The Problem Isn’t Just Liberalism

January 27, 2010 by

A mistake being made by some opposed to recent developments in the ELCA, I think, is to blame everything simply on ‘liberalism.’ Omitted is a reflection on how modern developments within Lutheranism, even and especially among some counted as confessionalists, are a large part of the problem.

Take this quotation from Werner Elert I ran across today (The Structure of Lutheranism, p. 412 – p. 361 of Vol 1 in the German): “Christ’s righteousness is my righteousness because the Word pertains to me. But it pertains to me only if this righteousness remains unentangled with my empirical existence. Faith, which hears this Word, has no other function than this hearing and exists only by hearing. If in spite of this it is my I that hears and believes, it can be only the ‘pure’ I, that is, the I cannot be further qualified in an empirico-psychological manner, therefore the transcendental I.” Once this move is made (and it is made in a similar manner by Gerhard Forde, without the Kantian trappings), the ‘empirico-psychological’ self, the self that actually lives in the world, is cut off from the self that truly lives in Christ. Ethics, especially as it relates to physical actions, then exists in a different dimension than faith. From here, it is downhill to where we are today in the ELCA. The church cannot be divided over an ethical question. Granted, it may be a ways down this hill to get to where we are now and admirers of Elert (and Forde) may believe they have ways of stopping the slide down the hill, but this sheltering of the new self in Christ from life in the world (the ‘gnostic’ move in Forde that David Yeago has identified) is one element in the mix that has produced our present mess.

Two comments have asked for further information on the critique mentioned but not developed in the posting. David Yeago’s analysis of Forde is developed in two pieces from the early 1990s:

David S. Yeago, “Theological Impasse and Ecclesial Future.” Lutheran Forum 26.4 (Nov 1992): 36–45.
David S. Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Cost of a Construal.” Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993): 37–49.

Unfortunately, neither is online. I find his argument devastating, all the more because it is unpolemical in tone. I utilize (but don’t really expand much further) his analysis in an essay on “Preaching Justification” in the new book on preaching by members of the Southern Seminary faculty: Proclaiming the Gospel: Preaching for the Life of the Church (Fortress).


E. Radner on the Episcopal Church

January 4, 2010 by

Ephraim Radner, an Episcopalian teaching at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and one of the most profound ecumenical and theological observers of the moment, has some harsh words for his own church here. The ELCA has not come to this point yet, but the road lies ahead of us and we should take heed.

Church of Sweden on Same-Sex Marriage

January 1, 2010 by

While looking for something else on the Church of Sweden website, I ran across a recent (Sept 2009) comprehensive reflection on same-sex marriage (here, in English). I have not seen this text noted in the US discussion, so I thought I would link to it. It provides the basis for the action of the Church of Sweden to permit the blessing of same-sex marriages by Lutheran priests (see news report here).

Marshall on Grace

December 30, 2009 by

If one wants to see an important element missing in contemporary Lutheran theololgy (or in Lutheran theology simpliciter), see the reflections of Bruce Marshall in the most recent issue of First Things, especially the final paragraphs. You can find the essay here. There is not a direct conceptual connection between his reflections and the present plight of Lutheranism, but the indirect connection is of profound significance.
[Addition in response to comment. I think the ‘profound significance’ relates most closely to whether and how we understand the gospel as a call into a specific form of life. If the gospel is a call into a specific form of life, then some agreement on the shape of that life is inherent to the gospel. And, in that case, the assertion of the Sexuality Social Statement that agreement in the doctrine of justification is all that the church needs must be wrong.
More distantly, but more importantly, there is the question of how we are called and graced to participate in Christ and Christ’s saving action. That we are called to participate is clear: our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is our salvation. But do we participate in the way Marshall describes? I increasingly think that Marshall (and behind him, Aquinas) is correct.]
Michael Root

A Blessed Christmas

December 22, 2009 by

I will have limited internet access until Dec. 27 and probably will not be able to moderate comments.
Readers will have noticed that postings have slowed down lately. The end of the semester produces a backlog of work and I have worried that I have started to repeat myself. We will see what happens with the new year.
In the meantime, best wishes for a blessed and merry Christmas.
Michael Root

The ELCA Conundrum

December 14, 2009 by

Two recent news reports illustrate the conundrum before the ELCA.

On the one hand, Pr. Richard Johnson in the December issue of the Forum Letter (not available online; subscribe here – it is well worth the subscription price) describes the November meeting of the ELCA Church Council. The Council, he reports, is committed to the finding in Sexuality Social Statement that the ELCA has no consensus at present on the morality of homosexual partnerships and thus the four positions outlined in the Social Statement should all be respected as valid in the ELCA (a bad argument, but that is another matter). This attitude would seem to imply that if a majority of a synod council or candidacy committee finds such partnerships incompatible with the ordained ministry, they should be able to vote their convictions.

On the other hand, an ELCA news release (here) quotes ELCA Secretary David Swartling expressing concern that the resolutions of the NE Iowa Synod (here), which embody that freedom to vote one’s convictions, seem incompatible with the ministry recommendations adopted by the Churchwide Assembly.

Secretary Swartling may be correct, but the problem does not lie with the NE Iowa Synod resolutions. The problem lies in the divergence between the Social Statement (which argues that the church has no position on the sexuality questions) and the recommendations on ordained ministry (which, as amended by the ELCA Church Council and adopted by the CWA, implicitly affirm a specific position).

Secretary Swartling dodges the bullet by saying the Church Council will need to decide the issue in April. Their task is not to be envied.

[I have not made any posts for a while. I worry about repeating myself and have needed to attend to other tasks. I should return to posting more regularly soon.]

R. Benne: Unintended Effects

November 28, 2009 by

Posted as a page to the right (here) is an excellent short piece by Robert Benne on the “unintended effects” of the Assembly’s action.
A comment: Benne’s first paragraph is an accurate description of what the documents from the Sexuality Task Force said: the ELCA has no agreement on these issues and thus it should allow a diversity of practice. That proposal implies (and the Task Force explicitly said) that no particular position should be privileged. What we got, when the proposals were revised and then interpreted by those who did the revisions, is a policy that embodies one side of the debate, allowing only a limited ability for individuals and congregations to avoid the consequences of that policy.
Michael Root

Synod Council Acts

November 19, 2009 by

No news has been released from last weekend’s meeting of the ELCA Church Council in relation to the revision of Vision and Expectations and the candidacy process, with the exception of a news release on reinstatement procedures. One presumes something will be forthcoming, almost certainly saying that the Council followed the lead of the bishops and will not act on these matters until next spring at the earliest. In the meantime, the Northeast Iowa Synod Council adopted the resolutions posted to the right (here) declaring their intent to exercise their bound conscience and directing the synod not to abide by the Assembly action. They also call for a recognition that the actions were unconstitutional.
All very interesting. More comment to follow.

An Alternative Path

November 11, 2009 by

The way forward embodied in the proposed revisions to the candidacy process that will be considered this weekend by the ELCA Church Council is a ‘preserve the status quo’ option. It maintains, at least officially, the unity of the ELCA ministerium and treats the crisis created by the action of the Churchwide Assembly as a passing cloud. The concessions to bound conscience are less even than those granted to opponents of the agreement with the Episcopal Church that committed the ELCA to enter episcopal succession. Candidates opposed to episcopal succession can, in certain cases, be ordained in a way that contradicts Assembly-adopted policy. In our present case, individuals involved in decision making within the candidacy process can remove themselves from participation, but no decision is to utilize sexuality standards other than those approved by national policy.

What would an alternative look like, an alternative that embodies the promise of the Task Force to respect the consciences of synods, bishops, candidacy committees, etc.? It would not be pretty. It would severely compromise the unity of the ELCA ministerium; the ELCA would cease to be a single church in the traditional sense. But that result was built into the Report and Recommendations of the Task Force, as is discussed in the paper to the right (here). That Report was never repudiated by the church leadership. It is late in the day now to say “Oh, those results would be too radical.”

An alternative that avoids chaos as much as possible might look like this:

1. Synods are ‘church’ in the ELCA ecclesiology. They have ecclesial standing and can make corporate decisions. The synod assembly is the appropriate place for that to happen. Synod assemblies should be permitted to pass, by a simple majority, a resolution that would:
a. direct the synodical candidacy committee not to entrance, endorse, or approve for rostering any person in a same-sex relationship,
b. direct the bishop not to sign the attestation of call to any pastor or rostered person in a same-sex relationship.
c. direct the synod staff not to receive the mobility papers of any rostered person in a same-sex relationship.
Without such an action, the acceptance of persons in such relations would be the default policy, but individuals with responsibilities in the candidacy and call process are expected to act out of their own consciences, whether to accept or reject persons in such relations.

2. No congregation or pastor should be expected to register the candidacy of a person in a same-sex relationship if that candidacy violates their conscience.

3. Seminary faculty members would be expected to vote in line with their consciences on the approval of partnered gay or lesbian candidates for ordination or rostering. No one is expected to abstain simply because their conscience is not in line with the Assembly action.

4. Seminary Boards can make a decision not to rent campus housing to gay or lesbian couples. Without such a decision, the default position is that campus housing is open to such students.

I am not a canon or civil lawyer and this alternative is only a suggestion. The details would need to be worked out. If the Report and Recommendations that the Assembly had in its hands are taken seriously, however, something along these lines needs to be on the table.

Michael Root


November 3, 2009 by

I have been absent from this blog for some time, due to travel and the press of other responsibilities. Unfortunately (?) that situation is likely to continue for a week or so. Thanks to all who have commented on my posts.

David S. Yeago