Concordia: A Brief Response to the Decision of the Commission on Doctrinal Review

By Matthew Becker

On January 24, 2006 the LCMS Commission on Doctrinal Review revoked the doctrinal certification of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions “because of numerous passages and features of the volume which are ‘inadequate, misleading, ambiguous, or lacking in doctrinal clarity.’” You can download the full report here.

I agree with the CDR’s conclusion that “the volume here under consideration stands in need of serious improvement.”  Nevertheless, since a lot of misinformation about my role in this process has surfaced in cyberspace, I would like to set the record a little straighter.

When I wrote my review of Concordia I did not intend to file a formal complaint with the CDR.  My review was meant to be just that, a critical, scholarly review.  I borrowed my pastor’s copy of Concordia, read it one afternoon, and wrote my review the next morning.  My review was not meant to provide exhaustive criticism, but merely to point out the main strengths and weaknesses of the book.  Most of the problems I encountered centered on translation errors and erroneous editorial annotations.

While I did make the assertion (in one place) that several of the editors’ introductions and editorial notes contain material that is “questionable at best, false doctrine at worst,” only at a later time did I submit a confidential complaint to the chairman of the CDR, Dr. William Schumacher.  How else is one to call into formal question a published CPH product that had already passed doctrinal review and had been distributed to thousands of readers?  My complaint comprised a cover letter and my published review.  I did not invite anyone to join me in my complaint nor did I make my official complaint known to the general public. 

Unfortunately, Dr. Schumacher’s cover letter for the CDR decision includes the following sentences, “I should note that the challengers opted not to maintain the confidentiality which is envisioned for this process in the Bylaws, but instead publicized their criticisms of the book in ways that gave at least the appearance of a partisan agenda.  The Commission laments this development, since such publicity has made an inherently sensitive process even more fraught with politicized overtones.”  When I asked Dr. Schumacher about these sentences, he assured me that he was not referring to my confidential complaint or published review.  He did not specify who is referenced by these sentences.  He did agree that my public review of Concordia was perfectly legitimate since Concordia had been published and was thus “out in public.”  The bylaws governing doctrinal review, of course, refer principally to synodical materials that have not yet been published, which was not the case with Concordia.  Dr. Schumacher agreed that an LCMS scholar may publicly review a published synodical product and later file a formal complaint against said product on the basis of said review.  The only way a person could conclude I was one of the confidential challengers is because the CDR directly quoted or referred to points raised in my public review.

On the basis of the challenges, the CDR articulated nine serious areas for correction and improvement before re-release of the volume.  These points summarize all of the main criticisms I made in part one (“Problems with the Textual Basis…”) and part two (“Problems in Editorial Headings, Notes, and Additions”) of my review.  The CDR’s report also agreed with my criticisms in the following points (the numbers refer to the specific points in the CDR report): 1 (likely editorial change to the Confessions based on recent controversy); 2 (misleading translation); 3 (editorial interpolation of Scriptural references not in the original Confessions; blurring distinction between editorial material and confessional texts); 4 (problematic editorial reference and capitalization); 5 (textual eclecticism); 6 (invention of a hybrid paraphrase of AC); 7 (invention of a hybrid paraphrase of Tr); 8 (textual basis of the McCain edition); 9 (textual basis of the McCain edition); 10 (imperfect translation); 11 (inappropriate, tendentious editorial assertions); 12 (inclusion of non-confessional documents; ambiguity about the boundary between confessional text and editorial comment); 13 (general problem of interspersing editorial material throughout text of the confessional documents; layout of book contributes to ambiguity about what are the Confessions and what are editorial additions); 15 (pattern of editorializing in support of a particular theological faction in today’s church, namely, one that fosters a clerical view of the pastoral office); 16 (editorial use of the phrase, “apostolic rite of ordination,” leading to a wrong understanding of the pastoral ministry); 17 (inadequate representation of scholarship on Melanchthon); 18 (editorial language based on recent controversy about female pastors); 20 (poor editorial scholarship); 22 (inadequate and misleading editorial comment); 23 (unhelpful editorial introduction); 26 (textual eclecticism and editorial change based on recent controversy); 27 (textual eclecticism); 30 (illegitimate argument about the supposed permanence of all apostolic mandates); 32 (textual eclecticism); 35 (inappropriate and unjustified translation leading to false understanding of pastoral authority); and 39 (inappropriate editorial assertion to favor a questionable contemporary agenda).  In addition, the CDR agreed with my criticisms of minor translation errors.  (See points 28, 29, 31, 37, 38, 40, 41, 42, 43, and 44 of the CDR report.)

Unfortunately, the decision of the CDR also contains paragraphs which are not persuasive.  Contrary to the decision of the CDR, the challenge about forensic justification does have merit (Cf. CDR point 14 with my review’s comments about this issue).  The editorial introduction does not do justice (!) to the variety of metaphors used by Melanchthon.  Likewise, the judgment of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology about apostolic mandates which were temporal/cultural, and thus no longer binding, does have a bearing on the question of the ordination of women to the pastoral office, contrary to the assertion of the CDR (see point 18).  One wonders why the CDR would be critical of some editorial annotations that include polemical language directed toward recent controversy (see points 1, 11, 15, 16, and 18), but not other, similar annotations (see points 19 [inappropriate polemics against 19th- and 20th-century Roman Catholicism], 20 [false preachers], 23 [third use of the law], 25 [non-inclusive language], 34 [non-inclusive language], and 36 [non-inclusive language]).

Finally, some of my objections were not addressed by the CDR.  In my complaint I noted that the editors’ introduction to CA VII is very misleading when it claims, “Outward unity in the Church is shaped, defined, and normed by biblical truth [teaching], not the other way around.”  CA VII, of course, states something quite different: “For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree on the doctrine of the Gospel [not: “biblical truth”] and the administration of the Sacraments.  See also the Formula’s stress on “the doctrine of the Gospel and all its articles” or “the evangelical pattern of doctrine” or “the truth of the gospel.”  The editors of Concordia present an un-Lutheran understanding of Scriptural authority and doctrinal unity. 

In my complaint I also noted the grossly inadequate introduction to Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment in the Large Catechism.  While the CDR responded to my complaint about the language of “false preachers,” it ignored my larger complaint about the editors’ misrepresentation of Luther’s understanding of “secret sins” and “open, public sins.”  There is no question that “the Benke matter” is once again the pretext for these editorial comments—which are themselves faulty and unhelpful, due to a misunderstanding of the nature of “public sins.”  See my review for my fuller complaint.  (I am pleased that the recent CTCR report on this issue is consistent with my complaint about this material in Concordia.)

Finally, the CDR does not engage my serious criticism of the editors’ assertion that the Bible is the sole source of Christian doctrine.  Sola Scriptura does not necessarily equate to tota Scriptura.  Extra-biblical knowledge and experience serve as ancillary sources for the formulation of doctrine.  Scripture is always interpreted in contexts, which themselves shape the formulation of doctrine.  (This holds true for both the history of the interpretation of the biblical texts [wherein church history functions indirectly as an implicit source of church doctrine] and the clarification of biblical doctrine in given cultural contexts.)  And what is one to make of the doctrinal and dogmatic formulations of early church councils, not to mention the language that is used to express doctrine and the cultural education that informs such expression?

In any case, the CDR made a generally good decision.  The first edition of Concordia indeed contained “numerous passages and features” “which are ‘inadequate, misleading, ambiguous, or lacking in doctrinal clarity.’”  I am pleased that the editors of Concordia must now inform those who bought Concordia about these serious errors.  Let’s hope the second edition is an improvement.

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