Thursday, September 24, 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Brief Reply to Harrison's Recent Attack

Matthew Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, won't let up. He continues to be on the attack, despite the fact that I have been expelled from the LCMS clergy roster and will be seeking to become rostered in the ELCA. Case in point is his recent "missive" to "2013 convention delegates and other friends" in which he writes:

A now formerly rostered LCMS clergyman for two decades openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture and the confession of the Synod on the inerrancy of the Bible, evolution, homosexuality, the ordination of women, church fellowship and more. I have appointed a group that includes Secretary of the Synod Rev. Dr. Ray Hartwig and others from both the Commission on Handbook and the Commission on Constitutional Matters to suggest revisions to our current system for dealing with such cases. Small but significant changes will correct the problems and help assure we never have another such situation. God help us. 

This is not at all about the occasional pastor or retired pastor who may have scruples about a certain public position of the Synod and isn’t on a mission to tell the world about it. It’s about drawing a clear line should a church worker aggressively and publicly reject the Synod’s clear biblical teaching on very significant matters.

Some interpret these comments as mere "sabre rattling," as "tossing a bone to his ultra-right base." To me these words reveal a real effort on Harrison's part to make sure that actual theological dialogue (at least about the matters he has named in his laundry list) is impossible in the synod. These issues are "off the table," as Harrison has stated many times. Given the current climate in the synod--a climate that has been undergoing climate change ("global cooling") for more than forty years--it is highly unlikely that anyone who makes a living in an official LCMS institution (e.g., a congregation, synodical agency, college, seminary, other institution, etc.) would ever dissent publicly from any synodical "position." Such a dissenter would run the risk of losing his/her gainful employment. (Retired pastors are entitled to their "scruples," but they dare not speak forth from a soapbox, online or otherwise... They will have crossed Harrison's "clear line.")

It is no secret that I have tried to foster dialogue about a few issues that Harrison wants off the table. Have I done so "aggressively"? Hardly. I tried to initiate actual dialogue through the publication of two essays, one on six-day creationism and the natural sciences (published a decade ago) and one on women's ordination  (published sixteen years ago), but I got no takers. Instead, I was informed that formal charges of teaching false doctrine had been leveled against me. Harrison got elected, in part, because he promised to get rid of what he thought amounted to about "15%" of the LCMS clergy roster who disagree with "the synod's position" on many of the topics in Harrison's laundry list (i.e., his articulation of what he believes to be the synod's "position" on those matters).

It is also no secret that Harrison has supported those who filed formal charges against me. When I was attacked in this way, I felt the need to defend myself and the theological teachings I had set forth in those two essays. Although some have described what I have done over these past sixteen years as "baiting and swallowing my own hook, " those are not the words I would use. The simple fact is, from my perspective, those who filed formal charges against my writings were insisting on theological positions that are unsupportable, that go against our confession of the doctrine of faith, that detract from the centrality of the gospel, and that put something else as the sine qua non in place of the one gospel. These two issues about which I have written and spoken are hardly settled issues in the synod today--despite what Harrison and others might assert.

Isn't it interesting that two different synodical panels, comprised of several LCMS pastors from different parts of the country, concluded that what I had written in those two essays and the way that I had gone about defending what I had written (over against my accusers' understandings of what is essential to the Christian faith) did not constitute advocacy of false doctrine?

"Openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Scripture..."? No. I vehemently reject that slander. These words of Harrison tell us more about him than they do about anything I have written or spoken. His opinion--and that's all this phrase of his represents--does not reflect the official exonerations I have received from several official LCMS entities over the past decade. These official judgments have been rendered by district presidents, a district board of directors, a review panel, a referral panel, an LCMS university board of regents, a university provost and president.

I was never found to have "openly and aggressively rejected the teachings of Holy Scripture."

Sure, I have been critical of some of the synod's convention resolutions and statements (e.g., those that support creationism, that attack evolution, that reject women's ordination), but my criticisms are themselves grounded in Holy Scripture and the evangelical pattern of doctrine that is exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions. I contend that Harrison's own position marks the real departure from the Scriptural, evangelical teaching about faith, God the creator, the holy ministry, and Christian freedom. He is insisting on teaching that is just plain wrong--scripturally and confessionally. My argument from the Scriptures and the Confessions indicates why the synod's defense of six-day creationism and its insistence on a male-only pastorate are not merely unconvincing theologically but are actually harmful to the synod's mission in our western, scientifically-informed, egalitarian culture.

When I was formally and officially cleared of last year's charge of teaching false doctrine (dealing with my openness toward women's ordination), Harrison fumed, ranted, and threatened. Earlier this year he did so on his Facebook page. He also did so on the synod's website. Leaving aside the question about the propriety of his actions in this regard, one may ask the following questions: About whom did he fume? Against whom did he rant? Whom did he threaten? Not me, at least not directly. His anger was directed against the referral panel and its decision. He later seemed to be publicly angry with the NW District President, who had his own reasons for not suspending me last year.

In my final telephone conversation with my now former DP (back in late June), he told me that he felt he had no choice but to suspend me, given the pressures he had been receiving from Harrison and other synodical officials (e.g., convention resolutions against him). Throughout the past several years that these charges have surfaced and been dealt with, my former DP repeatedly assured me that he did not think I was guilty of advocating false doctrine. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that a majority of district presidents on the Synod's Council of Presidents (the COP [an apropos acronym, no?]) would not renew my clergy rostership, given the charges that had been leveled against me (despite my being repeatedly exonerated), and that it was just a matter of time before the COP gave me the boot from the clergy roster, given Harrison's influence over the majority on that Council.

It will not surprise me if Harrison's efforts at "Gleichschaltung" (getting the synod to be in the same gear, goose-stepping together, no one out of line) will lead eventually to his own gears getting jammed.

The one, sufficient gospel opens up a better way of doing theology, a better way of being a "synod." It creates the condition in which baptized people, grounded in Christ, who are equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, can draw upon those resources to address in an evangelical manner all the issues that appear on Harrison's laundry list. Real dialogue is difficult, a bit messy, complicated. Gleichschaltung may work for a while, but as a long-term tactic, it has always failed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A September Pericope from Kretzmann's "The Pilgrim"

Holy Cross Day marked the 40th anniversary of the "final crossing" of O. P. Kretzmann (b. 1901), gifted speaker, writer, educator, and president of Valparaiso University for nearly 30 years (1940-68). An East-coast Lutheran, Kretzmann was a graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1922). He also studied at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Prior to his Valpo years, "O. P.," as he is still affectionately called, was an instructor at the LCMS's "practical" seminary in Springfield, Ill. (1923-34), and then the executive secretary of the synod's youth organization, the International Walther League (1934-40). In this latter role he co-edited The Cresset, the WL journal that was devoted to critical commentary on the arts, literature, and matters of public life. (Since 1952 this journal has been published by Valparaiso University.) Each issue contained Kretzmann's own column, "The Pilgrim," which set forth his spiritual/theological musings and observations on timely issues. ("All the trumpets sounded for him on the other side." -- Pilgrim's Progress)

The bulletin at yesterday's morning prayer in the Chapel of the Resurrection informed the gathered few of the significance of the date: President Kretzmann died on Sep. 14, 1975. All around us stood the most visible reminder of O. P.'s presidency, the Chapel itself.
I couldn't help but think of how he and so many other relatively "progressive" LCMS churchmen from his generation had made such a positive difference in and beyond the LCMS and its circles. For example, O. P. and his equally gifted brother, A. R., were among the initial signers of the "Statement of the 44," a much maligned document in the post-1975 LCMS but one that had encouraged a greater openness in the synod toward ecumenism, secular learning, liturgical renewal, active engagement with social issues, etc. during the decades after WWII. While the majority of the synod's membership was not directly impacted by the "moderate" moves that O. P. and his kindred spirits made in those decades (ca. 1935-75), those moderates set an evangelical tone, they provided crucial leadership, and they established several important means/venues by which subsequent change would come to the LCMS, especially among many younger pastors, Walther Leaguers, and graduates of Valparaiso University.

As if to underscore the occasion, late tonight (actually very early on Sep 15th!) I happened to come across a much smaller Kretzmann monument. As I was unpacking two boxes of books that have been in home storage among 40 other tubs for nearly eight years, what should appear but O. P.'s Cresset meditations from the WWII era: The Pilgrim: An Anthology of Articles which have appeared in The Cresset, published by the Walther League (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1944).

One of its final entries caught my eye, "September Leaf" (pp. 101-6). Parts of this meditation (including the original ellipses that were a typical feature of all of O. P.'s "pilgrim" reflections) will thus serve as our pericope this week:

I wonder if anyone has ever been fully prepared for the coming of autumn.... Perhaps as little as we are ready for the end of anything in life.... July and August meander along in apparent endlessness, one bright or sullen day after another.... There seems to be no change.... The crickets grow louder, the dust lies dreaming on the trees and bushes, the thunder comes with every other twilight.... Only when I look across the fence into my neighbor's yard and see the apples turn red can I tell that summer is waning and the time of harvest is near.... Then, inevitably and suddenly, there comes a morning when everything seems changed... From my window I observe that the maple has a few leaves which are brown.... Others are already on the ground.... The crickets chirp in a lower key, and a new note of melancholy appears in the whistle of the train down the valley.... The leaves begin to fall, at first lazily and alone, but then faster and faster as the wind rises and the travail of change comes over the earth.... The order and logic of inevitability are in them as they lie in their seemingly haphazard places....

[MB: And then comes a long quote from Thoreau, who "knew what their rustling and whispering say to us who walk through our autumn world..."]

This, then, is the season of the elegy and the mourner.... Certainly, however, there are meaning and purpose and knowledge, year after year, in the falling of a leaf from a dying tree.... Once more we see the great paradox of life and time: To live well and greatly, our journeying through the world must be a repeated experience of death.... We die, as the leaf dies, to the immaturities of childhood to be reborn for the responsibilities of maturity.... We die to selfishness to live for others.... We die to resentment against life for not giving us everything we desire to the glad acceptance of its hard discipline of sorrow.... We die to sin to live to God.... We die to the noise of time to live for the whisper of eternity.... Surely this is always and forever true: If we have not learned to die, we have not learned to live....

...Our watchwords are "here," "now," "today." The September leaf drifting quietly to the earth in its good time tells the whole story of all the names and tears of our dark age.... They, too, shall pass away.... Their hour is as definite as the hour of the September leaf.... No, there is nothing new in all this, but it is desperately worth repeating in an hour when we are living only for the hour and looking for the man of the hour and fear what the next hour will bring....

...The lesson of the September leaf is, of course, not complete.... It speaks of change and death, but not of immortality.... Slowly but surely we move from the hollow in which the leaf rests and the graves of the great to the high altitudes of faith.... Nothing which I observe in spring or in autumn tells me anything about the intimations of immortality which lie deep in the human soul and in divine revelation.... Between them and human reason hangs an immovable veil.... "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard." ...As far as my mind can reach, the end comes down when the curtain goes down... All that begins when the curtain goes up again lies on the other side of visibility... Beyond the nature of the existence which alone can be the object of scientific and reasonable knowledge there may be something in the human soul which desires deep eternity, but this desire is no proof for it.... For that assurance I must turn to Easter... The Christian faith would have died long ago if a miracle had not daily repeated itself--a miracle which remains as great and incomprehensible as it was 1,900 years ago.... The miracle is that a human soul in the face of death, loaded down with guilt which it can never make good, finds rest and immortality in an Eternal High Priest who loved the dying world even unto death.... This is the one unshakable foundation for our faith in immortality and eternity.... The September leaf is not homesick for the earth from which it came.... We, however, are, and ought to be, because the warm, silent cradle of the grave is the open door to our home....

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Pericope for the Week

Friend and fellow-traveler, Pr. Joel Nickel, who is a retired LCMS pastor in Oregon, sent me the following quote from a recent online post by Tom Nichols ( ("Nichols" is the English spelling of "Nickel"). Joel thought the quote "seemed directly appropriate to [my] situation." He notes, as have others, that even after my expulsion from the clergy roster of the LCms the vitriol against me by my detractors has continued.

Joel's final question: "Who is the pompous self-righteous prig who 'prays for your repentance'"?

Here's the Nichols quote:

For a fair number of people in what's supposed to be a democracy, "winning" in any normal political sense simply isn't enough. What they really want, and what they in fact demand, is that you agree with them. They want you to believe. It is not enough for these Americans to say: "I have had my day in court and prevailed." In effect, they now add: "If you still disagree, I will attack you without quarter and set others on you to deprive you of your status in your profession, of your standing in your community, and even of your livelihood." You will be forced to admit the error of your ways. You must accept that you've sinned. You must discard your own values and accept the ideas of your betters. (Original source:; the quote was also published in The Week, July 17, 2015).