Book Review: Confessing the Gospel Too? A Review Essay on Confessing the Gospel: A Lutheran Approach to Systematic Theology, Volume 2

Edited by Samuel H. Nafzger with John F. Johnson, David A. Lumpp, and Howard W. Tepker

Copyright 2017, Concordia Publishing House

This is the second volume of a two-volume work produced over more than 30 years that late Rev. Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann, LCMS president from 1981 to 1992* of the LCMS identified as a possible replacement for the four volume Christian Dogmatics that has served the LCMS since being completed by Francis Pieper originally in German in 1924. There are questions about the accuracy of the 1950 English translation, but in my time in the seminary 1979-1983 it was drilled into you. Can 1,689 pages of dense theology authored by one man over 7 years be distilled into 1,261 pages by 62 authors working over 30 years? Perhaps, but given the fact that they needed to cover another 100 years of theological development that was unlike anything the Church had seen since the days of Gnosticism and Arianism, one would have thought more pages not less would be needed.

Still, it could have been done, but in my view it was not because the volumes evidenced a low-view of Scripture. Did God really say? Or the modern spin: how can we be sure we know what God really said? O, they don’t come right out and say this, liberalism, moderates, or churchmen seldom do. In this dogmatic text given final approval by President Harrison’s reviewers we read this: “In Matthew 12:17 Isaiah is designated as the prophet responsible for Isaiah 42: 1-4, a text commonly regarded by critics as not authored by the eighth-century prophet by that name” (633). Why bring this up – as an aside for that matter – in the chapter on Holy Scripture if not to engender doubt or as nod to scholarship, falsely so called?

Then we read this in the same chapter: In a footnote to the fact Luke used eyewitness accounts and that others had penned written reports, they say to see a 1979 Lutheran Church in America press book (The liberal church of that era.) “for a discussion of the ‘traditioning’ process that took place in connection with the formulation of the gospels.’” Also the footnote refers to “a more recent attempt to understand the formation of the gospels from a literary perspective” which is a 2003 Eerdmans’s publication which says, “’that most of them [individual and groups of tradition] were given the shape which has endured into the Synoptic Gospels during that oral phase…” (fn. 7, 635). The LCA, and now ELCA, and all mainline seminaries don’t teach the Scriptures are the product of holy men of God being moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21). No, that is too Sunday Schoolish. The Gospels, in particular, are the product of the second century church not first century holy men of God. They reflect what the second century A.D. church came to believe about Jesus.

You can see this assertion of mine if you can parse this footnote based on a 1986 LCA publication. “Reicke suggests that the gospel writers used already assembled blocks of material for these sections [Those centering on Christ’s Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, betrayal, and death.] – materials assembled, most likely, already in the oral period. He further suggests that these units were of primary importance to the primitive church because they were used in sacramental settings in the liturgical life of the church. If this is correct, it is strong evidence that the account of the Lord’s Supper belonged inextricably within the passion account from the earliest period of the church” (fn. 18, 819). Two things: Can you see this shift from knowing the account of the Lord’s Supper belongs to the Passion because that’s where it is recorded by the Holy Spirit because that’s where it happened in history to it belongs there because from the earliest days the church put it there? Second, there is a strain of Confessional Lutheran pastor that puts the emphasis on liturgy more than on the Word as if we know something is Biblical if it’s found in the liturgy. One of the last articles I remember seeing of the now sainted Professor Marquart dealt specifically with this and warned it’s putting the cart before the horse.

This volume is far cry from confessing the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God and the only rule and norm for all faith and life. Quoting “Scripture cannot be broken” they attach footnote 26 which says, “N.T. Wright acknowledges that these statements of Jesus are ‘ad hoc,’ and that Jesus did not make the authority of the Scriptures a major theme in his teaching. Nevertheless, they reveal and underlying attitude toward the Scriptures that recognizes their divine authority” (656). Is anyone who lived through Seminex listening? Don’t they recall how the higher critics would acknowledge the divine authority of Scripture but not their inerrancy? How about this golden oldie straight from 1920’s Protestant Liberalism and injected (or infected) into 1950’s Missouri Synod? “Accordingly, Jesus Christ, and not the Bible as God’s special revelation, is the object of faith. Here the Lutheran distinction between the causative and normative authority of Scripture as well as the distinction between the ministerial and magisterial uses of reason, are critically important. It is also helpful to recall that the written Word of God is inseparable from the spoken and incarnate Word” (739). Someone, and I suspect it is an editor, is tapdancing mightily to tone down what the first sentence says, again heard in Seminex days, that the Word of God that is infallible is the Person of Christ. But how, pray tell, do we know Christ apart from the written Word? And as “prophesied” by the small, but faithful theologians, whatever you say about the written Word of God you will eventually say about the Incarnate Word. The 1990’s Jesus Seminar, higher critics all some ELCA Lutherans included, concluded from their “study” of Scripture that the Person of Jesus was devoured by dogs or moldering in a cave.

The higher criticism that the LCMS in the 70s so eschewed, at least on paper, is not renounced in this volume. Read for yourself. The following remark is made in the context of “Social-Scientific criticism” and “Deconstructionism” and the fact some scholars view the biblical cannon “completely inadequate due to its patriarchal assumptions.” This is the rock-ribbed Lutheran response the LCMS is teaching their future pastors. “The challenge for the exegete who regards the biblical text as normative for the life of the church is to know these methodologies thoroughly and evaluate them rigorously. Aspects of these areas of research can illumine features of the biblical text that previously have not been clarified with such precision. The ministerial use of reason dare not be shortchanged by caricature and dismissal of what is not fully understood [i.e. of these methodologies]” (736-7). Aspects of an approach to Scripture that treats it as less than the very Words of God which Scripture says we ought to tremble over (Isaiah 66:2), are helpful and you dare not disavow these methodologies in the name of their being a magisterial use of reason just because you are not enough of a scholar enough to understand them. Well, that certainly put me in my place.

You can tell more than 62 theologians of every stripe and pedigree had their fingers in this pie as evidenced by their denial of a principle that separates confessional Lutherans from liberal and maybe even from some conservative Lutherans. Legitimate deductions from Scripture have the same force as the very words of Scripture. This was one of the main discoveries of Dr. Robert Preus study of our 16th and 17th century Lutheran forefathers. I quote his Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, Volume 1, “[A]ccording to historic Lutheran hermeneutics, a legitimate consequence, or inference, drawn from Scripture is as binding and authoritative as an express statement of Scripture” (341-342). It was also one of the main fissures between the Missouri Synod of the 30s and the liberal Lutherans. But read this: “At the same time, nothing may be taught as scriptural doctrine that Scripture itself does not expressly teach or about which it is silent” (emphasis original 646). Then they quote the Confessions rejecting invoking saints and not wishing to depart from Scripture. “When interpreting Scripture, one must carefully distinguish between what God has expressly revealed in his Word and what he has not revealed.” Once more they cite the Confessions admonition to cling to the revealed Word (653). This approach to Scripture is the basis for Jehovah Witnesses rejecting the Trinity, Baptists rejecting infant Baptism, and will be the basis on which women pastors will be accepted and Objective Justification denied.

However, 42 pages later the volume tells you that only heretics reject the analogy of faith, that is, what is taught across Scripture and may or may not have a specific proof text. They correctly say that false interpretations result when the individual passages are rearranged and assembled to form another image which is not in accordance with the analogy of faith. They use an illustration from the church father Irenaeus. Heretics who do this are like those who take a beautiful image of a king assembled by a skilled artists out of precious jewels, and pick it to pieces to make them into a dog or fox and maintain this was the king as portrayed by the skilled artist. They do this by emphasizing a beautiful gem here or there, but since they have no idea what the king really looked like they are deceived (695). Once you reject the analogy of faith that men are the head of Church, Home, and State, you can rebuild these, and even men and women, into whatever image you choose.

For years in the question if others other than ordained clergy are to be Called or not, has been answered one way in the seminaries and another at LCMS colleges. Confessing the Gospel 2 says of day schoolteachers, DCE’s, evangelism directors, family life ministers, deaconesses, deacons, ministers of music, and parish assistants: “As important as these offices are, it is possible for some or all of these offices to be abolished without necessarily harming the church. The functions of these auxiliary offices, however, are divinely instituted. They belong to the pastoral office, the office of the public ministry” (1002). Then in footnote 42 on this page we read this: “Inconsistent with this understanding of the relationship between the office of the public ministry and other offices in the church is the position of Arnold C. Mueller. Mueller sets forth his understanding of the doctrine of the ministry in The Ministry of the Lutheran Teacher (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964)’” (fn. 42, 1002). You see it’s not wrong but just inconsistent. The waters are further muddied, as is consistent with the way Missouri Synod has done theology ever since I have been around, when we read these two quotes: “Calls [i.e. when used of pastors intermediate Calls from God] may be issued to fill other offices in the church, such as Christian day-school teachers. But the ordination rite has generally been reserved for the office of the public ministry, the one divinely instituted public office in the church” (1001). Then fourteen pages later we read: “The New Testament and the Lutheran Confessions affirm the divine institution of the pastoral office, and this divine institution is lacking for any other ‘ministerial’ offices that the church might see fit to establish today” (1015). However the Augsburg Confession XIV clearly says no one is to preach or teach without a regular Call; thus using ‘call’ in a sense that only applies to ordained pastors. In this ‘new’ dogmatic’s text the LCMS says you can Call pastors and non-pastors, thus perpetuating the confusion.

A problem, only since the 80s and Lutherans wishing to be mega churches, was the substitution of grape juice for wine in the Sacrament. An “Opinion of the Department of Systematic Theology” of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne released 38 years ago urged that this substituting be ended to stop confusion and doubt among churches and people. The Opinion also observes: “Whenever such altering or substitution was introduced [historically], it was promptly repudiated, lest any doubt be cast upon the validity of the sacrament as Christ instituted it” (CTQ, January 1981, 77-80). Not so for the Brave New World of the Gospel Too movement in the LCMS today. Quoting a 1932 work by Theodore Graebner Pastor and People which says on the “’purely technical side of exegetical and dogmatical aspects it is true that the exclusive use of fermented wine cannot be urged.” That fermented wine was used by our Lord is beyond question, he says. But Jesus calls it “the fruit of the vine.” Graebner says no Rabbinic arguments convince him this means only fermented wine [It did convince the 1981 faculty of Concordia, Ft. Wayne.]. He then refers to Walther: “In his day the question of grape-juice had not yet arisen. However, in his Pastorale, page 168, he says that not only as to the bread, but also as to the wine, the form of the element is indifferent.’” Graebner then concludes that since we’ve never hesitated to say leaven or unleavened bread makes no difference, we can’t deny genuineness based on grape juice (fn. 131, 887).

First, as an aside, have you noticed how the really bad theology shows up in footnotes? This is purposeful but disingenuous. Second, was Walther referring to wine in the form of red or white or even sparkling? Third, we have answered the bread question the way we have because Greek has a word for unleavened bread, but that word isn’t used in any of the accounts the Lord’s Supper or when speaking of it elsewhere. Scripture doesn’t use the word for unleavened bread but the word for any bread or loaf. We know that only unleavened bread was at Passover, but since Scripture doesn’t use that word, in contradistinction to Rome who says unleavened bread only is to be used and the Orthodox who say leavened only, we say either is fine.

In the area of sanctification, I found several things confusing. For example, the following confuses justification and sanctification and makes the certainty of your justification depend on your loving which is really Catholicism’s position that what saves is “faith active in love”. “In the external church, however, the evil are intermingled with the good and must be allowed to remain until the judgment. But good and evil are not members of the church in the same sense. The evil belong to the external or empirical church, while the good are those who belong to Christ and manifest this relationship by Christian love” (942). Furthermore, I wrote an editor at Concordia Publishing House asking what happened to the field being the world not the church as Christ says it is in Matthew 13:38 where there good and evil are mingled? He said there really was no mechanism for correcting this 30-year-old book.

Try this one on: “The pardon he provides makes Christians eligible for every good thing that the Father wants to do for them, including their sanctification” (1060). Can you even say this as a Lutheran let alone a Confessional one? What happened to Christ being not just our justification but our sanctification as 1 Corinthians 1:30 says? Is it enough for you to be eligible for His good gifts and Spirit? Who knows? You might just get them. Here’s another remark on sanctification that had me at first scratching then shaking my head: “Even if self-interest serves as a dominant factor in Christian sanctification, this may nevertheless result in what are at least helpful and useful behaviors and activities that will benefit others. God provides for the good of his creation, even if at times it is little more than the ‘stick and carrot’ that prompt the right behavior” (fn. 22, 1066).

Finally, two miscellaneous remarks. This work endorses an aspect to the teaching known as the Harrowing of Hell, the Catholic understanding of Christ’s descent into hell. It says, “When Christ descended into hell he preached to the spirits in prison (en phulake), the disobedient who had died in the flood at the time of Noah (see SA I; SC II,3; LC Preface, 12; LC II, 25)” (1138). They give five citations from the Confessions, but unless you look them up you won’t know they are citing the places where the Apostles’ Creed confesses the descent. At none of these places do the Confessions say Christ descended to preach to “the disobedient who had died in the flood at the time of Noah.” And the book doesn’t reference either the Formula Concord’s Epitome or Solid Declaration Article IX which specifically treat of the descent into hell. Here is the Solid Declaration in full:

IX. Christ’s Descent To Hell

1] And since even in the ancient Christian teachers of the Church, as well as in some among our teachers, dissimilar explanations of the article concerning the descent of Christ to hell are found, we abide in like manner by the simplicity of our Christian faith [comprised in the Creed], to which Dr. Luther in his sermon, which was delivered in the castle at Torgau in the year 1533, concerning the descent of Christ to hell, has pointed us, where we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God’s Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; 2] and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. 3] We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred; for with our reason and our five senses this article can be comprehended as little as the preceding one, how Christ is placed at the right hand of the almighty power and majesty of God; but we are simply to believe it and adhere to the Word [in such mysteries of faith]. Thus we retain the substance [sound doctrine] and [true] consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ.

One last citation to show Confessing the Gospel 2 is a “Me Too” cry. In it, clear positions of the Confessions and even at one time of the LCMS are toned down. In quoting the Smalcald Articles (II, IV, 10), they don’t quote either the 1921 Triglotta or the 1959 Tappert edition. They substitute [The papacy] for what the other two have correctly translated “the pope”. The Triglota has: “The Pope is the very Antichrist”, and Tappert has, “the pope is the real Antichrist” (1138). “Pope” versus “papacy” has been a longstanding shibboleth among Lutherans. It used to define Confessional from the others not any longer. You will find plenty of Confessional pastors who will confess that the institution of the papacy is the Antichrist but will not say the Pope himself is.

*Not President Harrison, as originally printed.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

09 January 2020 A.D.