The just published winter issue of the Concordia Journal from the seminary in St. Louis is devoted in great part to a review of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s proposals on structure. Instead of offering hard-hitting critique based on Scripture and the Confessions, this issue is steeped in matters of discussion, dialogue and a harmful perspectivalism endemic in our culture. I expected more from them. One expects that they would be the teachers that they have been called to be. Instead, the faculty at Concordia Seminary are truly the harmless little dust bunnies as depicted in Pastor Blazek’s recent cartoon (look in the lower right hand corner).
Before I go any further let me say that I am a proud graduate of Concordia Seminary St. Louis. I would not even be able to begin to offer this critique were it not for the learning and wisdom gained at Concordia St. Louis (M Div, 1985) and also at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana (D Min, 2006). Having that pride and thankfulness for my alma mater however does not mean I cannot call a spade a spade. This journal issue is best considered to be the work of harmless dust bunnies.
Instead of teaching the church by taking a position for or against the proposals, and backing each position up with Scripture and Confessional references (I only count four scripture references and one reference to the Confessions in the fifty-two pages of articles), they mostly offer postmodern ruminations about process and dialogue saying things like this:
…in these important conversations about the church…we see ourselves [the faculty] as learners as well as teachers, as listeners as well as speakers. (Dr. William Schumacher, Dean of Theological Research, page 8 )
…which means that for constructive and truly generative conversation to happen, we must do the hard work of engaging one another in thoughtful discourse and meaningful action (Schumacher, p. 9)
Is communication the key to promoting trans-local accountability in the church of God that many are beginning to desire? (Anthony A. Cook, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, p. 13)
…when the convention is over… I hope it tells the story of a struggling group of Lutherans who… dedicate themselves to saving people through generative relationships and conversations of grace. (Cook, p. 14)
To that end this essay seeks to clarify how theology influences practice, how what we believe about the church influences how we converse with one another as we consider what it means to be the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the twenty first century (Professors Erik Hermann and David Schmitt, p. 38).
There is nothing wrong with what these snippets are saying. Discussion and listening are important but we lean upon our seminary professors to teach us not lead us in discussion. If you take the effort to read the issue as I did I fear you will be frustrated on nearly every page looking in vain for proactive theological assertions and finding mostly a discussion of process rather than theology. Based on this issue of the Journal it looks like the St. Louis seminary has been taken over by a bunch of postmoderns whose emphasis is on theological style and dialogue rather than theology itself.
Take a look at the title of one of the articles: “Toward an Ecclesiology of Catholic Unity and Mission in the Borderlands, Reflections of a Latino Lutheran Theologian” by Leopoldo A. Sanchez (Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology). That is an impressive sounding title but we would really just like to know what a doctrinal theologian like Professor Sanchez thinks about the Blue Ribbon proposals. (By the way, what is a Latino theologian? I suppose if we have Hyper-European pastors and professors we might as well have Latino theologians. Does a Latino theologian arrive at different theological assertions than a German theolgian does? I wonder if there is any room in this synod for common sense realist theologians who just want to use simple, plain English to preach and teach the Scriptures?) Sanchez goes on to say in his article
As a systematic theologian, for the purposes of this essay, I am also especially interested in how current arguments on the church’s unity and mission are constructed or framed…
Again we see an emphasis on how the argument is framed rather than the truth or falsity of the theological assertions in the proposals themselves. Sanchez also repeatedly uses the phrase “interpretive lenses for understanding ecclesiology” (e.g. p. 18, p. 31). In a Bible-teaching synod such as the LCMS it is at best distracting to focus on “lenses of understanding” and at worst it ends in perspectival relativism.
The problem here is an emphasis on process rather than theology. I have discerned for several years now that the St. Louis seminary has caved into the academic culture of perspectivalism. By perspectivalism I mean the uniquely postmodern way of thinking that truth comes down to one’s perspective. In other words, relativism. This is a serious accusation against the seminary that fought against and defeated modernism. We defeated modernism but are succumbing to postmodernism. Modernism taught that religious truth is bogus and false. Postmodernism teaches that religious truth is not false, but that it is a matter of one’s perspective. Modernism sought to destroy religion; postmodernism saves it but relegates it with all other “truth” to the arena of perspective, opinion and viewpoint. Modernists asserted that in the light of science, religion makes no sense. The postmodernist says that you can have your religious “truth,” i.e. truth for you and I shall have mine and they can coexist as long as they do not violate the lowest common moral denominator in the culture. Truth is subject to perspective. Therefore, we must focus on the processes by which we make decisions. We must focus on dialogue and discussion rather than the actual dogmatic answers that we find in scripture.
Here is a little exercise for you. Read Gene Veith’s excellent book on postmodernism and then read the articles in this journal. You will be amazed that what Veith critiqued ten years ago is now making its way into our seminary.
Since polity is somewhat in the realm of adiaphora, there is room on this matter for more emphasis on dialogue and discussion than with other doctrinal loci but this issue of the Journal goes far beyond that. It majors in dialogue and discussion. We need our professors to provide for us a straight-forward, common sense realism, critique of the Blue Ribbon proposals in plain English rather than articles filled with phrases like “generative relationships,” constructive and generative conversation,” and “translocal accountability.” This is the language of perspective and not the language of theological argument that characterizes the Lutheran Confessions. If there is any meaningful discussion about process it ought to be a critique of the way the synod has handled this matter already which is more akin to spin-doctoring than to genuine input gathering from the members of the synod. The process has been manipulated but that concern has sadly not made its way into the Journal’s obsession with process.
Are you still unconvinced that the St. Louis faculty is stuck in a post-modern world of perspectival process rather than in Luther’s world of hard cold theological assertion? If so, consider this quote from the highly respected (and rightfully so) Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Exegetical (Bible understanding) Theology, Andrew Bartelt.
This [greater level of theological training] would be especially critical in the fundamental areas of hermeneutics and interpretation, which have as much to do with “reading” culture and context and personal spiritual needs as they do with reading and properly understanding the biblical and theological texts themselves. (p. 55)
Yes, you read that correctly. The Vice President of Academic Affairs and one of the most revered professors of the Bible in the LCMS says flat out that understanding the Bible has as much to do with understanding culture as it does with understanding the texts themselves. This may make sense in the postmodern world of literature and the philosophical world of deconstruction but it is nonsense and dangerous ground to tread for conservative, Bible-believing Lutherans who trust that God has revealed plain, objective, straight-forward truth based on the simple philosophy of common sense realism in His word.
There are a lot of helpful insights in this issue of the Journal but they are lost in the perspectival focus on process and discussion. We don’t need discussion from our professors. We need analysis of what is right or wrong with the proposals. Some of the helpful things in this issue include Professor Sanchez offering some clear opinions on the Blue Ribbon proposals but sadly his critique is based on ethnic multiculturalism and not doctrinal theology (p. 32). The Herrman/Schmitt article has a fine critique of the Americanization of the church and I think they are even trying to suggest that the Blue Ribbon proposals reflect this harmful Americanization. Good for them, but please just come right out and say it rather than asserting that your goal is to clarify the process by which we discuss these matters.
Even President Meyer’s two page article is disappointing (pp. 10-11). His basic point is that the fly over states that comprise the majority of LCMS members are behind the knowledge curve of realizing the significance of globalization. We need to spread out the center of the synod so that members all around the country feel connected. That may be true, I am not sure that it is and even if it is true I do not see how it effects the confession of the faith and it left me scratching my head wondering how it is related to the critique of the Blue Ribbon proposals.
I believe this matter can be resolved. There are fine bright theologians at our seminaries. They are certainly brighter than this author but I do hope they will take seriously this critique of their approach to theology. Get away from cloudy perspectivalism and get back to straight forward doctrinal assertion. Teach us in the style of the Formula of Concord and in the way of Walther and Pieper, Hummel and Nagel. There are still five more issues of the quarterly to come out before the proposals are brought to the 2010 convention. The July issue of the Journal was actually more assertive and straight-forward in its theology of the church than this one is and exemplifies a more helpful approach.
Maybe this is all just my own problem of perspective. I was told by an insider a few weeks ago that this issue of the Journal would be a hard-hitting critique of the Blue Ribbon proposals. He was told this by insiders from the seminary faculty. As it turns out Pastor Blazek was right in his cartoon. The seminary professors are just harmless little dust bunnies. Actually they are more than harmless bunnies. Their lack of willingness to speak clearly is harming the church. We need you gentleman and scholars to speak out with a clear voice your specific favor or disfavor of each Blue Ribbon proposal. You are equipped like no one else to critique these proposals on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions. We appreciate your interest in process, discussion and multiculturalism but we need your understanding of Moses, Paul and Chemnitz in order to help us sort out these proposals that could radically reform our denomination for the worse.