Criticism of Theological Critique, by Rev. Martin Noland

In the last couple of weeks, various members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have criticized the theological critique being published at Brothers of John the Steadfast (BJS). I am not going to defend everything that is published at BJS, because most of the word count is in blog comment and that is a “free for all” by definition. Anyone who condemns blog comment per se will have to condemn blogging completely. That is like when my classmate’s parents condemned rock music in the mid 1960s and threw away all of his vinyl LP records when Billy Graham came through town. Yes, the agents of the devil and hellfire were identified as Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees (the Monkees??)

Lutherans do not engage in “blanket condemnations” like American Evangelicals. We use our God-given brains, find out what is right and wrong, and issue theological critiques so people can use the things of this world in good conscience—or not, as the case may be. So we drink beer, but not in excess. So we use the “pill,” but not to completely eliminate children from families or to sanction fornication.

I think most reasonable people will not condemn blogging completely. Most reasonable people will ask participants in a blog to restrain themselves, to focus on issues not personalities, and to remember the Golden Rule. These are the same types of things you would counsel someone in a group dinner conversation or at a live, in-person public forum. And this request for restraint is not uniquely Christian, much less Lutheran.

In my observation of the BJS blog, since its inception in 2008, the editors have constantly reminded the commenters to restrain themselves. Not all comments have been posted, some have been deleted, and in many cases, the other bloggers tell the offending blogger to quit the offensive remarks or leave. Pastor Tim Rossow has done a better job of monitoring the BJS blog than any other blog editor I have seen. It is a Herculean job. So, thanks, Rev. Rossow, for hosting our conversations! And thanks to Norm Fisher for all the tech work behind the scenes, and the interesting posts too!

What makes BJS blogs unique is that they often engage in Lutheran “theological critique.” Many people may not know about the history of the “criticism of theological critique.” It goes back to the 1950s, when the complaints were beginning to come out about the false teaching going on at the Saint Lous seminary. The defense of the professors and their allies was “you are breaking the 8th commandment,” “you are violating Matthew 18,” and “classrooms are private.” So persons who “finked on their teacher” were disciplined or expelled. Persons who published what was going on there became persona non grata in the synod.

Finally, the synod as a whole, i.e., all the congregations and pastors, realized that a seminary classroom teaches public theology in a public setting, and then opened up those classrooms to public inspection with the “Fact Finding Committee” appointed by President J.A.O. Preus. What the synod found there was horrifying, at least to those who believe in Jesus and His Word. On the basis of the result of the Fact Finding Committee, the synod authorized Preus to discipline the seminary professors who were not Lutheran in their view of Scriptures and the Confessions. This resulted in the walk-out, the formation of Seminex, the establishment of the AELC, and eventually their merger into the ELCA in 1988.

There is still a lot of “unfinished business” in the synod from those days. One of those items is the “criticism of theological critique.” Many persons criticizing the BJS blog are, perhaps unknowingly, using the same arguments used by the Seminex professors to defend their bad theology. That makes me suspicious about what the “critics of theological critique” are trying to hide. There certainly has to be a better way than this!

Recently, in May 2006, the leaders of the synod attempted to address the unfinished business of the “criticism of theological critique.” This was published as the CTCR document “Public Rebuke of Public Sin: Considerations in Light of the Large Catechism Explanation of the Eighth Commandment.” This is available here.

I can’t say that I agree with everything in that document, but it is a major stop forward in addressing this “unfinished business.”

In particular, this document does not help us deal with political parties in the church that publish their statements and vigorously promote their candidates and their platforms. I think the document completely avoids that issue, which means the work is only half-baked. But it is better than nothing!

My belief is that in an ideal world, political parties would not arise in the church. But they are here, so what are we going to do about it? Should the one party in power get rid of the other party? That would just lead to schism, ad infinitum. Just think about it.

Okay, so we have political parties, elections, and resolutions. How is the reasonable delegate going to make informed decisions? Oh, I see what a few BJS critics are saying now! Shut down all sources of information, except for one, which is controlled by the president of the synod (aka, the Reporter). . . . No wonder Presbyterians think Lutherans are bunch of idiots! At least Presbyterians remember that the Reformation happened because the pope didn’t control all sources of information (but he really, really tried!). . . . (Ahem! Excuse my rhetoric!)

Here is a rule of thumb I propose, that you can’t find in the CTCR “Public Rebuke” document: If you make proposals for change in the Lutheran church, i.e., something we were not doing or teaching in the Missouri Synod in the 19th century, then get ready for some theological critique of your ideas. If it passes the critique, then okay, let’s do it! If not, don’t complain about the theological critique that will come your way.

For this reason, I believe the criticism of the Jesus First organization is valid. It has defined itself in the beginning as the “party of change,” without using those words. Its leaders have defended old errors and invented some new ones in their eleven year history (“errors” here defined as contrary to LCMS Constitution, Articles II, VI, or VII). And now, “Jesus First” has proposed that large congregations get more votes (Recommendation #6), all congregations must absolutely obey synodical resolutions (Recommendation #1; proposed Article VII.B.2), and that the president controls the hiring and firing of nearly everyone in national offices, seminaries, and missions (Recommendation #18). These Recommendations will make Jesus First’s errors practically immune to theological criticism. Is that their intent? You judge for yourself.

Here is another rule of thumb that you can’t find in the CTCR “Public Rebuke” document: If you let your name stand for office in the synod, then get ready for people to look at your track record, all of your writings, and the practices currently happening at the place where you serve. If you don’t want that attention, then don’t let your name stand.

For this reason, although I was not party to it, I think the criticism of Carmel Lutheran Church, Carmel, Indiana was valid. The senior pastor there has let his name stand for a Vice-President of synod. We need to know his actual working doctrine, policies, and practices, not just what he hands in on a single sheet. His practice at his congregation is no longer a matter of concern just for that congregation. It is a concern for all of us.

Having said that, all critique must be TFV (Truthful, Fair, and able to be Verified in some way), which makes it Christian, not uniquely Lutheran. Other criteria can be found in the CTCR “Public Rebuke” document.

In conclusion, consider this statement in the CTCR document:

“The second error, however, is that of refusing on principle to consider or sanction public rebuke of public sin in any case. While this position may cite the procedure outlined in Matthew 18 as its justification, such a view owes far more to modern America’s therapeutic culture in which there is no sin, only personal conflict. To treat every instance of disagreement among members of the Synod as a clash of personalities is, ultimately, to downplay what the Scriptures teach concerning Law and Gospel and unity in doctrine that has been the foundation of the LCMS. Properly understood, public rebuke of public sin must have a place in a church that values the clear teaching of Scripture.” (my emphasis; p. 26)

So, bloggers, let’s be careful out there!

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