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)