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September 27, 2010
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Home > 2010 > September (Web-only) Christianity Today, September (Web-only), 2010  |   |  
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 me. Amen."

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 authority.

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 the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology keynoted the event.

The Gnostic Flight from Authority

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 sexuality.

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 Spirits

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.

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[Reader Reviews]

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Displaying 1–3 of 48 comments

Dave N

September 16, 2010  10:57am

Sigh ... it is perhaps hopeless when even an ELCA seminarian buys into the CT claim that the social statement was theologically and scripturally ungrounded. There is a link to the statement in the article. Click on the link. You will find the Table of Contents for the statement and, more importantly, you will find a link to Background Information and Other Resources, which leads to numerous supporting documents that represent the theological underpinnings of the statement. Many heavily reference scripture. One is a 28-page essay solely devoted to relevant Biblical texts, which itself has over 100 references to other sources discussing relevant Biblical texts. As others have said, you may disagree with the conclusions contained in the ELCA statement. But saying that Scripture was entirely ignored in its development is untrue and absurd. And it is ridiculously trivial for anyone who cares to, to discover that for themselves.

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Karen Liddy

September 16, 2010  10:04am

I am presently a seminarian in the ELCA and attended the CORE conference. While I do believe the ELCA would have been better served to theologically ground their social statement on human sexuality, in response particularly to Braaten's concern with the use of reason, I return to the quote by Luther listed on the first page of this article, "Unless I am convinced by proofs from scripture or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I cannot and will not retract." Luther leaves room for the presence of reason within our theological framework. Binding and loosing is a very Lutheran tradition within the law and our understanding of scripture. We have not abandoned the Hebrew Scriptures. Law and Gospel are contained in both the Old and New Testaments. Also, a point of clarification. CORE's theological conference was free for Seminary students but cost nearly $100 for anyone else who wished to attend. This was not a free conference as this article leads one to believe.

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Dave N

September 14, 2010  10:26am

Sorry, but I don't respond well when people like Neff and Braaten suggest that ELCA Lutherans like me sneer at the Bible, have no use for a moral code, and are anti-Semitic ... all assertions I know to be untrue. And virtually nobody posting here seems to want to hear that ... they simply assume these claims are true and build on that to demonize what the ELCA did. So really, no disrepect or ill-will is intended toward the moderator. I'm just extremely disappointed that CT would publish a piece like this in the first place. And if, as someone else suggested, the article accurately reflects the sentiments expressd at the L-CORE conference regarding the ELCA, I'm all the more disappointed.

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