that everything deemed new to the Reformers was in essence ancient and catholic.”
Penal substitution, rejected by both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is neither ancient or catholic. Yet it is officially part of our faith. Attempts have been made to show that some Church Fathers believed in penal substitution, but all these comments show is that they believed in substitutionary atonement, which is part of the orthodox faith.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Cliff said...

You are quite right that we Lutherans are more Catholic than we let on. The suggestion by some Protestants that we can interpret scripture at the whim of the local congregation or individual is very dangerous and should never be encouraged. That after all, is how we will compromise the entire bible, leaving the Ten Commandments null and void.

As the two previous posters were not in agreement with you, I would suggest we remain more Catholic than Protestant. After all, it is the one true faith we contend for.


Kirk Skeptic said...

Whille I'm quite content to be in the LCMess, catholic faith and practice describes exactly what our church isn't: no three-fold office, but a rather idiosyncratic polity seen nowhere in historic catholicism; the gamut of smells-and-bells to shake-yo'-booty-fo'-Jesus for worship; practically ignoring the third use of the Law; etc and soforth, including our distaste for any service time exceeding the Lord's Hour. Like it or not, Pr P, we're Protestants.

Anonymous said...

As long as we have the Confessions, this is not who we are. We may act like spoiled children when we get away from home (away from our Confessions) but as long as we claim the home, there is something to return to and an identity to reclaim. Absent a confession, Protestants have nothing but the moment and either reason or feeling. Another LCMSer

Carl Vehse said...

Let's play some more Catholic/catholic obsfucation games. ;-)

Pastor Peters said...

Anonymous has it about right. We play act at being evangelicals but it is not who we are. We play at being Protestants but that is not who we are. We may play at being Roman or Orthodox, but we are neither. We are catholics of the Augsburg Confession. Our Confessions know who we are if we forget, decide to put on a mask and try to be someone else, or allow all sorts of things out of some mistaken notion of adiaphora or freedom in the Gospel. Just because such things cannot bind our conscience does not mean that there is not a way more consistent with our Confessions and one that is less consistent with them.

Here, however, the point was that we do not vote on what Scripture says anymore than we defer to the sancta mater ecclesia of our reason or feelings to decide what it says either.