Who Are Confessional Lutherans?

By Caleb Keith

I would like to begin by apologizing. If you are not an LCMS Lutheran, what I am about to say may not matter to you. I hate writing about explicitly in-house issues, but some recent events have led me to this blog.

Do you ever ponder why Christianity is so divided? My knee-jerk reaction is always to point to broad doctrinal differences and incompatibility. It is especially easy to go to the sacraments and point out the flaws of Calvinists, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics as a Lutheran. While these differences are part of the separation, I have begun to realize that the real problem is more nuanced and quiet. I now understand that the main issue and the source of all doctrinal division is what each group or denomination holds to be the central article of the Christian faith. Now, I realize that this is sort of a “well duh” statement and something every Lutheran who has studied the Reformation will remember as obvious. However, I also know that this focus can be lost when Christians debate and argue amongst themselves. In Lutheranism, I find this to be particularly relevant given some growing divisions within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Theoretically, the central article of faith should be the same for all Lutherans. One would think that this would be the case within one particular synod of Lutheranism. But I am day by day more convinced that this is not true within the LCMS. From what I have observed on social media, blogs, podcasts, and even sermons, there are at least two distinct camps—one whose central focus is the organization of the Law and the Gospel and the other the proclamation of the justification of sinners on account of Christ. To be fair, this is simply my observation I am not quoting any particular doctrinal statement. I am about to lead myself into trouble because I believe there are those who hold one view yet demonstrate something entirely different in their work. I know that everyone can fall prey to this from time to time.  However, If I am correct that there are two camps who consistently exhibit a different central article of faith then confessional Lutheranism is in a serious struggle. It is serious because the central matter is becoming unclear, and it is unfortunate because the battle is happening in the blogosphere and podcast land, which usually attracts comments of hate and vitriol rather than debate. I am not writing this to call anybody out.  Instead, I hope it will make some people think about what I see as a growing issue. I do not know if there is a peaceful solution to this, but I like the idea of hosting Reformation-style debates about what it means to be a Confessional Lutheran.

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10 thoughts on “Who Are Confessional Lutherans?

  1. Since justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls, I think I would agree with you. I am not sure I understand what you mean by “organization of the Law and the Gospel”. Could you give an example?

    For my money, those in power in the LCMS are losing sight of adiaphora and equate doing Church(ritual) with being doctrinal. I also think there is a creeping in of evangelical and American Christian identity where the “inerrancy” of the Word is being seen as also a quality of the text, itself. So, what are we to do with Mark 16:9-20? Clearly a later addition, not from the inspired author. There are people who are dancing with rattlesnakes because of this text. Should we say, though, that it certainly belongs in the Bible, without note, and as the inspired, inerrant Word of God because it is in our text? On the other hand, should we say that it certainly is not? that God never intended it to find a way into the book? Are we permitted to say that it is an open question and there may be others? Is there room for textual criticism in the fundamentalist mindset that is creeping in? I think the Kloha/ Montgomery spectacle tried to put a good doctor on the spot and lowered Dr. Montgomery’s status to that of a pitbull against legitimate inquiry. There seems to be a need for absolute answers in place of theology as a discussion, a dialog. This is far less confessional and magisterial. What the Confessions leave open, they would close by reason and desire for hegemony, not scripture. for me, that leaves most of the self-styled “confessional” Lutherans that are in control anything but “confessional”, in that regard.

    Confessing is saying only what you are given to say and leaving open what you have not been given. The human-created rites of the Church, however well-intentioned and valuable, serve the Word. Not because they are the only ways but because they contain the Word. Our lives and actions, as Christians express the Word to the world in something more than textual quotations. The Word is often shared in paraphrases, in comforting, and encouraging. If the Word were only effective as the text and from the text, preaching would be irrelevant unless it became a lecture. Sin is not crucified by lectures.

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  2. Mr. Keith,
    There are indeed two basic groups within the LCMS. Those who by faith, believe, teach, and confess that God’s law is loving, and those that do not.

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  3. I don’t think you’re being fair in this article.

    I think it’s a misleading claim to say one side’s central focus is “the organization of the Law and the Gospel”. Central focus? I’m not hearing anyone say that.

    The Doctrine of Justification is the doctrine by which the Lutheran Church stands or falls. Period. If Christ is not the final sacrifice for sin, and freely given to everyone, then nothing else matters. But, that does not mean that we should only be talking about justification to the exclusion of everything else! That is the heart of the concern here.

    We are to preach and teach “the full council of God”, just as it’s given to us in the scriptures and affirmed in our Lutheran confessions. Our preaching must have both Law and Gospel; that God’s Word may kill and make alive again.

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  4. Read Dr Luther’s Lectures on Galatians (1535), the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, & Formula of Concord art. V. Law & Gospel is the proper hermeneutic by which one understands justification by faith alone.

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    1. Keep in mind that the hermeneutic is not shared by everyone. When there is public preaching, it must be assumed that it is not only for the like-minded but for the unconverted, visitors, various seekers. Justification is not “by” faith but received “through” faith as a freely given gift (AC IV). The hermeneutic underlying this distinction is that we passively receive, we do not actively claim, our faith does not “do” to the work that “by” implies. this is a significant distinction between Lutherans and many others claiming an understanding of sola fide.

      So, to Caleb Keith’s point, no one is brought to a new hermeneutic by Law but by Gospel. Preaching takes the form of Gospel-Law-Gospel, not some Jonathan Edwards-like hellfire (Law) to Gospel. Lead with justification, Open with the grace offered, then define the grace by the need. Like baptism, the path to repentance, to new life, is opened by the Holy Spirit and it is a path through Christ. Our awareness from sin does not come from us through the Law but is drawn (passive) from us by God, Himself. (SC, Third Article of the Creed)

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  5. Hi Caleb,

    Thank you for writing.

    I’d like to offer some feedback that could assist you in refining, focusing, or clarifying what you are saying. Just taking them in the order they occur in your article …

    First, take a look at the saying, “the source of all doctrinal division.” That might be more expansive than you really mean. Consider whether you might want to qualify or temper that statement.

    Second, “what each group or denomination …”

    From this, the scope seems to be well beyond the LCMS, beyond Lutherans, and beyond synods or denominations, if we observe the words used: groups and denominations.

    Third, under the category of “holds to be the central article of the Christian faith,” “there are at least two distinct camps:”

    A. “one whose central focus is the organization of the Law and the Gospel”

    B. “the other the proclamation of the justification of sinners on account of Christ.”

    What do you mean by “organization of the Law and Gospel?”

    What is the difference between Law-and-Gospel versus justification of sinners on account of Christ?

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

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  6. I think the problem, rather, is the inability to grasp how total our depravity is (regarding following the Law), as well as the unwillingness to see that we perform works for our neighbor as a result of the Gospel rather than the prodding of the Law.

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  7. All this is disconcerting to me. I just left the Reformed faith over the sacraments and wanted to go to the LCMS. I was debating between them and the ACNA Anglicans. Looks like I’ll go Anglican. All the bickering in the LCMS is a major downer. Not attractive. As long as we focus on the gospel isn’t there room to unite around the liturgy and agree to disagree on how much we emphasize something? I mean it seems both groups here are confessional and love the gospel. This is so unflattering to an outsider like me.

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    1. Michial, the bickering happens on blogs, usually not in the parish. And if we have more than the Anglicans, it’s because our doctrine is more defined than theirs. They do not, for instance, all believe that the bread and wine in the Supper are actually the body and blood of Christ, nor is it expected that they all will.

      Make your decision on the basis of doctrine, not who argues more.

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