In a recent article highlighting examples of how LCMS institutions sow confusion among members, the comments overwhelmingly concerned Tullian Tchividjian’s recent address at Concordia Seminary St. Louis (CSL). The comments were quite balanced in favor of and against Tchividjian’s appearance at CSL. That means your author failed to properly convey the problem, so I am going to try again, this time with assistance from a professional.
Let me get there by starting with a light travelogue for the sake of illuminating the issue. The Swiss Reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, is commemorated with an imposing bronze statue in front of the Wasserkirche in Zürich. Notably, he holds a large sword and a small Bible; he died during a battle sparked by theological disputes with Zürich’s neighbors.
Zwingli lost the sword about 525 road miles to the northeast of Zürich. There a marble statue of him adorns one of the column capitols in Berlin Cathedral. Viewed from the main entrance, Zwingli stands to the left of Martin Luther’s statue. Luther has a little more prominence since his statue divides the imposing altar and pulpit, whereas Zwingli divides the giant pipe organ and pulpit. To the right of Luther, on the other side of the altar, stands Philip Melanchthon. To Melanchthon’s right is John Calvin. Perhaps one day they will remove the four Prussian grandees on the other columns toward the back of the church, and replace them with Schleiermacher, Barth, Niemöller, and von Harnack.
Three of the four reformers hold open Bibles (Melancthon’s is closed, ironically) and are posed in a way that suggests they are teaching the congregation. The positioning and poses are very deliberate, essentially saying, “This church and all who worship here hold these teachers and their doctrines to be equal.”
Unity is Always Possible, but Never Achievable
The point of all this is that an emperor achieved what well intentioned theologians could not. Tired of resistance to the compromise he desired, by 1817 Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia had coercively fused the empire’s Lutheran and Calvinist denominations into a state church. It was one of history’s ultimate “can’t we all just get along” moments.
When Luther and Zwingli debated at Marburg Castle in October 1529 the resulting Marburg Colloquy listed 14 points of agreement and one of dispute. Zwingli refused to acknowledge the true presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion despite the clear teaching of Scripture, which Luther simply repeated over and over again. The two camps walked away separated by a mere 1/15 of doctrine and practice. That was sufficient to keep them apart forever.
Tullian Tchividjian is not a Zwinglian. He’s an undocumented-number-of-points Calvinist. So, we certainly have much less than a 14/15 share of agreement with him. Even if we agreed on ⅔ of our doctrines with Tchividjian, the remaining ⅓ is wider than two Grand Canyons, and cannot be bridged. Yet the reason most commonly put forward for inviting him is that he agrees with Lutherans on Law & Gospel, and teaches it well. A single point of agreement, which Tchividjian has been adept at marketing as a novelty, is upheld as sufficient justification for bringing a Calvinist into one of our flagship seminaries to teach.
It is not happenstance that CSL subtitled the talk: “Best-selling author, pastor puts spotlight on Luther’s legacy”. Within that is revealed a likely motivation for the call (fame) and a degree of reductionism (Law-Gospel as Luther’s sole legacy).
First and Last Impressions Matter
What would the founders of Confessional Lutheranism in the United States, who fled Unionism, think of Tchividjian at CSL? The Sainted Klemet Preus had the answer a decade ago – it would give the wrong impression.
To avoid [disputes over doctrine] would be a denial of the Gospel. It would give the impression that we are willing to compromise, not only in our practice but also in our doctrine of the true presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. Impressions are extremely important. For the sake of Christ’s Gospel and our spread of it, we cannot afford to give a wrong impression.
Preus, Klemet I. (2005). The Fire and the Staff (Kindle Locations 1965-1967). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
When I read that passage again in The Fire and the Staff, sitting on the Rathausbrücke a little ways downstream from Zwingli’s church, I suddenly properly understood the pejorative, “typical Fort Wayne graduate”. It is a person who will not shrink from doctrinal disputes in order avoid denying the Gospel. I’m not a CTSFW graduate and never will be, but I would appreciate being labeled a “typical Fort Wayne parishioner” from now on. We should make a point of getting everyone in the LCMS to be a typical Fort Wayne type.
Yes, merely giving the wrong impression is a big deal when it comes to doctrine and practice: “In casu confessionis nihil est adiaphora.” In the case of confession, nothing is indifferent.” (op. cit.) Rev. Preus made the additional point that any doctrinal compromise by Lutherans actually provokes the opposite outcome, leading to more division among Lutherans.
This is not to say that CSL offered a doctrinal compromise with Tchividjian, which is why many fob off concerns as narrow-minded “typical Fort Wayne” stuff. But the invitation did and does give the wrong impression. CSL leadership should know the risk and avoid it all the more because the Seminary’s existence is owed to Christ’s Gospel alone.
A Subscription to Conflict
When you examine the structure of the Lutheran Confessions, it is clear that they have a martial purpose. They are works of contention, confrontation, combat, and conflict. The Confessions were developed to oppose false doctrines, and reinforce the correct ones. There was never an effort to find common ground until Melanchthon went rogue. They would set your teeth on edge if you could hear them delivered to the face of gasping anti-Christs.
When we confess the one true faith we are necessarily adopting a hostile and intolerant posture because there is no alternative in the face of unbelief. It is unavoidably uncompromising, and so it should be.
Klemet Preus was reminding us that to be Lutheran is to be in perpetual and deliberate conflict with unbelief. Yet we undertake that task with gentleness and respect, not as Zwingli’s literal Christian soldiers.
We must not be afraid of rigidity when it comes to the Gospel because it was delivered by the body and blood, and for the sake of, Christ. The path to properly deliver Christ and His forgiveness is exceptionally narrow, whereas there are thousands of high-speed, multi-lane freeways that put our focus on everything but Christ. Let us be content with being single-file plodders.
CSL is not the only LCMS institution that is at fault. All our confessions are jeopardized when we give the wrong impression concerning Christ’s Gospel. We give the wrong impression so cheaply and readily today, probably because there is no persecution to drive out the chaff.
Let In casu confessionis nihil est adiaphora be the motto that adorns every one of our institutions. Overprint mission and vision statements if necessary, and make it the theme for every Convention from now until the LCMS expires or the Lord returns.