Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pericope of the Year: The Gospel of Joy

Despite the fact that my computer's spell-checker keeps wanting to change "pericope" (a "cut-out" from a larger text, usually a biblical reading used in the divine service) to "periscope," I have periodically tried to post a pericope of the week. That practice will continue, d. v., in the new year.

Given the positive attention to Time's "Person of the Year," it is fitting that this week's pericope come from one of Pope Francis' writings. While I don't agree with everything he has said or written, either now as Pope or when he was a Cardinal (e.g., some of his comments about women are problematic, it seems to me), I do think his overall witness in word and deed has been a good development for Christians and others around the world. During this past year he has certainly been the focus of much positive attention in both my Lutheran congregation and university classroom.

The following pericope, cut out from his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, will serve as the final one for this year:

Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).

I highly recommend the whole encyclical. To read it in its entirety, go here.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Women Who Have Left the LCMS to Become Pastors

A friend alerted me recently to a new website that shares personal stories of women who have had to leave the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod in order to heed the call they have received from the Holy Spirit to serve in the pastoral ministry. The name of the site is "Women Pastors: Stories of Women Who Left the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod."

Initially there were four stories, but one of them has been removed. Nevertheless, I suspect more will be added in the coming weeks and months, especially as word gets around that such a site exists.

The three stories are quite moving, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. They provide a glimpse into the personal struggles and challenges that these women have had to endure in order to fulfill the calling that they have received from God.

To visit the site go here.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela+ (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Rightfully so, a lot of media attention is being given to Nelson Mandela this week. An interesting, if brief video on his life appeared via the New York Times. To view it, click on the link below.

New York Times Video on Nelson Mandela

A more in-depth documentary appeared recently on PBS's Frontline. You can watch it here.

Today's "Sightings" post by Martin Marty (read it here) draws attention to the connection between Mr. Mandela's moral vision and the Methodist tradition in South Africa, a tradition that Mandela said had deeply influenced him as a young boy and teen. The study of that religious connection would make for an interesting doctoral dissertation.

Late last week a former colleague of mine, Bob Schmidt, who was my dean at Concordia University, Portland, reminded me about how the World Council of Churches provided grants to the African National Congress (ANC), Mr. Mandela's party, and other liberation movements in Africa, after 1969. While some of these funds came from churches and church people, most of it came from the governments of the Netherlands and Sweden, who channeled their contributions through the WCC. 

Bob himself did his doctoral work on the WCC's support for these liberation organizations. According to him, "The motivation for helping the liberation movements was not Communist inspired" (contrary to those who labeled the WCC's actions in precisely those terms). "Rather, it came from the experience of some of the founders of the WCC who had spent World War II in Nazi prison camps or had barely survived as refugees. For them state-sponsored racism was the epitome of evil and needed to be resisted. When apartheid became the official policy of the South African government, the WCC stepped in with its contributions."

That aspect of Mr. Mandela's story ought to be more well-known and further studied, too.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Alvin Plantinga

The Lutheran theological tradition has sometimes been attacked for being inhospitable to philosophical reflection. Even the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago publicly displays Luther's famous one-liner, "reason is a whore." If one knew nothing else about him, that statement would likely be understood wrongly in the extreme. Out of context and used in a context whose aims Luther would likely have supported, the quotation ignores the fact that Luther operated at a high level of "reasoning" himself, that he was quite familiar with the most important streams of philosophy in his day, and that he has had a profound influence on later philosophers and thinkers (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard come immediately to mind). For insight into this aspect of the Lutheran tradition one should consult the venerable works by Bernard Lohse (Ratio et Fides: Eine Untersuchun ueber die ratio in der Theologie Luthers [Goettingen, 1958]) and my teacher, Brian Gerrish (Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962]), in addition to the set of essays in the more recent work, The Devil's Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress), edited by Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth.

Of course the Lutheran tradition also includes Philip Melanchthon, Luther's university colleague and humanist friend, who was no philosophical slouch himself. Melanchthon, who lectured on what was then called "natural philosophy" (a discipline that developed into today's "natural science"), once said: “Not infrequently I weigh in my mind all the reasonings of the natural philosophers concerning God, so that I can more clearly refute the tricks of false opinions, which the Epicureans or Academics spread over the eyes of people. We learn from the natural philosophers that nature that has understanding cannot originate from the irrational, or be produced by chance” (P. Melanchthon, "On Natural Philosophy," in Orations on Philosophy and Education, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 136).

When Melanchthon wrote these words in the 16th c., as a part of his strong recommendation that educated Christians study philosophy and what we today would call the natural sciences, he surely was thinking of the kind of philosopher we find today in Dr. Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O'Brien Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and currently an emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College (where he also taught before going to Notre Dame). This observation is not meant to suggest that Dr. Plantinga’s reflections are out-dated! Not so. I am merely suggesting that were Melanchthon around today he would find in Dr. Plantinga a helpful resource for refuting the tricks of false opinions.

Dr. Alvin Plantinga
I was privileged to host Dr. Plantinga last week on our campus, where he delivered two public lectures on the broad topic of "science and religion." (I was impressed by how clear he could be after sharing a bottle of wine with me over dinner before each of the lectures!) Both lectures are based on a recent book he published (his 17th), Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

In this work he attacks the rather sophomoric "new atheists" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) and their naturalistic, materialistic metaphysical assumptions. He critically engages more reputable and sophisticated atheistic thinkers (Thomas Nagel, William Rowe, Michael Tooley), and he generally makes the argument that contemporary evolutionary theory is not incompatible with theistic, Christian belief. Along the way he makes the case that the main antitheistic arguments involving evolution are unpersuasive and, stunningly, that naturalism (the thought that there is no God or anything like "God") is in fact incompatible with evolution. Whatever conflict exists between "science" and "religion" is not a conflict between theistic religion and science but between naturalism and science.

Let's be clear: Plantinga fully accepts the theory of Darwinian evolution as the best available explanation for the development of species on the planet. He thus accepts the scientific consensus regarding the age of the earth (ca. 4.5 billion years old), the thesis of descent with modification, the thesis of common ancestry, and the view that the principal mechanism that drives this process of descent with modification is natural selection and random genetic mutation.

But let's also be clear: Plantinga makes the strong case that contemporary evolutionary theory is compatible with theistic, Christian belief. He correctly surmises that many Christians have wrongly equated "evolution" with "naturalism" or "materialism" (and thus with "atheism"), and that this is why so many American Christians reject the theory of evolution. Such Christians could benefit from reading Plantinga's work or listening to his online lectures that deal with this topic. He's good at refuting "the tricks of false opinions." He's also quite good at explicating the deep concord that exists between Christian belief in God the Creator and the "deep roots" of the natural sciences.

To listen to an online lecture similar to the one he gave at Valpo last week, you can go here:

You might also benefit from reading the thoughtful, respectful review of Dr. Plantinga's book by Thomas Nagel, one of the most important American philosophers of the past half century. You can read that review

I am grateful for Dr. Plantinga's work and for the help he provides in making a strong case for the compatibility between orthodox, mainstream Christian faith in God the Creator and the contemporary scientific theory of evolution.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Reformation Polka

A friend sent me a link to a four-minute video on Martin Luther that is posted on YouTube. I hadn't seen the video until yesterday, the day that Lutherans traditionally celebrate the Reformer and his revolutionary action of writing and nailing/mailing his 95 Theses. The video is guaranteed to brighten any Lutheran's day.


Here's the link:

A Reformation Polka

Friday, October 25, 2013

What Is He Trying to Accomplish?

Over the past several months I have learned from a number of individuals that there are people in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod who are wondering about my intentions in writing about women's ordination and issues in science and theology. Apparently the same question has surfaced among these individuals, namely, "Just what is he [Becker] trying to accomplish in the LCMS?"

I am surprised to learn of this question, since I thought my aims have been clear.

Permit me to repeat those goals:

(1) to encourage members within the synod to think differently about two issues, namely, (a) the synod's understanding of Scripture that insists that only qualified men may serve as pastor in the synod; and (b) the synod's understanding of Scripture that requires one to interpret the creation accounts in Genesis to be literal, historical descriptions of what God did in the not-too-distant past over the course of six actual 24-hr. days ("six-day creationism");

(2) to have the synod change its position that restricts the office of pastor only to men;

(3) to have the synod reject "creationism" in favor of a more robust doctrine of creation, one that sets forth a theological understanding that better accords with the language and genre of these Genesis texts and that better accords with what people today know to be true and valid about the natural history of our planet.

My concern is that the synodical positions against women's ordination and in defense of "creationism" cannot be defended theologically, at least not persuasively. The position on "creationism" is especially susceptible to strong theological and scientific criticism. Finally, these synodical positions do harm to the mission of the LCMS in our egalitarian and scientifically-informed society and they do harm to individual consciences.

I believe it is the responsibility of academic theologians within a given church body to cast a critical eye on those theological positions of the church body that are questionable and debatable--and to set forth theological understandings that are more persuasive. I think we can learn something from Martin Luther in this regard.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Couple of Book Recommendations

            "In the beginning was the Word…" (John 1:1). That biblical revelation has relevance for any engagement with human language, but it is especially meaningful in relation to beautiful words that shed light on the human condition and God's response to it.
            Christians believe that God created the universe through the Word. That same Word created us in God's image and likeness. Damaged and distorted through sin, that divinely-Worded image has been restored through the express image of God's very Being, "the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). We speak our faith and praise back to God because God created us to speak back to our divine Author.
          God sent forth the Word. That Word addresses us, redeems us, and summons us to faith, hope, and love. God the Creator, in whose image we are created and recreated, calls us to be creative. That, too, is a consequence of the divine Author's creative Word.
            Over the centuries there have been some truly great artistic creations that depict the Christian understanding of human beings and the salvation accomplished for them in and through the creative Christ. Think of the vision that one receives by reading Dante's Divine Comedy or Milton's Paradise Lost or the great novels of the Russian writer Dostoevsky.
            A couple of years ago I read that the British atheist, A. N. Wilson, had now become a believer again. It appears that he returned to the Christian faith of his youth, in part because of a careful study of Dante's masterpiece. The road that Dante trod in that trilogy helped to lead Wilson back to God. Great literature--and even not so great--can be used by God for such a purpose. That was true in the case of Francis Collins, the current head of the National Institutes for Health in Washington. He recounts in his book, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), how the writings of C. S. Lewis contributed to his religious conversion. Someone I know from seminary days once told me that he had remained a Christian partly because of the depictions of human depravity in the novels of John Updike and of how those narratives often point toward the need for a transcendent source of human salvation. Only the mercy of God and the promise of divine grace and redemption can fully address these deep issues of human sin, failure, and death.
            What understandings of God and humanity emerge from readings of poetry by Donne, Herbert, Hopkins and other great artists? Or the central plays of Shakespeare? I worry that young people today and many older people no longer read poetry or "the hard" classics of world literature. Such a lack of attention diminishes our vision and frankly impoverishes our faith.
            George Steiner has written that the great "classics" in literature, music, and in the arts "read us" more than we read (listen to, perceive) them. "Each time we engage with it, the classic will question us." I suppose that's what makes a classic "a classic." Great works of art will "read" us better than we can read ourselves on our own. That is certainly true of the myths, stories, visions, poems, and parables in Holy Scripture. These diagnose our deepest problems and set forth God's historic solution to them.
            But Steiner's comment about the "classics" also holds true for two recent books I'd like to recommend. A person is not the same as he was before he read a collection of essays like those in Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Or the poems in Wiman's earlier book, Every Riven Thing (2011), also by the same publisher. The reader "gets read" here, too, as he or she is imaginatively brought into the poet's struggles with doubt and his Christian faith, with illness and joy, love and fear, sorrow and hope. He often resorts to paradox to sort out his experiences and to convey an understanding of them that ordinary words can't quite capture. "I say God and mean more/ than the bright abyss that opens in that word." Such a line fits with Martin's Luther's reflections on "the presence of God" in God's "absence," and on how God can surprise us with the light of his graceful presence.
            Wiman had been raised a Baptist, then lost his faith as a teenager, but was restored to faith when he met a Christian woman and came to love her deeply--in the same year that he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Only the Christian faith, he came to believe, could give him the framework for dealing with those opposing experiences of love and serious illness (and looming death). 
            Those of you who struggle with pain and suffering, or who know someone who does, may find Wiman's poetry and essays illuminating. (For the past decade he has been the editor of Poetry magazine.) His creative use of language may give you words and phrases that help to reveal the presence of "the Word-made-flesh" in your own life.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS

            This summer marks the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of a controversial and divisive document at the 1973 Convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). "A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles" appeared in 1972 and was adopted by a slim majority of LCMS convention delegates a year later.

            When "A Statement..." was published, many synod members found it deeply flawed. A few wrote public articles that criticized it. When it was adopted by convention resolution, people throughout the synod lamented. Hundreds of LCMS clergy and congregations registered their formal dissent to it. Many thousands more simply dismissed it or ignored it. Of course those in agreement with the synod president at the time, Dr. J. A. O. Preus, welcomed the document and its implementation throughout the synod. Their chief target was the so-called "faculty majority" at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, forty of forty-five faculty members, many of which had been teaching at the seminary for decades (e.g., Richard Caemmerer, Arthur Carl Piepkorn). Those forty were deemed "false teachers not to be tolerated in the church of God." That was the verdict rendered by the same slim majority of delegates at that '73 convention that had earlier adopted "A Statement..." As a result of the "Preusian" implementation of those specific convention resolutions, the forty faculty members and many dozens of other synodical workers eventually lost their official synodical positions. The forty--and the seminarians who remained loyal to them--continued to be Concordia Seminary, but they did so "in exile." Later, they were forced to change their name to "Christ Seminary--Seminex."

            While "A Statement..." has been "on the law books," so to speak, since '73, people have not drawn much critical attention to it after the Seminex "trouble-makers" and their supporters--some 200,000 people--had left the synod in the mid-1970s and formed a new church body. A lot of people avoided the document because it simply brought back painful memories of the events that led ultimately to schism in the synod. Other people who remained in the synod after the 1970s refrained from voicing their theological concerns about the contents of the document, perhaps out of fear that if their reservations became known they too might lose their positions. Surely some thought to themselves, "I best keep my head down and just focus on the specific ministry that is before me. I won't rock the boat." Then, too, why publicly discuss a controversial document if it appears that a majority within the synod take its teachings for granted and do not give them a further thought? Why stir up trouble by criticizing an accepted piece of synodical legislation? (And "legislation" is the right word.) Certainly many 1000s saw no need to discuss the document after '73, since they fully agreed with its contents and the implementation of the convention legislation.

             I do not remember discussing "A Statement..." in any of my classes when I was a student at the institution that was formed in the wake of Seminex on the grounds of the old Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1984-88). I read the document, but I also read articles by synod members who had criticized it. The document and its contents did not surface in the two oral theological examinations I undertook with seminary faculty in advance of my authorization for ordination (1988, 1989). I suspect that many LCMS laity today are unfamiliar with the document. I wonder how many LCMS pastors have actually studied it carefully.

            Despite the lack of attention given to it by most synod members today, "A Statement..." still shows up in some synodical settings. It is available on the synod's webpage as "an official doctrinal statement" of the synod. As such, it is simply taken for granted. Some have continued to use it coercively against other synod members. For example, reference to it has been made in the course of official proceedings against me for allegedly teaching false doctrine, but no discussion of the document's contents has occurred. Instead, those who have used the document in this way treat "A Statement..." as if its adoption by that slim majority in '73 has settled the pertinent doctrinal issues for all time.

            In preparation for my meeting with several members of the synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) last year (2012), to discuss my formal dissent against the synod's insistence on "six-day creationism" and its insistence that women cannot be ordained to serve as pastors, I was invited to re-read "A Statement..." and to identify a number of "talking points" that could be discussed with those CTCR members. What follows here is a summary of those talking points. What better way to observe this fortieth anniversary of "A Statement..." than to take it seriously and to engage it critically?
[To read the rest of the essay, go to The Daystar Journal website here and click on "Recent Articles."]

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

32 Theses against Unevangelical Praxis

One of the theological gems from the history of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod is a set of 32 theses against "unevangelical praxis" that was prepared for the 1862 Convention of the Central District of the LCMS. Unfortunately the original document has never been translated completely into English. It thus seemed good to me to attempt a new translation (with annotations).

This translation also can be found at The Daystar Journal website:

These 32 theses are just as relevant today as they were in the midst of the US Civil War. One would be hard-pressed to find a more apt description of the current LCMS than what is found in the twenty-fifth thesis. But each thesis is important, provocative, and insightful for contemporary theological discussion, even if some of them would have to be re-written today to reflect changes within the Synod since 1862. 

32 Theses against Unevangelical Praxis[1]
by Heinrich Christian Schwan[2]
Translated and annotated by Matthew L. Becker, Valparaiso University

1. Evangelical praxis[3] does not consist in merely dealing only with the gospel and nothing but the gospel; rather, it consists in this, namely, that one treats everything evangelically.[4]

2. This means that because one expects justification before God, the renewal of the heart, and the fruits of the Spirit only through the gospel, one keeps this one thing in view above all, namely, to bring the gospel into play.

3. For this very reason, in evangelical praxis, the law is not set aside nor is it made dull through an interference of the gospel. Rather, it is set forth with all the more seriousness in its full sharpness, but in an evangelical way.

4. The law will then be used evangelically if one uses it solely to prepare the ground for the gospel and to hold up that divine plumb line to the evidences of the new life that freely grows from the gospel. The gospel will then be used evangelically if it is offered to all, unconditionally and unabridged.

5. It is not evangelical praxis to cast the pearls of the gospel before the swine, but it is even less evangelical to keep them in one’s pocket.

6. Evangelical praxis does not set aside one tiny letter of that which God demands, but it demands nothing other or more than faith and love.

7. Evangelical praxis demands proof of faith and love with the soul's salvation, but it gives no command about the individual proofs of these in terms of their purpose, amount, and manner.

8. Evangelical praxis demands fulfillment of even the smallest letter in the law, but it does not make the state of grace depend on the keeping of the law.

9. By means of the law evangelical praxis seeks indeed to prepare for the working of the gospel, but it does not lend a helping hand to the law. And because evangelical praxis expects the fruits of the Spirit to be produced solely by the gospel, it is willing to wait for them, too.

10. Evangelical praxis considers everything that does not grow from the gospel, that is, from faith, to be of no essential benefit. Therefore it bears with all manner of defects, imperfections, and sins rather than to remove them merely in an external way.

11. Evangelical praxis limits pastoral care[5] to the special application of the law and the gospel; the investigation and judging of the heart it leaves to the One who is expert in the matters of the heart.

12. Evangelical praxis pays heed to good human order, but it is much more concerned with Christian freedom. For that reason it lets adiaphora[6] remain truly adiaphora; that is, it leaves the decision concerning them ultimately to the conscience of the individual.

13. Evangelical praxis is faithful in little things, but it is indeed more concerned with keeping the big picture in view than dwelling on the individual details.

14. To be wise as serpents; to redeem the time; not to let Satan gain an advantage over us; to become all things to everyone in order that by all means some might be saved—these are also parts of evangelical praxis.

15. Evangelical praxis is as far removed from antinomian[7] praxis as it is from legalistic praxis.

16. Evangelical praxis should indeed flow from evangelical knowledge and attitude, but this seldom happens and only slowly at that.

17. We generally remain stuck in legalism or we fall into antinomian laxity. The gospel is so foreign to our disposition.

18. There is danger in both directions. Up to now the greater danger for us is still in the legalistic direction.

19. Leaving aside the natural inclination of the old Adam and our origin in Pietism etc., our present situation and the necessary reaction against the prevailing lack of discipline in doctrine and life lead us toward legalism.

20. Or how many are there among us who have not been secretly more afraid to give the blessings of the gospel freely to an unworthy person than to deny or curtail the same to a poor sinner? Whose conscience is not hindering him to follow the example of Paul and to become all things to all people? But where this is the case, there one surely still finds legalistic praxis.

21. Legalistic praxis does not consist in treating only the law and nothing but the law. It consists in treating everything in a legalistic manner, that is, in such a way that one’s main aim is to see to it that the law gets its due and that one tries to accomplish through the law or even through laws what only the gospel can accomplish.

22. In addition, the more the driving force of enthusiasm strikes (as is often the case where the inner driving force really still is the law)—an enthusiasm that does not even once allow love to remain the queen of all commandments; which scorns wisdom as its counselor; and which, even when it appears merely to teach, to reprove, or to admonish, in reality applies coercion and indeed the worst kind, namely, moral coercion—the more unevangelical our praxis becomes.

23. Unevangelical-legalistic praxis is found not merely in the governance of churches and congregations, but also in the governance of church-schools and homes, as well as in our fraternal interactions.

24. The examples of unevangelical-legalistic praxis that are still most common in preaching, pastoral care, and the governance of the congregation are perhaps the following:
a) In preaching:

--thorough chastising of individual sins, evil situations, or perhaps even matters that one personally disapproves;
--portraying well-known sins of well-known people instead of exposing the bitter root out of which all evil fruits grow;
 --merely doing so-called "testifying," without real instruction and admonition;
 --offering unnecessary or premature or unedifying polemics;
 --admonishing repentance and faith instead of preaching that which produces repentance and faith;
 --classifying the hearers in a pietistic manner;
 --distorting the gospel;
 --describing faith predominantly in terms of its sanctifying power;
 --proclaiming the grace of God solely in order to build demands immediately upon it.

b) With respect to Confession and Holy Communion:
 --demanding as a condition for admission to Holy Communion more than is absolutely necessary for its salutary use;
--undertaking school-wide catechetical and inquisitorial searching of hearts;
--holding back castigation until the time of registration for Communion or Confession;
--threatening to refuse a person Holy Communion by making it a means of coercion, terror, or discipline;
--refusing admission to Holy Communion for reasons beyond proven impenitence.

c) With respect to Baptism:
--absolutely refusing to baptize children of unbelievers or the ungodly, who nevertheless still live within earshot of the Word, even when there is no infringement upon someone else's official ministry; or baptizing such children, but only on the condition of certain human guarantees;
--putting the approval for baptismal sponsors on the same level as the admission to Holy Communion.

d) At marriages:
 --fundamentally refusing to marry children of unbelievers or the ungodly who are outside of the congregation, even if they do not appear to be ungodly;
 --scrupulously attending to a certain form of parental consent and of engagement.

e) At funerals:
--absolutely refusing in every situation to bury children of unbelievers or the ungodly who did not somehow belong to the congregation but who nevertheless sought a visit from the pastor;
--being obedient to the principle that one must publicly bear witness at every funeral to the salvation or non-salvation of the deceased, that one must castigate their sins, and that the occasion must be used to jab at the sins and shortcomings of the hearers.

f) In pastoral care:
--constant "sanding and polishing" everybody until everything is in perfect shape;
--accepting every tittle-tattle of gossip;
--mixing into other peoples' family matters, their home and marriage, when there is no public sin involved;
--making judgments about matters of the heart on the basis of a few words and deeds;
--applying moralistic coercion through overstatement, etc.
g) In congregational government and church discipline:
--making exaggerated demands upon new members at the time of their being received into membership;
--denying—or making peremptory time limits for—participation in the spiritual blessings of the congregation for the guest, especially his participation in Holy Communion;
--imposing an equal amount of mandatory dues or coercive taxes on the individuals;
--applying church discipline against matters that are not publicly-demonstrable mortal sins or against self-initiated sins that one provokes in others;[8]
--treating someone as already convicted in his own mind—someone who nevertheless resists maliciously against that conviction because he is not able to say anything more against the arguments and reasons presented against him, or even assents to them;
--having more concern for the correct form of the process than for reaching the goal of the discipline;
--demanding that every public confession be made in the same form and to the same degree of publicity as every other;
--striving to make the chasm between those who are in the congregation and those who are outside of it really wide, instead of building bridges for the opponents and those who are on the outside.

25. Legalistic praxis in itself makes the gospel into law and the law into a taskmaster (but not unto Christ); it makes confession into torture, pastoral care into slipshod work, the Sacrament into a testimony and seal of approval that one is acceptable to the pastor; it makes Christian liberty a sham, and it makes church discipline into an oppression of consciences. It makes the people petty, scrupulous, and zealously pharisaical. It turns the church into a police state.

26. Only for the blind does legalistic praxis have the appearance of greater conscientiousness, valor, and quicker outcomes. Looked at carefully, though, it lacks true courage to allow God to reign and his Word to work. Its conscientiousness is that of an errant conscience and it is in itself one of the greatest hindrances to the working of the law as well as of the gospel.

27. No other church considers legalistic praxis to be so nauseous as does the Evangelical-Lutheran.

28. To maintain that the fine regulations and liturgies of the churches that were established long ago must be the decisive norm for the church that is being planted now—that is not Lutheran.

29. There are enough things that we cannot hinder that lead a person to be offended by us; let us not give any offense by unnecessary severity in our praxis.

30. Let us courageously make an end to all unevangelical praxis. But let us not forget: from legalistic praxis to antinomian praxis is merely a little jump.

31. Antinomian praxis itself wants to be on guard against legalism and to straighten everything out merely with the gospel. But because it lacks the severity of the law, it also lacks the warmth of the gospel. Thus, its consequence is a lax, undisciplined life.

32. Where one falls from legalistic praxis into antinomian praxis, there evil becomes more mischievous.

[1] The original German theses appear in the Bericht über die Achte Jahresversammlung des Mittleren Districts der deutschen evang.-luth. Synode von Missouri, Ohio, u. a. Staaten A. D. 1862; nebst Anhang, enthaltend einige Schriftstücke von der Siebenten Jahresversammlung obiger Synode vom Jahre 1861 (St. Louis: Synodical Publisher [Aug. Wiebusch and Son], n. d. [but presumably 1863]), 10-14. [Report of the 8th Annual Convention of the Central District of the German Evangelical-Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States A. D. 1861; in addition to a Supplement containing a Document of the 7th Annual Convention of the above-mentioned Synod from the Year 1861.] According to the report the presenter was only able to set forth the first 24 theses. "Time ran out for the treatment of the remaining eight theses." An English translation of most of the first 24 theses was published in the Concordia Theological Monthly XVI, no. 5 (May 1945), 289-93. The bulk of this translation was done by P. T. Buszin. Unfortunately, he did not translate every statement in the first 24 theses nor did he include a translation of the final eight theses from the original report. Buszin's incomplete and occasionally inaccurate translation of the theses, augmented by a translation of the final eight theses, is included in Matthew Harrison's At Home in the House of My Fathers: Presidential Sermons, Essays, Letters, and Addresses from the Missouri Synod's Great Era of Unity and Growth (St. Louis: Cncordia Publishing House, 2011). What follows here is the first English translation of the complete theses.

[2] In 1862 Heinrich Christian Schwan (1819-1905) was the President of the Central District of the German Evangelical-Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. He was later elected the Fourth President of this Synod (1878-1899). That he was the sole author of the 32 theses is not certain, since the report about the 1862 Central District Convention does not identify the author(s). The report does contain, however, a synodical address and the annual report of the District President. Only the latter identifies its author: Schwan. It is not clear who delivered the synodical address, since the author is not identified and the President of the Synod at the time, Friedrich Wyneken, who was present at the convention, was sick and unable to give the sermon at the opening divine service. Did he also have to forgo giving the synodical address? It seems so, since the address itself contains language that indicates someone other than Wyneken delivered it. Did Schwan give this address? While one cannot be certain about this, it seems likely. The presenter refers to "offering" the theses to the Convention. Other sentences indicate the presenter of the synodical address is the author of the theses. It is possible that the theses and the synodical address were a joint effort of Wyneken and Schwan, but that Schwan delivered them. Wyneken, after all, was the uncle of Schwan. They could have worked on these documents together. Ludwig Fuerbringer, who knew Schwan personally, indicates in his memoir that Schwan was the author of the theses. See Ludwig Fuerbringer, 80 Eventful Years (St. Louis: Concordia, 1944). For background on Schwan, see Everette Meier. "The Life and Work of Henry C. Schwan as Pastor and Missionary," Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 24 (October 1951):132-39; 24 (January 1952):145-72; 25 (July 1952):72-85; and 25 (October 1952):97-121.

[3] The original German word is "Praxis," which is often translated as "practice" or "usage" or "exercise." I have left the word as is, because it applies here to more than a mere practice or custom or action. In this context, Praxis involves the entire process by which a theological understanding and teaching, whether correct or false, is enacted, practiced, embodied, and realized.

[4] The term "evangelical" (evangelisch) and its cognates have the meaning that Dr. Martin Luther intended for them, namely, "having to do with the good news or good message (the evangel) about Jesus the Christ."

[5] The German word is "Seelsorge," literally, "the care of the soul."

[6] The German word, "Mitteldinge," literally means "intermediate things" or "things in the middle." Here it refers to "indifferent things" (adiaphora), namely, matters that are neither clearly commanded nor forbidden in the teaching of the prophets and the apostles. These include matters that are ambiguous and not clearly settled in Scripture. They are thus matters about which Christians can legitimately disagree.

[7] Literally, "against the law." "Antinomian praxis" disregards the severity of the divine law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and how that divine judgment condemns all who remain sinners unto death. Such praxis rejects the law as a necessary preparation for the gospel and it fails to acknowledge the power of the law to serve as a "a plumb line" alongside "the evidences of the new life that freely grows from the gospel." See thesis 31.

[8] The German is "selbstprovocirte Sünde." Buszin translated this literalistically as "self-provoked," as in "self-caused." The neologism "selbstprovocirte" is likely based on the Latin term, "provoco," which means "to call forth" or "to call out."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Letter from President Harrison to the CTCR

A friend of mine, who is a pastor here in the middle-western part of the United States, forwarded a copy of a letter that Rev. Matthew Harrison, the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, sent to the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR). The letter was sent in September 2011. "Larry" and "Joel" are respectively the asociate executive director and executive director of the CTCR.

I do not know how my friend got this letter. It was shared on Daystar last month, so more than 1000 people have read it there, as did I.

This letter helps to explain why the CTCR acted so quickly to condemn my dissent--without actually engaging its specific contents. They received direct pressure from the Synod President to do so. After all, why bother with the specifics when you are told, rather papally, "from above": "The question [Becker] raises are anything but new. They have been decided clearly and definitively by the Word of God and affirmed by the Synod on numerous occasions."

Naturally, the presupposition of these sentences is that the Synod cannot err in its collective interpretation of the Scriptures on the matters I raise in my dissent.

The CTCR issued its public condemnation of my dissent just two months after receiving this letter from Pres. Harrison. That has to be a record for the CTCR! (Remember that the CTCR has NEVER officially responded to a similar dissent brought to the CTCR by fellow LCMS clergyman, Arnie Voigt.)

I think the letter is instructive, as it indicates the mindset of the current Synod president (and the majority on the CTCR) about matters that he/they may feel have been "clearly and definitively" decided by the word of God, but about which others in the Synod remain unconvinced. The CTCR has certainly not convinced me and many other synodical members that the contents of my dissent are contrary to the Word of God.

Until I read the letter I had no idea that Pres. Harrison thinks I've been "abusing the dissent process." No one has indicated this to me, not my circuit counselor nor my district president nor the few members of the CTCR with whom I met last year.

Finally, it pleases me that my fellow LCMS clergyman, Bob Stuenkel, who was the subject of the first part of this letter, was fully exonerated on appeal. President Harrison did not get what he wanted in that case. Bob remains in good standing on the Synod's roster of clergymen--as do I, for that matter.

Here's the letter:

Thursday of Pentecost XII, AD 2011
September 8, 2011

Dear Larry, Joel, and members of the CTCR

Grace and Peace

This is a brief note requesting of the CTCR the quick dispatch of two matters
which have to do with the Commission's role in assisting the President of the
Synod in maintaining doctrinal unity in the Synod (Bylaw

1. I hereby request the CTCR provide a clear, brief, and forthright answer ("NO"
would suffice) on whether or not it is proper for an LCMS clergyman to be
communing at an ELCA altar. This matter of course has to do with President
Golter's continuing challenge with a pastor in his district. I know the details
of this case and know too that it has been handled with great care and pastoral
concern. I support President Golter completely, and it is past time for all of
us to support him and be clear about it.

The Constitution of the Synod is clear in Article VI which calls for
"Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as:.... b.
Taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or
of congregations of mixed confession..."

Also note that among the wealth of documentation which be amassed for this
question, I simply wish to provide Article VIII on the church from Walther's
Kirche and Amt, which (thesis and the entire book) was re-affirmed as the
Synod's doctrinal stance at the 2001 convention. Thesis VIII states that no Christian should be communioning at a heterodox altar:

Although God gathers for himself a holy church (Kirche) of elect also His Word
is not taught in its complete purity and the sacraments are not administered
altogether according to the institution of Jesus Christ, if only God's Word and
the sacraments are not denied entirely but both essentially, (wesentlich)
remain, nevertheless, every believer must, at the peril of losing his salvation,
flee all false teachers, avoid all heterodox congregations (Gemeiden) or sects,
and confess (bekennen) and adhere to orthodox congregations and their orthodox
preachers wherever such may be found.

A. Also in heterodox and heretical churches there are children of God, and also
there are the true church is made manifest by the pure Word and the sacraments
that still remain.

B. Every believer for the sake of his salvation must flee all false teachers,
and avoid, fellowship with heterodox congregations or sects.

C. Every Christian for the sake of his salvation is duty bound to acknowledge
and adhere to orthodox congregations and orthodox preachers wherever he can find

2. I request that the CTCR give a quick and decisive opinion on the dissent
recently submitted by Matthew Becker. The question he raises are anything but
new. They have been decided clearly and definitively by the Word of God and
affirmed by the Synod on numerous occasions. It is necessary for a quick and
immediate response because Rev. Becker is abusing the dissent process and both
aggressively advocating his errant views and acting upon them (participating
most recently in the installation of a female chaplain at Valpo).

While I have and will continue to publicly advocate for dialogue and work toward
growing consensus where there are differences in Synod, I will not and cannot
suspend Synod's doctrinal positions. Nor can the Koinonia Project hope to bring
consensus with those who, openly, intentionally, and with determination preach,
teach, and act against the clear word of God and our public confession. Your
quick action will assist me in the next steps I need to take in trying to
resolve this unfortunate situation according to the Constitution, Article XIB.

Thank you for your work. It's a pleasure to work in the office with both Joel
and Larry.

Matthew C. Harrison, President
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Creationism and the Doctrine of Creation in the LCMS

The May Reporter arrived a few days ago. This is the official monthly newspaper of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS) that is sent to all LCMS pastors, teachers, and other church workers.

On page three is an article about an upcoming conference at the LCMS's Concordia University, Mequon, Wisconsin. The purpose of the conference is to defend "young earth creationism," which the article defines as "the LCMS perspective of the earth being several thousand years old instead of millions of years old." To read the article, you can access it here.

As an amateur astronomer, who tries to keep up on new research in the discipline, I was struck by the error that occurs in the first sentence of the Reporter article. I have no idea where Dr. Joel Heck (a fellow theology prof. in the LCMS) got the notion that the universe is "150 billion light-years across." The fact of the matter is, we don't know how big the universe is. What we humans can observe is only about 13.7 billion light years in any direction. Thus, the observable universe may be around 28 billion light years in diameter. So, ironically, the universe IS likely younger than even Heck admits (at least in that first sentence)!

I have tried to identify some of the problems with the Synod's position on creationism. Such a position ignores the contradictions in the literalistic interpretation of the first chapters in Genesis (six days? or one?, for starters). Moreover, such literalistic interpretation of these chapters runs contrary to physical evidence in nature, does harm to individual consciences (especially to those educated Christians who know the biblical and physical evidence that contradicts creationism), and needlessly frustrates the work of the Holy Spirit in the church's mission within our western, scientifically-informed society. Those concerns led me to write my essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind," which serves as the basis for my official dissent.

The CTCR has not responded to the specifics in that document. Instead, the CTCR has stated, "Dr. Becker's dissent regarding creation and evolution also suffers from a lack of specificity and focus. His letter of June 29 states that he is dissenting from 'the synod's position of interpreting the first two chapters of Genesis to mean that God created the universe over the course of six twenty-four hour days'—but this language has never been used by the Synod in any doctrinal resolution or statement."

Surely the CTCR knows about the Synod's 1930 Brief Statement. Perhaps they should re-read the paragraph on creation in that document. That paragraph uses the very language I cite in my dissent. So I'm sorry, CTCR members, but I beg to differ with your dismissal. The language I use comes right out of that Depression-era document. Or witness what happened when Dr. Kieschnick told the synod convention that elected him President of the Synod that he believed that God created the universe over six twenty-four-hour days roughly 10,000 years ago. He got a lengthy standing ovation by the majority of delegates. Certainly this latest Reporter affirms as much when it states that "young earth creationism" is "the Synod's perspective."

This perspective is at odds with the doctrinal content of Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism. The one who confesses faith in God the Creator confesses that "God has made me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all my limbs and senses; reason and mental faculties..." (Kolb/Wengert ed., p. 354).

This explanation to the First Article of the Apostles' Creed is significant when talking with Lutheran creationists, for it underscores that Lutheran Christians ought to trust their senses and reasoning to uncover reliable information in nature. After all, God "gives and preserves" our senses, our reason, and mental faculties. These are generally reliable when it comes to uncovering and understanding data in nature. (To be sure, "common sense" suggests that the sun and all heavenly objects move around an immovable earth, but more precise observation of nature by rational, sensible human beings has led to more precise theories about the motions of the earth and other objects in space--motions that are not reflected in the biblical writings that reflect ancient cosmological, phenomenological perspectives.)

That same reasoning and sensing also are working when one interprets any passage in the Bible. Such use of one's mental faculties ought to take into account physical, extra-biblical data that directly impacts the interpretation of those passages. We never interpret Scripture in a vacuum.

The creationists seem not to be able to entertain the notion that their literalistic interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis (and other cosmological passages in Scripture) might be faulty. No one can escape the problem of interpretation. Everyone who reads words in a sentence is involved in
interpretation. Why hold to the literal interpretation of these early chapters in Genesis, when we know that such an interpretation has been falsified by actual, physical data and observations?

If there is really something called "biblical astronomy," as the Mequon conference planners state, then why defend merely young earth creationism? Why not be consistent, as Dr. F. Pieper (the author of the Brief Statement) was, and reject the Copernican theory? Why not insist that the earth is founded on a foundation or pillars, that the earth is immovable, that the sun and all heavenly bodies actually move around the immovable earth? There are many biblical passages, if interpreted literally, that necessarily lead to these conclusions. Why allow figurative interpretations of these biblical passages that reflect ancient cosmology--and that if interpreted literally would conflict with known observational data--but not allow for figurative interpretations of the first chapters in Genesis? Why the inconsistency among the creationists, most of whom seem in fact to have accepted Copernicus' theory (which was rejected by the biblical creationists of his day and later)?

It is significant that the young discipline of astronomy first received support at the Lutheran University of Wittenberg. Thanks to Lutheran Georg J. Rheticus, a young mathematician and Wittenberg student, Copernicus' revolutionary (!) essay was published in Lutheran Nuremberg in 1543. (To read a lively, partly fictional account of that episode in intellectual history, see Dava Sobel's A More Perfect Heaven [Walker and Co., 2011]).

If the Mequon conference were actually an academic conference and not an ideologically-driven propaganda event, then the conveners would at least have one or two reputable observational astronomers who could present the most up-to-date, observable facts on the age and size of the universe and the age and natural history of the earth. I know a few astronomers at my university who could do an excellent job of that. One, in particular, comes to mind. He is both a practicing Christian and a leading astronomer in his area of binary stars. (He knows one of the presenters at the conference, who has done otherwise good work in binary stars but is completely wrong-headed when it comes to creationism.) The astronomer at my university, however, is not a "creationist." He believes in God the Creator, but he doesn't think God created the universe over six twenty-four-hour days several thousand years ago. So he won't be invited to this conference to present.

Come to think of it, why not invite one or two Lutheran theologians who are trying to take seriously the basic, observable data from the natural sciences and to relate that data to basic affirmations of our Christian faith? That's the kind of thing scientists and theologians have been doing at some of the other Concordias for several decades. I guarantee you that if you went to the other LCMS universities in the CUS and polled the scientists (and the scientifically-informed theologians), you wouldn't find many "young-earth creationists."

Next week I will once again teach my university theology course, "Creation." Most of the students in the class are majoring in the sciences here at Valpo, but there are also some theology majors in the mix as well. We will spend a few weeks examining "creationism." I don't have to speak out against it, since the science students and the critically-minded theology students know enough to spot the glaring errors. They usually then identify them for the rest of the class. One of my overall goals in the course is to suggest ways in which one can be accepting of mainstream scientific facts and conclusions and still affirm a robust, orthodox faith in God the Creator. I am concerned to be critical of both atheistic scientism and fundamentalist creationism.

Even my seventh- and eighth-grade confirmation students know enough not to read the first chapters of the Bible as if they provide us with "biblical cosmology" or "biblical astronomy" or scientific information. One of them told me the other day, "I believe that God made the dinosaurs and everything else. It just took God a really long, long, long time to do it." "How long?," I asked him. "Well, millions and millions of years for the dinosaurs, who went extinct 65 million years ago. A few million years for us homo sapiens. And a lot, lot longer than that for stars, planets, and our earth."

He'll be confirmed on Sunday, along with three others. BTW, that student is my son, Jacob. On Wed., he'll be reciting before the congregation Luther's explanation to the First Article of the Creed. The genius of Luther's explanation to that article is that it works for the creationist Christian as well as the Christian who knows a thing or two about actual, scientific astronomy and paleontology. It is the kind of explanation that will work very well down the road for the scientifically-informed Christian believer, despite whatever new cosmological data gets uncovered by human sensing and reasoning.

The LCMS errs when it coercively insists that the Christian doctrine of creation must include the acceptance and defense of creationism. Insisting on such a sacrificium intellectus is contrary to the doctrine of faith.