Steadfast ELS — Confess and Defend

The 95th annual convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) is fast upon us. It will begin with “Synod Sunday” services and a picnic (our conventions are like a big family reunion) on the Bethany Lutheran College campus on June 17 (ELS conventions always begin on Father’s Day) and will continue through Thursday, June 21.

At last year’s convention, the ELS adopted the vision statement, “In the next five years we will learn to engage others more faithfully with Jesus” (Synod Report, p. 113, goal 7). This statement is often abbreviated in the four-word phrase “engage others with Jesus,” just as the LCMS has “witness, mercy, life together,” the ELCA has “God’s work. Our hands.” and WELS has “Christ’s love, our calling.”

In keeping with the strategic plan “to learn to engage others more faithfully with Jesus” and given the considerable amount of discussion among Christians today concerning apologetics, the ELS doctrine committee has engaged in a study of apologetics. The conclusions of the study are summarized in a statement entitled “confess and defend,” included in the doctrine committee’s report to the 2012 convention. The statement endeavors to approach the apologetic task from a uniquely Lutheran perspective. The title itself “confess and defend” joins the apologetic task to the Lutheran tradition of confessing the faith as found in the Book of Concord. Following the approach to theology in the Lutheran Confessions and dogmaticians, the statement begins by defining terms according to the biblical usage. It reminds us of our Lutheran emphases of Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament, magisterial vs. ministerial use of reason, monergism in conversion, and the three (four) solas. These will temper and guide any Lutheran use of apologetics.

Here is the statement in its entirety:

Confess and Defend: homologia and apologia

  1. The New Testament establishes that each Christian is to stand ready to defend (apologeomai) the faith (Lk 12:8-11, 1 Pet 3:15, Jue 3). The term “apologetics” refers to the defense of the Christian faith. Defending the Christian faith may include an explanation of the basic beliefs of Christianity. It may also include giving grounds or reasons for accepting the Christian message as true or a refutation of criticisms of the faith, as well as exposing inadequacies of alternative religions and worldviews.
  2. “Apologetics” is used in either a narrow a broad sense. It is used in a narrow sense when referring to the presentation of rational arguments and historical evidence in defense of the truthfulness of Scripture against attacks, including the historicity of the events of the Old and New Testaments, especially the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In its broad sense, “apologetics” includes the use of the law to show the folly of unbelief, and also the use of the gospel in giving the reason for Christian hope. These theses primarily speak of apologetics in the broad sense.
  3. The New Testament also commands that each Christian is to confess (homologeo) the faith (1 Tim 6:12, 2 Cor 9;13, Ro 10:9, 10, 1 Jn 4:1, 15, Phil 2:11, Lk 12:8-11). Homologeo means “to speak the same thing,” i.e. to agree, assent, acknowledge, or profess.
  4. Jesus’ words in Luke 12:8-11 connect ( homologia v. 8 ) and “answer/defend” (apologia v. 11). Therefore we hold that “confess” and “defend” (homologia/homologeo and apologia/apologeomai) speak of loosely related activities, both of which are commanded by Christ and the apostles.
  5. All of Scripture is the infallible and inerrant word of God and belongs to the faith for which the Christian is to contend (1 Pet 3:15, Jude 3). At the heart of Christian confession and defense is the gospel itself- the revelation of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God made flesh and his sacrificial atonement by which God justifies the sinner. As we can see form the apostles’ activity in the book of Acts, when Christians were called upon to defend the Christian faith or the gospel itself, they will always confess the person of Jesus Christ and his work and give witness to the gospel (Acts 2, 4, 19, 22, 26 etc.)
  6. The Holy Scripture is the word of God and therefore is inherently powerful and self-authenticating. Historical and other external evidence and argument from sources apart from Scripture are a useful and important part of Christian apologetics in that they lay bare and condemn the presumption of unbelief and skepticism, but they neither verify nor authentic Scripture as God’s revelation.
  7. Human reason is a gift of God (First Article in Luther’s Small Catechism), even though it is corrupted by human sin. We distinguish between a ministerial and a magisterial use of reason. Reason is used- ministerially- as a servant- when it is an instrument in presenting and apprehending the gospel, and when it is used to show the foolishness of unbelief. Reason is used magisterially- as a master- when it stands in judgment over Scripture and its teachings, or when it reinterprets or dismisses clear teachings of Scripture to agree with human reason and experience. We reject the magisterial or critical use of reason applied to the teachings of Holy Scripture.
  8. The cause of conversion or regeneration is not to be sought in the human presentation of evidence and argument, as important as they are, but only in the inherent power of God’s word of the gospel (2 Cor 4:6; Eph 2:8,9; 2 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 1:23).
  9. The Christian confession and defense will always be done with the understanding that regeneration is only the work of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace, word and sacrament, and is not aided or effected by man. The absolute predominance of sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Scriptura (solus Christus) will always be made clear in carrying out the apologetic task.
  10. Since the apologetic task is engaged not only in confessing the faith, but in using the law to reveal the presumptuousness of unbelief, care will be taken not confuse the law and the gospel or to make the law a part of the gospel presentation, instead of a necessary adjunct to it. Christian confession and defense will always keep in mind C.F.W. Walther’s exposition The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, especially the finally thesis: “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.”

As Pastor Samwise Schultheisz has brought out in his “Steadfast Defense” articles on this site, we must distinguish between Lutheran and Reformed approaches to apologetics. Pastor Schultheisz’ articles have been useful in this regard, as are books by Craig Parton, Al Quist, David Thompson, Gene Veith, and others. This statement by the ELS doctrine committee also helps us to steer clear of dangers of treating apologetics as “evidence that demands a verdict,” ultimately leading to a “decision for Jesus” based on the persuasiveness of our arguments. It reminds us that conversion is the Holy Spirit’s work through Word and Sacrament. By connecting apologetics with confession of our faith, it reminds that each of us should be prepared to explain the basic beliefs of Christianity. At the same time we should be prepared to expose inadequacies in alternative religions and wordviews and to refute unfounded criticisms of the faith.

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