I spend more time at the Kulturbrauerei in Heidelberg than I do looking for Disputations, but the Kellerbier doesn’t stop me from thinking about them, by Jon Townsend

(Heidelberg is the site of Luther’s famous disputations with his then Augustinian brothers, thus the title of this post.  Jon’s posts can be seen on the Regular Columns page under the title “God Desires Mercy, Not Sarcasm…)

The fear of loss is the path to the Dark Side.

It turns out that Yoda from “Star Wars” may be the greatest Zen Buddhist philosopher of all time, and in that sense I don’t like to quote him, but in some of my own personal reflections this quote comes up in my mind.

I have been introspective as of late regarding my own doctrinal, rhetorical and philosophical positions in, with and under Lutheranism. I have synthesized my introspection down to this question: Why am I so obsessed with the restoration of historic doctrine and practice within Lutheranism? If I am truly honest with myself, it is fear. The fear is not as much for my fellow Lutherans as it should be, it is for me. I am afraid of losing my doctrinal, homiletical and sacramental home. The nagging questions and answers creep in:

What happens if my pastor takes a call somewhere else, or gets sick or retires? I am going to have to get in on the call process and make sure another confessional man is called. If the vote of the voter’s assembly goes wrong, I will have to find a new home or engage the newly called and previously or newly ordained man in a long debate – a debate in which his formal training is superior to mine.

What if the economy forces me to move? I am going to have to search out a new congregation where the pastor preaches Law and Gospel sermons, the historic liturgy is observed and the sacraments are not placed in the back seat of parish life.

What if either of the above happens and there is no suitable Lutheran parish home to be found? Do I give in and be silent or do I convert?

Being a younger confessional Lutheran (in the JP II definition of “youth”) is like being the child of divorce. My “grandfather’s church” really did not exist during my lifetime, or maybe only for a short portion of it. There was never a time during my life in which a “folk service” did not exist. “Entertainment Evangelism” hit in my teens. Lutheran youth groups provided no doctrine or substance. As a young man I was in a different Lutheran church at least twice a month playing trumpet and many times the only aspect that was the same between congregations was the name Lutheran. One had a worship folder, the next the Blue Hymnal, the next the Red Hymnal, one pastor preached the text, the next talked about the Christian cartoonist Charles Schulz. Growing up Lutheran in the 80’s was like ecclesial joint custody. Dad let you eat McDonalds, drink red pop and stay up late. Mom made dinner and you had to be in bed by 8 pm. Permanence is a word for us that has a definition but was not experienced.

The concept of “our grandfather’s church” sounds appealing living in the present reality of “ecclesial joint custody”, but from what I have heard of “our grandfather’s church”, I am not so sure I would be happy in a world with such infrequent use of the Sacrament of the Altar and Private Absolution.

At an age that was too young and at congregation that went too liberal (ELCA), I was elected to a board. As a member of this board I started to receive a magazine. In the second issue I read an article about a female pastor who wrapped the bread, over which she recited the words of institution (notice I do not write Christ’s Body), in a cloth and rocked it in her arms as Mary did the baby Jesus during the celebration of the Eucharist. Such praise was given to sacrilege and my protests were ill formed and ignored. I was blown off course by this. I drifted away and currents carried me to places I should not have been. The courses in Lutheran High School, although sorely lacking in sacramental theology, had taught me better than to go where I was going. College was like the Bering Sea on an episode of “The Deadliest Catch”. My faith was not seaworthy and I sunk under the misdirection of my own pride.

By the Lord’s grace, I have found myself in a couple of seaworthy parish homes. Sure storms may come, but we have a good spiritual father at the helm. We are well trained sailors on the ship and we are fed the best and most costly food every week. I came from a place of fear without the proper comfort of the Gospel, but I lack for nothing now. The words “Be not afraid” are in my ears. My own son comes home and repeats them to me when he tells me of the bible lessons he learned at school.

Yet the fear still gnaws – THEY are out there! They will board the ship and take your captain. They will water down the Law, they will replace the Gospel with the Law they watered down, they will take away your hymns of doctrine and truth and give you praise mantras, they will dance in front of the altar rather than feed you from the Lord’s Table!

They are right down the street and they are what you are and we are Lutheran.

One logical conclusion of this fear is to question the truth claims of the Lutheran church. “Show me where the Church that is confessed in the Book of Concord exists?” We confessionals would be hard pressed to show this proof. The follow up question comes, “Ok, so you confess and grant that the Virgin Mary prays for us, but do you pray it?” Lex semper accusat and some men who know the Book of Concord better than most of us could ever dream of give up on Lutheranism as an impossible dream and jump from the ship and swim.

Another response is to agitate. Constantly poke at the people and forces that grossly depart from the Confessions. Call them out, point them out. Take the William Wallace approach from “Braveheart” and ride out on the field where the nobles are compromising and “pick a fight.” Some brave people did this last year around this time and the nobles did not come out of their purple palace to address the rag tag group that milled around and asked “Why?” So much space on paper and servers is dedicated to questioning and explaining, but there is nary a response. Our adversaries within Lutheranism have a near flawless PR strategy, they must have learned it from Rick Warren: Deeds not creeds. They do lots of stuff: Fire people. Threaten law suits. Recall missionaries. Start near heretical congregations. Turn sports stadiums into houses of prayer. They debate almost nothing. They explain almost nothing.

Swimming to another boat that does not have the chief article as its compass is not an option. Attempts to agitate our Lutheran adversaries to explain have failed up to this point.

Those that swim do so based on a perception of truth. Those that agitate are looking for an explanation. We can do both in an academic and gentlemanly way that seeks the truth and gives an opportunity to explain. There needs to be a grand “disputation”. Face to face. No blogs. No websites. No message boards. We can do this Luther style. Ground rules can be established with Scripture as the measuring rod and the best theologians from either side can be selected to tackle the issues of liturgy, evangelism, communion practices and preaching. I think Confessionals would gladly put men forth for such an exercise. This is the almost the same suggestion as Rev. Matt Harrison makes in “Its Time”. I suggest a small twist: Perhaps we could even do this between representatives of the Brothers of John the Steadfast and Jesus First. Or perhaps representatives of such congregations as Epic, the Alley and Jefferson Hills would be willing to take part.

I’ve been to Heidelberg at least 10 times – it is close to where I work when in Germany (and it is a lot prettier than Mannheim). Every time I walk through the city I think to myself: Heidelberg Disputation.

Maybe there could be such a disputation for our age. The Detroit Disputation doesn’t sound half bad, but maybe there is another location that would have a more historic ring to it.

Anyone up for the challenge???

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.