Thursday, January 26, 2023

A learning curve. . .

I must begin by saying I still do not quite know what to make of the kerfuffle over the recently published annotated Large Catechism by CPH, the publishing arm of the LCMS.  For the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the book and probably will not.  My first comments, therefore, are not to the content but to the bonfire of the vanities that erupted after its publication.

Some have taken this to be the tombstone on the rather stellar record and life of Concordia Publishing House.  The death of CPH has been greatly exaggerated.  For clarity's sake, it must be noted here that CPH did not publish this book on its own but at the direction of Synod so CPH can hardly be held solely or even primarily responsible for what happened.  I surely hope that those who are tempted to overkill will not sullen the good reputation of CPH for its profound and scholarly contributions to Lutheran theology and its popular and very well received work meant for and accessible to all (think here Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions).   Some have taken to the airwaves of social media in a feeding frenzy against CPH and it is simply unfounded and untrue.

Some of the fiercest critics of this are those from outside the circles of Missouri.  Some are smug and vehement critics who delight more in Missouri's stumbles than in the cause of truth.  Indeed, I read one outrageous comment by someone in the peanut gallery that condemned all of Missouri's leaders in the most vulgar terms.  Really?  Some are folks in Missouri who remain convinced that we are only minutes away from becoming just like the ELCA.  They have decided that if something can be read wrongly, it must be read wrongly.  Like the folks on the left in Missouri, they pounce on everything that can be taken wrongly as evidence to support their condemnation.  Sometimes both resort to pulling quotes out of context and insist that what they did not quote is even worse.  Conservatives delight in tearing down each other as much as they engage the real enemies of the faith.  Frankly, I have never understood this.  Progressives will find one thing in common against a dozen areas of disagreement and will cooperate but conservatives have a religious and political bent on narrowing the boundaries of acceptability so that even though there is agreement on a dozen things, one area of disagreement will prevent any and all cooperation.  Unless we believe that our cause is an ever diminishing circle of orthodoxy, this cannot and will not serve God's cause well.  Surely some of those who entered this debate are snickering at the stumble out of sheer joy to see Missouri squirm.  How godly is that?

While some would insist that we can occupy no ground with those who are not us, this surely betrays the very history of Missouri in engaging those outside our formal borders and finding commonality where we may -- even as we mark necessary divisions for the sake of truth.  Of late, Missouri seems to be reawakening to this idea after the mess of the 1970s soured us on any entrance to those outside our Synod.  Of course, that problem was not necessarily with those who were not us -- that was a conflict borne of our own internal divisions.  Unity is never an achievement but always a cause, a process, and a pursuit -- whether within a church body or between denominations and confessions.  If the furor over this book causes us to retreat from engaging those with whom we might have an area of agreement, it will have done greater damage than the words on the pages alone.

Surely there are those who are especially happy for this problem to arise just as Synod prepares to gear up for our Convention and the elections that take place before and during that gathering.  There are those who will try to use this as if it were a mark of the ineptitude of those responsible for publication.  For that matter, I am not suggesting that there were not mistakes that were made.  Though we would like to believe that words have only one meaning, we all know that it is possible for people to read things differently.  I am confident that it was never the intent of anyone involved with this project to do anything but the best even as I am confident that our best can always be improved.

While some think this was a debacle, I would turn it around.  The process worked.  No, it did not work to produce a book that no one could find fault with but it did work in that what was produced was held up to theological scrutiny, peer review, and the concerns of this review were heard.  While some wonder how something like this could happen in the first place, I am amazed at how responsive our Synod was and how quickly that response came.  Where does this happen outside of Missouri?  Rome takes forever to hold even pedophiles and heretics responsible, accountable, and subject to discipline.  The ELCA's flagship magazine reports [in October] that the president of one of their seminaries "[led] prayer to the Four Directions" and there was nary a whimper of dispute or argument for such apostasy.  Every week the bulk of mainline and evangelical churches in America talk about anything and everything from their pulpits but Christ crucified and risen and no one seems to complain.  The Christian world is filled with doubters of Scripture's fact and record, those who insist that it could not mean what it says, and those who insist that reason is more accurate than revelation.  But not in Missouri.  In the space of a week or so a book that was filled with good and salutary things and maybe also had some less than clear and orthodox parts was held up to scrutiny, withdrawn for review, and we are not satisfied?????  Isn't that how the whole thing is supposed to work?  We have our problems.  They are not few.  But where in the world is there a jurisdiction that acts as quickly and as clearly as just happened here?

Again, I have not read the book and I refuse to comment on the published quotes because I did not read them in context.  I am not yet convinced the book is as bad as some say or that it is merely a witch hunt.  The truth lies probably in the middle.  Some things were probably not said as some would have wished and other things were said as some found objectionable.  Whether that translates into a solid rationale for withdrawing the book or changing its content, we shall see.  At this point I am willing to give the editors and those whose names are on the cover the benefit of the doubt.  A review will not hurt anything that is good and it might be improved.  This is not the time to burn at the stake the editors and authors nor is it time to jump on the bandwagon of criticism.  In the meantime, it is high time to dial down the rhetoric and pause before jumping on the bandwagon of criticism.  Let the process work without the benefit of jeers and taunts from the peanut gallery of social media.

One more thing while I am at it.  This is a vindication of the residential route of pastoral formation that produces not techs but parish theologians as well as pastors -- men who are able to read and think and judge well on behalf of their flocks and the wider church.  This is exactly why we cannot devolve into an online preparation for men who do functions without the necessary theological acumen and training to point out when things are not quite right.  Why on earth would we think of reducing the amount of training for our pastors when knowing theological nuance, meeting cultural challenge, and calling out  heresy are so essential and urgent to the task of shepherding the flock of God?  Some folks are all upset over this and the voices of chicken little are telling us the sky is falling on Missouri.  A bit premature, I think, and not a little blind to what has been done.  So it was prudent for President Harrison to have this book reviewed again.  Orthodoxy does not fear scrutiny and catholicity is not afraid of challenge.  It has always been this way.  We hold each other accountable.  That is all well and good.  Let us be sure that we are judging fairly, not beating the air at gnats but engaging real things of real and serious theological import and our common confession.  Slow down.  Take a breath.  The process worked.  Even if the book is restored exactly as it is, it will be because a wider review has found it solid.  If it returns edited and corrected, a book with many acknowledged good parts will be found even better and improved.  For those who find this a problem or an embarrassment, I suggest looking around you.  Where else would these concerns been taken seriously, been handled so clearly, and our confession upheld?  You can judge some things from how we handle success or accomplishment but you can discern even more by how we recover from seems like a stumble. 

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