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.


Daniel said...

Good insights Father. The only confession of Mary's Virginity that usually takes place in LCMS Divine Service is when the Creed is spoken stating that Christ is "born of the Virgin Mary". Most pastors (taught by their LCMS professors)take this to mean "Virgin, at the time of the Word made flesh's birth" EXCLUSIVELY, with no regard for what takes places afterwards.

The Augustana states that it does not differ from the "ancient catholic church" in what it teaches. However, the overwhelming witness of that same "ancient catholic church" knows VIRTUALLY nothing of this interpretation of the one ever blessed as the "Virgin Mary" in the Creed. She is overwhelmingly ever-blessed as the Perpetual Virgin; the one who knew no man for her entire life.

But this now five hundred year old Lutheran Confessional understanding of the Semper Virgo IS NO LONGER PRAYED by most Lutherans of any stripe. Thus the LCMS DOES differ from the "ancient catholic church". Why? Because it is NOT the continuing "One, Holy,Catholic, and Apostolic Church".

For that matter, neither is it a "Confessional Lutheran" body. The crack is actually a fissure, and that opening has been there for some time. May God lead all who verily venerate His Mother to the true Nave, which is able to provide safety from the deluge surrounding us all.

Ezekiel said...

In fact, I recall the term "pious opinion" being used to describe the semper Virgo in discussion at conferences when I was a Lutheran pastor.

I also remember a particularly ribald attempt at humor by one pastor during the "off hours" of a conference regarding what happened after the Nativity in the home of St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin. It was rather revolting, to say the least.

But then, Lutherans have no fathers, no one who can rein in such behaviors and teachings. A "cracked quia" is really a "quotenus" .... and "sola scriptura" only bolsters every man or woman doing according to his or her own heart.

David said...

Great post, Father. I was thinking that it might be useful for any Lutherans wandering by this post to be reminded just what import "semper virgo" has on Orthodox doctrine, and why discarding it has dangerous consequences.

orrologion said...

I found this comment interesting coming out of the mouth of a Lutheran: "the church has confessed it universally to ancient times. That ought to be our default position, unless we think we know better than all the church fathers combined.

It is 'chronological snobbery' for us to dismiss that consistent universal testimony of the fathers because we think we (20 centuries after the fact, living in a highly skeptical and sexualized society) think we know better than 'primitives' like Jerome, Augustine, Luther, and Walther";


"Mary is simply a unique person, and the normal rules just don't apply to her";


And the church does hold to matters that are not scriptural - such as the martyrdom of St. Paul, our belief that various saints died in the faith (we don't know for sure that the Blessed Virgin Mary is even in heaven if we rely only on Scripture - can we be sure she didn't deny the faith some time after she is no longer mentioned in the Bible?), and which books are in the canon and which are not (we received the canon from our fathers in the church, not from the Scripture itself).

Rather than treat it as an 'elephant in the parlor' not to be talked about, I think it is a helpful barometer of whether or not we see ourselves as superior to our fathers, or whether we have adopted a Protestant 'me and my Bible' view of the faith."

Of course, then one's tradition is chosen - for none of us live apart from tradition, whether holy or rational or none of the above - with: "As for me, I'm going to stand with Luther, Pieper, Walther, and every Lutheran dogmatician until the 20th century" Sure, he adds, "and back in history through all the great fathers and biblical exegetes who believed firmly in SV" but that is mere window-dressing and academic sounding footnoting, the real authority is the tradition of Luther, Pieper, Walther, et al.

It's actually refreshing to see, even if I can't imagine a way for such a person to be content in the LCMS or WELS or ELS or... for the long term.

Fr John W Fenton said...

The quia is not "cracked." It simply is not. The rejection of relics is the evidence. This rejection implies that the Scriptures speak nowhere about the efficacy and benefits of relics. So much, then, for Elijah's bones or the hem of Christ's garments--among other things.

orrologion said...

I was having a conversation in Boston with a convert who was doing research on Second Temple apocalyptic literature for examples of the veneration of the saints in the immediate pre-Christian period. He says proof abounds, but that no one has done the work on it. He had stumbled across my little post and set of patristic 'proof texts' on the practice, but thought it wasn't early enough.

What I realized in the conversation (again?) was how confessional Lutherans tend to accept the authorities the Confessions do. That is, there's no need to go back further than the Fathers the Confessions quote authoritatively, except for the Bible. There is really no need to look at literature of the 1st centuries BC and AD, because the Bible and the undisputed Fathers and the theology of the ECs through Chalcedon are simply accepted, presumed to be true. He was looking at it more from the context of a skeptic, I guess. If you don't presume the Trinity is true, if you don't presume the Bible is authoritative, etc. then what would you look for.

It's just interesting how the Fathers are viewed and appealed to, and not. It's interesting to see what people call trump, which then defines all else ruling evidence in or out.

I guess I'm always sort of amazed that my respect for the Confessions are what led me to the authorities they cite and to the non-Lutheran doctrines they witnessed to and practiced in their lives. I also wonder, sometimes, whether that it is solid ground to build on.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Um... if a Lutheran believes something is NOT in Scripture, but it IS in the Confessions, doesn't that by definition shatter his quia instead of just cracking it?

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.

David said...

Correct me, if I'm wrong, but I don't think the Lutheran inconsistencies stop at "semper virgo". The Scriptures also don't explicitly lay out the proper procedures or manner of the sacraments of Baptism or Communion. The Lutheran Confessions seem to accept those doctrinal matters, but reject others that came out of Church Tradition or the Ecumenical Councils. This also doesn't even get into those things taught in the Lutheran Confessions, but ignored in practice, such as the sacrament of Confession.

It seems rather willy-nilly to me, what they pick and choose. Cherry picking theology is a dead-end street. Thank God for His one holy true and Apostolic Church!

oruaseht said...

As a Lutheran Pastor who is struggling with looking East, I can't help but stumble over this point. At a recent Preaching Retreat with LCMS fellowship (LCC) pastors, I brought up Semper Virgo as a quia subscribed doctrine of the Confessions. A fellow pastor told me that Semper Virgo isn’t a main article of faith, and that the confessions spoke of it didn’t matter. It’s a mere “exegetical detail” we can pick or choose to believe (ie: garlic juice on a magnet, etc.) When I asked what the authority source is that governs what exegetical details we do or do not believe from the Confessions, nobody had an answer! Not even a Dogmatics Professor at the Seminary – another fellow pastor asked him. Quia ra-ra-sis-boom-ba is a joke, even amongst the most hardcore Confessional Lutherans I know.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...


You've touched on something important. If some things are categorized as doctrines and others mere exegetical opinions, who decides which is which?

In principle, this problem undercuts the organizing principle of Lutheranism. It also explains how both ELCA and Missouri can call themselves "Lutheran". They merely disagree on what's opinion and what is doctrine, no?

orrologion said...

Fr. Gregory,

Your comment calls to mind my research into modern-day Judaism when I briefly dated Jewish girl in LA. She was Conservative and essentially unobservant while her grandmother was Conservative and kept kosher.

In one of the books I read, it said something to the effect that Judaism was whatever large portions of Jews agreed it was. If most Jews began thinking something was OK, then it became OK; if they thought it was verboten, it was verboten. Likewise, if they believed it was an indisputably essential part of Judaism, then is was kept. Range from Orthodox to Reformed Judaism came down to the amount of Judaism one was comfortable following, or what was 'essential' to Judaism.

It seems to be much the case here. If one who professes a quia subscription to the BofC is uncomfortable with a given teaching in it, then argue it away as adiaphora. In reality, most of the arguments seem to state that support for the semper virgo in Lutheranism and by most Lutherans, for example, is simply an example of historical conditioning. Ironically, this is the same argument used against many traditional teachings in the Bible. The same intellectual apparatus is being used on the Confessions and their agreement with Scripture that have been disavowed when treating Scripture itself.