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.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Immanuel, Michigan City

Last week marked two and a half years that I have served Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Indiana, as its vacancy pastor. Readers might recall that Immanuel's pastor, Pr. Kevin Palmer, died suddenly from a torn aorta on a Saturday morning in October 2010. He was only 38. I was called later that day and asked to preach the gospel on the morrow. The appointed OT text (Gen 32; Jacob wrestling out by the Jabbok) served as the basis for our meditation. (Kevin's widow and their three children--then ages seven, five, and two--have continued to be members of the congregation.) What I thought would be a few months of pastoral emergency fill-in has extended to the present.

So during these many months I've been juggling pastoral responsibilities along with my regular university duties. This term I taught my regular three courses: two sections of the basic introduction to Christian theology that nearly all Valpo students have to take as a part of their general education requirements, one section of a course on twentieth-century Christian theologians, and one section of a course that explores theological similarities and differences between Catholics and Lutherans. I'm grateful that my department chair has been gracious in allowing me to continue to fill this pastoral vacancy. He and I (and more importantly, my wife) have agreed that I will only continue in this role through the summer, if necessary. (The congregation has extended a call to a pastor and we are waiting to learn if he will accept the summons.)

The duties of the part-time pastor include the following:

--preaching at the three divine services on most weekends (typically around 165 worshippers per wkend);

--serving as liturgist at those same services;

--leading an adult Bible class on Sunday morning (we've been studying Bonhoeffer's Discipleship in the aftermath of our year-long study of the Gospel according to Matthew);

--teaching confirmation instruction to an apostolic number of seventh and eighth graders for two hours on Monday evenings during the school year;

--pastoral counseling on Wed evenings and Sat afternoons;

--visiting the sick in the hospital and other care facilities;

--regular communing of those members who are home-bound (the elders of the congregation have been very helpful in this area);

--writing the monthly pastoral devotion for the church's newsletter (to read the reflections in the latest issue, go here. I thought it important to write about "patience," since the congregation has been waiting such a long time for a full-time pastor);

--monthly meetings with the elders, church council, and worship committee (and dealing with all of the typical challenges and issues that surface in these settings);

--midweek services/preaching in Advent and Lent;

--teaching two six-week adult confirmation classes per year;

--being the spiritual leader at the summer's week-long vacation Bible school;

--and, of course, baptizing, confirming, marrying, and burying, as those needs arise.

Since January 1 of last year, there have been 23 baptisms (19 children, four adults), six confirmations, two weddings, and 17 funerals. Sixteen adults have joined the congregation by rite of transfer or re-affirmation of faith. We'll be welcoming another seven new members on Sunday. It is always good when there are more baptisms and adult confirmations in 16 months than funerals...

Last Saturday (4/27/13), the local newspaper interviewed me about the congregation. This is the first of its "church in the spotlight" series. Not sure why they picked us to go first, but it did give me an opportunity to describe Immanuel and to articulate our core evangelical-Lutheran beliefs. You can read that article  here.

I have been especially grateful for the many opportunities of cross-fertilization between congregational pulpit and university podium. I have been reminded of what a challenge it is to preach on a regular basis, week in, week out, throughout the church year. This experience has also forced me to reflect more carefully upon the differences between what one does from a pulpit and what one does in a university classroom. Sure, there are similarities--I'm probably more "homiletical" than most of my university colleagues--but the differences are important.

Yes, the elders and some within the congregation know about my public concerns with the LCMS position on women's ordination and creationism. One of the elders is a member of the Indiana District Board of Directors. Early on I agreed with him and the other elders that I would not make these issues "an issue" in my pastoral ministry to Immanuel. As far as I can tell, I haven't done so, since there hasn't been a need to do so, although I have informally shared my reasons for my concerns whenever someone in the congregation has asked about them. Frankly, more basic and central issues, matters of life and death, have kept my time and attention focused on the proclamation of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the need to share God's love effectively and creatively with all, especially those who are troubled, suffering, grieving, and questioning.

We hope God will soon send a full-time pastor. For now, the congregation and I will keep on keeping on--by God's grace.