David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence, continued


In my last post, I wrote about penitence in general, claiming that penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing. In this post I want to talk about the specific reasons why the traditionalist response to the 2009 Assembly should begin and continue in penitence. I want to suggest two reasons.

1. Traditionalists should begin and continue their response in penitence precisely because we’re in the right on these issues. That may sound paradoxical, but it really isn’t. Given the condition of the believer as described at the end of my previous post, one of the hardest things in this world is to be in the right without getting it wrong.

That’s the challenge facing traditionalists. Our consciences are captive to the Word of God on this matter, and we have not been shown plain texts of Scripture or clear arguments of reason sufficient to change our convictions. But being right does not guarantee that we will get it right – that we will respond to the present situation in ways that honor the Word that binds us.

In a sense, our best moments as disciples of Jesus are the moments when we have just discovered that we have been wrong, embarrassingly wrong. Those are the moments when we are most aware that the truth of God stands over against us and judges us, when our trust in ourselves is most shaken, and we are most likely to be teachable. By contrast, the moments when we are aware of being right are moments of grave spiritual danger. That’s when we are most likely to identify our own mindset with God’s word, as though being right about one thing meant that we are right about everything important. That’s when we are most likely to think ourselves competent for the journey of discipleship – as though being right implied that we are righteous. It’s the moment when we easily become least teachable – and therefore the biggest fools.

2. A traditionalist response should begin and continue in penitence because we are not that different from our revisionist brothers and sisters. This catastrophe did not come upon the ELCA out of nowhere, like a Creature from the Black Lagoon. It developed quite naturally out of the mind and life of late twentieth-century American Lutheranism. As Michael Root has suggested, standard 20th-century academic construals of Lutheranism, even at their best, typically had structural weaknesses that lent themselves to this outcome. These are the Lutheran theologies that shaped most of us who are seminary educated, and through us have entered into the shared mind of our denomination.

Furthermore, we have been formed in a common church life. This is an area where generalizations easily make people angry, but surely it can be said that we have mostly not been, in recent decades, a biblically or spiritually intense people. Let me speak only for myself: I have spent over thirty years studying the “great tradition” of Christian thought and practice. I know the diversity of the tradition and the many different forms of church life and practice it contains. And still I have to say that the main lesson I have learned – but not learned well enough – is that by the standards of that tradition, despite its diversity, I am a shallow Christian. When I look around and suspect that by those same standards I have been formed in a somewhat shallow church, I am not viewing the scene from a position of superiority and judgment. My uneasiness about the Lutheranism I’ve been shaped by is part and parcel of my uneasiness about myself.

This raises many uncomfortable questions. Theologically, we may be resting right convictions on shaky foundations. Are we willing to rethink our “Lutheranism” down to the ground, rather than retreating into it like a fortress? Are we, the traditionalists, willing to be stripped of our theological self-confidence, to take seriously that we ourselves might be deeply confused about law and gospel, grace and works, faith and new life? Are we ready to ask whether our own various ways of managing the problem of historical consciousness and scriptural authority are actually viable for the long haul? And let’s not forget our old friend the false alternative: one of the ways in which contesting parties are often constrained by what they have in common is that both see two alternatives in a situation, both bad – for example, either a rigid and unfeeling faith or a warm and shapeless faith (though naturally, having chosen one of these, we will describe it more flatteringly).

But the questions get more personal: We who teach or preach, are we really feeding the flock with solid food? Can they live through the times ahead on what we are giving them? For all of us, are the forms of church life and Christian practice with which we’re comfortable sufficient, so that we just have to defend them and continue on? Or are recent events a wake-up call to rethink who we are and what we have become? Beginning with penitence means starting with the thought that we traditionalists ourselves might not be OK, that we probably aren’t OK, that we are in fact almost certainly our own worst enemies. The call we’re hearing may be a call not to go out of the ELCA, but to go deep into the Christian mystery, deeper than we’ve imagined going before now.

We do, after all, have clear teaching from our Lord that God does not allow catastrophes in order to show us that other people are wrong. “Those Lutherans who jumped off a cliff in Minneapolis, do you think that they were worse sinners than all the other Lutherans, because they made such a hash of things? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (cf. Luke 13:1-5).

David Yeago
Coming soon : The Road Ahead (2): The Scriptural Christ.

11 Responses to “David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence, continued”

  1. Jim Wagner Says:

    Thank you, Prof. Yeago. You have put your finger on the very thing that has been gnawing at me. So much unwarrented self-righteousmness seems to have surfaced these last few weeks. I am certain that nothing in thirty six years of ministry has caused me to question the very foundations of my “working theology” as this has.

    I happened to hear Prof. John Kleinig of Australia lecture this week and one of his points was that we must continually be going deeper into the mystery.

    I have the dreadful feeling that through this whole affair we are revealing ourselves to be just as much sectarian protestants as our brothers and sisters on the other side. And just as shallow – maybe more so.

  2. pretty good lutherans » Blog Archive » Past blog listings Says:

    […] of God.” Pastor Dan Hooper. ”The institutional and the theological high ground.” David Yeago. The way […]

  3. Harvey Mozolak Says:

    see my response to the CORE gathering in Luth Forum discussions… ya, I did not so much like Prof Yeago’s first offering but this one is right on… the whole life of the believer ought to be one of repentance. Harvey Mozolak

  4. Cathy Ammlung Says:

    Your posts, Prof. Yeago, have been of enormous help – and comfort – as I struggle to express the underlying theological concerns that cause me to stand in opposition to the CWA’s decisions, but also to express the care and concern I feel towards those who are on the opposite side and are most directly affected by thsoe decisions. At the very least, the reflections you offer on repentance are critical when I am angry, frustrated, discouraged and grieving because what I’m saying seems to be misundertood and misinterpreted and collapsed into a
    simplistic “therefore you hate gays and attack the core of their being” interpretation. May God soften my heart to repent of the bitter and self pitying feelings that well up then.

    But more, your words remind us all of 1 Corinthains 13 – love is gentle, kind, does not insist on its own way, does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the right… And those other words of Paul, Having done all, stand! May I repent of even the thought of “inflicting” rightness on another person; may I instead “stand under” the rightness which after all is God’s; which is not my possession nor a weapon to be swung at a sister or brother in Christ -it is God’s two-edged Sword of the Word against the powers of sin, evil and death that dwells in all of us. May I stand with those who are “on the other side,” in humility and repentance, and pray that God’s will should be perfectly accomplished in their lives aswell as in my own – for is not the truest way of loving my neighbor as myself precisely in praying and willing and working for God’s intentions to be accomplished in their lives?

    This has been a time of great spiritual wrestling for many of us – myself included. Thank you, Dr. Yeago; your words have been extremely helpful in that process – much more so, I add as gently as I can, than Prof. Wengert’s.

  5. Rebekah Weant Costello Says:

    Dr. Yeago,

    Thank you! This is the most truthful assessment of the spiritual state of Lutherans in the aftermath of the decision made by the assembly in Minneapolis that I have been privileged to read. I am even more convinced that such a spiritual depravity is haunting all Lutherans after having attended the Lutheran CORE Convocation in Indianapolis, IN. While my goal is not to undermine good and honest intentions of those faithfully gathered at the Lutheran CORE Convocation, I must at the same time confess that I was disturbed by what I believe were two manifestations of what you have described as a spiritual depravity in your postings on this blog (Forgive me for this crude or perhaps inaccurate description of your thought).

    Firstly, the lack of spiritual fortitude was evident in what I believe was a subtle tone of triumphalism that characterized the convocation. Others in attendance may choose to correct or challenge this observation. To be clear, I’m certainly not arguing that the unapologetic denunciation of the teachings and policies on sexuality adopted by the ELCA assembly constituted triumphalism. On the contrary, the call to discipleship means that traditionalists should rightly expose the sin of the revisionists and call for repentance. To do otherwise would be to abandon those who are persisting in sin, not to mention the tradition of the Church and the clear witness of Scripture. By triumphalism I do mean the spirit in which one, in this case the traditionalists, points out the sin of the other. That is, is the sin of our brother and sister in Christ brought to light in a spirit of self-righteous indignation or in a spirit of a mutual need for penance? At the convocation it seemed that the latter was lacking for the most part (Pastor Paull Spring did tip his hat to it). I fear there was little time to mourn or reflect upon the divisions that have resulted as a consequence of the assembly’s action. The penance about which you have written was mostly absent. There was no significant acknowledgment that the problems facing the ELCA might be larger than the issue of sexuality, that there might be a problem in Lutheran theology as it has been handed down in the last century that convicts both traditionalists and revisionists.

    Secondly, the lack of spiritual embodiment of the Christian life prevented me from subscribing to the confession of faith presented at Lutheran CORE. Again, it wasn’t because of what was present in the content to the confession; it was because of what was absent. I could agree with all of the confessional claims put forward. All the characteristic Lutheran subscriptions to the unaltered Augsburg Confession, the authority of Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, the centrality of Word and Sacrament, and an added emphasis on the traditional understanding of marriage were claims therein. This was all good, truthful and right. But I fear it was not enough! I raise this concern in the same spirit that you question whether the Lutheranism we have known is sufficient. How many times are we Lutherans going to try to rally around a common confession of faith and believe that it is enough to fully realize, at least as far as is possible this side of Christ’s coming, the embodied Christian life? Missing from the traditionalist claims at Lutheran CORE was the call to penance that would direct Lutherans to be critical of the ways in which Lutheran theology, as Dr. Root has I believe rightly suggested on this blog, has been plagued from within, a plague that convicts both traditionalists and revisionists.

    Is this a wake-up call, that if we pause long enough to reflect before we react, will press us to confront the fact that maybe there was something lost in Lutheran practice and theology in the aftermath of the Reformation division that cannot be totally addressed by a more rigorous adherence to our confessional documents? Such a single-minded adherence strikes me as possibly being gnostic, especially if such an adherence fails to account for an embodied life together made possible by a communion-like structure of ecclesial bodies that involves not simply an agreement in confession—as important as this is—but also involves a shared set of spiritual disciplines that form disciples in spirit, mind and body capable of practicing penance. The following may sound blatantly obvious, but without the involvement of our bodies, both as persons and ecclesial communities joined across time and space in a communion that moves beyond adherence to confessional documents, penance of a gnostic sort seems to be inevitable. A gnostic type of penance is a penance that is reduced to a mindful regret and/or confession; or, worse yet, a swabbing of the conscience that takes place exclusively in the minds of Christians. This gnostic penance is missing a bodily communion structure (a koinonia) that can sustain and make space for a common life together that involves a penance that penetrates what we do or what we do not do with our bodies.

    The reason I believe that I can be bold enough to make these claims with reference to what I witnessed at the Lutheran CORE Convocation is that I can’t answer the following questions in the affirmative for myself (I, like you, have for the last four or five years been haunted by this spiritual struggle). Can I really embody the life of a Christian? Can I imagine a place in the ELCA where there is a space set aside for me, alongside of others, to form a Christian way of life (or habitus)? Does such an ecclesial community exist in our church where someone will hold me accountable, where a person will call me to read the bible, call me to regular prayer, call me to live a life that is genuinely Christian? I am inclined to answer in the negative. The practice of penance that I have known does not hold me accountable to other members of Christ’s body. It does not call me to address face to face, body to body the person(s) whom I have wronged or who have wronged me. I think that I can say that the formation I have had in the Lutheran Church has been shallow when it comes to such spiritual disciplines. It was in my confrontation with this shallowness that I came to see the gnostic tendencies of Lutheranism in general and of those put forward by Lutheran CORE. In essence, I need the Church to help me be a better Christian because, more times than not, I don’t have the discipline to do it myself!

    If I’m not alone in this spiritual struggle then maybe it is worth exploring the possibility of some form of life with an embodied spiritual depth (perhaps even monastic in nature?) beyond where we are now. Perhaps such a reinvigoration of a Christian community (if quasi-monastic or otherwise…I know this probably raises the hackles of many Lutherans, but perhaps the gravity of our times will blunt this reaction.) that is truly other than the world is the shape the church will take as it struggles to find the oasis of Christian life and its embodied mysteries amidst the deserted age of denominationalism.

    • Michael Root Says:

      If I knew more about how to run this software, I would link your comment over to Pr. Ian Wolfe’s on the power of the keys over on my post “Are We Divided? (1). A source of one of the problems you discuss is the loss of any real practice of the keys in Lutheranism.
      Michael Root

    • Jim Wagner Says:

      Rebekah –

      I just returned from the annual retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity in Mundelein, Illinois, where I signed the rule.

      I don’t know if you are familiar with STS, but for me it seems to be the best option for the kind of disciplined life you are suggesting.

  6. dyeago Says:


    What a thoughtful post! Thank you! I am particularly taken with your suggestion that in order to “persist in the apostles’ teaching and communion” traditionalists might need not only church-political groups, but also intentional communities for penitence and spiritual formation.

    Both ingrained knee-jerk reactions to monasticism and dim bad memories of problems in Pietism render Lutherans a little bit unimaginative about such things. I would suggest that starting small and simple is the right way forward.

    For example, a dispersed fellowship of persons and small groups of a traditionalist bent committed to praying for the ELCA, examining their own consciences, and intensifying their own daily encounter with Jesus in the Gospels. Flexible account of “traditionalist” so as not to quench smoking flaxes or exclude people who are just not entirely comfortable with the way things are going. Absolutely not to function as a pressure group agitating in synods or parishes. Maybe a website to build an ethos and share insights. Mindful that God counts things in wierd ways – sometimes two pennies in the offering plate or five loaves and two fish count as abundance with him. Matthew 6:34 as a central pillar.

    This might not be the only kind of traditionalist “group” the ELCA needs. We doubtless even need the very nicest kind of “agitation.” But something like this could be a very important piece of the puzzle.

    Rebekah, you know the limits of my organizational skills as well as anyone (to other readers: Rebekah was my Student Assistant for two years). I can fling out these ideas but realizing them is not my gift. But I thank you for starting what could be an important conversation on this subject.

    David S. Yeago

  7. Comments on repentance « Lutherans Persisting Says:

    […] the conversation on repentance and deserve not to be lost in the shuffle, so I am linking to them here, here, and here. Michael […]

  8. Linda W. McHenry Says:

    Dear Dr. Yeago,
    I read all the above articles today, hungry for a grounded discussion on the latest votes and the aftermath. To hear also of knowing Jesus more fully and of entering more honestly into penitence calmed my heart and set my mind free to imagine more. Thank you and Dr. Root and all those writing comments (especially Rebekah) for helping me organize my thoughts. Thank you for offering me a break from breaking rocks. Thank you for encouraging me that there is no such thing as spending too much preaching time on Jesus and what he has done, is doing and will continue to do. (regardless of what others say)
    In a world that panics when you suggest communion each Sunday, it is good to have outside voices declaring what is real. Shalom, Linda McHenry

  9. Jack McHenry Says:

    Dear Dr. Yeago and Rebekah,

    Thank you for speaking out loud my own spiritual struggle for the past decade. Just speaking for myself, I remain largely a theoretical Christian. I know very little of what it means to embody a Christian life in community, and what little I think I know comes mostly from reading a book and then trying and mostly failing to apply it in my own life. When I was in Junior High School I thought I could learn to ski by reading a book on the subject. I studied all the theory of fall lines and edging and making the various kinds of turns and stops and navigating the bumps. I bought a full mountain pass and hopped on the chair lift to the top to make my first run. Imagine my surprise when I got off the chair lift and pointed my skis down that very first slope. I believe that is where we now stand collectively as a church denomination in confronting the human sexuality issue. Unfortunately we have chosen a double black diamond run in avalanche country to make our first run down the mountain.

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