What is a “Confessional Lutheran”?

DSCN2617Simple Answer: Someone whose religion is in congruence with the canonical Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions found in the “Book of Concord.” The adjective “confessional” comes from the noun “Lutheran confessions,” not from the “confessional” office, i.e., the Office of the Keys.

Historic Examples: Martin Luther, because he wrote three of the Lutheran Confessions: the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Smalcald Articles; and because our theology was originally his.

Philip Melanchthon, because he wrote three of the other Lutheran Confessions: the Augsburg Confession, its Apology, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope.

Martin Chemnitz, because he was one of the primary authors of the Formula of Concord, and because it was his idea to assemble a “Book of Concord” (Latin: Concordia) of confessions to settle the theological disputes of his day.

All of the “confessors”–such as John the Steadfast–Elector of Saxony, Philip–Landgrave of Hesse, and John Frederick the Magnanimous–Elector of Saxony–who put their signatures on the Lutheran confessions, and thereby confessed their faith before the Catholic emperor, the popes, the devil, and the whole world.

The orthodox Lutheran kings, princes, theologians, pastors, and laymen in Europe in the 16th to 18th centuries.

The pastors and theologians of the “confessional revival” of the 19th century in Europe, such as Claus Harms of Kiel, Johann Scheibel of Breslau, Wilhelm Löhe of Bavaria, Theodore Kliefoth of Mecklenburg, Adolf Harless and Franz Delitzsch of Erlangen, August Vilmar of Hesse, Andreas Rudelbach of Saxony, Heinrich Guericke of Halle, and Ludwig Petri of Hanover.

The founders of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, such as Martin Stephan, C.F.W. Walther, Friedrich Wyneken, and Wilhelm Sihler.

The members of the “Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference” and their theologians and church-leaders, such as Francis Pieper, Adolf Hoenecke, and Herman Amberg Preus.

All theologians, church-leaders, pastors, and laymen around the world who follow the theology of the above-named theologians and church-leaders.

Ecclesial-Political Answer: With respect to the matter of church government, confessional Lutherans are suspicious of monarchical and autocratic forms of church government. This stance should be expected among all Protestants, with churches in the Anglican communion being the exception.

People should not be deceived by Melanchthon’s concession to the papacy in his subscription to the Smalcald Articles, for he was the author of the subsequent “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope” which stated that in his day “the marks of the Antichrist coincide with those of the pope’s kingdom and his followers” (Tr 39).

Confessional Lutherans have accepted various forms of church government, including church-governance by bishops, but they have always preferred a collegial or a balance-of-power approach, e.g., Chemnitz’s three estates, Brenz’s consistories, and the American synodical-congregational structure. No single form of church government is mandated in the Lutheran confessions, although many abuses of church government are condemned therein.

Ecclesial-Theological Answer: Confessional Lutherans see the “Book of Concord” as a fixed constitution, which all church officers, clergy, and assemblies are obligated to follow. This obligation is known as “confessional subscription.” Confessional Lutherans reject ideas of “doctrinal development,” because the confessions are drawn from a fixed body of revelation, namely, the canonical Scriptures, and because these ideas undermine the principle of the confessions as a fixed constitution

Many people wonder why it is necessary to add the qualifier “confessional” in front of the noun “Lutheran.” This is because many so-called “Lutherans,” since the beginning of the 18th century, have not agreed with the theology of Martin Luther and his immediate successors. By force of political power and/or influence, these quasi-Lutherans have claimed the name of “Lutheran” without that term’s original intent and substance. How then do they claim to be Lutheran? Quasi-Lutherans simply claim Martin Luther as their ideological forefather without warrant, even though they disagree with all or most of his theology.

Today, the confessional Lutheran churches in the United States of America are chiefly the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS). The first two were formerly German ethnically and linguistically; the third was formerly Norwegian ethnically and linguistically.

Today all three–LCMS, WELS, ELS–are English-speaking and multi-ethnic. All three are in fellowship–or some kind of association–with the other confessional Lutheran churches around the world. At the present time, WELS and ELS are not in fellowship with the LCMS or its affiliates. All three agree that the largest Lutheran church-body in America, the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” (ELCA), is quasi-Lutheran.

Therefore, when we use the term “confessional Lutheran” today, it is a way of referring to the LCMS, WELS, and ELS, and all their members and synodical affiliates, with a single term.

For Further Study

For information about the LCMS, WELS, and ELS, check-out their official web-sites here: lcms.org ; wels.net ; evangelicallutheransynod.org.

For more on the history of confessional Lutheranism, see: Martin R. Noland, “Walther and the Revival of Confessional Lutheranism,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 no. 3-4 (July/Oct 2011): 195-217; available here.

For more on “confessional subscription,” see these four essays by C.F.W. Walther: 1) “Foreword to the 1857 Volume,” Lehre und Wehre; 2) “Foreword to the 1858 Volume,” Lehre und Wehre; 3) “Opening Address,” 1866 Synodical Convention; all three essays are in: August Suelflow, ed., Editorials From Lehre und Wehre, tr. H. A. Bouman, in Selected Writings of CFW Walther (St Louis: CPH, 1981). Also see: 4) “Confessional Subscription,” 1858 Western District Essay; in August Suelflow, ed., Essays for the Church, vol. 1 (St Louis: CPH, 1992).

For more on “doctrinal development,” see these three essays by C.F.W. Walther: 1) “Foreword to the 1859 Volume,” Lehre und Wehre in: August Suelflow, ed., Editorials From Lehre und Wehre, tr. H. A. Bouman, in Selected Writings of CFW Walther (St Louis: CPH, 1981); 2) “The False Arguments for the Modern Theory of Open Questions,” Lehre und Wehre 14 (1868), translated by William Arndt and Alexander Guebert in Concordia Theological Monthly 10 no. 4-11 (1939), available here; and 3) “Theses on Open Questions” (1868), in: Doctrinal Statements of the WELS (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), available here.


What is a “Confessional Lutheran”? — 42 Comments

  1. Pr. Noland,

    As always, I enjoy your articles. A couple of points I might pick at though, with this one:

    — Regarding polity, it would appear from my reading of the Confessions, and particularly of the Augustana and its Apology, that historic canonical orders are the preferred structure of the Church. While reductionism in church structure and polity are noted as valid when required (i.e., when the local bishop refuses to do the duties of his office,) they seem an exception rather than the intended rule. While many Confessional Lutheran theologians have, as you noted, been suspicious of the old canonical forms of church polity over the centuries, it does not seem, in my humble estimation at least, that their suspicion trumps the actual worded intentions of the Confessions.

    — Confining the use of Confessional Lutherans to apply only to the LCMS, WELS, ELS, and their affiliates/partners, seems unjustifiably narrow. There are many small “micro” synods of Lutheran seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and the Confessions, and there are various reform movements stemming from or operating within the ELCA. A short and certainly not exhaustive list, might include the NALC, LCMC, AFLC, Lutheran CORE, Word Alone, and others. I might also note, that the phrase could be legitimately applied to individuals and pastors, who may or may not be affiliated with the LCMS, WELS, or ELS– or may even be suffering in significantly heterodox churches. Wasn’t Loehe one of these individuals in his day?

    Thank you again for your always interesting and deep analyses.

  2. Dear Brad,

    Thanks for your comments. They are helpful. I was careful to say that the confessional Lutheran churches in the USA today are chiefly LCMS, WELS, and ELS. They have this attribute by size and longevity and stability over the micro synods you mention. Hopefully those micro-synods can seek fellowship with either LCMS, WELS, or ELS someday, since their primary theological commitments appear to be the same.

    As to the break-offs from the ELCA, that is a more complicated matter. Most of the former ELCA groups still have theological commitments to Liberal Protestant ideas of the 19th and 20th century. Besides these problems, almost all of these groups (maybe all) have retained the ordination of women.

    David Scaer has addressed this in “Cultural and Theological Readjustments and the Survival of Lutheranism” (see Propter Christum, the festschrift for Daniel Preus, available here in print: http://www.shop.logia.org/Propter-Christum-Christ-at-the-Center-54.htm and here in PDF: http://www.shop.logia.org/Propter-Christum-Christ-at-the-Center-PDF-version-54PDF.htm ).

    Scaer argues that the acceptance of women pastors in the NALC, and similar churches, will frustrate any attempt at reform, because the inclusion of women can only be justified by treating the Lutheran confessions as mere historical documents, not as binding and fixed commitments. Scaer is right!

    As to whether individuals can be considered “confessional Lutheran,” my “simple answer” above in the post is defined with respect to individuals, not to churches, so the answer is “yes.”

    If laymen are suffering in “significantly heterodox churches,” they have at least two options to escape that suffering:

    1) join a neighboring “confessional Lutheran” church if in commuting distance (check the websites of LCMS, WELS, or ELS for congregational directories);

    2) if none in commuting distance, contact the district offices of the churches listed above, to see if some pastor in the region might offer his services. We used to call these “preaching stations,” and I served one of those on my vicarage as well as my primary parish.

    By the way, there is a difference between inconvenience and suffering. Not everyone has a confessional Lutheran church within a ten minute drive (or walk, if they don’t drive). Our ancestors used to reserve Sundays for church, because for many of them it was an all day outing—up early before the crack of dawn, milk the cows, hitch the horses, head to town–you get the idea. . . .

    When they found out there were sufficient folks in their area with the same religion, they’d start their own congregation with synodical counsel and eventually a pastor. That can still be done today, if people are willing to pay for a pastor and other expenses of a congregation.

    I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for your comments, Brad!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  3. A somewhat nook-shotten presentation. Confessional Lutheranism is not manifest at a Synodical level. It resides in the pastor who so confesses, and in the parish that practices the same. It isn’t easily found in larger manifestations. When it has been, it has been for relatively short periods, and only here and there. And often when such unity did exist, it was by political decree forcing people who did not believe it, to practice it against their own conscience. Such as within the realms of the Lutheran princes.

    As regards development of doctrine, it took over 400 years before the doctrine of the Trinity was nailed down to the one we confess. We are the heirs of that development, understanding and language. And so should not act as though the correct doctrine of the Trinity was handed to the church wrapped in ribbons.

    Similar battles were fought, and blood and ink spilled over the doctrine of the person of and work of Christ. Again, we are the heirs of that understanding which took centuries to develop to the point of faithful and useful language and terminology. Let us recognize and be grateful for those who fully developed said doctrines over centuries.

    There are some simple but revealing tests that you can apply to the facile explanation given above. Does the synod, parish or pastor being named as “confessional” celebrate the Mass every Lord’s day? And we might ask, too, do they allow grape juice as an option in their communion practices?

    We might also ask of any parish, pastor or synod: is this a church with a liturgy or a liturgical church, a church with a sacrament or a sacramental church. There is an important difference. Most don’t comprehend the fact that the Mass is definitional and constituative of who we are as Christians.

  4. @Dean Kavouras #3
    Most don’t comprehend the fact that the Mass is definitional and constituative of who we are as Christians.

    First, define “Mass”. 8-^)

    [I will refrain from asking where that exact term is found in the Bible because Lutheran Satire has skewered that argument.] 😉

    Greetings, Pr. Kavouras! Glad to have LeBron back in town?
    And an Aggie as well! You are blessed!

  5. And we might ask, too, do they allow grape juice as an option in their communion practices?

    If this is essential to “Confessional Lutheranism” is there more than a tiny handful of confessional congregations in the Missouri Synod?  I’ve never run across any that didn’t offer this option.

  6. @Dean Kavouras #3
    Pastor Kavouras,

    Could you please explain for us the difference in the terms within your last paragraph – ‘a liturgy or a liturgical church, a church with a sacrament or a sacramental church’. Thank you.

    In Christ,

  7. @John Rixe #5
    What is the purpose of offering grape juice? In our congregation the pastor dips a host into the consecrated wine (intinction) for the few communicants who have an aversion to wine or are recovering alcoholics.

  8. Dear Pastor Kavouras,

    @Dean Kavouras #3

    I don’t know Norwegian, but I am under the impression that “nook-shotten” means that I have a “corner on the herring market,” which in Norway would be quite the compliment.

    So thank you very much! 🙂

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  9. @Martin R. Noland #10

    My profound apologies to Pr. Noland and all other readers. I was feeling bumptious this morning and answered in a bit of a sour manner.

    Good pastor, nook-shotten means shot full of holes. Again my apologies. (Gotta’ work on that: win friends and influence people thing a little harder.)

  10. @helen #4
    @helen #4

    Hello Helen,

    I am not a BB fan so I can’t say anything about LBJ, except that he will generate a lot of business for Cv and we can use it!

    I didn’t see the skewering of the question you refrained from asking, but let me say that: Scripture needs the church’s interpretation. Anyone who administers it without that causes a train wreck every time.

    The Mass is the chief service of the church held on the Lord’s day, the synaxis and the anaphora (service of the word, and service of the sacrament), as it is found in the book. It assume the liturgy which IS the word of God, peace on earth, mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled. It is the earthly place and event in which we commune with God through Christ, the time and place that he hands his gifts to us: remission, life, salvation, comfort, consolation, endurance, a good conscience, patience in trial and all the others.

  11. @John Rixe #5
    Hi John,

    If a parish offers grape juice as an option, then it is no longer the Lord’s supper, but man’s supper. The grape juice is offensive enough, it is rank pietism, it is an offense against the Lord’s institution. But even worse are the people who insist upon it in defiance of the Lord and in ruination of the other communicants. They break the very communion itself, exploding the event if you like, and change it from a comm-union to a multi-something (not sure what word to use).

    This is one of the reasons by I thought the article in question left something to be desired.

    Hope that helps,
    Pr. K.

  12. @susan #8
    Actually Susan, I like intinction. I was raised in the eastern catholic rite and there they put the pieces of consecrated bread into the chalice with the wine and the priest uses a spoon and places a small piece onto the tongue of each communicant.

  13. @Dean Kavouras #13

    Respectfully, I don’t think it has anything to do with Pietism but is available as an individual option to those suffering from addiction or allergy to alcohol. I’m amazed to learn this causes the ruination of the other communicants and erases the “confessionalism” of the congregation.

  14. John,

    What else can it mean? If someone asked me for grape juice I would patiently catechize him. If he learned to know that this blood of Christ, which *IS* the New Testament, will not harm him, all is well. If he refused to learn then I would tell him he must not come to the altar, but must be satisfied with hearing the Gospel.

    Grape juice (a modern invention) flies in the face of the N.T. Now THAT is dangerous.

    Know too that alcoholism is one of those sacred “diseases” that we are all supposed to bow down to. This is a form of idolatry.

    I welcome your continued response and discussion on this matter.

    Pr. K.

  15. @John Rixe #16
    Respectfully, I don’t think it has anything to do with Pietism but is available as an individual option to those suffering from addiction or allergy to alcohol.

    I have met a lady who claims to need “gluten free” products and so “can’t” take the thin nickel size wafer at communion. But, she told me that she was on vacation and ate snacks for three days before she discovered that she was eating gluten, after which, it made her ill.

    I have a Pastor friend, who really does have a wheat allergy; he will not eat it in anything else, but he taught himself to endure the discomfort of the wheat wafers his parish used.

  16. @Dean Kavouras #12
    The Mass is the chief service of the church held on the Lord’s day, the synaxis and the anaphora (service of the word, and service of the sacrament), as it is found in the book. It assume[s] the liturgy …

    I’m on your page… [you’d have a “harder sell” at Lutherquest.org, though.] 😉

  17. @helen #18

    …..and your point is?   Do you agree that having a row of white grape juice on the tray is rank pietism, defiance of the Lord, ruination of other communicants, idolatry of alcoholism.  I’m trying really hard to understand and respect you folks, but sometimes your ideas seem like looney-tunes to this untutored layman.

    luv ya anyhow

  18. @John Rixe #20

    I don’t mean to get your blood pressure up. Also, I’m not on Lutherquest, and I’m not even “on” Steadfast. I chimed in because someone gave me a link to it to see, and I got responses to it.

    But since we’re talking, communion means “oneness” in the Lord, which means oneness in his institution. Grape juice changes comm-union (one-ness) to multi-union (or whatever word might describe the ending of unity, and the introduction of multiplicity). In any event it is no longer the Lord’s Supper, but Man’s.

    Rather than defend a practice that you or your church or pastor may condone, think very, very, very hard about what *the Lord* instituted. And ask yourself if any man has the right to change God’s decision.

    Again, try to relax, and let’s talk this out.

    God keep you in Christ,
    Pr. K.

    Pr. K.

  19. What about optional grape juice for former alcoholics? We have a lot of AA grads in our congregation, and so along with genuine red wine we offer white grape juice. It’s not that we’re endorsing pietism by rejecting the alcohol.

  20. @John Rixe #20

    Not sure why it would sound “looney tunes” to you that arbitrarily substituting the material of the Lord’s Support would be a grave issue. Once we say that deviation from the Lord’s institution is tolerable, all we’re arguing about is degrees…

    I think there’s a lot of ignorance on this subject, so I doubt that many folks are abusing the Lord’s Word and Meal willfully. But in the end, it is just error. Once discovered, it should be dealt with.

  21. @Miguel #22

    I think the question becomes, at what price or under what circumstances, will one discard the Word of the Lord?

    I’m frankly of the opinion, that it is probably best to refrain from whichever of the elements is a horrific hazard to the communicant. If a person really can’t tolerate even the smallest drop of wine, then let them receive the bread. If a person really can’t tolerate the smallest crumb of bread, let them receive the wine. At least this wouldn’t have our altars adorned with the innovations and deviations of the Word of Christ, confessing to the world that we are so easily dissuaded from hearing the Word of the Lord and keeping it.

    My thoughts, anyway.

  22. Miguel,

    It’s not a matter of endorsing or not endorsing pietism. It’s a matter of rejecting the Lord’s institution, and changing the Lord’s Supper into Man’s Supper. Man’s Supper has no power to impart life, or salvation. Only the Supper that the Lord instituted can do that.

    Pr. K.

  23. Man’s Supper has no power to impart life, or salvation

    So the thousands of communion services in which I have participated had no efficacy because there was a row of white grape juice on the tray.  I’m learning a lot today. 🙂

    (Apologies to Pr Noland for thread drift)

  24. John,

    Where the mass is celebrated per the Lord’s institution we have the *assurance* of sin’s remission, life, salvation, consolation and spiritual vigor to take us from here to eternity. Anything else is guess work, and I don’t want to be guessing about the remission of the cancer of my sin.

    Pr. K.

  25. Thanks guys. Sounds right to me, however, as someone attending the service, I don’t think it invalidates my partaking of the sacrament so long as I use the real wine. I think those who use grape juice considering it an real equivalent are robbing themselves, and the church may be undermining its own message, but I really doubt that’s gonna change in our congregation anytime soon. Local tradition dies the hardest, but ancient tradition can be discarded at the drop of a hat, unfortunately.

  26. Presumably the grape juice folks also receive the host so aren’t they at least getting 50% forgiveness? I apologize for the irreverence, but many (most?) highly educated, thoughtful, humble LCMS pastors sincerely believe that grape juice fits just fine as an option for those who can’t consume wine. They are not in favor of the ruination of any communicants I’m pretty sure.

  27. “At the present time, WELS and ELS are not in fellowship with the LCMS or its affiliates.”

    Respectfully, the lack of unity/fellowship between these “confessional” Lutheran groups calls into question a uniformity of belief. Each group has determined for itself what the parameters of “Confessional” are. I think this does not express “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” and rather demonstrates Scripture being left to “one’s own interpretation.”

  28. Someone whose religion is in congruence with the canonical Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions found in the “Book of Concord.”

    How does one ascertain this congruence for oneself? Does it require careful examination of every word in the Bible and the Book of Concord to determine whether one’s religion is fully in accordance with what’s there?

  29. @Carl H #32

    First, a Lutheran should be thoroughly familiar with the Small Catechism and subscribe to that with no hesitation. Then, a Lutheran should subscribe in principle to the entire Book of Concord, as it is summarized in the Small Catechism. Does he know every word in the entire Book of Concord? Probably not any more than he knows every word in the entire Scriptures, but he subscribes to the Bible without reservation. As he learns more from the entire Book of Concord, his faith will be enriched and he will discover that his beliefs are Lutheran — or he will have some integrity and go to the Methodist, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Church.

    More often, the one who discovers he does not believe what the entire Confessions teach will leave Lutheranism by simply going to the ELCA. More often still, sadly, he’ll stay in the LCMS, pretending to be Lutheran.

  30. @Ted Crandall #33
    Well said.

    A minor distinction I might make, regarding pastors. While the laity may spend many years coming to understand the fullness of Scriptural doctrine, we do expect pastors to have read and studied every word of the Holy Scriptures and of the Confessions. They ought not be permitted into the Office if they have not both studied and firmly confessed these to be their own doctrine and practice, and should be removed from the Office if they find themselves outside our Confessions.

    This is why, I think, we have such a tradition of theological and academic rigor associated with our pastors.

  31. @John Rixe #30

    I am struggling to accept your critique in the best possible light. I would like to think you are not fallen victim to a heresy that divides Christ in the Holy Sacrament (such as your 50% comment might suggest.) I would also like to think, you’re not endorsing a fully arbitrary approach to the Sacraments pitting the whims of man against the Word of the Lord.

    Whether well intentioned or not, substituting human alternatives to Christ’s Institution, is theologically the same problem of inserting man’s works into Christ’s Work. Anywhere man’s work/word/effort/merit is placed into the hearts and minds of the people, there will be doubt because of the nature of man. Wherever the Word of the Lord, which stands forever, is faithfully proclaimed and clung to, there is the assurance of forgiveness, life, and salvation, because of the nature of Him who gave it.

    The Supper is the Word Incarnate among us. What could possibly inspire men to adorn the Body and Blood of Christ, with their own imaginations, substitutions, and alternations? Substituting grape juice for wine may seem a small thing, but it is essentially the same error as substituting beer and pretzels (or as the Enthusiasts have now done in many of the Emerging Church movements, made a “love feast” of all kinds of elements, from BBQ to casseroles.)… which is, after all, the same error of thinking we can add to, or subtract from, Christ Himself.

    It is an error, and should be repented of.

  32. @Brad #35

    I believe that many (most?) pastors carefully and sincerely believe that unfermented grape juice is an acceptable option and is essentially the same substance as fermented grape juice for the purpose of celebration of the sacrament.  You do not agree and that’s fine.  I hope you don’t think, however, that this is just a fully arbitrary approach.

    I’m beginning to repeat myself so I’m dropping out.  Thanks for a clear discussion of your position.

  33. @Brad #1

    Dear Brad,

    In response to your comment #1, first point, regarding Lutheran church polity—some Lutherans have argued that the “historic canonical orders” are the preferred structure. Whether or not the orders have been so historically, the question is whether the confessions make a doctrinal matter of it.

    With regard to Augsburg Confession XXVIII and Apology XXVIII, it is clear that the confessors at Augsburg were not intending to get rid of bishops. If you read those articles carefully, you will see that one of the chief issues is the “power of bishops” in the temporal realm, i.e., their political power. In the medieval age, depending on their land-holding and revenues, the prince-bishops were the political equals of dukes, counts, barons, and other nobles. The most powerful of these, i.e., the bishop-electors of Trier, Mainz, and Cologne, were in some ways more powerful than any other prince in the empire, including the electors of Saxony and the Palatinate.

    If the Lutherans had eliminated the temporal power of bishops, it would have destroyed the Holy Roman Empire, which was a feudal system. The Lutheran princes were not interested in destroying the Empire–although the Reformed princes were, as seen in the 30 Years War. The Lutherans were interested in reforming the religious powers of the bishops, not getting rid of them, which is the chief thrust of AC XXVIII and Ap XXVIII. So when the Augsburg Confession and Apology affirms bishops, vital political reasons stand behind that affirmation and are its chief cause.

    So where do we find the Lutherans’ theological treatise on the church polity, where the church is considered apart from contemporary political concerns. We find it where CFW Walther found it, i.e., the “Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope” (in the Book of Concord). This treatise teaches the equality of bishops and the equality of pastors throughout. In section 61, the Treatise states that the power of the Gospel “belongs by divine right to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters, or bishops. Accordingly Jerome teaches clearly that in the apostolic letters all who preside over the churches are both bishops and presbyters.” In section 65, it states “since the distinction between bishop and pastor is not by divine right, it is manifest that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right.” With regard to suffrage, in section 13, it states “the Council of Nicaea decided that bishops should be elected by their own churches.”

    So, in short, according to the Treatise, by divine right, a bishop is nothing more than a pastor who has been elected by the church-in-assembly to do ordinations. All other powers or duties a bishop may have are by human right, for the sake of order or the church’s welfare, and thus adiaphora.

    This is how Walther approached the subject. In North America, for the first time, there was a possibility of recreating the Lutheran church without the old traditions of the church or interference from the state. The LCMS was immediately opposed by Johannes Grabau, who believed bishops had higher authority over the church by divine right. The result was Walther’s and the LCMS’ reply in the 1851 theses found in the book Kirche und Amt (“Church and Ministry”).

    As recently as 2001, the LCMS reaffirmed that book and those theses as its doctrine of ministry. Kirche und Amt is mostly a collection of quotations from Luther, the confessions, and orthodox Lutheran theologians affirming the LCMS position on this topic. It really does answer these questions.

    The latest edition of “Church and Ministry” is a reader’s edition, edited by LCMS President Matthew Harrison. It has lots of explanatory notes (for historical references) and eight appendices in the back, all of which are particularly helpful to the reader who won’t have a professor explaining things in class (although students will benefit too!). I recommend it for anyone interested in the topic of Lutheran church polity. You can purchase that volume here: https://www.cph.org/p-20881-the-church-and-the-office-of-the-ministry.aspx
    (also available in Kindle ed.)

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  34. @Martin R. Noland #37

    Thank you, Pr. Noland. I will re-read Walther’s Church and Ministry, even if just for the refresher (it’s been a few years.) I certainly wouldn’t argue against the legitimacy of our Synod polity, nor the fundamental reality that the Church is where the saints are gathered in faith around Christ in His Word and Sacraments (laity and pastor together.) A pastor is a pastor, by power of the Word of Christ expressed through His Church, and not by the political institutions of man.

    I appreciate the historical context and detail you offer to the question of bishops in the Lutheran Confessions. I’m not sure I’m convinced that secular political realities are the primary motivator for what seems a Confessional preference for the historic canonical orders, but I can see that angle better now.

    Blessings to you, and thanks again.

  35. @Dean Kavouras #3

    @Dean Kavouras #11

    Dear Pastor Kavouras,

    No problem with the “nook-shotten” and apology accepted. No harm done, since I didn’t even know what it means. 🙂

    According to my definition of “confessional Lutheran”—which follows what I was taught about it by Dr. Robert Preus, Dr. Kurt Marquart, and other professors at both of our seminaries—it is chiefly a matter of doctrine, not ecclesial practice. In the doctrines defined in the Lutheran confessions, there is no variance and things are clear-cut.

    In the matter of ecclesial practices, there are often areas of freedom or “adiaphora.” By “areas,” I mean that there are “parameters” beyond which a certain practice is no longer “adiaphora.” To deny this idea of “adiaphora” is to disagree with the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article Ten.

    So for example, the Formula explains that the following are not “adiaphora”: 1) ceremonies which are contrary to God’s Word; 2) ceremonies which give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papists; 3) ceremonies that give the impression that we will eventually merge with the papists; 4) useless and foolish spectacles (FC SD X, 5). These four points are clearly defined parameters or “negative criteria.”

    I would add that a proper application of these parameters is to replace the term “papists” in points 2 and 4 with the terms “Calvinists,” “American Evangelicals,” “Anglicans,” “Eastern Orthodox,” etc.

    The Formula then explains the Lutheran “positive criteria”for ceremonies and church rites: 1) good order; 2) Christian discipline; 3) evangelical decorum; and 4) edification of the church (FC SD X, 6 & 9). These criteria are found in various places in AC and Ap XXVIII; and also explained by Martin Chemnitz in Examination of the Council of Trent, second topic, section 7 (vol. 1, pp. 267-271 in CPH 1971 edition).

    With regard to ceremonies and church rites in general, Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII, sections 30-78 are the chief Lutheran explanation for our position (cf. Ap XXVIII). In summary of that position, particular ceremonies and church rites cannot be mandated so that they are necessary for salvation, or that their omission is a sin. But bishops (i.e, whatever church government you have) and parish pastors may make regulations for the sake of good order, and that congregations should follow those regulations for the sake of love and peace (AC XXVIII, 53-55).

    As to the issue of “doctrinal development,” if you or others are interested in this topic, you really need to read Walther and not take my word for it. I think you may not understand what “doctrinal development” means in the context of LCMS history. That’s okay, very few folks do. I should have given more explanation as to what I meant by that term.

    I’ll just quote one section of Walther’s 1859 foreword to Lehre und Wehre:

    The Roman Church has always claimed . . . [that] the church constantly receives more light [of revelation] in the course of time. . . . It is known that the Enthusiasts, particularly the Anabaptists, dreamed of a constantly new light that would arise for the church through them. . . . Similar ideas have now laid hold of most of the respected theologians also within our Lutheran Church. They do not regard it as their calling to bring the teaching of the church of the past back to light and to defend it against the new alleged wisdom of our day, but obviously it is rather this: To present that teaching in a better way, to supplement it, purify it, and develop it further. This view has become so current, particularly in Germany, that, to cite only one example, Pastor [Wilhelm] Loehe suggested to the Iowa Synod to put [this principle] even its congregational constitutions . . . We regard this principle as thoroughly false. . . The saving truth is not a problem for men to solve, but . . . it is already contained clearly and plainly in Christ’s Word (from “Foreword to the 1859 Volume,” Lehre und Wehre in: August Suelflow, ed., Editorials From Lehre und Wehre, tr. H. A. Bouman, in Selected Writings of CFW Walther (St Louis: CPH, 1981), p. 49-50).

    This idea, along with its related concept of “open questions,” became the real sticking-point in the relationship between the LCMS and the Iowa Synod. Walther and Pieper saw the Iowa Synod’s idea (which was the dominant German view) as being a way to avoid straightforward “confessional subscription.” When fellowship was contemplated with the 1930s ALC, the LCMS put forward its Brief Statement that condemned this idea of “doctrinal development,” which was then found in the ALC (the merger of Buffalo-Ohio-and-Iowa synods).

    When the “Statement of the 44” came out, its defenders clearly wanted to defend the ALC, and thus were defending the idea of “doctrinal development” found in the Iowa Synod and the old ALC. From this came the form of Liberal Protestantism that the LCMS suffered under in the 1950s to the later 1970s, with some residue still here today.

    I hope this explains what I meant by the term “doctrinal development,” i.e., according to the use of that term in the Missouri vs. Iowa synod debates long ago.

    I intend to give a lecture on the topic of “doctrinal development” in January at the LCA conference in Fort Wayne on January 19th (see http://lutheranclarion.org/newsandevents.html ). They usually publish their lectures, so maybe it will be found in the Lutheran Clarion next year. If not, I’ll try to make the paper available in other ways.

    Thanks for your comments and blessings on your ministry!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland


    Brad :
    While the laity may spend many years coming to understand the fullness of Scriptural doctrine, we do expect pastors to have read and studied every word of the Holy Scriptures and of the Confessions. They ought not be permitted into the Office if they have not both studied and firmly confessed these to be their own doctrine and practice, and should be removed from the Office if they find themselves outside our Confessions.

  37. @Ted Crandall #40

    Thanks for your responses. Other questions are coming to mind:

    If a seminarian gets a “B” in his class on the Book of Concord, or there are just not enough hours in the syllabus to scrutinize every word, is his “religion in congruence”? On a blog a couple of years ago, a Lutheran pastor said that his study of the Book of Concord in seminary was not as thorough as he lately wished it had been. His course on the BoC could only cover so much, and he had other coursework demanding his time and energy.

    Concerning laity, if a Lutheran layman finds he has persistent misgivings about the claims made in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, should he resign from membership in his congregation? That Treatise is not covered in the Small Catechism.

  38. @Carl H #41

    Dear Carl H,

    Great questions! A pastor’s (indeed, a Lutheran’s!) study of the Confessions is a life-long process. A solid foundation should be expected from a seminary education, but not the whole deal! I was blessed to study at their feet, but I am no Marquart, Scaer, or Preus — and never will be — but I continue to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” both the Word of God and the Confessions. Our religion is in congruence, so long as we continue searching the Scriptures and Confessions, seeking to be in congruence. Neither pastors nor laymen should leave in any haste, but both should leave eventually, if they determine that they simply do not concur with the Confessions — all of them. Laymen are expected to be familiar with only the Small Catechism, but they are also expected to agree in principle with all the Confessions. Imagine the better public relations Ms. Bachman would have had, if she had discovered earlier in her political campaign that she needed to leave the Wisconsin Synod…

    What would you expect a Christian to do who discovers he or she has persistent misgivings about the Bible?

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