Detailed Report from the Visit to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, by Pr. Rossow

(This article is long overdue due to several reasons. First, I had to write it. Then, it needed to be reviewed by Dr. Meyer. He had a busy travel schedule and some illness. That was followed by a week of my own illness. So, finally, here it is. I consider this the beginnning of a long discussion here on the BJS blog, over the next seveal weeks, of the changes at Concordia, Seminary in St. Louis.)

I was asked to visit with the President and faculty members of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (CSL) over my recent postings criticizing their use of elements from contemporary worship and small group theory. The visit resulted in some good things. It resulted in 1) my better understanding their viewpoint, 2) an opportunity for me to express concerns over this move and 3) a better appreciation on my part of the nature of fraternal conversation.

You may have noticed that the above three items are matters of process and they are quite positive. Most of the BJS world however, myself included, is more interested in substance than process. I have learned from my time in St. Louis that more attention needs to be paid to process but I am also more convinced than ever that substance and content are the most important things we have to discuss in the LCMS. It has always been that way, and I pray that it always will be. By way of substance I am disappointed to report that I heard the St. Louis crowd defending the new innovations of small groups and contemporary worship mostly with pragmatics. There was a substantive defense given as well. It was provided by Dean of the Chapel Kent Burreson and was quite interesting. I will detail it below. Before getting to that let’s address the very positive matters of process.

The meeting schedule was arranged so that Dr. Meyer and I could first spend ninety minutes discussing the advantages of using a more fraternal approach to issues of disagreement. After that there was a two hour meeting with some of the members of the faculty I named in previous posts and the Pastoral Formation Committee. That was followed by a cordial and fraternal dinner with Dr. Meyer and the provost. Finally, the next morning I had a two hour meeting with the Dean of the Chapel, Kent Burreson and a few other faculty members to further discuss the specifics of the small groups and the new chapel band.

I begin with an apology. I apologize to each of the members of the faculty I named in the previous posts on this matter. My intention in naming them was to put some historical and literal flesh on the bones of my argument. I did not intend to speak of them in a pejorative way. My words however, deeply hurt them and caused them pain and angst. They were upset that I had not talked to them before posting about the matters raised on BJS. I did not intend that pain but it was real and I caused it. It was my words that did that and so I apologize for my sin of the tongue (keypad) and ask their forgiveness.

In my private time with Dr. Meyer I was convinced that my efforts as the editor of the BJS blog have not always been as fraternal as they might be. In the future I will make a better effort to engage folks and issues privately before writing publicly. In my defense I told Dr. Meyer that I and others have made many attempts to engage people privately and usually to no avail. It gets old after awhile – getting no response from brothers on issues of concern. The topics we discuss here are always open and public events anyway. We do not disclose private matters. But, nonetheless, Dr. Meyer winsomely convinced me to make more of an effort at private engagement before offering public critique.

In addition to the helpful discussion of fraternal dialogue, in my meetings with both Dr. Meyer and the faculty I made it clear that this is not my problem and that I would not allow anyone to make it my problem. I am quite willing to admit that I can be more fraternal in my approach but the bottom line is that the St. Louis Seminary added significant innovations to their pastoral formation program, they did so publicly and so there is naturally going to ensue a public discussion of these matters. Speaking of fraternity, I reminded Dr. Meyer and the faculty members that they offered no opportunity for fraternal discussion of these matters before they commenced. The first place the synod heard about these innovations was through the daily announcements of the seminary. As I said over and over again to Dr. Meyer and the gathered faculty:

This is not my problem. I am not going to let anyone make this my problem. Here is the bottom line. The historically most conservative, confessional, and liturgical Lutheran seminary in the world, a beacon of light, has decided to add small groups and contemporary worship to its program. That is significant and deserves to be and will be discussed publicly.

Let me interject again my enjoyment of Dr. Meyer’s company. I know you are probably weary of hearing about it, but it really was a key to the good that came out of the discussions. Dr. Meyer is one of those rare scholars who does not take himself too seriously. He is serious enough all right, but even in the midst of his strong words for me we were able to have a laugh or two.

There was a lot of talk about the eighth commandment and I suppose it may have been violated, but it also needs to be mentioned that citing of the eighth commandment does not overrule theological critique. Dr. Meyer spent significant time going over the explanation of the eighth commandment from the Large Catechism with me. It was pointed out among other things that Luther says we are not to publicly judge or reprove our neighbor (par. 265). Luther also says that false witness is everything that cannot be proved (par. 271). Luther has much more to say about this. I am very well aware of this text. As a matter of fact, days before I went to St. Louis we here on BJS published President’s Harrison’s blog on this very text from the Large Catechism.

Luther also says in paragraph 284 of the Large Catechism:

All this has been said regarding secret sins. But where the sin is quite public so that the judge and everybody know it, you can without any sin avoid him and let him go, because he has brought himself into disgrace, and you may also publicly testify concerning him. For when a matter is public in the light of day, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying; as, when we now reprove the Pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. For where the sin is public, the reproof also must be public, that every one may learn to guard against it. (from bookofconcord.org)

If I understand his argument correctly on this matter, Dr. Meyer holds that the spiritual courts have not determined the theological appropriateness of their actions nor the truth or falsity of my claims, therefore I do not have the right to speak on this matter publicly. We disagree on that.

I hold that the BJS blog is a part of the process of the church deciding whether this is right or wrong. I am entitled to my theological opinion. It ought to be shared in as fraternal a way as possible, and as I stated above, I plan on doing that from now on.

Luther has more to say on theological critique. (Martin Noland posted an excellent article on this a few months ago on this very website.) In his “Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope” (LW, vol. 39) Luther says:

But if they say that one should beware of rebelling against spiritual authority, I answer: Should God’s word be dispensed with and the whole church perish? (p. 252)

He also says:

Finally, the proclamation of all prophets was generally addressed mostly to the high officials such as kings, princes, priests, scribes…Now Jeremiah was certainly far below kings, princes and priests, an unimportant person from the small town of Anathoth, but he had to preach God’s word to, and against, all high estates and had to reprove them.

Of course, Jeremiah had a call to do such. But, Luther applies these words to himself and to all who make theological critique. Luther had no call to challenge Popes, bishops and priests, and yet he did so and defended it because he was captive to the word of God.

And now to the substantive matters. The bottom line at this point is that the St. Louis faculty and I disagree on the use of small groups and a chapel band at the seminary. I hope I can convince them through further dialogue and I believe they hope to convince me. I was encouraged to learn that the small groups are a pilot program.

I was surprised to hear of so many pragmatic arguments for the use of small groups and the chapel band at the seminary. Here is a sample of the pragmatic arguments:

  • Some students do not like chapel and so we need to give them some form of piety.
  • There were some visitors from off campus here one day during small group time and they got to interact with the students via the small groups [therefore the small groups are a good thing].
  • When I was a student we had small groups in our dorms. We are just formalizing what already goes on.
  • Some students come from small group and contemporary worship congregations so this is something they can relate to.
  • The graduates are going to do contemporary worship anyway. This is giving them a model of how to do it properly.

The substantive defense for both the small groups and the chapel band came from Dean Burreson. His approach met with much agreement from the faculty members present. It is contained in a paper that was distributed to the faculty last Spring. (I will be posting a copy of it here on the BJS site. It will make for good discussion.) Here are the guts of the paper and its argument for the chapel band. This argument was also endorsed in our meetings as support for the small groups.

All things in creation were created by God the Father through Christ to serve God and His will. This creedal assertion includes all the various elements in the world’s cultures. A culture entails all of the symbolic elements that provide identity and cohesion to a society and its life together. Christianity, while it has its own culture engendered by the Word of God working in the church’s midst, is not an isolated and self-contained culture. Through the incarnation Christ has affirmed that culture can be redeemed and utilized as God originally intended. Christianity is in constant dialogue with the cultures of the world throughout history and baptizes and employs societal cultural forms so that they serve the ministry of the Gospel. Christianity is both a culture amongst cultures, by virtue of the Word, and yet does not have its own isolated, peculiar culture into which other cultures must be absorbed. The culture of Christianity expresses itself through the cultures of the world.

Historically Christian worship demonstrates the broad cultural tapestry from which Christian worship practices have taken their shape. Thus, contextualizing worship according to the artistic forms of any particular culture in which the church finds itself, especially in a local setting, is simply an exercise in faithful Christian witness. It allows the Gospel to speak in the symbolic forms which a local society understands. The efforts at contextualization at Concordia Seminary aim to do just that, allow the Gospel to speak in worship in the cultural forms representative of the broad range of cultural contexts that intersect in both the church’s and the seminary’s life represented by such broad cultural categories as: Latino/a, African, Asian, modern and post-modern Anglo. These efforts focus especially on the musical arts, although other forms of cultural symbolism are represented such as the fine arts and the theatrical arts.

What does this mean in specifics? In terms of modern and post modern Anglo culture, currently it means that 4-5 times each quarter daily chapel worship is led by a band consisting of such instruments as acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drum set, electronic keyboard and the human voice (vocalists). This band leads congregational song,, hymnody, psalmody, canticles from LSB and other hymns and songs not in LSB approved for use in the seminary chapel…Often the order of service is the Service of Prayer and Preaching, although we also contextualize Matins and Morning Prayer as well.

I will be offering my critique of this “contextualization” theology in future posts.

One of the exciting things we talked about is the possibility of faculty participation here on the BJS blog. In particular, Dean Burreson suggested that it might be a good thing for him to explain these innovations here on the BJS blog.

It was an interesting couple of days. There were a lot of intense emotions. There was disagreement but fraternity was also apparent. We made progress on process issues. Substantive issues were left at a stalemate but with this hope: future discussions will be done in fraternity and, even in disagreement, there will be an effort made to maintain the fellowship of the brotherhood. If my dinner with Dr. Meyer was any indication, there is great precedent for fellowship and brotherhood. I pray this will help open the door to greater agreement on the issues of substance.

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