29 September 2010

Subterranean Scribble: I'm glad to see he finally recognizes it

Title of a post on Rev. McCain's blog:

Leading Sheep Out of Danger is Not Sheep Stealing

20 September 2010

A cracked quia?

The "semper virgo" issue is, once again, making the rounds on Lutheran blogdom; the chief post is found on Gottesdienst Online. Written by my friend and former colleague, John Stephenson, it incisively shows the problem inherent for someone wishing to maintain a "quia" subscription to the Lutheran Confessions and, at the same time, to reject the teaching that Mary is perpetually virgin.

What is at stake in this issue, for Lutherans? Nothing less than the continued existence of Lutheranism itself, as Lutheranism! In order to see that, we have to understand the notion of what I call an "organizing principle."

Each of the western confessions of faith has an organizing principle--a fixed point around which everything else revolves, the loss of which would mean the implosion of the confession itself.

For Rome, this principle is the papacy. This explains why Rome allows the Byzantine Catholics not to use the filioque in the Creed, and even, as some tell me, not to have to assent to it (or the Immaculate Conception) as dogma. All that is necessary to be Catholic is that one yield supremacy to the Pope. Ideally one also subscribes to the views of the pope, and not to do so may make one a "bad Catholic"--but the operating word is the noun, not the adjective.

For the Pentecostals, this principle is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking with tongues. While I still taught in Canada, word got out of a high-level delegation of the Assemblies of God paying a visit to the Toronto Vineyard church (home of the so-called "Toronto blessing"). Those leaders wanted to see what was happening in Toronto because over half of the AoG young people could not claim the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" or "speaking with tongues." The problem was critical, because when the organizing principle of a body is broken, its death is inevitable.

For Lutherans, this organizing principle is a "quia" subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. That means that Lutherans, especially pastors, are to subscribe to the entire doctrinal content of the Lutheran confessional writings because (Latin "quia") those writings agree with the Scriptures. It is contrasted to a "quatenus" (Latin for "insofar as") subscription to those texts.

Issues like the semper Virgo strike at the heart of this organizing principle. Although many early Lutherans, like Luther himself and Johann Gerhard, believed in the semper Virgo, Lutherans on the whole since Gerhard's time have rejected it as dogma. (There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule. But the Lutheranism of the ordinary pastor and layperson has no room for it.)

Here is the problem: The Lutheran confessions assume and teach the semper Virgo. Stephenson documents well the fact that the formulators of the Formula of Concord, including Chemnitz himself, held to this dogma. Even Herman Sasse recognized that they teach it, although he himself rejected it.

Writing forty or fifty years after the Lutheran confessional writings were drafted, Johann Gerhard formulated the so-called 'sola Scriptura' principle--the notion that all dogmas must be traced from clear passages of Scripture. Because Gerhard's exegetical method allowed for typological exegesis, he had no trouble affirming both the "sola Scriptura" principle AND the semper Virgo.

But many Lutheran theologians after Gerhard reject the typological approach to the Sciptures. This puts otherwise faithful Lutherans in the unenviable position of admitting that the Confessions teach, as dogma, something that to them seems to have no biblical foundation. What to do?

Some of them deny that the Confessions teach it as dogma. But articles such as Stephenson's certainly seem to shut that door.

Others return to Gerhard's typological approach to the Scriptures. But this approach seems deeply suspicious to many, who wonder how far the interpreter's cleverness can be allowed to go. Certainly as a Lutheran one cannot use the Church or her teachers as a check, because all that the Church and her teachers say and do must be normed by the Scriptures. To allow those teachers to guide authoritatively on what the Scriptures mean is to reverse the roles of the Scripture and traditon.

Still others stare at the problem "like a cow at a new gate," to use Luther's expression.

Pr. Weedon proposes a solution to the dilemma: a "cracked quia" subscription to the Confessional writings. He comments:

"The discomfort that arises for those who hold a quia subscription to the Symbols is not eased by lying to one's conscience that the Symbol cannot say what it plainly does simply because I do not believe it. One can take the Sasse route and have a bit of a cracked quia but at least honestly admit that it says what it does."

But a "cracked quia" is, eo ipso, an admission of failure with regard to the organizing principle of Lutheranism. When that which serves as organizing principle is, in principle, broken, disorganization and decay must inevitably follow. If Rev'd Weedon and his ilk can remain in communion fellowship with those who hold a different notion of the dogmas to which they are committed, then in principle the LCMS has become the unionistic fellowship that Franz Pieper warned about.

The recent election of Matthew Harrison as President of the LCMS has brought a lot of hope to those who subscribe to the Lutheran confessional writings. Confessional Lutherans got nearly everything they wanted, from the presidency on down, as well as greater centralization of authority in the president's office.

The institutional crisis, however, will trump any personal good will that Rev'd. Harrison is able to bring to bear on the problems facing the LCMS and confessional Lutheranism in general. Time will tell whether Rev. Weedon's crack is in fact the breakdown of the dyke which held Lutheranism together.