Sunday, March 5, 2023

Looking for error. . .

One of the side effects of controversy is that we look for error more than we look for that with which we may agree.  Given that there is no shortage of dispute and angry discussion in the world, it should not surprise us when the same rancor is found within the Church.  In fact, social media has done as much harm to the unity of the faithful as it has the unity of people in their nation and neighborhoods.  The exaggerated statements of dispute tend to be passed along and stir up plenty more views than a careful and reasoned assessment.  That is surely what we struggle against now.

On the one hand there are the politics of the season.  This is an election year in the LCMS and there has been a history of politicking on both sides.  Sometimes it is merely a matter of posturing but other times it ends up brushing up against the 8th Commandment (if not violating it out of hand!).  Instead of debating, it tends to be easier to paint our opponents in the worst possible terms.  There are those who routinely refer to those elected in offensive language that gathers notice but actually works against their point.  I hope and pray every election season that we can forego such characterizations designed not to build up or repair but to tear down and injure.  We can have differing opinions without painting our opponents as demons.

On the other hand, there are the politics of confession.  I am concerned by the idea that we must agree with an author in all points before we will listen to that author on any point.  The recent dust up over a book published by our Synod through its publishing house is case in point.  Some of the arguments against the book were over who the authors are as much as over what the authors said.  Again, it seems that the opponents were not only looking for error with a fine tooth comb but arguing that if something could be better stated, it must be.  I am reminded that the good is not the enemy of the perfect.  It is certainly  dangerous to hold everything we say and do up to this principle.  Doctrinal review is not charged with editing for such purpose but to make sure that what has been written is not wrong.  I wonder now many things would not pass muster if they held up the printing press because something could have been better said?  Certainly Luther himself was not enamored with everything he said or wrote and regularly suggested that most of his writings should be burned (though the list of things to be saved changed from time to time).  Every pastor is self-aware of sermons that did not say things wrong but could surely have said them better.  I know I am.  Preacher's regret is not simply what you should have said that you did not but more what you could have said more clearly but did not.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have my own issues with our church leaders, especially District Presidents, and yet I am mindful of the fact that no church bodies are as rigorous or reactive as the LCMS is when something has been gotten wrong.  Indeed, the Synod President held up distribution of the book cited above so that a further review could be made.  Many of the critics were not pleased either by the withdrawal or its return to active sale.  The reality is that the process worked.  A second review was made of the material some found objectionable and the Synod President decided that it is not error to have said things less clearly than you might have said them.  We have simply stopped keeping score of the egregious errors tolerated and approved by the ELCA, the Episcopal Church, and a host of other denominations.  They are too many to keep track of.  Missouri is not without our problems but we are certainly doing a more credible job of confronting them than any other denomination (including Rome!).

I put up a meme once that showed a pastor shaking hands at the door of his parish after worship.  In his mind were the hours he has put into preparing a sermon, Bible study, and worship planning.  But the words out of the mouth of the parishioner were a complaint about how hot or cold it was in the Sanctuary.  If you look for error you will always find it.  There is nothing we could not have said or thought or done better.  At the same time, you should not simply be looking for error but for that you might and should endorse and commend.  I fear we have all forgotten that part of it.  Instead of encouraging where we can, we seem intent upon warning or condemning where we might.  We are certainly the poorer for it.  Unless we have to say it, maybe we need to learn to simply shut up.  And if we must say it, maybe we need to look as much as how we say things as what we say.  Unless we are seeking praise from an echo chamber, we all could find things we would have said differently.  That does not make them wrong.  If we do not love our neighbor enough to be charitable, maybe we ought to love God enough to be kind in our criticism.


Mike said...

Well said Pastor!

Carl Vehse said...

"[T]he Synod President decided that it is not error to have said things less clearly than you might have said them."

In his column, Matthew Cochran more clearly pointed out:

"I’ve seen many critics defending the Large Cataclysm by treating errors like these as mere poor phrasing that doesn’t really detract from the volume as a whole. But this is like claiming that apart from the enemy soldiers inside, the Trojan Horse was a pretty amazing gift–or more famously, asking “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the opera?” Even if some of the problems did amount to (extremely) poor phrasing, they are still significant enough to overshadow the rest. If this were published as a collection of essays inspired by Luther’s Large Catechism, it would be a poor one because of problems like these that critics would be right to denounce. But publishing it as “Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications”–as one of our Confessions–is a travesty. The context does not change this."

Carl Vehse said...

"Some of the arguments against the book were over who the authors are as much as over what the authors said"

In their Purple Palace Bull, the CTCR (including Pres. Harrison) stated in part:

"We sought to have contributions from a variety of individuals, including Lutherans from other church bodies, to benefit from their expertise and/or experience. Some of these writers are from church bodies not in fellowship with the LCMS."

This includes some writers who are members of a religious organization the CTCR has previously declared as "embodying apostasy from the faith once delivered to the saints" and when asked in 2009 if apostasy was too strong a word to describe this organization Matthew Harrison stated: "No, it is apostasy. There’s no way around it. It gives me great pain to say that, but there’s no other word for it.” Yet having their essays in the book along with those of LCMS theologians implies to the layreader that these members of an apostate religious organization are beneficial for teaching confessional Lutherans.

"These introductions and notes were written by scholars of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. They are meant to help clarify the context and language of the catechism in its historical context."

Wait! What?!? So the purpose of the essays and notes are to "clarify" the context and [translated] language of Luther's teachings in their historical context, which apparently is different from today's context and language. That sounds revisionistic!

"The introductions and annotations are the centerpiece of this project and one of the most extensive resources on this score provided in English."

From the 2013 and 2016 Synod Convention Resolutions, Luther's Large Catechism was supposed to be the "centerpiece of this project".

"The essays are wide-ranging attempts to engage the sorts of contemporary questions that often come up in relation to both of Luther’s catechisms, as well as more generally in adult instruction and church life. By their nature, essays on contemporary questions touch on challenging and complex social, cultural and political issues."

Wait! What?!? So, despite the 2013 Convention Resolution 3-13A resolving that the "catechetical compendium" be more "comprehensive and apologetic in scope" and despite the 2016 Convention Resolution 5-12's stated purpose of "widespread use and study in the church" the CTCR adds this caveat at the very end of their paragraph: "As such, they represent individual perspectives and judgments that some in the LCMS may not share."

So much for "clarify[ing] the context and language of the catechism in its histroical context. Finally the CTCR states:

"We urge you to read it for yourselves and to make your own judgments."

Of course, the CTCR earlier stated:

"The CTCR forthrightly asserts that this volume does not change, question or supplant any doctrinal position of the LCMS, including any Synod teaching on contemporary cultural issues such as race or sexuality. The CTCR furthermore categorically rejects any assertions to the contrary."

So, even if pastors (or laypeons) find statements which, in their judgment based on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, are in error, there's no use in pointing them out. The CTCR will simply put them in the circular file without even considering them, because that's what "categorically rejects" means!

jdwalker said...

I shudder to think if this advice was given or worse taken by those in our history that led to the Battle of the Bible, our Confessions, our Creeds, etc.
Stop with those minor differences, we have so much more in common!

And the straw men, they abound! No one is saying that we must agree with someone on all points before listening to them. Instead, there are two issues to address: (1) the choice of authors in light of the nature and purpose of the publication and (2) whether statements (and their meaning) made by an author should be viewed in light of the author's body of work. On the first point, I'll just say that I don't care if there are statements by Beth Moore that I agree with; I'm not going to recommend an unobjectionable book by her to anyone lest they actually read more of her work. This is just one aspect that touches on that first point, but I'll focus more on the second point than the first since it is most relevant. Anyone familiar with the history of our Synod and the Church as a whole should recognize that heretics can make, agree to, and subscribe to orthodox statements. There can be complete agreement on the words of a statement, but vastly different meaning ascribed to them. And so, I would suggest, is the potential in the case of some of the statements that could have been said better in the Large Catechism. Part of why they could have been said better is because saying them poorly allows two very different views to coexist. And since authors who have a body of work that repeatedly and more in depth discuss similar issues in similar language, should those works be referenced in understanding where there might be divergent views of what is being said? It is at best laziness to choose an author who has a long track record of works that are not doctrinally sound, praise the author for being an expert based on having written so much and being able to teach us something on a topic, and then ignore that same body of work when reviewing their essay along side the Large Catechism. And that's the seems many want to sweep the matter under the rug as merely some unfortunate poor wording, when many do not see it as merely pure happenstance that poor wording is able to skirt the line between being able to pass LCMS doctrinal review while not disavowing an authors other works that would bear on that review.

And again, I'm reminded of the recent treatment of a scholarly publication in one of our seminary's publications regarding the day age theory. I can't help but look at the poor wording there and the response (of laymen, clergy, the author, everyone) compared to here. I wonder whether we were harder on our own, at the clergy and Synod level, than we are being now on those who are not part of our Synod, not in fellowship with us, and don't share our same confession.