Is There a Lutheran Difference?

Marie Meyer

A deaconess, Marie Meyer is a noted speaker and author who lives in Bethel, Connecticut.

A decade has passed since church historian Mark Noll, writing in First Things, called attention to “The Lutheran Difference.”1 Noll concluded that Lutherans have much to offer the wider Christian community but only if they “remain authentically Lutheran.” His question, “Did Missouri under C. F. Walther escape the perils of Schmucker’s nineteenth century American evangelicalism only to emerge a century later as woodenly biblicistic?” is as disturbing in 2006 as it was in 1992. This essay addresses the challenge confronting the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod of whether there is a Lutheran difference worth retaining and communicating. Meeting that challenge is predicated on identifying “the Lutheran difference” and being open to the possibility that Missouri’s theological tradition has at times strayed from being authentically Lutheran.

Included in the Lutheran difference, according to Noll, is a sense of history where the constancy of God’s grace confronts human self-serving misuse of God’s good and gracious gifts. He maintains that if Lutherans are to retain and communicate their tradition, they must remain faithful to “confessions that have stood the test of time, that arise from the major themes of Scripture, that present a cohesive picture of the Christian’s relationship to God, to fellow human beings and to the world.” Faithfulness to the Confessions includes an understanding of the church that acknowledges “that God saves in baptism, thatGod gives himself in the Supper, that God announces his Word through the sermon, that God is the best interpreter if his written Word.” Finally, Lutherans will stand with Luther if they proclaim a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory.

Identifying a sense of history as a Lutheran difference is not ordinarily associated with the Lutheran dictum that God deals with all people everywhere through Law and Gospel. Yet, it is a sense of history that enables Missouri to accept God’s judgment under the Law that we cannot claim perfection in understanding Scripture. While LCMS pastors are taught the homiletical significance of properly distinguishing between Law and Gospel, less attention is given to acknowledging the reality that we, like other sola scriptura churches, are inclined to search the Scriptures for laws that bind God to our doctrinal purity and to our altars. The result may be failure to recognize our potential to formulate doctrinal statements that originate in a misguided attempt to limit the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Luther writes: “The knowledge of this topic, the distinction between Law and Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine. Therefore let everyone learn diligently how to distinguish Law and Gospel, not only in words but in feeling and experience.”2

There may be no more succinct heart-felt application of Law and Gospel than our Lord’s letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. The historical experience of these churches demonstrates why the church in every age must continually place itself under the Law to expose spiritual pride if it is to experience the sweetness and freedom of the Gospel. Christ, Lord of the church and self-designated author of Revelation 2-3, deftly applies Law and Gospel to churches who were the beloved recipients of God’s good and gracious gifts but did not recognize the danger in these gifts if they were misused. Thus, within the canon of the New Testament are loving letters from Christ to the church through the ages.

In 1964 Dr. Martin Koehneke, then president of Concordia College, River Forest, Illinois, masterfully applied our Lord’s letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor to Missouri’s historic experience in America. A Letter to Missouri, Christ’s “rolling antiphon of praise and censure,” expresses a love for Missouri “strong enough to censure His beloved because He wants His Bride to be more beautiful.”3 It exemplifies how to distinguish Law and Gospel “not only in words but in feeling and experience.” Today, just as it did some 40 years ago, A Letter to Missouri is a reminder to apply continually the Law “surely, sharply and uncompromisingly” to our self-image as an orthodox Lutheran church whose interpretation of Scripture will be corrupted if we do not protect the synod from Christians less doctrinally pure than the synod perceives itself to be. Allowing Missouri’s history to be a word of Law frees the synod from any self-deception that would diminish the sweet promises of the Gospel.

In A Letter to Missouri the Lord of the church writes:

I know your works, Missouri, for I hold you in my strong right hand, in that hand which is strong enough to uphold the heavens and gentle enough to wipe all tears from your eyes. I have complete control over you, and if you submit to Me, Missouri, you will never go wrong. You shall never perish; neither shall any man pluck you out of My hand.

Nevertheless, I have something against you, Missouri. There is something missing in your orthodoxy. For one thing, you talk too much about how orthodox you are! But you do not have a notable record of Bible study to demonstrate either your love for or understanding of My Word!

Has your eagerness to root out all mistaken and misguided persons in your communion led you to an orthodoxy which is more paralyzing than pure? Has orthodoxy been achieved at the price of fellowship? Have you put a higher premium on purity than you have on love? Have you forgotten that the pure Gospel is the pure good news of My love for you and for all other sinners? I lived and I loved and I died for people. Are you doing the same for My sake?

Something has gone wrong with you, Missouri. You work hard. There is a gallantry to your endurance. You are orthodox. But you have lost your way.

Remember whose you are and Whom you serve! I am your Bridegroom and you are My Bride. Repent of your vanity, your lovelessness, your little excitement over the good news of your forgiveness. Do not alibi. Simply say: “I will arise and go to my Father and say, ‘I have sinned.’” Simply confess: “I have played the fool, and I have erred exceedingly.” Then cast yourself on My mercy in the simple outburst of a repentant heart: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Then let me change you into a Missouri that loves all men because I love all men, a Missouri that lives pure doctrine by loving false sinners, a Missouri that will not yield one jot or tittle of My Word because it cannot tamper with Good news which it loves and by which it lives.

It saddens Me to tell My Bride that she makes me sick. I feel like the husband who says to his wife: You cook my meals, you mend my socks, you go through all the motions and think everything’s all right, but honey, it’s just not the same anymore! You’re not cold. You’re not hot. You’re just blah!

I rebuke and discipline all those whom I love. And I love you, Missouri, I love you very much! I will not storm or rail at you or scold you. I will not unleash a flood of angry words. Let Me enlighten you rather than castigate you.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock.

Who am I, Missouri, Who stand at the door and knocks?

I am the One with eyes as lamps of fire. Sometimes they flash with anger, at times they brim with tears of sorrow, but always they are filled with love for you. May I come in, Missouri?

Please, Missouri, please let Me come in and give you My cross today and My crown tomorrow. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and will have My meal with him, and he with me,

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to Missouri. This means you! You may think that this message applies to everyone else but you. You are wrong. This means you! You may think the stern words cannot possible be meant for you. They are! You may wonder whether His promises are too good to be true for you. All this is meant for you!

Thus A Letter to Missouri is a loving but stern plea that the synod look at its history of unresolved internal tension and conflicted relationships with other Christians through the eyes of our Lord. Doing so is not a matter of doctrinal review but a critical examination of synodical traditions, assumptions and self-image. Because the assumptions and traditions of Missouri, like those of all churches, involve a particular mindset, how Missouri thinks and sees itself must be placed under the objective scrutiny of the Law. Doing so enables the synod to see itself from the perspective of God’s good and gracious purpose for the world. A brief overview of Missouri’s history reveals two distinct traditions based on different assumptions about what it means to be a church faithful to Scripture and to the Lutheran Confessions.

One tradition originated in C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. Here Missouri’s first president affirmed the Confessional claim that all Scripture should be divided into two chief doctrines, the law and the promises. While this tradition (a.k.a., the promising tradition) was firmly committed to the inspiration of Scripture and to the Confessions, it approached the interpretation of the entire Scripture in light of its central theme, justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith. For this reason the entire content of the Scripture is not the object of faith, for that would mean that everything in the Bible, including all the Old Testament laws, are normative for the Christian life and faith. In the years following Walther’s death the promising tradition did not shy from opportunities to meet with the American Lutheran Church, an experience that in 1938 resulted in resolutions to continue fellowship discussions with the ALC. Those favoring ongoing mutual conversation with the ALC did not think these discussions compromised doctrine. They were mindful of how Luther chided the Enthusiasts for their literalistic use of Scripture and unwillingness to asking whether a particular text is God’s word “to us.”4

Almost from the beginning another tradition evolved, one that claimed orthodox faithfulness to Scripture and to the Confessions required a doctrinal perfection that affirms truth and rejects error, the latter being as important as the former. Preserving Missouri’s orthodoxy resulted in an ongoing effort to prove that its interpretation of the Bible was correct and not subject to change. Repeatedly, Scripture was searched for laws to prove God prohibited fellowship with Christians whose understanding of some texts differed from Missouri’s. Seminary professor Franz Pieper advised, “If a Christian finds himself in a place where there is no orthodox church, he must be content with private worship in the home, for God has nowhere given us release from this Word: Romans 16:17.” According to Pieper “the divinely ordained external characteristic of the visible church is its orthodoxy.”5 Persons of the mindset that Missouri, by virtue of correct doctrine, was the true visible church assumed that being the custodian of pure doctrine required vigilant internal doctrinal supervision and the avoidance of external fellowship. It also required guarding against any change in the synod’s interpretation of biblical texts.

From time to time voices were raised that questioned whether the synod might be moving in the direction of compromising the Law by reducing it to laws that did not serve the Gospel but hindered its proclamation. At the 1862 meeting of the synod’s Central District a pastor presented 32 theses including:

4. The law will then be used evangelically if one uses it solely to prepare the ground for the gospel and to hold up that divine plumb line to the evidences of the new life that freely grows from the gospel. The gospel will then be used evangelically if it is offered to all, unconditionally and unabridged.

15. Evangelical praxis is as far removed from antinomian praxis as it is from legalistic praxis.

16. Evangelical praxis should indeed flow from evangelical knowledge and attitude, but this seldom happens and only slowly at that.

17. We generally remain stuck in legalism or we fall into antinomian laxity. The gospel is so foreign to our disposition.

25. Legalistic praxis in itself makes the gospel into law and the law into a taskmaster (but not unto Christ); it makes confession into torture, pastoral care into slipshod work, the Sacrament into a testimony and seal of approval that one is acceptable to the pastor; it makes Christian liberty a sham, and it makes church discipline into an oppression of consciences. It makes the people petty, scrupulous, and zealously pharisaical. It turns the church into a police state.

26. Only for the blind does legalistic praxis have the appearance of greater conscientiousness, valor, and quicker outcomes. Looked at carefully, though, it lacks true courage to allow God to reign and his Word to work. Its conscientiousness is that of an errant conscience and it is in itself one of the greatest hindrances to the working of the law as well as of the gospel.

27. No other church considers legalistic praxis to be so nauseous as does the Evangelical-Lutheran.6

These statements indicate that early in the synod’s history some questioned whether the synod was wrongfully legalizing certain of its practices thereby no longer properly distinguishing between Law and Gospel. Among the practices that became a source of tension between the two traditions was fellowship with other Lutherans. Although neither tradition lacked concern for historic Christian doctrine or denied the inspiration of Scripture, they had different attitudes toward what it meant for Missouri to be a confessional Lutheran church. The promising tradition expressed willingness to meet with the ALC, the other, fearing that fellowship with the ALC would have a negative impact on Missouri’s doctrinal purity, protested joint prayer at the proposed meetings. In 1945 a group of pastors prepared “A Statement” and subsequent essays, Speaking the Truth in Love, thereby questioning whether certain biblical texts were being quoted as God’s Law to bind the synod to man-made traditions. Their proposed interpretation of Romans 16:17 challenged the tradition that claimed every Scriptural passage was itself clear and allowed for only one true interpretation. In essence Speaking the Truth in Love was a plea that Missouri adopt an attitude about itself open to recognizing its fallibility in the interpretation of biblical texts. The authors suggested that something more basic than even doctrine was involved, namely, Missouri’s basic assumptions about itself.

In 1964 missionary Meinert Grumm, a spiritual heir to “A Statement,” discussed Missouri’s attitude toward fellowship at the Third General Missionary Conference held in India. Although he began his paper as a Biblical study on fellowship, he decided to address the question, “Why is it that men of the same denomination, the same tradition, the same training, working together in the same project, cannot see eye to eye on such an important problem? Why this paradox of strong convictions with no ready and convincing Scriptural basis?”7 Grumm continued:

It is my conviction that this particular problem confronts us with a much wider challenge: to examine our whole basic approach to such problems, to try to step outside ourselves and analyze some fundamental assumptions that we have taken for granted. For it is obvious that, if we grant each other the full status of fellow-members in the body of Christ, there are some non-theological, non-Biblical factors involved in this lack of consensus.

When God’s Gospel becomes ‘our doctrine,’ our formation of the pure doctrine in the Brief Statement, and we are the ones who ‘have’ this pure Gospel, then for our own self-preservation and to protect God’s truth the natural attitude is one of defense.

According to Missionary Grumm, false conservatism builds “on the basic assumption that we are the true visible church and it is given to our responsibility above all to maintain this church in its purity, then we must fix and guarantee the true doctrine by which it is constituted and which is in its custody.” The right kind of conservatism, no less committed to doctrine, recognizes that the study of scripture bears fruit when “all a priori suppositions and basic assumptions are checked at the door.” Grumm’s understanding of the Lutheran difference, like that of Noll, is that Lutheranism is “not theological-system-centered, or tradition practice-centered, or even Bible-centered, but Christ-centered.”

Missionary Grumm, like other heirs of the promising tradition, continued the movement away from protecting Missouri’s orthodoxy to understanding the Gospel as a message of God’s love that radically redirects the church away from itself. No longer curved inward on a perfection in doctrine that is not given to sinners, they were free to confess that the gospel is the power of God for salvation even when it is not spoken flawlessly. In so doing they affirmed what Noll identifies as the Lutheran difference, “Godsaves in baptism, that God gives himself in the Supper, that God announces his Word through the sermon, that God is the best interpreter if his written Word.” Those who claimed the promising tradition refrained from quoting biblical texts as God-given laws prohibiting prayer with other Christians or that closed the Lord’s Table to repentant sinners who were not members of Missouri.

Inevitably the conflict between a tradition that opted for protecting Missouri’s orthodoxy and a tradition open to acknowledging the need to re-examine how the synod interpreted some Biblical texts collided. Integral to the conflict was the claim of one tradition that the other, now labeled as “Gospel Reductionists,” denied the inspiration of Scripture as Law. Adherents of the promising tradition countered that they were not reducing Scripture to the Gospel. Rather, they upheld a theological use of the Law applied to the assumption that how Missouri interpreted Scripture was not open to change. Dr. Martin Franzmann, a theologian respected throughout the synod, offered this perspective:

In general, it would seem to be true that our theology is today more directly and explicitly “exegetical” than formerly; there is today a larger sense of the historical qualification in both exegesis and dogma; our assertions are more frequently qualified and our polemics less sweeping than they tended to be in the past; a greater ecumenical openness is so obvious that it hardly needs mentioning. (Concordia Theological Monthly [January 1967])

One attempt to deal with unresolved internal conflict was the formation of a Commission on Theology and Church Relations. No matter how many studies, fact-finding reports, CTCR statements or convention resolutions ensued, nothing could resolve a conflict that originated in assumptions and attitudes rather than a difference in fundamental Christian doctrine. Ultimately, Missouri’s two conflicting traditions resulted in a “battle for the Bible” that divided the synod in 1974. Once the dust settled it was assumed that Missouri’s orthodoxy had been restored. The loss of those who questioned using biblical texts as Law to govern fellowship, exercise doctrinal discipline and regulate church practice was met with a sigh of relief by the tradition that emphasized a use of the Law “that defended the doctrine of the church and guided the church’s teachers away from destructive approaches to theology.”8

Not surprisingly, questions pertaining to fellowship, discipline and practice soon resurfaced. Today, reports prepared by the CTCR indicate that a greater number of dissenting opinions are being expressed within the commission than in the past. Once again use of the Law is being defended as necessary for doctrinal discipline and as the means to enforce the synod’s historic interpretation of texts such as Romans 16:17 and 1 Cor.14: 34. In 2006, as in the past, unresolved conflict within Missouri is apparent as pastors and laity alike question the synod’s interpretation as these texts as Law. As a result of their questions, the label “Gospel Reductionist” has re-emerged.

Missouri’s history of unresolved conflict forces Noll’s question as to whether or not the synod’s use of Scripture is “woodenly biblicistic” rather than a dynamic use of the Law to expose how the synod’s being curved in on itself can and will misuse biblical texts to protect a static, faulty self-image. At the heart of Missouri’s faithfulness to the Lutheran difference, therefore, is its confession that the synod, no less than other churches, must subject its self-understanding to the Law. Then and only then will it recognize the power of the Gospel to radically change a mindset falsely bound to self-consciousness. This continuing process of being turned from self frees Missouri to recognize the beauty of being the spotless Bride of Christ, not because of its doctrinal purity but because of the purity common to all whom Christ claims as His Beloved.

Nothing other than the Gospel can free Missouri to look at its history and tradition not from the perspective of a distorted self-image but from the perspective of what God has done in Christ “for us.” God has given this little insignificant church incredibly good and gracious gifts, not the least of which is a commitment to the Scriptures and the Confessions. By acknowledging its past misuse of these gifts to set the synod apart from other Christians, its past misplaced trust in the gifts of God rather than in the Giver and its past misappropriation to self of a perfection in understanding Scripture that belongs to God alone, Missouri is free to experience with joy and thanksgiving the forgiveness that is its for Jesus’ sake.

Yes, there is a Lutheran difference, one that recognizes paradox or what Noll refers to as the Lutheran irony. He writes, “In religious terms, this irony is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ and thereby subverting justification by faith.” To guard against even the slightest risk of substituting its defense of sola scriptura and the purity of its doctrine for the righteousness and purity of Christ, Missouri must hold to the Lutheran difference, not of wooden biblicism, but of letting God be God through the Law applied to Missouri’s self image and through the Gospel as the dynamic that shapes its understanding of the church in relation to other Christians and the formulation of theology and practice.

Notes

1 Mark Noll, “The Lutheran Difference,” First Things (February 1992).

2 LW, 26:117.

3 Martin L. Koehneke, A Letter to Missouri, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1964.

4 LW, 35:170.

5 Richard E. Koenig, What’s Behind the Showdown in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod? Three articles from Lutheran Forum, 1972.

6 Heinrich Christian Schwan, “32 Theses against Unevangelical Praxis,” trans. and annotated by Matthew L. Becker, http://thedaystarjournal.com/32-theses-against-unevangelical-praxis/

7 The Third General Missionary Conference – 1964. M. H. Grumm, “Our Approach to the Problem of Altar Fellowship”(Appendix).

8 Scott R. Murray, Law, Life and the Living God. (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2002), 216.

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