Doctrine and Practice: Resisting the Influence of Evangelicalism, Part II, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(These posts are adapted from a presentation Pastor Preus made in Sweden for the North European Luther Academy in 2006 and which was republished in the recent edition of Logia, A Journal of Lutheran Theology. We recommend both groups to the Brothers of John the Steadfast. The other posts in this series are archived in the Brothers’ Cafe under Klemet’s name.)

 

Two Principles

There are two general principles of the relationship between practice and doctrine which I will address today. First, church practices tend to picture or promote the central teaching of a given theological system. It doesn’t matter if a particular theology is orthodox or heterodox, Lutheran, Reformed or Roman Catholic this basic principle still is true. And the central teaching of a church usually is the way in which that particular church believes that the cross of Jesus is made available to the sinner. So there is a soteriological function of church practices. Consequently church practices are often not neutral.

 

Every Classical theological system of the west – from Lutheran theology to Roman, from Calvinistic to Baptistic to Arminian, from Methodistic to Pentecostal – all theologies attempt to bridge the gap between cross and people. All these churches, at least traditionally, teach that Jesus died on the cross. And all teach that the sinner should somehow possess the blessings of the cross and resurrection. Where the churches differ is in their understanding of how the cross of Christ is applied to the sinner. Each of these classic expressions of Christianity has developed a system of church practices (or, at least, allowed one to evolve) which promotes or pictures its unique understanding of how the effects of the cross of Jesus become the possession of the sinner. In the Lutheran system God bestows the blessings of the cross through the Gospel – Word and Sacrament. So the practices of the Lutheran church tend to center on the Word and Sacrament. Within that system which is called New Evangelicalism or sometimes American Evangelicalism the gap between cross and the human heart is bridged by the emotional experience of the ardent seeker. So church practices tend to reinforce the experience of the Christian, “the hour I first believed,” as the old revivalist hymn says. Within the Roman system the way in which the cross becomes mine is through the hierarchy of the church and a system of works within the framework of the organized church. Hence the practices of that church tend to reinforce the Roman system of work-righteousness. A church’s soteriology is that locus where that church’s dominant practices will be apparent.

 

If church practices tend to serve a soteriological function within a given system then clearly these practices have tremendous theological significance. Consequently, and this is the second principle of the relationship between doctrine and practice, there is a symbiotic relationship between doctrine and practice. “The two are more closely related, even interdependent, than is often realized. Doctrine affects practice and practice affects doctrine. The two are so intimately woven together that when you change one you will inevitably change the other and sometimes without realizing what has happened.” [1] You cannot introduce new practices without changing doctrine. You cannot change doctrine without introducing new practices.

 

In my time with you today I will first show how these two principles apply within the Church of Rome. It will be an obvious thing to you and I will do so just so that you can see the application of these two principles easily. Then we will examine how the Lutherans responded to Rome and developed practices which promoted the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel as the means of grace. Third, and this will be the most challenging, we will see how Reformed Armianism has its own practices which promote the theology of Arminianism with an American twist. And, I hope, we will discover that aping the practices of this theology will have dire consequences for us as Lutherans.

Next time we will consider a case study from the Roman Catholic Church.

 


[1] Klemet Preus, The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice (St, Louis: Concordia Publishing House 2004) 14.

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