Why Not a Confession? Comments on the Harrison Paper, by Pr. Rossow

I assert that Matt Harrison’s recently published paper “It’s Time” is one of the most significant publications in the last ten years of Lutheranism. I would rank it right up there in terms of significance with Dr. Wohlrabe’s paper “How we Got Into this Mess,” “That They May be One” (TTMBO), Wally Schultz’s paper on the LCMS and even the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” even though I recommend no one sign on to that heterodox confession. Harrison’s paper is a little more parochial than JDDJ but it is nonetheless right up there. It is significant on the Lutheran landscape because it presents an approach to church that has been missing in action for the last generation. It calls us away from a bureaucratic approach to church and back to a doctrinal approach. This has become the exception and not the rule in this era of church growth sociological and psychological approaches to church.

By the way, as I recall, there are no great doctrinal works that come to mind that have been written by President Kieschnick. Maybe I am mistaken but the material that comes out of his office is about programs, leadership, and structure, not doctrine. The church of the Augsburg Confession, the church of the Scriptures for that matter, is a church of doctrine. Read Paul’s epistles and you can come to no other conclusion.

If I did offer a critique of Harrison’s wonderful article it is this: it falls just short of actually calling for a new confession. The mechanism that Harrison describes in his Koinonia Project (p. 11) will best serve us if it results in a new confession. Pastor Harrison tempts us with references to the formation of the Formula of Concord and the unity that it brought about. He takes us to the precipice looking out over a purer, tighter Lutheran horizon but then takes us back to the hazy landscape of disunity where no one has to actually sign on the bottom line. I believe there will be no true unity unless the pastors of our synod stand before their congregations and say, “I subscribe to…” I also believe that a carefully written confession can ‘reach across the aisle” and bring in confessing Lutherans of other acronyms.

I understand that it is a monumental thing to add to the confessions and that we do not want to do that lightly or be parochial in our actions. I also understand that no one individual wants to make such a bold call. The risk is that our brothers and sisters in the WELS, ELS, or other Lutheran denominations won’t join us and we thus become parochial– but then again, why wouldn’t they join us? And why shouldn’t they? If we really believe that the existing doctrinal statements and our subscription to them has not been able to keep us unified around God’s word then we need a confession that will sort out the affirmatives from the negatives and get us back to doctrinal unity. Harrison brilliantly speaks this way but he leaves us a baby step short of a true solution. There are brother and sister Lutherans all around the world who look to the LCMS as the great break wall against the crashing waves of heterodoxy. I say let’s go all the way and be that anchor and cornerstone of strength for Lutheranism with a new unifying confession.

A few weeks ago we published Dr. Frederick Baue’s Lutheran Manifesto. Neither he nor we believe it is the final form of a confession but it can be some sort of a precursor. Just as the Augsburg Confession had its Torgau Articles and the Tractate had its “Of the Papacy”, so too the confession for the early 21st century can have its Lutheran Manifesto. I have been using this document in Bible classes for the last 10 weeks and it has served quite well for sorting out the true and false confessions in the Lutheran church of the last fifty years. Check it out here and see what you think. Like Harrison’s paper, it takes some time to get all the way through it – but then, solving this problem is not going to come easily.

I suppose we are getting ahead of ourselves. It may be too early to call for a new common confession of Lutheranism for the modern world and the post modern world but Harrison’s paper inspires such thoughts. For now, we encourage you to read and mark carefully the Harrison paper and see if you think it ranks right up there with the most significant thinking of Lutheranism in the last ten years or so.

Pastor Rossow

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Why Not a Confession? Comments on the Harrison Paper, by Pr. Rossow — 73 Comments

  1. Do my Fathers and Brothers in the faith who are proposing a new confession honestly believe that the fruit of Pr. Harrison’s proposed Koinonia project will be a set of well defined issues, with affirmative and negative assertions which are for the most part “new?” I mean, do you honestly think that the Confessionals and neo-Phillipists in the LC-MS will find themselves in doctrinal agreement on those issues already spelled out in the BOC 1580, but diverging on issues that are unique to the 21st century? Should that happen, perhaps a new confession would be in order, but I think it’s unlikely. If they are honest, I frankly don’t see them getting past AC Art 4 (if they get that far) without major doctrinal disagreement.
    If my pessimism turns out to be accurate, I see a real danger in a new confession being used to paper over real differences for the sake of a “unity” that amounts to “crying ‘peace, peace,’ where there is no peace.” (There are folks across the aisle after all, that are just as staunch on a literal 7-day creation as any of us, but who are openly synergistic on justification.) There’s a real danger that a new confession would end up being a “linguistic shell game” like the JDDJ.
    At the risk of doing the same thing here, perhaps we should table a new confession until after we achieve real unity on the ones we’ve got.
    Pax Christi +,
    -Matt Mills

  2. Dear Pr. Rossow:

    You wrote:

    “You can talk about the ‘we’ all you want. I am more intertested in the ‘Who’ and the ‘what.'”

    I was only quoting you. You are the one who brought up the “we.”

    I’m not at all opposed to coming up with theses or statements of faith for the purpose of discussion. The problem is that when you call them “confessions” they have a binding nature to them, they become retroactive amendments to the Book of Concord. That is a whole can of worms that I believe would be a mistake. If you think we have divisions now, just try proposing a new document for the Book of Concord.

    The “we” *is* important because if the “we” is only a tiny cabal of pastors within one faction of one small American synod within the worldwide confession of Lutheranism, it carries nowhere near the authority of an ecumenical council – even if it is true. We live in a much more fractured Church than we did in 325 or 1530.

    Just because we (Americans) can unilaterally make nations rise and fall doesn’t mean we have the moral authority to start amending the Book of Concord unilaterally.

  3. Matt M.,

    I basically agree with you. A new confession is not intended to paper over differences and the Koininia Project may have difficulty getting too far into the AC although I think they will make it past IV but maybe not through V. (If Klemet is right, according to his current blog series, they won’t even make it past III but of course that all depends on who is there.)

    Having said that, if we still wish to back the LCMS, I am confident that Pastor Harrison’s work will indeed bring about positive and needed change in the LCMS.

    Back to your point about papering over differences – I am not assuming that a new confession necessarily leaves denominational lines where they currently stand. It is fine with me if it does, but far more important than denominations is the true confession of God’s word. We need to be thinking in terms of aligning with those who rightly confess, whoever they might be.

    Pastor Rossow

  4. Dear Pastor Rossow,
    Pr. Harrison has written a very valuable paper, and I have no doubt that a good faith attempt at his “Koinonia project,” would go a long way to restoring unity to our bi-polar synod. What I do doubt is (once dragged kicking and screaming into the light of day) the issues that divide us today will meet anyone’s criteria as “new,” or “post-modern” issues. I fear we are divided today on the same old issues dealt w/ previously in the three catholic creeds, and the 16th century Lutheran Confessions.
    Again, I’m just suggesting we table a “new confession” until after we achieve real unity on the ones we’ve got.
    Pax Christi +,
    -Matt Mills

  5. Frank,

    The problem is not that they make good arguments, but that they make good Scriptural arguments. You can’t fall back on Scripture when Scripture is being used against you. We need a unified Lutheran confession on origins which explains what Scripture says, where Scripture is silent, and which addresses the false Scriptural arguments.

    -Tim Scheck (layman)

  6. Matt,

    What if we do not get agreement on the ones we’ve got? Probably what you and others have helped me see is that this is just going to take a lot of time. It’s not that I am trying to hurry anything but I have been around the LCMS block a few times without seeing any progress on doctrinal unity and am ready for some real, heavy-duty solutions.

    I know this discussion has played out on numerous other strings of comments on numerous other websites so I thank everyone for being patient with me and giving your imput. I remain convinced that a new set of assertions and rejections is the best way to get to a God-pleasing unity of congregatons. The answer is not pulling out as some have done After all, the fifth duty of a congregatoin according to Wlather, is to join with other orthodox congregatons. (Although, I have great respect for those men and their congregatons who have done so.) The answer is not papering over things, as you have made clear. The answer is not in by-laws as most of us know. The answer is in something like the Koininia Project, but one that ends with a “yea” or “nea” document.

    Pastor Rossow

  7. Does anyone really believe that, confession or no, statement or no, whatever comes out of this, that the LCMS church down the street that has women elders and a wildly contemporary service is going to change?

    The members of that church believe in what they are doing. I know. I was a member of that church and saw the “liberals” or whatever you want to call them get into power, convince the current pastor to leave, and call a new pastor who believed as they do.

    How is this process going to help us either teach this pastor that what he is doing wrong, or teach the church, or evict the church .. ? How are the pastor and members of churches like this going to be involved in this process and not just ignore it and keep going on their merry way?

  8. Rev. Harrison comments on this in his paper. He suggests powerful documents of our church, such as “Law and Gospel” and “Church and Ministry” by Walther, while not confessions, do have their place in refuting doctrinal error which had surfaced and were (and are) generally subscribed to by the LC-MS (as is Chemnitz’ “The Two Natures of Christ”). There is no reason that such a document could not be produced, and influential, without a “confession” status.

  9. Anon 332,

    Good point.

    First let me say I am sorry that you had to live through that and am happy that you have found a good church.

    To the point – none of what we are describing here will make a bit of difference without strict supervision from district presidents and the synodical president. This is why we shouted from the mountaintops a few weeks ago (concerning the Chicago University issue) that there is a crisis of supervision in our synod.

    The reason that I posit that a new confession will help is because armed with such, the synodical president and the bishop can go to the church you have described and discipline them on the basis of a clear confession.

    But, you retort, what if we don’t get the clear confession adopted as a synod. Aha, here is where pushing for a new confession serves a subsidiary purpose – if that happens then we finally begin to realize that we are just two different communions and that is a different problem that calls for a different answer.

    Clear confessions make it clear where people stand.

    Pastor Rossow

  10. I will throw my two cents in again:

    Use the Koinonia Project as a workshop.

    Bring the folks in the project back to the Confessions, by studying them deeply and applying them to our present age.

    Have them go out from the project and teach what they internalized with this clear message: We as Lutherans, on the whole have strayed from our theology. The time has come to renew our committment to Lutheran doctrine as contained in the BoC.

    Re-present the Book of Concord to the Lutheran laity and clergy and make the call for a renewed quia subscription to it – by both.

    This is how it could work, IMHO.

  11. I like the idea Jon but unless it comes with very specific teachings drawn out of the confessions that rebuke the principles of the narcissistic approach to doing church these days and all of the other heresies of liberalism and evangelicalism, I am afraid it will as Matthew says above – paper over the differences.

    Have you read Baue’s Manifesto? When I read it I find myself thinking that this is exactly what needs to be taken to every corner of Lutheranism and people need to be asked whether they agree with it or not. It just seems so simple to me.

    Pastor Rossow

  12. Tim,

    You asked, “How does the Book of Concord present a unified front against the errors of theistic evolution and old-earth creation?”

    It doesn’t, specifically. In fact, there are many, many errors unaddressed in the Book of Concord. Shall we have a new confession for each?


  13. Geez!
    Skool the kidd and pop off to work —
    I seem to have missed the whole conversation.
    Pastor Rossow, your questions were answered by others quite well I think, yet my two cents…
    Darwinism is not really more than paganism leaking into the church.
    The inability to ascribe truth to words is cultural, but not new.
    Catechesis is the only answer for those that are of faith however weak. For those without, the Holy Spirit must awaken faith, or words – written or spoken are of no use.

  14. Mark,

    The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is nothing more than paganism leaking into the church (Aristotle, northern European witchcraft and magic, etc. and it is the same paganism that still makes it work today in places like central America, e.g. the Virgin of Guadalupe) but the Lutheran reformers decided to write a confession and then write an apology in defense of that confession against such paganism.

    I am not impressed by an argument based on Darwinism as paganism. Besides, that is merely one example. Have you read the Lutheran Manifesto posted on this site? It details dozens of serious heresies that have made their way into the church, not just Darwinism.

    Concerning your assertion that not ascribing truth to words is not new is patently wrong. Yes, there have always been nominalists (Ockham) and even skeptics (David Hume) but even they still accepted the ability of words to communicate truth. It has not been until the last half of the twentieth century that philosophers (with theologians as usual, following about a generation behind) actaully began to teach that words do not carry meaning but only emotions or at best the collection of significant memories of the speaker who uses a given word.

    Pastor Rossow

  15. Pastor Wilken,

    Earlier, you said the BoC is enough to present a unified front against error. How so if there are errors it doesn’t address? I’m afraid I don’t follow you.

    You wrote, “Shall we have a new confession for each [error unaddressed in the BoC]?”

    Yes. Errors must be addressed one way or another; isn’t it better for the Church as a whole, rather than individuals, to do so? For example, I think it would be simply awesome if synodical conventions existed solely to unite the Church against error.

  16. Mark,

    You said, Darwinism is not really more than paganism leaking into the church.

    That is not accurate. It is legitimate–indeed, appropriate for Lutherans to be concerned if science is perceived to contradict Scripture, because Scripture gives us literal history. We don’t live in a fairy tale world like the Mormons. Also, whether or not Darwinism is science (it’s not) is a separate issue, because a great many think it is science.

  17. Tim,

    You wrote, “Earlier, you said the BoC is enough to present a unified front against error.”

    Really? Where did I say that?

    I said the BoC is enough to confess the Gospel.


  18. Pastor Wilken,

    Comment 49.

    I said, “Surely the reason we need confessions is to present a unified front against error. Is the Book of Concord enough for that?”
    You said, “Yes.”

  19. Pastor Rossow,

    What, specifically, do you see a new set of “confessions” accomplishing? I don’t see unity in greater numbers, just more factions and them more well-defined. Is that a goal?

    If we can’t get pastors to agree on what the 500 year old confessions say now, how would more statements help? You either believe/accept them or you don’t. You mentioned above that it would be tough for many to get past AC III or AC IV.

    If we do add more articles, where would it stop? As I mentioned in my earlier post, it would just give those looking for a way out another challenge to find a loophole to jump through. Much like the IRS code, which now numbers 9000 pages, and people still find a way to avoid paying taxes, more articles to confess would probably only lead to more division.

    Help me understand – what do you want the compiling and publishing of these new confessions to result in?

  20. Tim,

    Thanks for pointing that out.

    Perhaps we are using two different definitions of “Confessions.”

    When I ask, should we write a new confession for every new error, I am asking, should we expand the contents of the BoC, and add new, binding documents to the BoC, in response to every error?

    No, we shouldn’t –nor could we.

    When I say that the BoC as it is, is enough to respond to error, I’m not saying that the BoC specifically rejects every conceivable error there could ever arise. That would be impossible.

    I am saying that the BoC is enough as a rule of faith and an interpretive lens for Scripture. And Scripture itself does give us a unified front against error.

    And, as I said before, the BoC, in both it’s specific content, and as an interpretive lens for Scripture, is enough to confess the Gospel.

    I hope that this helps make my position more clear.


  21. Doesn’t the LCMS have the CTCR for the very reason of responding to new errors? Even if it is now being abused, wasn’t that it’s original purpose?

    I remember an Issues, Etc. show concerning the CTCR, but I am unable to find its link.

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