A Tiny Error Overthrows the Whole Teaching

“A little yeast leavens the whole lump.” Galatians 5:9

In Dr. Luther’s commentary on this verse, we may observe his typical approach in dealing with false teaching.  Even when someone seems to agree with right doctrine in most matters, divergence on a single point will usually taint his whole message. For Luther, in matters of theology, there was no middle ground.  He used these words ‘no middle ground’ to refer to his dispute with Ulrich Zwingli over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. [Luther Against Zwingli] Zwingli, accused him of sinful recalcitrance and being unloving toward his fellow believers.  (Zwingli’s theological descendants are the Reformed theologians also shaped by John Calvin’s teachings.)   Luther addressed these issues in relation to the debate over the Sacrament of the Altar in his own time:

“For the sectarians who deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper accuse us today of being quarrelsome, harsh, and intractable, because, as they say, we shatter love and harmony among the churches on account of the single doctrine about the Sacrament.  They say that we should not make so much of this little doctrine, which is not a sure thing anyway and was not specified in sufficient detail by the apostles, that solely on its account we refuse to pay attention to the sum total of Christian doctrine and to general harmony among all the churches.  This is especially so because they agree with us on other articles of Christian doctrine.” [Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535), LW 27:36-37]

Dr. Luther observed that this accusation could be quite effective in making him “unpopular among their own followers” and portray Luther as disagreeing out of “sheer stubbornness or some other feeling.”  Essentially, the Reformed and even some other Lutherans might accuse Luther of just looking for a theological brawl. Luther rejected this smear tactic as a diabolical deception by which Satan was trying to overthrow all Christian teaching.  He asserted:

“In philosophy a tiny error in the beginning is very great at the end.  Thus in theology a tiny error overthrows the whole teaching.  Therefore doctrine and life should be distinguished as sharply as possible.  Doctrine belongs to God, not to us; and we are called only as its ministers.  Therefore we cannot give up or change even one dot of it (Matt.5:18).  Life belongs to us; therefore when it comes to this, there is nothing that the Sacramentarians can demand of us that we are not willing and obliged to undertake, condone, and tolerate, with the exception of doctrine and faith…On this score we cannot yield even a hairbreadth.” [LW 27:37] {Emphasis added}

What an incredible statement!  Luther recognized that Christians must deal with all sorts of people in daily life.  He taught in other places that we must always be quick to forgive someone’s sins and bear each other’s burdens.  However, when it came to Christian teaching, there could be no compromise, even if, there might be substantial agreement in many areas. [Life vs Doctrine]  Dr. Luther recognized that the Reformed accused him of lack of love, or as someone might say today, that Luther promoted a ‘cult of purity.’  He rejected this idea completely when he wrote:

“We are surely prepared to observe peace and love with all men, provided they leave the doctrine of faith perfect and sound for us.  If we cannot obtain this, it is useless for them to demand love from us.  A curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of faith, to which everything must yield–love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc.!” [LW 27:38] {Emphasis added}

Luther wrote that love yields to others and bears other’s burdens.  The Word and faith will not yield to anyone’s false teaching, even if, it’s only in a single matter. Luther recognized the difficulty of the Christian, particularly the pastor, who must assert such truths.  He knew this teaching offended others, especially, the Reformed. He wanted this teaching to encourage believers to be steadfast and to teach others who do not understand his seemingly unloving manner of dealing with the Reformed theologians’ false teachings.

Does this historical lesson have present day application?

What should we learn from Luther’s teaching?

First, desiring to preserve the true doctrine of faith expressed in the Book of Concord is a good and God-pleasing thing.  However, this does not preclude us as individuals from loving others, especially loving those who are in error.  Faith will always produce deeds, even imperfectly. Yet, we may not excuse error for the sake of love. This certainly does not mean we would hate the apathetic, unbelievers, atheists, or even our persecutors.  We will interact with these folks on a daily basis in our post-modern societies.

Our congregations and specific Lutheran organizations should not give even the appearance of associating with those who teach or promote false doctrine. Additionally, we today, as Lutherans, must be concerned when any LCMS organization becomes too close with those who promote questionable teachings and have very close associations with Reformed theologians in other contexts.



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