Facing Lutheranism's Crisis of Authority
Seven theologians call North American Lutheranism
back to the Word and the Lutheran confessions.
Almost everyone knows Martin Luther's famous defense
before the Diet of Worms: "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help
Not as many people can quote what he said just before
that. "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain
and clear reasons and arguments, I cannot and will not retract."
That quotation sums up the way the Lutheran movement
began: as a demand for the church to operate under Scriptural
When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed
its social statement on sexuality last summer, approving of
gay unions and gay clergy, it made no effort appeal to Scripture at
all. This frustrated and angered conservative Lutherans, who would
have disagreed with the statement's teaching even if the document
had appealed to scriptural authority. But to ignore Scripture
entirely? How un-Lutheran.
In late August, I joined more than 800 conservative
Lutherans in Columbus, Ohio, for Lutheran CORE's free theological
conference. We listened to seven theologians (augmented by
theologically oriented preachers and a banquet speaker) focus on the
crisis in authority in their church.
The Tuesday-through-Thursday event was designed to
frame a Thursday-through-Friday convocation which in turn gave birth
to a new Lutheran denomination—a safe haven for
congregations that find the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
too liberal and the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church too
"fundamentalist" for their comfort.
Senior statesman Carl
Braaten, now 81 years old and cofounder with Robert Jenson of
for Catholic and Evangelical Theology keynoted the
event.The Gnostic Flight from
Braaten described the ELCA approach to authority as
deficient in three "Gnostic" ways, deficiencies that played a big
role in the passage of last summer's ELCA social statement on
Deficiency 1: Like the ancient Gnostics, the ELCA is
antinomian—it rejects the law of God.
Deficiency 2: Like the ancient Gnostics, the ELCA
claims a higher knowledge—higher than anything available from an
external Word of God. Gnostics trusted instead in enlightenment from
within, which is where they locate God. So do those guiding ELCA's
decisions, said Braaten.
Deficiency 3: Like the ancient Gnostics, ELCA leaders
sneer at the idea that we can look to a book as our
authority—especially a book written by Jews. Antinomianism and
anti-Semitism are always found together, said Braaten.
Irenaeus and other patristic writers opposed such
trends with a three-fold structure of authority: biblical authority
within the limits of the canon, a rule of faith (embodied later in
the creeds) to guide the interpretation of the Bible, and the
conciliar consensus of the apostles' authorized successors (which in
turn defines what it means to be "little-c" catholic).
Braaten commended Irenaeus's response as a guide for
contemporary Christians facing neo-Gnostic challenges. We must renew
our understanding of the proper use of the Law, of the proper source
of the knowledge of God, and of the nature of authority.
Lutherans are feisty. Their founder was feisty. So it
was not surprising to hear Braaten label certain proposals advanced
by the ELCA as "cockamamie," and to commend the Lutheran doctrine of
justification by faith alone as a "Lutheran crap detector." And when
he was asked from the floor whether ELCA headquarters has any idea
that Gnosticism is a problem today, Braaten quipped: "It's a
polysyllabic word."Testing the
Paul Hinlickey of Roanoke College took the lectern
next. He framed his appeal for authority as "a plea for critical
dogmatics"—a combination of boldly, confidently asserting Christian
belief and testing the spirits in the present hour to see whether
they are of God.