19 June 2007

On plus and minus

When a Lutheran looks at other confessions of the faith, he sees a matter of plus and minus.

On the Roman (and Orthodox) side of the equation, he sees the Sacred Scriptures plus. Stuff gets added to the witness of the Scriptures and those additions are also held to be normative. One thinks of certain theories of apostolic succession as a divinely mandated condition for the existence of the holy ministry; various teachings about the Blessed Virgin (immaculate conception and assumption); the invocation of the saints (as distinguished from the intercession of the saints), and so on.

On the "other Protestant" side of the equation, he sees stuff subtracted from the Scriptures: the saving efficacy of Baptism, the sacramental union of the bread and wine with our Lord's body and blood in the Supper, the authority of the pastor to forgive sins in Christ's name, the rejection of whatever is not explicit in the Scriptures (for example, the liturgy).

Lutheranism has always felt the tug both ways. We experience the temptation to add and to take away; plus and minus, if you will. The beauty of the Lutheran Symbols is that they don't give in to the temptations on either side. The same, sadly, cannot be said of us Lutheran pastors and parishes. We live in the dynamic tension between the two forces, and are always being allured to one side or the other. To teach more or to teach less than God has revealed to us in the Sacred Scriptures. The Symbols point a true media via. May God give us the grace to walk it - for the sake of the whole Church!


Anonymous said...

There's great book on this topic entitled "The Seduction of Extremes, Swallowing Camels and Straining Gnats" by Peter Kurowski.

Anonymous said...

"certain theories of apostolic succession as a divinely mandated condition for the existence of the holy ministry"

As opposed to the scripturally rigorous mandate for divinely inspired voters assemblies and their condition for the existence of the holy ministry?

William Weedon said...


I suppose it depends on what it meant by "divinely inspired". It it means the institution of voters assemblies being divinely inspired, well that's just silly.

If it means that this humanly created institution can be a means that the Holy Spirit uses to set a man in an ordered call, then how on earth is that contrary to the witness of the Sacred Scriptures? It is the equivalent of the great "Axios!" of reception in the Orthodox parishes, no?


Future Church said...

Trust me, the tension isn't just felt by pastors. :-)

I can't tell you how many times in the past year I've been tempted to move toward the "plus" communions. The temptation usually subsides after reading Romans and Article IV of the Augsburg Defense, but it never entirely goes away. The goal, I believe, is to accept and thrive within the tension rather than assume it's a difficulty borne of incorrect theological and/or ecclesial understandings. That said, my principle is a bit vague and it is often much easier stated than lived.

WM Cwirla said...

This neither/nor - both/and place of Lutheranism is certainly a point of tension. Being neither fish nor fowl, we're tempted to one way or the other. There is great comfort and security in the arms of holy tradition, whether Catholocism or Orthodoxy. There is much excitement and personal zeal in the subjectivism, activism, and personal commitment of Evangelicalism. Being evangelical, orthodox, and catholic at the same time isn't easy. Our laity, by and large, seem to be drawn to the Evangelical side of things, while the clergy, especially those who love the liturgy and the ancient traditions of the Church, are drawn to Rome or Constantinople.

I don't really see Lutheranism as a middle way (via media) in the way of Anglicanism, but as a solid road that endeavors to be evangelical, catholic, and orthodox all at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I guess my original frustration with your post is that Lutheranism needs to be on the “plus side” as you put it because if it is not, it ends up right where we find it; which is in an adiaphora strait-jacket. No Liturgy? sure, where does the Bible say we must anyway? Ditto lay-consecration……Can it be a coincidence that those Confessions that are “Scripture minus” as you call them, dismiss infant baptism and the ancient communions who are “Scripture plus” as you call them ,all uphold it?

To Pastor Cwira's point about laity trend Evangelical and Pastors trend R.C. or Orthodox. Is this not because the laity read their Bible and see that many things "traditional" Lutherans do in practice are indeed not specifically commanded in the Bible and their Evangel. Fundie friends who they are probably having their Bible study with are quick to point that out. Confessionally minded pastors see the folly behind this nuda-scriptura approach and see where it’s going and don’t want any part of it and they begin to explore elsewhere?

Future Church said...

Pastor Cwirla,

Our laity, by and large, seem to be drawn to the Evangelical side of things,

I sense this is because much of the laity fails to recognize that the sacraments bridge the relational shortcomings that evangelicals seek to overcome through personal zeal; a point I've been trying to drive home to my previously purpose-driven brother, who just happens to live in Anaheim, and who I've been pleading with to attend your church. :-)


123 said...

It's interesting to note the categories that you rightly attribute to Lutherans looking at the Orthodox: they are "scripture plus". In Orthodoxy's own categories it is simply Tradition, with Scripture being the most revered part - but not the only, not the primary even, because maximalism and fulness is what is required.

This isn't to argue whether one is right and the other wrong, it is just to point out with what measure we measure these questions, and how we do so differently from each other almost innately.

William Weedon said...


Thanks for the further explanation. I understand better what you were getting at. I suspect it comes down to the difference in whether or not the catholic principle is at play in the reading of the Sacred Scriptures. When evaluating Church practices (which seems to be mostly what you were commenting on), the Lutheran approach was not to ask: "What is specifically mandated in Scripture?" but to ask: "What in the humanly instituted ceremonies contradicts or obscures the saving Gospel?" Whatever was found wanting in regard to that second question, had to go; whatever was not was received as a gift from God given by those who walked this pilgrim path before us. That accounts for a big difference between Lutheran and Reformed approach to such matters, and I think that's at the heart of AC XV. The inclination of many (but certainly not all) laity in Lutheran parishes today to think "Reformed" about this question is lamentable, and I think directly linked to the failure of the pastors to get the Book of Concord into the hands of the laity and to help them discover what a treasure it is.


I always find it striking, though, that when Chemnitz starts listing out the types of traditions, his first example is the sacred scriptures, his second the witness to the canon in the church, his third the history of the exposition of the Scriptures in the Church. In his approach, Scripture and the reception of it in the Church is the first and chief aspect of tradition, but not the sole aspect as he goes on to demonstrate.

William Weedon said...


About via media, I certainly agree NOT like the Anglicans tend to use the term - the compromising middle. Rather in the sense that whatever is true on either side (plus or minus) is found in the Lutheran Confession of the faith without the opposite errors. Loehe talks about this in Three Books, I believe.

Anonymous said...

And sometimes it is a matter of the fact that people who read the Scriptures in the vernacular come up with a different sense than was intended.

How many English-speaking evangelicals have insisted that "do this in memory of me" means just that, a mental recollection.

That's where the Tradition is helpful in ascertaining what the original languages and practices of the early Christians meant, even before the entire canon of Scripture was available.

Future Church said...


Is this not because the laity read their Bible and see that many things "traditional" Lutherans do in practice are indeed not specifically commanded in the Bible and their Evangel.

Forgive me for intruding, but your comments brought a point to mind that I'd not considered before. Perhaps Lutheran laity needs to be better educated on how to understand and combat dispensational theology. If the laity cannot see the sacraments in scripture, I would argue that it is only because they 1). have a built in theological/cultural assumption that the Word must be "rightly divided," and 2). have no understanding of how the Bible is God's expression of one continuous redemptive history. Could it be that dispensationalism so dominates the theological culture that people assume sola scriptura is a synonym for dispensationalism?

Blessings to you,

William Weedon said...

I should add that I think Fr. Fenton is right on in his assessment that what is not prayed is not believed. The Lutheran devotional heritage included a beautiful praying of the faith confessed in the Book of Concord, and this above all else is what we must return to. Starck's is a great way to start...

Anonymous said...

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come."

Unless, of course, one doesn't want to receive them because they would ipso facto be "Scripture plus."


Fr John W Fenton said...

what is not prayed is not believed

Pr Weedon,

I'm sure you remember the context of my statement; namely, that Lutherans officially confess the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary but that this confession has been forgotten--in fact, now denied in many Lutheran circles--precisely because the phrase "ever Virgin Mary" was (I'm sure, not deliberately) removed when certain redactions of the liturgy were made.

The same is true of other official Lutheran teachings which are no longer taught, or in danger of extinction, because these teachings are not prayed or sung.

William Weedon said...


That promise was kept - and most especially to the Apostles to whom it was originally made. The result of that keeping of the promise is the New Testament record itself.

Fr. John,

Yes, I remember well. But I have been struck with how the doctrine of the Symbols lives and breathes in Starck. A people who prayed it regularly would know, for example, that prayer for the respose of a departed soul was quite kosher. About the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God, I've not come across that yet in Starck (unless Pieper edited it out - will have to check on that!!!), but that was replete in the liturgy of the Lutheran Church in the hymns used for the Marian festivals in the 16th and 17th century. It was the loss of those hymns that finally led to the sad decline there - as much as the loss of the embolism.

Sch├╝tz said...

What a great discussion--but nothing surprising here. Everyone is saying just what I would expect them to say.

In the end though, most "via medias" are untenable. Because Lutherans are (in the view of more Reformed confessions) still in the position of "Scripture Plus" (compare yourselves to, eg., the Plymouth Brethren on this one), and Lutherans will always be (in the view of Orthodox and Catholics) in the position of "Scripture Minus".

Yes, Pastor Weedon, it is our firm belief that Lutherans in fact reject much of the "history of the exposition of the Scriptures in the Church", precisely on the grounds upon which you dismissed Anastasia's comments--you believe that the Holy Spirit stopped guiding the Church into all truth when the New Testament was committed to writing. This is simply untenable. Revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, yes, but not reflection upon the revelation, and neither was it ever claimed (until the Reformation that is) that all that was revealed by Christ was recorded by the apostles in the New Testament. It is the Church which has always been (in St Paul's words) the "pillar and bulwark of truth".

Trent is right to point out to Lutherans that it is only on the basis of tradition (not scripture) that they uphold infant baptism, or that they refuse lay administration of the sacraments, or that they confess the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin (or is this too only a "pious opinion"?).

You say that Lutherans differ from the more extreme protestants because they do not forbid what Scripture does not forbid. But let me ask you: is the Divine Liturgy neccessary for the Church, or is it simply a man-made tradition which the Church would be free to either retain or reject? Or is it in fact (as I am sure you agree) a divine mandate for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries? And if you do agree with this, on what scriptural basis--apart from Tradition--can you defend this belief?

Yes, those Romans and Greeks among us are simply trying to call your bluff on this one, Bill. We feel that you do protest too much. You are really a "Scripture Plus" Christian, but refuse to admit it, because you are convinced that your faith is a "scripture only" faith. I put it to you: You are as much as "Scripture Plus" Christian as the next evangelical catholic in the room.

(On which point, may I say that I did not cease being evangelical when I became catholic, although I may not yet quite be orthodox!)

William Weedon said...

Dear David,

I agree, it is a fruitful discussion. A couple comments along the way:

1. Lutherans didn't need to Trent to point this out about infant baptism, for Dr. Luther himself had written these amazing words long before:

"“I did not invent it [infant baptism]. It came to me by tradition and I was persuaded by no word of Scripture that it was wrong.”

“Baptism did not originate with us, but with the apostles and we should not discard or alter what cannot be discarded or altered on clear scriptural authority.”

“Were child baptism now wrong God would certainly not have permitted it to continue so long, nor let it become so universally and thoroughly established in all of Christendom, but it would sometime have gone down in disgrace….. He has not so upheld the papcy, which also in an innovation and has never been accepted by all Christians of the world as has child Baptism, the Bible, faith, or the Lord’s Prayer…”

“You say, this does not prove that child baptism is certain. For there is no passage in Scripture for it. My answer: that is true. From Scripture we cannot clearly conclude that you should establish child baptism as a practice among the first Christians after the apostles. But you can well conclude that in our day no one may reject or neglect the practice of child baptism, which has so long a tradition, since God actually not only has permitted it, but from the beginning so ordered, that it has not yet disappeared. For where we see the work of God we should yield and believe in the same way as when we hear his Word, unless the plain Scripture tell us otherwise.” AE 40:254

In many of the discussions that Father Fenton and Father Gregory (Hogg) brought forth, this passage from Luther was quite key in ennunciating "the catholic principle" and it is also evident in the Lutheran Symbols.

2. You ask specifically about the liturgy. From a strictly confessional view, one must confess the liturgy to be itself "a mixed bag." It is first and foremost the ceremony which Christ Himself has commanded; but added to that divinely mandated ceremony are various human ceremonies which the Church has, of course, altered and adjusted across time. While we have the greatest reverence for those ceremonies which the Church has added that serve to extol and "frame" if you will the divinely mandated ceremony, we do not believe that any of those are of themselves divine worship. And when what gets added obscures, it has to go. One could view some of Vatican II's liturgical reform within the intent of that last point - how well it was done is a matter up for debate (and not only among Roman Catholics).

3. Regarding the perpetual virginity of the most holy God-bearer, the Lutheran Symbols confess this without putting forth their Scriptural reasons for doing so; but the Church has never been without Scriptural witness to it. Ezekiel 44 and John 19 loom large - and as Luther said: "Jerome gave a fitting answer to that fool Helvidius."

4. Am I trying to have my cake and eat it too? To hold to the catholic tradition and yet to the contention that that is dogma of the Church alone which is grounded in the Sacred Scriptures? It appears to me that the catholic tradition itself asserts that her dogma is grounded in the Sacred Scriptures or "harmonized with their intention" (Nyssa, I believe, but Chemnitz uses it as well). Thus, of any dogma of which someone says: "We don't have to demonstrate this from Scripture or as being in harmony with Scripture and a legitimate inference from it" - we've got a problem. The catholic principle calls for the dogma not to be in contradiction to the Sacred Scriptures (which is the negative way of saying to be in harmony with them).

I've a few more thoughts, but must wait and share them another time. Off to the hospital in a few minutes!

Thanks to all for the discussion.

Anonymous said...

I, by a "Scripture-plus" tradition, you only mean one whose doctrine cannot be harmonized with the intention of sacred writ, then Orthodoxy is most assuredly not a "Scripture-plus" tradition.

Or if one claims it is, then byh the very same criterion, so is Lutheranism.


Anonymous said...

as Lutherans, we have a wonderful comfort in the Sacraments, given for you (me), shed for you (me). and the liturgy is a wonderful frame for this beautiful blessed assurance. but the reason so many clergy look to the plus side is the lax in fidelity to the confessions, whose beautiful truths (by the power of the Holy Spirit) drew me to the Lutheran confession. the losing of private confession and absolution is the most obvious loss. for the laity i feel the problem lies in the missing of Word from the Word and Sacrament equation. the preaching in the parishes i have visited (albeit limited) is rather weak when compared to expository reformed sermons. in my on parish, the law is rushed over, and the Gospel explained, but the unconverted sitting in the pews will see no need for Christ. i don't believe Luther or Walther would would care much for some of todays sermons.