Saturday, November 26, 2016

Edmund Schlink Works - Volume One (Ecumenical and Confessional Writings)

This past week I learned that a new book I've edited has been published: Edmund Schlink Works, vol. 1, Ecumenical and Confessional Writings (The Coming Christ and Church Traditions and After the Council(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). Hans Spalteholz (who was my college professor and later colleague at Concordia University, Portland) and I have translated here, in the first part of the volume, the principal ecumenical writings of Edmund Schlink that he wrote in the fifties and early sixties. The second part contains our translation of Schlink's book on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). After the Council was among the first analyses of Vatican II to be published by an official observer from a non-Roman church body.

Although nearly all of Schlink’s writings in this first volume have been available in English for several decades, the publication of the new German edition of Schlink's works (Schriften zu Ökumene und Bekenntnis, 5 vols., ed. Klaus Engelhardt et al. [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004-2010]) offered a significant impetus for providing a fresh and more accurate translation of them. Key terms are now handled consistently. Infelicitous and misleading renderings of Schlink’s language into English, which more or less happened in the earlier versions, have been corrected. Technical theological terms and concepts received special attention so that their English equivalents are as accurate as possible. Sentences, footnotes, and entire paragraphs that, for whatever reason, were omitted have now been restored. Unlike the abridged  English edition of Der kommende Christus und die kirchlichen Traditionen, which was published in 1967, this new edition includes all of the essays that appeared in the original book, published in 1961. In addition to writing the introduction, I have included editorial notes in each of the chapters.

These are the essays that appear in the first part:

1. The Task and Danger of the World Council of Churches

2. The Structure of the Dogmatic Statement as an Ecumenical Issue

3. The Christology of Chalcedon in Ecumenical Dialogue

4. Christ and the Church

5. The Expanse of the Church according to the Lutheran Confession

6. The Cultus in the Perspective of Evangelical-Lutheran Theology

7. Law and Gospel as a Controversial Issue in Theology

8. Apostolic Succession

9. On the Issue of Tradition

10. The Sojourning People of God

11. Christ—The Hope for the World

12. Transformations in the Protestant Understanding of the Eastern Church

13. The Significance of Eastern and Western Traditions for Christendom

14. Ecumenical Councils Then and Now

15. The Resurrection of God’s People

These are the chapters that appear in the second part:

1. The Spiritual Awakening of Christendom

2. The Conciliar Awakening of the Roman Church

3. The Resolutions of the Council

4. The Reform of the Worship Service

5. The Self-Understanding of the Roman Church

6. The Council and the Non-Roman Churches

7. The Council and the Non-Christian Religions

8. The Council and the World

9. Scripture, Tradition, Teaching Office

10. Post-Conciliar Possibilities of the Roman Church

11. Pope and Curia

12. The Significance of the Council for Other Churches

13. Anxious Christendom

14. Necessary Steps

15. The Mystery of Unity

Here are a few paragraphs from my introduction:

An influential teacher, pastor, and professor, and a leading participant in numerous official ecumenical dialogues for more than forty years, Edmund Schlink was one of the most significant Christian theologians of the twentieth century. The author of a weighty dogmatics text, five additional important books, and numerous essays, sermons, and addresses, this second-generation “ecumenical pioneer of the 20th Century” was the central systematic and historical theologian at Heidelberg University between 1946 and his death in 1984.  Lauded as a “teacher of the church,” as a “forerunner of the Ecumenical Movement in the 20th Century,” and as “a quiet reformer” who “lived his life for the unity of the church,” Schlink's contribution to the development of ecumenical theology in the second half of the twentieth century was considerable.  In the words of one of his most well-known students [Wolfhart Pannenberg], “By connecting such ecumenical breadth with a forceful emphasis on the abiding authority of the apostolic confession of Christ, the theological works of Edmund Schlink, and especially his Ecumenical Dogmatics, are still exemplary guides today.”  The recent publication of these principal writings in a new German edition offers a further reason to re-examine Schlink’s life and literary output, especially given the fact that many English-speaking students of religious studies, including younger American theologians, may be unfamiliar with this important German Protestant....

Friends and family remember Schlink and his wife as lovers of classical music (she especially of Mozart and he especially of Bach), as talented musicians, as warm and interesting conversationalists, as caring and friendly hosts. He was a creative scholar and critical thinker, who sought to serve Christ and the needs of the una sancta in all of its forms and expressions. He modeled the vision of ecumenical unity that he so often articulated in order to assist the strengthening of the bonds of human and ecclesial community. To be sure, as both Dr. Jochen Eber and Dr. Eugene Skibbe have noted, Schlink’s was “only one voice in the choir of learned voices in the church,” but still “his was a voice that echoes into the present.”  

It [this voice] can never replace this choir but can only sing in support of the choir and hope to be recognized as one of its voices. For no individual can fully portray the reign of God or his deeds. That is the task of the church as a whole, and indeed this happens not only in its life but also in its prayers, sermons, worship and confession, and in its love, service, and suffering (Edmund Schlink, Schriften zu Ökumene und Bekenntnis, vol. 2 [Ökumenische Dogmatik], 71, as cited by Jochen Eber, “Edmund Schlink 1903-1984. Ein Leben für die Einheit der Kirche,” in Edmund Schlink, Schriften zu Ökumene und Bekenntnis, vol. 1 [Der kommende Christus und die kirchlichen Traditionen and Nach dem Konzil], xxii.).
For more information on the first volume, go here.

The American edition of Schlink's works will eventually total six volumes. I hope to have the second volume (the Ecumenical Dogmatics) completed by Christmas of 2019. Since it is the largest in the bunch (more than 800 pages), it is going to take a little longer to complete than the others.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Post-Election Crossings Reflections by Jerry Burce

Count me among those who are confused and troubled by the outcome of last Tuesday's presidential election. I had hoped and prayed for a different result. My friend, Jerry Burce, who is an ELCA pastor, published his post-election reflections on the Crossings website ( Jerry has given me permission to reprint his ruminations here.

Thursday Theology #895
November 10, 2016

Topic: The necessity of Christ for his Christians, post-election


I foist on you some thoughts that have either screamed or simmered in my head through the hours since Tuesday. If you voted for Mr. Trump, there is much you will not like. Those who voted for Mrs. Clinton may also object along the way. Still, that you’re reading this at all presumes a common loyalty to Christ our Lord, and a common interest in sharing his benefits with fellow sinners. So hang in there if you can with this sinner as I pick my six-step way toward that goal. We will all need to be thinking, praying, and perhaps preaching about this very thing when Sunday rolls around. For the record, I thought long and hard about toning down the rhetoric and emotion that you'll encounter here. I decided not to. It testifies to a reality that all of us are dealing with in these hard, tough days. Kyrie eleison.

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1. The Morning-After Scream

He won. My jaw hits the keyboard as I write this. The citizens of my country have just picked a pig to be the next president of the United States. I dare to call this a judicious assessment. It rests on facts that we the people have been witnessing over eighteen terrible months. The man wallows in sin. He does it with glee. There is not a commandment he has failed to violate over the course of his campaign. We have all heard and seen it. i) He doesn’t fear God. ii) He wears the Christian name lightly, gingerly—and mocks what it stands for (e.g. “turn the other cheek”; “love your enemies,” as we heard from Christ himself last Sunday). iii) He ignores the Sabbath. iv) He doesn’t render to Caesar (“because I’m smart!”). v) He foments hatred. vi) He revels in sexual aggression. vii) He cheats the unfortunates who do business with him. vii) He slanders others with relish; he assaults truth as a matter of course. ix) He covets adulation, to say nothing x) of his neighbor’s wife.

He does all this openly, without the slightest hint of shame. That’s what makes him so abhorrent. Shamelessness is the hallmark of the person who fancies himself to be a god, beyond the reach of anything others might have to say about right or wrong, good or evil. The god makes the rules. The god does as the god pleases. The rest of you tiny creatures will bend the knee, or else.

And people I know, people I cherish, voted for this man. Among them are some I preach the Gospel to every Sunday.

2. Our Christian Embarrassment

I don't get these baptized, Christ-confessing people who sided with Trump. I'm pretty sure they don't get me. Even of you, a few, perhaps, will want to write me off as another knee-jerk ELCA liberal, now whining as liberals are wont to whine. I am not that. My loathing of the man began as a visceral and quite conservative reaction to his personality. It festered as I watched his performance in the early debates among the 15 plus Republican candidates. Of all who spoke, none were more devoid of thoughtful substance. None were quicker to insult. None were less respectful of the basic rules that govern decent conversation. No one bragged as Trump bragged. No one matched the brio with which he spouted mean plans and vile promises. He was the worst of middle-school bullies somehow transposed into a 70 year-old body and planted on a platform where only grown-ups belong. The grown-ups I know were embarrassed to see him there. I have yet to meet the Christian parent who would let their seventh-grader evince the attitudes and behavior that we saw on that stage. If I had ever caught one of my boys crowing allusively in public about the size of his penis, I would have sent him to his room for a week. So too with you, I imagine. Yet this man got away with it. And today we are all forced to know him as our president-elect. The American who writes this cringes with embarrassment.

And those dear Christian people, the ones I know and cherish, abetted this shame when they voted for him. I ache to spill with anger about that. What holds me back is the fact of knowing them as I do. They are good. They are decent. They are generous. When together we break bread. We crack jokes. We pray and sing in unison. I like them a lot. Still, they voted for Trump. For the life of me, I just don't get it. I think I am more embarrassed about that today than anything else. How do you love your neighbor well when you can’t begin to understand her?

For the record, I suspect that my embarrassment is shared by lots of these dear people, only in reverse. They can't begin to guess how, as they intuit, their friend or pastor could have voted for Hillary. For my part, that only increases the mortification. I don't get Hillary hatred. I fail to see how anybody could have thought that Mrs. Clinton, for all her reported flaws, was the worse choice. If nothing else, the woman is capable of compassion. There are clear, bright streaks of it in her record as a public servant. In the other guy's record as a businessmen and entertainer, there is none of it at all.

But isn't compassion among the highest of traits that God requires of any human being, to say nothing of a leader? Holy Writ is clear on this. So now the floodgate cracks and the sinner's anger starts to spill—not so much at the dear ones I know as at the Christian scoundrels I do not know: the Graham, the Dobson, the Falwell, Jr., the Ralph Reed. The host of self-righteous big name pastors waving Bibles in the air to urge a vote for the vindictive adulterer. Had they no shame as they desecrated the name of Christ? They have certainly tarred the rest of us with shame, obliging us to cringe in the company of secular friends. "Oh, you're a Christian? One of those people?" End of conversation. End of opportunity to speak of God as one for others to trust and hope in. Thank God, I say, for those voices in that conservative, evangelical bloc who dared to demur. But they too are writhing with embarrassment today, or so I should think. And so embarrassing, also for them, is to find our Christian selves so profoundly at odds, so unable to fathom how the other could have voted the way he or she did.

3. Of Whom Shall We Be Afraid? (Part A)

So is God embarrassed by God's Christians today? If so, God isn't saying. He never does. What we ought to imagine is something more fearful, that God is somehow driving our present embarrassment. Jeremiah would remind us of his record for doing such things. If Nebuchadnezzar does not pop up from nowhere, then neither does Trump. Neither does Hillary, for those of you loathe her.

We will spend the next two years reading analyses of what happened on Tuesday. Most all of it will be guesswork, in some cases intelligent, in others not so much. The mere speck I've caught so far—in my grief I've avoided the news these past two days—comes from the left, with a tale about angry, racist, working-class white men as the culprits in chief. I'm not buying that. It doesn't square with those dear ones I know and cherish. Something else was driving their votes. Of my Facebook friends, the ones most eager to tout Trump in recent months have been women. Aside from their politics, I tend to respect them.

The right will have its own interpretive tropes, equally simplistic, equally wrong. What these are I don't plan quickly to find out. Doubtless I should. Wise ones urge us to know our enemies. Wiser ones will tell us to know ourselves. None of us, of course, is eager to do that.

So let's suppose that God is using this election to force that knowledge on us, increasing our shame in the process. I will hazard two weak and wild guesses as to how that might happen. One aims at the right, the other at the left. Pretensions to divinity are the target in both cases.

Two years ago a billionaire named Nick Hanauer published an online article entitled "The Pitchforks are Coming…For Us Plutocrats." He warned that the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of a few over lo these many years is bound to spark a reaction. Who can doubt that the sparks have been flying in recent months? Indebted students flocked to Bernie Sanders' campaign, indebted parents to Donald Trump's. That the latter picked a greedy plutocrat as champion is ironic in the extreme. Might it also be deliberate where the hand of God is concerned? When tax rates on the wealthy and support for the poor are both slashed, will the sparks not fly that much thicker? Might this be how the mighty get their long-deserved comeuppance? Those of us who know God's ways will want to stay tuned, with fear and trembling. My pension is at stake. Yours too, I'll bet. Both with and after that comes judgment.

Speaking of judgment, seats on the Supreme Court are suddenly at stake, and with it the haughtiness of the cultural elite. Christians on the left seem often unaware of their participation in that. I'm still sufficiently in the middle to sense how it can sting. There is something obnoxious and altogether unneighborly in the assumption that once a narrow Court majority has weighed in on an issue, however controversial, the yahoos on the losing side should shut up and get over it. That will not and cannot happen when the yahoos turn out instead to be thoughtful people with large hearts and deep convictions that the will of God is at stake in the issue at hand. Those dear ones of mine who voted for the other guy are surely among them. Again, how they could imagine that someone of this man's character and habits would drive a "pro-life" agenda, I cannot fathom. Still, when I watched the third debate and heard Mrs. Clinton robustly defend a woman's "right to choose" for the entire length of a pregnancy, I had an inkling that she had just lost a ton of votes. I may well be wrong about that. My friends on the left are even more wrong if they imagine that abortion either has or should have gone away as an issue that spurs people to vote Republican. So too with "marriage equality," to use the current euphemism. Quite aside from the merits of the arguments themselves, to speak with Olympian condescension about honest opponents of these things is another way of calling in the pitchforks; and where such condescension is in play, one should always assume that the hand on the biggest pitchfork of them all belongs to God. God loathes Olympian pretenders, as he time and again makes plain. One of his favored ways of dealing with them is to ramp up their embarrassment. Yes, let us tremble.

4. Of Whom Shall We Be Afraid? (Part B)

Still, in the middle of all this we in the Church have Gospel to hear, tell and share. God grant in these days that each of us will do it well.

We might, for example, start talking this Sunday about the strange and embarrassing God who has inexplicably voted for us, not once, but over and over and over again. Tellingly, the theologians' fancy word for this great Biblical theme is "election."

God picks people. Embarrassed and embarrassing people. Of immoral pigs, who is the greater, Jacob or David? Yet both are key bearers of the promise. The promise is this, that once God latches onto a pig in love, he will not let it go. So too with the other denizens of the sty. Judah may be a mess, with fat cats lounging on their beds of ivory as the economy crashes and the poor starve. That doesn't keep God from comforting these people with the great visions of Isaiah. We who dwell in the American sty will also get to hear these things in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile this Sunday we will all meet Christ in Word and Sacrament. "Behold the Embarrassment," to crib from Pilate. Here is the One dispatched by God to enact the story we heard him spin some weeks ago, about the wretch of a son who heads for the far country to squander the father's wealth with human pigs, and to land in the sty where all pigs belong. In his case the sty has a cruciform shape. There hangs our God, draped in our shame and choking to death on our own consternation. Nowhere to be seen are disciples who, as we've been hearing in our current tour of Luke, have been embarrassing him every step of the way from Galilee to Jerusalem with their quarrels and their odious questions (cf. Lk. 9:54). Still, for their sake Jesus dies. That becomes plain in the astonishment of Easter, when God casts his final vote on the proposition of Christ-for-us by raising Jesus from the dead. The first people to hear the news are those embarrassing disciples. The first thing Jesus says to them is "Peace be with you." He also says, "Don't be afraid." After that he thrusts them into the enduring embarrassment of touting him as God's Gift and Hope for all people, in all circumstances, not least the ones that prevail in America today. He also gives them the Holy Spirit so they can tout with shameless joy.

5. Toward Christian Shamelessness

Come to think of it, shameless joy is the very thing I need most right now. So do those dear ones of mine, however they voted. So do you, including any of you who may have been badly scraped by things you waded through in the paragraphs above.

There is one place and one place only to find this otherwise impossible gift. Christ Jesus is his name.

"Peace be with you." He says it again, and, in this moment, he says it directly to all of us who constitute this reading-and-writing community. On Sunday I will hear him say it again as I stand with all those dear ones who will constitute the assemblies I will serve as pastor.

I don't expect that those dear ones will be talking politics this Sunday; or if they do, it will be in corners, sotto voce, with a wary eye cast for any within earshot who might disagree with their views. Conversations like this are always tainted with a whiff of embarrassment. We live in fear of the other's critique, or worse, of his anger.

But this, of course, is the very point at which Christ emerges as the Best Gift Ever. The constant challenge is to use this gift—to grasp it by faith, as the old, familiar language has it. I look at you, you look at me, and what we get to see in each other is a person God voted for when he raised Jesus from the dead. This will be, at first blush, an embarrassing idea. I bumble, stumble, and grope my way as badly as anyone. So do you. I think thoughts and make the kind of choices that leave you speechless. You do it in turn. You will not appear to me at times to be the kind of person a righteous God could get behind. You'll want to mutter similar thoughts about me when cornered with your friends. Yet here is Christ for both of us. And if Christ, then why not me for you and you for me, each bearing the burden of the other's sins and follies, and not once, but over and over, on a patiently enduring basis? Who knows, we might even learn how to be open and honest with the other about our political views without expecting, as sinners do, that the other will spin on her heel and stomp away.

Will Christians in America ever get around to embracing this faith in their relations with each other? The track record is not at all promising. What abides is the Promising One who refuses to give up on his dear ones, pigs though they be in their relations with each other. It has got be so very embarrassing for him, that we are like this. Still, he's used to it. Dealing with embarrassment, his own as well as ours, is the very thing he lives for.

6. The Enduring Promise

 I don't mean in any of this to underplay the challenges I expect our country to face in the presidency of Donald Trump. His character is bound to shape not only the decisions he makes, but also the people he leads; and having no respect for his character, I can't begin to welcome what comes next. I can only pray that the God who works through sinners to conjure up huge and happy surprises will somehow surprise us all in these next four years.

Meanwhile we step into these years with the words of Christ ringing in our ears: "Don't be afraid." I tend often to focus too much on the eschatological dimension of those words. I could use some help in concentrating for now on their immediate import. Don't be afraid to love each other as I have loved you. Don’t be afraid to let your light shine in a world that has a deep abiding thing for darkness. Don’t be afraid to turn that cheek or to love that enemy, and to do it especially when things like these are out of fashion.

Don't be afraid to poke the haughty, or to succor the lowly. The legend of Lawrence the Deacon comes suddenly to mind. He's the fellow who, when commanded by the prefect of Rome to hand over the church's treasure, distributed it instead to the poor, the lame, the blind, who he then ushered into the prefect's presence. "Here is the church's treasure," he said, whereupon he was promptly fried on a griddle. It is said that he died cracking a joke.

I will sing the praises of God this Sunday in the company of people who know their Lord and honor his love for every human being. Yes, they do that imperfectly. Why some of them will have voted for the other guy, I still do not get. But I will see them in action. They will love each other quietly. They will welcome strangers who wander in. They will pitch in with generosity to speed along whatever project we're working on to address the needs of neighbors. Some will write letters to congressional representatives. Others will pray for the welfare of the city and the nation. All will struggle to keep the faith we share in Christ, and to let it shape their lives. They will often rejoice in the Gospel. When they do, all embarrassment is gone.

I take it for granted it that scenes like this will keep playing out all over our country, wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus' name, with Christ himself in their midst. Let this be enough for me to say of the years we face: "Bring them on!"

God plant such faith in all our hearts.

Peace and Joy,
Jerry Burce


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
Published by the Crossings Community
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Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Prayer after the Election

My friend and former colleague at Concordia University, Portland, Bob Schmidt, recently shared a prayer he composed in the wake of the election. He's given me permission to share it here:


You urge us to pray for all people,

especially for kings and those in authority.

Forgive the hateful words of those seeking office.

Replace our anger with respect for our leaders.

We pray for Donald Trump, president-elect.

Give him a spirit of humility in taking office.

Help him learn about the challenges of the task.

Like David, fill his heart with compassion for the poor

and understanding for the strangers in our land.

When nations increase their weapons of war,

we pray for reconciliation of enemies and

peace between peoples in conflict.

Give us all a change of heart that we might

be better stewards of the climate of our world,

the land, the water and the air, and, like Noah,

preserve all of your creatures from their end.

Bless this our land, and the lands of all your people,

In Jesus' name.  Amen

Sunday, November 6, 2016

One Evangelical Christian's Decision

For the past several weeks, I have been debating whether or not to share my views here about this year's US presidential election. I had been leaning toward keeping quiet. At seminary I was taught that a pastor must serve and care for the whole congregation, not merely a partisan few, which would likely be the case if one came out publicly with one's political views and decisions. Inevitably such partisan sharing from the pulpit or in a Bible class would alienate a portion of one's flock. Moreover, a pastor is called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and not to get mixed up in partisan politics. The pastor who would enter that fray could end up confusing the gospel with earthly justice or even equating the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. (One notes, by the way, that the public positions on social issues that have been set forth by my former church body, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, nevertheless coincide to a large extent with the platform of the Republican Party. I once heard a pre-election sermon in an LCMS congregation that seemed to assert that a vote for Ronald Reagan was a vote for God's kingdom, though the Gipper's name was never mentioned by the preacher.) Not surprising, in light of the risks, most pastors avoid giving public advice on elections. I suspect that is true for many professors, too. At the end of the term, when students fill out their course evaluations, profs can get dinged for being "too political" or "too biased." (Last spring when I again taught my course on "Christians in Nazi Germany," a few students complained that I was "clearly anti-Trump" in my responses to student questions about the similarities between statements made by him and ones that the German national-socialist leader made during his 1932 stump speeches, despite my best efforts at explaining why Mr. Trump's views do not easily fit with basic elements in classic fascism.)

Nevertheless, keeping quiet has its own risks. Such silence may suggest that Christian faith has no import for political life, that faith is "private" and not at all related to social and political life. Such silence may also contribute to the acceptance of bad behavior and to the election of individuals who are unfit for office. The fact of the matter is, Christians have a political responsibility to seek peace and justice in the world. When one follows Jesus, one does not follow with only one aspect of one's life. Christian discipleship includes the totality of one's life, hence, also the social and political realm. In fulfilling their political responsibility, Christians cannot allow themselves to be impeded by those who would limit religious faith to a supposedly private realm ("the inner life") and thus exclude social and political problems from consideration. According to Christian teaching, God seeks to preserve and serve the world through his word (centered in the gospel) and through faithful individuals who are active in love.While the church's primary task is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of eliciting faith in Christ, those who hear and receive this message in faith are then sent out into the world to participate actively in civic life. Those who are saved by grace through faith in Christ are called to seek the good of the neighbor, to work for justice, to find ways to peace, and to speak up for and act on behalf of those who are weak, vulnerable, on the fringe of society, those deprived of secular justice (i.e., equality before the law, fair economic opportunity) and civil freedom. (Cf. Helmut Gollwitzer, The Rich Christian and Poor Lazarus, trans. David Cairns [New York: MacMillan, 1970], 27.) We are to vote accordingly. (Cf. Art Simon's 2006 online article, "Thoughts for Pastors Regarding the Election," which can be read here.)

So, as Lutheran Christians like to underscore, God works in the world in two different ways: through the gospel and through the law. Stated differently, God works through faith and through love and social justice. Martin Luther described this two-fold way of God in the world as God's "right hand" and God's "left hand." God's "right hand" works through the Holy Spirit who calls us to faith in Jesus through the power of the gospel and the sacraments. The Spirit places us in a relationship with God that we ourselves could never create or sustain. That divine "right hand" focuses entirely on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, for life, and for salvation. The short hand word for this "right hand" way of God's working in the world is "gospel."

God's "left hand" works through creation and the "orderings" within it (e.g., marriage, family, government, justice system, economic life, schools, the institutional church, and so on) that allow human beings to flourish, to pursue justice, to strengthen human community, and to preserve the planet. All of the ways in which our various family and social relationships are regulated and supported are functions of God's "left hand." The short hand word for this "left hand" way of God's working in the world is "law."

While political responsibility cannot lead to the politicizing of the church, since such a confusion of gospel and law corrupts both political life and the church (and undermines the church's primary task of purely preaching the gospel), Christians must participate in helping to shape and change social and political life for the good. Yes, Christians will disagree among themselves and with their fellow citizens about the nature of that "good," about what it is, and about how best to achieve it. Still, the individual Christian must follow his or her conscience in the light of both law and gospel. He or she lives by faith in Christ and by reasoning about what will bring about the greater good in one's community and world. In other words, Christian faith is active in politics, it seeks to make wise decisions, and, at the end of the day, it takes a stand. And, of course, for the Christian, in addition to faithful "thinking" and "discerning," there is faithful praying. Faith seeks the guidance of God's Spirit in all realms of one's life, including the voting booth.

Although a slim majority of my fellow Hoosiers--many of them evangelical Christians like me--may end up giving Mr. Trump our state's electoral votes, here are the reasons why I won't be voting for him on Tuesday:

(1) Mr. Trump lacks the experience, temperament, and character to be president;
(2) He lacks the judgment and wisdom to be commander-in-chief;
(3) More specifically with respect to points #1 and #2 above, he cannot be trusted to control the country's nuclear arsenal;
(4) His rhetoric is racist, bigoted, white-nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-LBGTQ;
(5) He promises to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans, while his trade protectionism will likely harm the poorest (his tax and spending plan, if actually implemented, would be a financial disaster);
(6) He denies global warming and will do nothing to try to curb this global issue;
(7) He has praised foreign autocrats;
(8) He has ruined several of his companies/hotels and likely paid no federal taxes for nearly two decades (although we don't know this for sure, since he's not released his tax returns).

I'm not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I will be voting for her. Unlike Mr. Trump:
(1) Mrs. Clinton has the experience, temperament, and character to be president (despite the serious error she made in setting up a private email server, an error which she has acknowledged and learned from);
(2) She has the judgment and wisdom to be commander-in-chief (despite her actions/inactions with respect to Libya, another matter that has taught her some important lessons);
(3) She can be trusted with the country's nuclear deterrent;
(4) Her rhetoric is inclusive, embracing the country's marginalized and most vulnerable (I do wish, however, that she would return to her mid-1990s position on abortion law, which was not one of unconditional affirmation);
(5) She's a principled, center-left pragmatist (who will likely work across party lines more effectively than many other politicians);
(6) She will continue and improve many of Mr. Obama's policies (e.g., regarding health care, the environment, labor policy);
(7) She favors paid parental leave and wants to expand early-childhood education.

Of course, if Mrs. Clinton is elected, it will be better for her (and the country, frankly), if she has a Senate to work with that is controlled by her own party, even if only by a one- or two-vote margin. Indiana may play a role here, if Mr. Bayh is elected, since his election would help to secure that majority. If, however, the GOP retains control of both the House and the Senate, then it will be very difficult for Mrs. Clinton to govern. Then again, maybe she will surprise her critics by "being better suited to cope with the awful, broken state of Washington politics" than they will admit (The Economist [Nov. 3, 2016], 7).

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Some Further Remarks on Dr. Ralph Bohlmann+

My friend and former colleague, Dr. Norman Metzler, with whom I served on the faculty at Concordia University, Portland, shared the following remarks with a few of his former associates after reading my earlier reflections on Dr. Ralph Bohlmann. Norm has given me permission to share his comments here.

“The Prequel to Matt Becker’s Reflections on Ralph Bohlmann”

I very much appreciate Matt Becker’s reflections on the “evolution” of Ralph Bohlmann’s positions and roles within the LCMS, particularly his gratitude to Ralph for assisting him in dealing with accusations and formal charges of false teaching in the late 90s and early 2000s.  Ralph certainly was disillusioned with the right wing politics of the LCMS that drove him out of the presidency of Synod – though those same forces enabled him to be elected following the increasingly “too flexible” stances of Jack Preus before his retirement.

What Matt doesn’t mention and didn’t experience firsthand, as I did (being a considerably older colleague of Matt’s) was Ralph’s relatively “liberal” position on inter-Lutheran matters in the late 60s. Ralph had been my Lutheran Confessions professor at St Louis seminary, and we had enjoyed a cordial relationship during that time. When I decided to do graduate studies in theology at Yale Divinity School following my graduation from the seminary in 1967, it provided an opportunity to connect with Ralph and his family, since he was doing his doctoral studies at that same time at Yale (under the famous, and for the LCMS “liberal,” Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, I might add). My wife and I provided childcare for Pat and Ralph to get away at times, and we occasionally went out to eat together.  I remember sitting over dinner with Ralph, Pat and my wife Mary, after Ralph had recently returned from a Lutheran Council in the USA meeting, asking him how the meeting went.  Ralph very approvingly spoke of the fact that fellowship between the LCMS and ALC was coming soon, and fellowship with the LCA was not far behind.  He also spoke of developments on a common Lutheran hymnal (which became the LBW). In short, it was clear at that time that Ralph was very supportive of the movement toward Lutheran unity, the goal of LCUSA. He betrayed at that time no misgivings about working toward a united Lutheranism in America.

I then left for three years to do my doctoral studies with Wolfhart Pannenberg at Munich, during the fateful period of 1968-1971.  During those years Nixon and the Preus brothers were elected to leadership in the USA and the LCMS respectively, under the banner of “law and order.” Ralph returned from Yale to the seminary, and was next door neighbor to Bob Preus, now on the seminary faculty. When I returned from my studies, the seminary certification committee was still mostly interested in what I had learned from Pannenberg.  But Ralph took me aside and informed me that major changes were afoot in the Synod, and I needed to proceed cautiously if I wanted to have a future in Synod. It was very clear to me that Ralph had made a major shift in at least his public stance regarding inter-Lutheran relations and critical scholarship. Now in his defense, it must be admitted that many thoughtful theological minds, like Pannenberg himself and Pastor Richard John Neuhaus in the LCMS, reacted to the seeming chaos of the late 60s and the Vietnamese War, and came down more conservatively on authority and order.  Perhaps this in part might explain Ralph’s shift. However, I am convinced that the major driver was Ralph’s political ambitions; he envisioned becoming president of the seminary and eventually the Synod, and in fact played his cards  just right to attain both. While we need thoughtful and educated theological leaders in the church like Ralph, I saw him carefully evading the pressing theological issues of our Synod at that time in order to position himself for those presidencies.  He penned the “A Statement of Scriptural Principles” used by Jack Preus against the seminary faculty, and was conveniently away from the seminary with the CTCR when Seminex broke, and he was able to return to serve as president in the conservative rebuilding of the seminary. He stayed on the correct side of the increasingly conservative synodical forces, and was rewarded with the synodical presidency in 1981, unseating Jack Preus – who conveniently “retired.”

When Ralph, like Jack, tried to exercise some “moderation” in his synodical administration, he was in turn driven out by the forces of the fundamentalist right wing, who installed Al Barry as their champion. After working so hard to accommodate those right wing forces over the years to achieve his ambitions, Ralph was understandably disillusioned with their  unceremoniously deposing him. He was bright enough that he should not have been surprised…. When one is trying to be “right,” one is never “right” enough, it seems. Hence his actual “return” to his more natively reasonable, moderate and open stance of the late 60s. Ralph always was too intellectually critical of a thinker and theologian to truly embrace the mindless fundamentalism that has overtaken the LCMS; he simply played them (and they him) for his politically ambitious purposes.  His support of Matt and expressions of dissent from the LCMS in his later years attest to what I knew to be the intellectually “real” Ralph Bohlmann.

Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler
Professor of Theology Emeritus
Concordia University, Portland

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pericope of the Week: H. v. Campenhausen on Church Order

As readers of my blog know, I'm currently editing and co-translating the theological writings of Edmund Schlink, who taught historical and systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg in the middle decades of the last century. One of Schlink's closest friends was his colleague, Hans von Campenhausen (1903-89), who taught church history there. Indeed, both of these men helped to rebuild that university, the oldest one in Germany, in the wake of Nazism and the Second World War.

Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen
In order to gain insight into Schlink's intellectual context, I've been reading works by v. Campenhausen. Earlier today his essay on the problem of order in early Christianity and the ancient church served as part of my daily devotion. I here share a few paragraphs that will serve as this week's pericope:

"The concept of order, taxis, is extremely rare in the initial period of the church. It occurs and is stressed on only one occasion in the entire New Testament [1 Cor. 14.39-40].... Thus a decorous, orderly mode of divine worship and of conduct generally is presented as the obvious form in which the spiritual life within a community should develop, always provided that liberty in the stirring of their faith and action be not suppressed, the Spirit not 'quenched' (1 Thess. 5.19).... Peace with God and the peace that comes from God--this is what designates the true essence and power of the new thing that determines from within the church in the process of its building up and in the joint action of all its members; it is the power of love and the working of the Holy Spirit who is given by Christ and has taken possession of Christians in their wills and their being. This unique and determining element must be, above all, the main issue in the church and in preaching to those outside. All the rest becomes manifest of itself, when viewed, and only when viewed, from this standpoint.

"This indicates the point from which our problem must be viewed once and for all, from which alone it can rightly be grasped and discussed. The church does not originate through order nor live by right order, but solely in the Spirit of Christ. If, however, it lives spiritually, then it is in order and attains to order, then, through the Spirit of peace, it also sets right order in its midst, without becoming a slave to this order....

"From this standpoint we can see that it is no accident that, not only in Paul, but, as we have said, in the whole of early Christianity, so little is said about order as such or even about order for its own sake--in fact, apart from a single letter of Clement of Rome, we may confidently assert that no mention is made of it at all. There were more important, more imperative subjects of preaching, and it was realized that the preaching of Christ was the actual determinate factor. Accordingly, questions of church order only gradually, as the occasion required, and in a quite secondary manner, claimed any considerable attention.

"The main thing is that the church lives by the word, the Spirit and the peace of God, and from thence--as Paul claims--it derives and determines its order. Further, either of itself or with the help also of conscious, calm and objective reflection, it continues in order or arrives at it. The constant danger of a Catholic, or near-Catholic approach to the question of order is that of making this an absolute over against the spiritual source of life and even against the ordered life of the church, of viewing 'right' order itself as an essential thing to hold on to, and of making it, independently, part of doctrine. This produces the opposed danger of a distorted Protestantism, which thinks to serve the Spirit by minimizing order, seeing it as a matter of indifference, or even destroying it. The consequence of such a negative approach is, ultimately, a like state of dependence on a human conception of order, to which far too much weight is attached, and which is fatal to the church. There is only one power from which the church draws its vitality, namely the preaching of the word and of the truth, which brings forth faith and, through faith, the will to right action; and this in turn comprises right order. Order, like good works, always comes in the second place, and can be rightly achieved only when what is first, the unique thing (and in this sense also isolated) is asserted and willed above all else. This is the fundamental principle of the gospel, which must work itself out in life as well as in doctrine, and ensures that order is neither idolized nor rejected...."

----Hans von Campenhausen, "The Problem of Order in Early Christianity and the Ancient Church," in Tradition and the Life of the Church: Essays and Lectures on Church History, trans. A. V. Littledale (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 123-26 [trans. slightly modified].

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann (1932-2016)

This past Sunday was marked by the death of Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann (b. 1932), who had served as a professor at and president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and then later as president of the LCMS (elected to four terms). His funeral service and committal were this afternoon.

For his obituary, go to here.

While many will remember Dr. Bohlmann's role in that church body’s politics and events of the late 60s and 70s, when he sided with the conservative minority against the "faculty majority" at Concordia Seminary and other “liberals” in the synod, I’d like to draw attention to the later Bohlmann that I got to know a little during the late 90s and early 2000s. Any account of his life has to take note of the changed perspective that he underwent between his "early" years and the "later," post-presidency ones. Ralph had changed, as he himself had suggested to me on more than one occasion.

How had he changed? Not in terms of his foundational confessional commitment and the basic theological understandings that he had gained through his studies at St. John's College in Winfield, Kansas, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the University of Heidelberg, and then Yale. The contours of his theology had been profoundly and permanently shaped by such Lutheran luminaries as Jaroslav Pelikan, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Richard Caemmerer, Edmund Schlink, and Peter Brunner. While Bohlmann's fundamental beliefs had already been firmly established through his upbringing and education in the synod, his Heidelberg and Yale experiences deepened his understanding of the Lutheran Confessions and the principles by which he thought those confessions are to be interpreted and applied today. (The influence of Schlink and Piepkorn is particularly evident in Bohlmann's 139-page monograph, Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Lutheran Confessions [St. Louis: Concordia, 1968].)

So if he had not really changed theologically, then how had he shifted? I would argue that this shift involved a temperamental transformation, the adoption of a modified attitude and demeanor, one that could be described as being a little more “open.” I think Ralph had become even more soft-spoken than he had been in the 50s and 60s, and more flexible, especially regarding matters about which the Lutheran Confessions do not directly speak, such as the ordination of women. That latter issue, in particular, he was hoping could be more openly discussed in the synod. The "hard" politics that he had helped to bring into the synod in the 60s had also turned, in part, against him, when he opposed the on-going presidency of Robert Preus at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, and this too had had its effect. Bohlmann had become very dissatisfied with the “right-wing politics” in the synod, something about which he had himself participated and had later come to regret. (For more on this, see James Burkee’s Power Politics and the Missouri Synod, and Mary Todd’s Authority Vested.)

So while there remained important and fundamental confessional/theological continuities between the “younger” Bohlmann and the more mature one--many more continuities than discontinuities--his views about a few issues, including the ordination of women, had changed over time.

I came to learn about this change first-hand, when he reached out to me in 1998. He had learned that I had come under fire for an essay on women teaching theology that I had delivered at a conference in Chicago the previous year. An LCMS pastor who had attended that conference (and secretly tape-recorded my address) brought charges against me, accusing me of teaching false doctrine. Ralph learned about the case and offered to help me navigate the bylaw procedures. So during that year we had several conversations. They weren't all about the synodical bylaws in the synod's Handbook. We also discussed the theological issues involved, and I came to learn that he himself had changed his own mind about women's ordination, at least to the point where he thought the matter was not necessarily church-dividing. (We later also discussed the issue of six-day creationism, which he personally believed and taught. While he disagreed with my critique of creationism, he did not think that what I had written on this topic rose to the level of a matter that required church discipline.)

On two other occasions he let me know that he deeply regretted how "A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles," a document he had mostly written, had been used by Jacob Preus to discipline Concordia Seminary faculty and others, and how his own actions had contributed to the loss of "so many excellent theologians." He also told me at that time that his concern for the future of academic theology in the synod was a further reason he had wanted to help me. He thought the issue of the service of women in the church needed to be addressed more deeply and discussed more openly in the synod than had so far been the case. He was fearful that had the charge against me been successful, it would have further stifled theological discussion in the synod. He offered me a vigorous defense of "the right of dissent" within the synod, which I gladly and freely adapted to my own situation.

I learned later that Ralph’s only daughter had left the LCMS, in part because of what had happened in the 70s but also in part because of the issue of women's ordination, and that she is now an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ. I wonder to what extent her own evolution from growing up as the only daughter of an LCMS seminary professor/president to becoming a UCC pastor did not also contribute to Ralph’s own change of attitude on this issue.

Between 1998 and 2004, when I left for Valpo, Ralph and I had many conversations, usually over the phone or by email but also in person at three different synodical conventions. His knowledge of CCM opinions, his mastery of the etiology and purpose of relevant synodical bylaws and theological documents, and the development of pertinent synodical policies (particularly in the area of higher education) made him especially helpful to a young assistant professor facing off against a number of accusations and formal charges during the LCMS presidency of Al Barry. (When the initial 1998 case essentially ended because of Dr. Barry's death and the election of a new synodical president, I sent Ralph a case of Oregon wine to thank him for his help!)

I especially remember my first lunch with Ralph at the 1998 convention. Over the course of two hours we discussed several theological issues, particularly the ordination of women, the theology of the Lutheran Confessions, and the history of the LCMS, especially during the 60s and 70s. I learned a lot. It was during this lunch that he told me how much the schism in the synod had negatively affected him and his family (and obviously those who had been forced out of their positions), how he regretted some of his own actions during those years, esp. how "A Statement" was later used to discipline and dismiss most of the faculty at Concordia Seminary, and how he wished the theological disagreements at that time could have been addressed differently, less confrontationally and less politically. He seemed to me to be genuinely disturbed by what had happened. (I should add that at that same 1998 convention I had a three-hour lunch with my friend and teacher, Dr. Robert Bertram, who was one of those who had lost his position at Concordia and whose perspective on the events of those years differed significantly from Bohlmann's.)

In August of 1999 I added Ralph to Daystar, an online listserv of approximately 700 LCMS and ELCA clergy and laity (most of whom have had some connection to the LCMS), who were dissatisfied with the direction that the synod was taking under Dr. Barry. This was after Ralph had told me he had wanted to participate in our discussions. Around that same time I invited him to prepare one of the plenary addresses for our first Daystar conference in Portland, a presentation that was well received. That presentation, "LCMS 2000: Advice for an Advisory Synod," can be read here.

The views he expresses in this essay were articulated in the context of Dr. Barry's administration, about which Ralph had some significant concerns and criticisms. For example, just a few months before the Portland conference, Ralph published the following letter in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

A large ad in the Dec. 9 [1999] Post Dispatch and other major newspapers criticizing the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic agreement on the doctrine of justification appeared to speak for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
As the immediate past president of that church body, I want to assure readers that the ad does not present the official position of the church body on that agreement, nor was its content or placement authorized or approved by any official board, commission, council, agency or convention of the church body. In reality, the ad represents the personal opinion of the current president, and it was paid for by a private contribution, not church body funds.
I know of no one in our church body who would disagree with the ad's statement on the Gospel of Jesus Christ or its promise to work toward reconciliation among Christians. However, the fact is that thousands of members and congregations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are chagrined by the ad, not only because of its misleading statements about the joint agreement as well as the position of the Roman Catholic Church, but also because the ads in the public media are not a helpful way for church bodies to deal with their differences.
To all who may have been offended by this ad, I offer this unofficial but very profound apology and assure you that the vast majority of the 2.6 million members of our church body continue to regard all fellow Christians with friendship and good will, and to rejoice whenever there is progress in resolving the doctrinal differences that have divided us over the years.
Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann
President Emeritus
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

Clearly, in light of his Portland address and the above letter, the Bohlmann of 1999 was at a different spot from where the Bohlmann of the mid-70s had stood. He also made this clear through his comments in the online Daystar discussions.

I last saw Ralph at the 2004 Synod convention. As we had done at the two previous conventions, we once again had lunch together. By that point he knew I was on my way to Valpo, and he wished me God's speed. On that occasion he again asked me when I was going to write “a serious book on the ordination of women." I told him that I needed first to finish my book on von Hofmann (which he kindly read that year and later told me he had liked), and to get into an academic position where I wouldn't face loss of employment for writing such a book! If I ever do get around to writing that book, I plan to dedicate it to Ralph.

Throughout the early to mid 2000s, he continued to participate sporadically in the online Daystar discussions, where some of the unhealed wounds from the 70s have occasionally been manifested. His participation there, too, suggests he had shifted from where he had been in 1973.

I'm grateful that I got to know the "later" Ralph Bohlmann. He became a trusted friend and an important adviser. While we didn't always agree on matters of theology--e.g., he was familiar with my written critique of "A Statement," [which one can read here] and my critique of six-day creationism--we respectfully agreed to disagree. He was always gracious in our conversations.

May he rest in the arms of God's mercy, in everlasting peace, and be welcomed into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The LCMS Presidium's Libel

Although I was expelled from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod last July, the leadership of that church body continues to malign me in public. Earlier this week a friend forwarded to me an “open letter” from the LCMS “presidium” (i.e., Matthew Harrison, Herbert Mueller, John Wohlrabe, Dan Preus, Scott Murray, Nabil Nour, and Christopher Esget). This letter is a response to another “public letter” by three former members of the synod’s Commission on Constitutional Matters. The former CCM members are troubled by what appears to be Pres. Harrison’s efforts to change the bylaws of the synod so that the president will have more leverage to discipline those he thinks need to be disciplined. In the words of the former members of the CCM: “We are concerned that President Harrison, having initially expressed concerns about the concentration of power in the Office of the President caused by the structural changes adopted by the Synod in 2010, has now abandoned that position and is actively attempting to aggregate even more power in the Office of the President.”

So now, in its letter, the synod presidium has tried to explain why the bylaws dealing with ecclesiastical supervision need to be revised. Here’s how Harrison & Company begin their letter:

What precipitated the need for taking a look at the dispute resolution process as it currently exists in our Bylaws? The suggestion to examine the current Bylaws on dispute resolution came from President Harrison when the system had exonerated a pastor who was publicly and aggressively teaching that the Bible has errors, that women should be ordained, that homosexual activity is not sinful, and that evolution is true. Prior to all of this, President Harrison had patiently arranged for this man’s dissent regarding A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles (which rejected the errors of Seminex and was adopted by convention as official Synod doctrine in 1973) to be considered by the CTCR. After the CTCR unanimously rejected the dissent, President Harrison—in a spirit of patience, and hoping to win the brother—requested that the CTCR staff (the Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer and the Rev. Larry Vogel) and two seminary professors serving on the CTCR (one from each seminary) meet privately to try again to win the brother. All efforts failed. After the brother’s exoneration by a panel, a new case was filed regarding his teachings on evolution. As a result of this last case, however, the individual in question was removed from the Synod. It was in this context, after some five years dealing with the problem, that President Harrison appointed a task force to examine the current Bylaws and make recommendations for improvement.
That opening paragraph contains libelous statements. (Libel = “a published false statement damaging to a person’s reputation (cf. slander).”

To be sure, I’m not mentioned by name here, but anyone who has read about my expulsion last summer (e.g., on Matt Harrison’s Facebook page, on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in the Washington Post, in the Christian Century, in the blogosphere, etc.) or has read the Indiana District overture against me (published in the LCMS 2016 Convention Workbook), knows who is being referenced in that opening paragraph.

Apparently Exodus 20.16 does not apply to individuals who reach the heady levels of the synod’s presidium. Or maybe Luther's explanation to that verse just doesn't fit the situation of a person who is no longer a member of the presidium's church body. Or maybe it just doesn't fit the situation of a person Harrison & Co. consider to be a "heretic"?

I don’t think I have ever “aggressively” taught anything in my life. I certainly have never “aggressively and publicly” taught “that the Bible has errors.” If the presidium’s assertion here were true, then surely there would have been an uproar in the LCMS congregation I served between 2010 and 2014. Of all people, they are the ones who know what I have “taught publicly” and continue to teach. Or ask the Indiana District President who spoke with me several times during those years. Or ask the Northwest District President, who frequently did likewise. The only document that I know of, wherein I have pointed out a few “minor errors” in the Bible (which is no different from what Martin Luther himself did in the sixteenth century) is my critique of “A Statement.” In my book, Fundamental Theology, I devote several pages to defending the authority and infallibility of Holy Scripture. I write there about the Scripture’s “perfection” and “sufficiency,” i.e., the Holy Scriptures contain everything one needs to know in order to become knowledgeable of the nature and will of God, of the world as God's creation, of human beings as sinful creatures of God, of how sinners have been redeemed by Christ Jesus, and of the new creation that has dawned in Christ. I have also publicly written there about Scripture’s "necessity," which means the Scriptures are “able to refute the errors of human beings with respect to the revealed truth of the gospel and the articles of faith that serve as corollaries to the gospel.” I have not ever “publicly and aggressively” taught “that the Bible has errors.”

Yes, I have argued for the ordination of women to the pastoral office, but those writings can hardly be described as “aggressive.”

What about "homosexuality"? I have never “publicly and aggressively” taught “that homosexual activity is not sinful.” That assertion of the presidium is libel. Plain and simple. Members of the presidium, run your assertion past the saints at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Ind. Run it by Dan May or Paul Linnemann. Run that assertion by my students here at Valpo. Run it by my colleagues. Run it by my wife. In other words, run it by people who actually know me and are familiar with my life and teaching. I have never written an essay nor delivered a paper on sexual ethics, let alone one that teaches “homosexual activity is not sinful.” No human activity, in and of itself, is ever free of the power of sin.

With respect to Pres. Harrison’s actions toward me, many who are familiar with the course of those actions in 2009-2014 would not describe them as “patient.” Apparently the presidium has forgotten about Harrison’s email to Joel Lehenbauer and Larry Vogel in which he directed the CTCR to act quickly on my dissent. If you examine that email there's not a hint of concern for the brother in question. Just an order to get a swift decision. And when I was formally and officially cleared of last year's charge of teaching false doctrine (dealing with my openness toward women's ordination), well, just check out Harrison's Facebook posts from that period. I will leave it to others to evaluate how best to describe Pres. Harrison's behavior in all this. The words "spirit of patience and hoping to win the brother" are not ones that come to my mind.

Clearly, the synod cannot tolerate even a single professor who publicly raises criticisms against the synod's support for creationism and its rejection of a mainstream scientific theory. Nor can the synod tolerate even a single professor who publicly raises criticism against the synod's practice of restricting the office of pastor to men. Nor can the synod tolerate even a single professor who publicly criticizes "A Statement" for its flawed and wrong-headed approach to biblical authority and interpretation.

Members of the Presidium: I'm no longer a member of your brotherhood. There's no need for you to stretch the facts of my dissent to the point of libel. If you feel the need to scapegoat me and use my dissent as the main reason for why you feel the need to call upon the synod to revise its bylaws, then at least stick to the facts.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Parting Shot

Just over one year ago a Montana LCMS pastor (who is also the district president there) officially accused me of teaching false doctrine. The issue? Six-day creationism, or more precisely, my online essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind," in which I raise both scientific and theological criticisms against six-day creationism. That formal charge eventually factored in to the NW District President's decision to suspend me from the LCMS clergy roster. In his view it was just a matter of time before the Council of LCMS District Presidents would act to remove me from that roster. When I did not appeal my suspension, I was expelled (July 15, 2015). My family and I have now become members of a local ELCA congregation, and I will soon be seeking to become rostered in this church body.

So I was surprised to learn earlier this week that a 2015 overture directed against me by the Indiana District has now been published in the 2016 LCMS Convention Workbook. Already last spring I was surprised by this overture, since no one from the Indiana District ever met with me face-to-face to discuss his/her concerns, let alone give me an opportunity to respond to the district's overture, which was adopted and then submitted to St. Louis so as to become a synodical overture. During the years (2010-2014) that I served an LCMS congregation in Indiana, I met with the Indiana District President several times, always to discuss that interim situation and the congregation's pastoral care. Never once did he raise any concerns with me about my public teaching or preaching. Just the opposite. He repeatedly told me, as late as the day the new pastor was installed there (Mar 2014), that he had been very pleased with the pastoral care, preaching (which he could observe online), and teaching that I had provided the congregation during its difficult pastoral vacancy. I don't know if the Indiana District President ever spoke against the overture at the district convention, or tried to encourage the people behind it to meet personally with me, but he never spoke with me about it, nor did anyone else from that  district.

To read the whole resolution (4-22, p. 335), it can be downloaded here.

Here are some excerpts:

To Publicly Call Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker to Repentance

Whereas, Holy Scripture warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15); and

Whereas, Holy Scripture warns, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve” (Rom. 16:17−18); and

Whereas, Holy Scripture warns, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3−4); and

Whereas, Holy Scripture declares, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16−17); and

Whereas, Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker has stated on his own blog, Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes (, that he has three goals for the LCMS, all of which are contrary to the Scriptures and the positions of Synod:
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-hour 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”; and

Whereas, Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker has filed dissent, yet continues to publicly teach and promote false doctrine including woman’s ordination, having published articles on his own blog and on Daystar, where he published an article titled “An Argument for Female Pastors and Theologians” in which he states: “There is no legitimate biblical or dogmatic rationale for why the LCMS should now prohibit women from serving as theologians and pastors in the church” ( theologians/); and...

Whereas, Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker continues to teach and promote false doctrine publicly, including promoting a figurative interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 by stating in his post, “The Scandal of the LMCS Mind”...“Scientific data about the reality of physical death in the animal and plant kingdoms prior to origin of human beings (e.g., fossils of animals that lived long before the origin of human beings) must lead those who interpret the Bible in light of scientific knowledge to restate the nature of God’s good creation prior to the advent of human sin (e.g., such a good creation must have included the reality of death prior to the existence of human beings) and the character of the historical origin of sin (e.g., the advent of sin is to be traced to the first hominids who disobeyed God’s will but not necessarily to their having eaten from a tree in an actual place called the Garden of Eden several thousand years ago)”; and

Whereas, the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) has ruled, ‘While the filing of dissent does not constitute a case for removal, the member is required to teach and practice in accord with Synod’s stated confessional position during the dissent process. If the member fails to honor and uphold the stated confessional position of the Synod during the dissent process, the member becomes subject to disciplinary action due both to the violation of the doctrinal position of the Synod and the offense against the other members of the Synod created by such failure (Constitution Art. XIII 1). In such case it is incumbent upon the ecclesiastical supervisor of the member to exercise disciplinary action against the member who fails to teach and act within Synod’s stated confessional position, whether apart from or during the dissent process (Bylaws 2.14.4; 2.15.4; 2.16.4)” [Opinion 13-2694, June 13, 2014]; and...

Whereas, President Matt Harrison stated on the “Witness Mercy Life Together” blog: “When a public teacher on the roster of Synod can without consequence publicly advocate the ordination of women (even participate vested in the installation of an ELCA clergy person), homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible, the historical-critical method, open communion, communion with the Reformed , does not change its inability to call such a person to repentance and remove such a teacher where there is no repentance, then we are liars and our confession is meaningless. I do not want to belong to such a synod, much less lead it. I have no intention of walking away from my vocation. I shall rather use it and, by the grace of God, use all the energy I have to call this Synod to fidelity to correct this situation”; therefore be it

Resolved, That the Indiana District in convention commend President Harrison in his diligence to uphold the teachings of Holy Scripture and also the Constitution and Bylaws of the LCMS: And be it further

Resolved, That the Indiana District encourage President Harrison to provide a full report to the Synod of this matter involving Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker; And be it further

Resolved, that the Indiana District request the Synod in convention publicly to call upon Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker to repent and recant, or remove him from the clergy roster of the Synod; And be it finally

Resolved, That the Indiana District encourage everyone throughout the Indiana District to pray fervently to the Lord of the Church that His Holy Spirit, working through the holy and inerrant Word of God, would lead Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker to repentance and to confess once again with us in doctrinal unity what we believe, teach, and confess.

Indiana District

The decision to include this overture--and another one that is similar to it--in the 2016 Workbook was ultimately up to Matt Harrison. Why publish these overtures ten months after the condemned one has already been expelled from the Missouri Brotherhood? Harrison's version of an Auto-da-Fés? A public warning not to rock the LCMS dinghy? "Never again will we allow this kind of critical-theological questioning!" That would make some sense, I suppose, given the fears and outcries of Harrison & Co. That others have found this decision of his questionable is clear from the statement that a former synodical official recently made: "How an overture regarding someone who already left the denomination got published is troubling to me, because it didn't have to be. So that's a smile upside down from me."

These overtures will initially go before "The Committee on Life Together." As one who got the boot, who was told that he doesn't belong any longer in the fellowship, I do wonder what the basis for life together in the LCMS is these days. Unity in the gospel and in the sacraments administered in accord with the gospel? That's the clear and sufficient basis set forth in the Augsburg Confession. But what is the basis in the LCMS? Certainly not this rather slim Augsburgerische one. The LCMS basis is much more maximal and includes that church's body's equivalent to canon law: "gemeinsames Leben durch das synodische-kanonische Recht..."

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Pericope of the Week: Barbour's Issues in Science and Religion

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ian G. Barbour's ground-breaking Issues in Science and Religion (Harper and Row). When I first read it in college in the early 1980s, it was a Godsend, since it opened for me a new way of positively relating commonly-held conclusions in the natural sciences to my own developing theological understanding of the Christian faith. Since then I have regularly made use of it in courses I teach on theology and the sciences. Not only does the book present a clear and systematic overview of the development of scientific knowledge and the philosophy of science (through the early 1960s), it provides penetrating analysis of various theological and philosophical positions one could hold in relation to those scientific developments. Barbour's own defense of what he called "critical realism" has continued to shape my own approach toward relating the sciences and theology.

For Barbour, who earned both a Ph.D. in physics (U. of Chicago) and a B.Div. in theology (Yale), scientific theories do not provide a photographic representation of the world ("classical realism"), nor are they merely calculative devices ("instrumentalism") or purely mental representations of reality ("idealism"). Instead, they provide partial, abstract but referential knowledge of aspects of the world, knowledge which is always subject to revision. Moreover, scientific theories involve human creativity and imagination (not just "facts," detached objectivity, and "pure reasoning"), and they are expressed through the use of metaphors (open-ended analogies) and models (systematically-developed metaphors). 
In these ways and others, science is similar to theology.

Ian Barbour (1923-2013)
Barbour also emphasized the hermeneutical and social-historical character of the actual "doing" of science. Data is always "theory-laden" and guided by (often unquestioned) metaphysical presuppositions about "nature." Scientific rationality is never purely "objective" but always "inter-subjective," temporal, historical, social, and communal.  Nevertheless, according to Barbour's version of "critical realism," the key criterion for a valid scientific theory is its agreement with actual data from nature. In other words, "truth is out there," in need of discovery, analysis, and explanation. While the internal coherence of a scientific theory is also important, a valid theory must correspond to reality, and it must prove itself useful in leading to new knowledge, e.g., more exact explanations of physical data.

According to Barbour:
Critical realism acknowledges the indirectness of reference and the realistic intent of language as used in the scientific community. It can point to both the extraordinary abstract character of theoretical physics and the necessity of experimental observation which distinguishes it from pure mathematics. It recognizes that no theory is an exact description of the world, and that the world is such as to bear interpretation in some ways and not in others. It affirms the role of mental construction and imaginative activity in the formation of theories, and it asserts that some constructs agree with observations better than others only because events have an objective pattern. (172) 
Theology, too, should operate from within the perspective of "critical realism." Theologians also need to recognize the limits of human knowing and the challenges in interpreting that which they study, e.g., biblical texts, human experience, religious traditions and practices, etc. Important here is recognizing the hermeneutical, historical, and sociological nature of theological understanding--and the important role that myths, analogies, metaphors, and models play in theological understanding of the world. Here, too, theology is similar to methods in the sciences. Both sets of disciplines organize their experiences and observations through these linguistic devices.

To be sure, Barbour also acknowledged important differences between the sciences and theology. For example, the latter speaks about claims to divine revelation, is more explicitly "self-involved" and existentially-committed, and is more attuned to non-cognitive goals, such as the fostering of religious faith, worship, obedience, service to others, etc. But despite these important differences, the contrasts between theology and the sciences are not as absolute as many think, both fifty years ago and still today.

We have argued that science, on the one hand, is a more human enterprise than is usually assumed, and that there is a "spectrum" of degrees and types of personal involvement in various fields of inquiry. Religion, for its part, presupposes cognitive assertions which are subject to critical evaluation. Such evaluation does not yield conclusions with the reliability of scientific results, to be sure, but we have argued that some of the same criteria are applicable; one's beliefs must be as coherent, comprehensive, and adequate to experience as alternative world-views. Reason is fulfilled, not abrogated, by revelation; reflective inquiry can coexist with religious commitment. Furthermore, we have defended the legitimacy of the wider search for coherence and synthesis which leads to a concern for metaphysics; the compartmentalization of thought thwarts the quest for unity. The critical realist cannot remain content with a plurality of unrelated languages; but at the same time he will recognize the limitations of all human concepts and the dangers of grandiose claims on behalf of any neat metaphysical system. The theologian, in turn, should be unwilling to settle for a solution that makes the gospel immune from attack at the cost of isolating it from contemporary intellectual life, or of destroying bridges of communication between theology and "secular culture." (268-269)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Murphy's Review of "In Christ All Things Hold Together"

Just about a year ago, right around the time that Pr. Terry Forke, an LCMS pastor and district president in Montana, was preparing to file a formal charge against me for "teaching false doctrine" with respect to "six-day creationism" and evolution (cf. esp. "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind" here; and "Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS" here), the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) published its own study of "the intersection of science and Christian theology." I had planned to review this 139-page document last summer, but my expulsion from the clergy roster of the Synod in July interfered with that plan. After I had returned from Germany that month, I really wasn't in the mood to devote any time to such a problematic study of theology and science.

I may still post such a review of it in the near future, but for now I'd like to draw attention to a fine online essay that analyzes it superbly. The essay's author is the Rev. Dr. George L. Murphy, who grew up in an LCMS congregation. In the late 1960s he joined a Slovak congregation, when the Slovak Church was in fellowship with the LCMS (but a few years before it became the non-geographical "Slovak District" in the latter). During several years when he lived "down under," he was a member of the Lutheran Church in Australia. After returning to the US to begin teaching at Luther College, he and his family joined the American Lutheran Church, which later was a key player in the formation of the ELCA. So he has been a member of five different Lutheran church bodies over the course of a few decades--something of a record, I would think!

Dr. George L. Murphy
Dr. Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University in 1972. His focus was on Einstein's theory of general relativity. After teaching and conducting research in physics for an apostolic number of years, he matriculated to Wartburg Seminary, where he received his theological education. Ordained in 1983, he has served Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. He has also written numerous articles and books on the interface between science and Christian theology (from a distinctly Lutheran perspective). Since getting to know him (mainly through his wonderful books on science and theology, but also through regular email communication with him), I like to think of him as our North-American version of John Polkinghorne (who earned his Ph.D. in mathematical physics before becoming an ordained Anglican clergyman). George's books and writings on "science and theology" continue to be important resources for me and the students who take my summer-semester course on the Christian doctrine of creation (a course that leads us to engage Christian-Lutheran theological understandings in relation to mainstream scientific theories about nature and other issues in the natural sciences). For more details about Dr. Murphy, go here and here.

What about his review of the CTCR's report, In Christ All Things Hold Together: The Intersection of Science and Christian Theology (St. Louis: CTCR, February 2015)?

After a brief introduction, Dr. Murphy highlights its few positive features:
(1) The report addresses an important topic, one that many churches tend to avoid;

(2) The report's criticisms of "scientism" and philosophical naturalism are generally "on target";

(3) The report is right to note how Christian theology (and specifically the Lutheran teaching about "vocation") can support scientific work.

These features aside, Dr. Murphy finds a lot more negative ones than positive:

(1) The report sets forth a problematic understanding of "natural theology"; (Here I actually disagree with Murphy's Barthian-tinged criticism, since I think there needs to be proper attention to questions about human experience that arise in what has traditionally been called "natural theology" before one can turn properly to address God's clearer response to that situation in Christ (the gospel!), i.e., to our human condition, to life under the divine law, to the deus absconditus--cf. my book, Fundamental Theology, pp. 129ff.)

(2) The report affirms a flawed understanding of "intelligent design"; (This is not surprising, since the report's principal author is Angus J. L. Menuge, a professor of philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin, and a proponent of ID theory. You can learn more about him here.)

(3) The report does not understand how scientists actually conduct their work according to standard principles of methodological naturalism;

(4) The report fails to draw upon any of the leading Christian theologians who are engaged in discussions about "science and theology." (I mention several of these, including George, in my chapter on "Christian Theology and the Sciences," Fundamental Theology, 433ff.) I would add that as far as I know, the leading scientists in the Concordia University System were not consulted in the process of writing this CTCR document. I know of several practicing scientists at Concordia, Portland, and elsewhere in the CUS who take issue with many statements in the report that belie a wrong understanding of how science is actually done.

(5) The report does not seriously engage the leading, mainstream scientific theories that it opposes (e.g., neo-Darwinian evolution; theistic evolution);

(6) The report supports six-day creationism, which is quite different from today's mainstream scientific understanding of a 13.7-billion-yr-old universe, a 4.5-billion-yr-old earth, a very long process of evolution in the very, very long natural history of the planet, etc. "How are scientists – and indeed any interested people – in the Missouri Synod supposed to deal with the massive array of data, connected by well tested theories, that astrophysicists, geologists, geophysicists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and workers in other areas present in support of the current scientific picture of the world? No help is given with that." To me, this is the fatal flaw of the document.

Dr. Murphy ends his review by identifying the core problem with the CTCR report, namely, its misguided understanding of the nature of biblical interpretation, an issue to which I have also drawn attention and which contributed, at least in part, to my being given the LCMS boot.

Neither of the two (!) creation accounts should be read as "straight historical narrative." That way of reading them does violence to their genres. Murphy: "And why not consider what we know with some certainty about the physical world and its processes" in deciding what "the plain meaning" of a biblical text is? "Pascal had some worthwhile comments about that in the Eighteenth Provincial Letter." Neither creation story should be read as "scientific accounts but as different types of texts that compliment such accounts."

Bottom line: "Perhaps instead we should pursue a parallel Luther drew between the Word of God made flesh — a male Jewish human in a particular cultural setting — and the Word of God written by humans in a culture with a certain level of understanding of the world. In inspiring the writers of the Genesis accounts, God apparently did not feel it necessary to correct what we now know to be an erroneous picture of the world."

The entire review by Dr. Murphy can be read here. It nicely complements the review essay that my friend, Dr. Robert Sylwester, emeritus professor of education at the University of Oregon, wrote last year. You can read Bob's critical analysis here.

I hope both essays receive wide and attentive readings in LCMS circles--and beyond.