The Statement of the Forty-four and the Evangelical Imagination
By Andrew Schroeder
“Do not adjust your television set; we have taken control of it.” So began the old television series The Outer Limits. In this series the viewer was treated to fascinating views of the human psyche, science fiction and just plain weirdness. Similar control has been taken of your reading material.
Sixty years ago, forty-four pastors of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod gathered in Chicago and penned their names to a statement that, it was hoped, would engender an institutional repentance, a turn around from unevangelical, manmade traditions, narrow legalism, human judgments and loveless attitudes.
A quick over view of “The Statement of the Forty-Four” reveals these major highlights:
- Statement one speaks of narrow legalism and manmade traditions which limit the power of the Lutheran heritage. The power of the Lutheran heritage is simply the power of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, whose death and resurrection frees us not only from sin but from the condemnation of the Law.
- Statements two and three speak of “manmade traditions which replace Scripture” as the sole source and norm for Christian faith and life: things which hinder “the free course of the Gospel in the world.”
- Statement six affirms that “no organizational loyalty can take the place of loyalty to Christ and his Church.” Membership in the Body of Christ, which is ours in and through baptism, is the only criteria for that new and completely different creation which is the kingdom of God.
- And finally, in statement eleven, the forty-four state that “Church … fellowship is possible without complete agreement in doctrine and practice.” When we take the reality and power of sin to mar the creation and separate us from the salvation offered in and through Jesus the Christ, we understand that complete agreement in doctrine and practice will never happen on this side of the second coming of Jesus the Christ.
At one thousand and three words, including the names of the forty-four signatories, this is a very short document indeed. With the exception of pastors, theologians and historians of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, few people have even heard of this little document. To mention this document even to other Lutherans is to get the same reaction as mentioning Lutheranism in the deep south: complete incomprehension. Yet this same obscure document has been a lightning rod of controversy for the sixty years of its existence.
One look at the Statement of the Forty-Four and one gets the eerie “outer limits” feeling of deja vu all over again. We have been here before. We have seen this before. A cursory reading of LCMS history tells us that the issues that the forty-four outline are issues which have been the subject of scholarly disputations. They have been discussed, debated, argued and fought over since a log cabin seminary was built in Perry County, Missouri. Indeed, these issues comprise a major part of the history of the institution that is the LCMS.
Yet it is not a simple exercise in historical or institutional navel gazing that makes the Statement of the Forty-Four of importance to twenty-first century Lutherans. Nor are we merely, with the signers, negatively deploring unevangelical practices, loveless attitudes, narrow legalism and manmade traditions. The real importance of the Statement of the Forty-Four is the future that it points us toward.
In other words, we need to move beyond the negatives expressed on both sides of the issues and look towards the future that opens up when the Gospel is “preached in all its truth and power to all the nations of the earth.” This is the evangelical imagination. That the power of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ is sufficient not only for salvation but to carry us with our Lord himself beyond narrow legalism, beyond synodical resolutions, beyond manmade traditions (those sinful ways in which we try to replace the authority of Scripture with our own judgments), beyond all synodical organizations and other manmade ways in which we organize ourselves for earthly efficiency and beyond even this world itself opens up a completely new and different reality: a new creation that our Lord calls the kingdom of God.
The challenge of the evangelical imagination is that all of the deplorable things listed by the Statement of the Forty-Four are issues which transcend time. They are problems, manifestations of the original sin that is the plague and bane of human beings in every time and in every place. However, those of us who are “in Christ through our baptism into his death” are not left bereft. Our Lord is with us still. The evangelical imagination also means that we have the “mind of Christ” as St. Paul says, the leading of the Spirit who makes us holy in Word and in Sacrament. To paraphrase the words of the old hymn, “Jesus does lead on ’til our rest be won.”
We now return control of your television set to you.
Pastor Andrew Schroeder
West Palm Beach, FL