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Lutheran Orthodoxy and Its Discontents, Part 1: Some Recent History

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The Summer of 2007 saw two churches, the American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) and the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) agree to Altar and Pulpit Fellowship. Are these two churches passing each other as they move in opposite directions toward and away from orthodoxy and enthusiasm?

Note: This article was originally written prior to the 2006 convention of the American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC), and the 2007 Convention of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS). The author is the former Academic Dean of the AALC's seminary, which is now housed at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. It is given here with some slight updating and revisions.

History of the Agreement Between the AALC and the LCMS



For The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) 1988 was a significant year.  Following The AALC’s formation in 1987, it was the first year that officers of The AALC met with their counterparts in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS).  By 1998, some ten years later, The AALC and the LCMS had met officially five times (the dates were 1988 August 30, 1989 January 31, 1989 September 28, 1992 January 8, and 1998 December 1).  Present at these meetings were the current and first Presiding Pastors of The AALC, Thomas Aadland and Duane Lindberg.  It was at the second of these meetings, in January 1989, that the participants discussed how the LCMS could be of assistance to the AALC, especially in the areas of seminary training, military chaplaincy and social ministry.  The Protocol Agreement that came from this meeting was approved that same year by the Second Annual Convention of The AALC in Moorhead, Minnesota, in June.  That Convention approved the Protocol for The procedure for preparing men for the ordained ministry in the American Association of Lutheran Churches through the seminaries of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  It is that Protocol, approved by both churches, that has been the basis for the discussions that have taken place in the last year*
*This took place in the 2004-2005 academic year.
concerning the American Lutheran Theological Seminary (ALTS) and the possibility of its relocation near a sympathetic Lutheran seminary that could help ALTS in forming pastors for The AALC.

In reading the minutes of those meetings, the record of the 1989 convention, and the Protocol itself, several things are notable.  First, both The AALC and the LCMS realize that, while they are close in many ways, they do have sufficient agreement in doctrine and practice to be in Altar and Pulpit Fellowship.  The clarity, articulation, and honesty exhibited by both churches stems, in large part, from their common commitment to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.  This resulted in a true ecumenism, or a genuine ecumenical discussion, where Jesus Christ is never separated from the truth of His Word and His doctrine.  This is in sharp contrast to many of the discussions that take place among modern churches, which pursue a form of “ecumenism” which depends on ambiguity, obfuscation, and redefinition of terms so that each participant can understand them in their own private - and contradictory - ways.  This method also has the effect of separating Christ from what Christ has actually said in His Word, and makes it difficult - if not impossible - to receive what He gives to us in the Word and the Sacraments.

The second notable item is the foresight exhibited by Dr. Lindberg, Pastor Aadland, and the other representatives of the AALC in working out an agreement to prepare men for the ordained ministry in the American Association of Lutheran Churches through the seminaries of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  The plural, “seminaries”, is very significant, because at the time the LCMS operated four seminaries (Saint Louis, Missouri, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Saint Catherines, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta).  Since that time, the seminaries in Saint Catherines and Edmonton have become part of the Lutheran Church-Canada, which was also established in that very year of 1988 (the question remains if the Protocol now applies to the Canadian seminaries; this would probably have to be verified with the Lutheran Church-Canada).  The AALC currently has pastors who graduated from three of these seminaries (the fourth, Edmonton, is also geographically the most remote from congregations in The AALC).  For pastoral candidates in The AALC, the Protocol Agreement itself is now coming into greater use, with one candidate finishing at Saint Louis this year, and another continuing his program at Fort Wayne at the start of next academic year.  Should the convention approve relocating ALTS to Fort Wayne, this would be a further use of what the Protocol has already established.

The third notable item is that the two items above go together.  It is the honesty and clarity of both churches that makes it possible for pastoral candidates in The AALC to be educated at LCMS seminaries.  This is, in fact, how the LCMS has historically operated.  The LCMS has usually chosen to encourage a greater number of smaller faithful and confessional Lutheran Church bodies, rather than fewer church bodies with larger numbers.  While this is not an absolute rule, it reveals a bias that elevates the concern for doctrine over the desire for pragmatic success or worldly acceptance.  While this approach has its limits, The AALC’s existence is perhaps the best protest against what happens when the opposite course of action is followed.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) today, for example, is a series of many smaller Lutheran church bodies that have merged together on terms that did not always elevate genuine doctrinal agreement.  The result of this procedure, over time, tends to be a church body that departs significantly from the historic doctrine and practice of the Church from which it claims descent.  The AALC’s decision to form was, in large part, a very studied and sober judgment on the part of its congregations that the ELCA’s claim to be Lutheran would prove to be a case of dubious parentage.

It should also be pointed out that the paragraph above uses terms such as “usually” for a very good reason.  There may be some cases in which churches can merge and still maintain their doctrinal integrity.  And, in at least two famous instances, the LCMS has departed from its conviction that doctrine is paramount.  The first instance was the period leading up to the “Walk Out” of 1974.  In that case, the LCMS become one of the few church bodies to reject the prevailing academic and cultural liberalism that had become dominant in its academic institutions and in a small percentage of its churches (around 5% or less of congregations in the LCMS eventually left with the “Walk Out”).

The second instance is today, when, within the LCMS, a resurgent liberalism and Gospel Reductionism (the remnant of the “Walk Out” that, for various reasons, did not walk out, and stay out) has made common cause with pragmatism, Church Growth, multi-culturalism and a generic American “Fundagelicalism”.  Like the groups that left in the “Walk Out”, they seek to change the historic doctrine and practice of the LCMS.  They adopt names and terms such as “Jesus First” and “Church Growth” that cleverly assert some cause or agenda which appears uncontestable (who would argue that Jesus is First, or that the Church should grow?).  At the same time they attack the historic doctrine and practice of the Lutheran Church that refuses to separate Jesus from His Word and Doctrine, and faithfully trusted that the growth of the Church would be determined by the same God Who gives the means of the Word and the Sacraments.  Unlike the “Walk Out”, what they lack in unity of doctrine and ideology is more than compensated by their extremely effective and well-funded ability to succeed politically.  Charity (something that is sometimes lacking on all sides) would assume that those on all sides of this debate are Christians of some kind, but those who oppose them see them, in the words of Mark Chapter 5, as “legion”.  And legion they are, given their wildly divergent goals, beliefs and theologies. In just one example, even though the older liberals (sometimes called "moderates" in their earlier manifestation) despise the fundagelicals and pragmatists, they are willing to make common cause with them in opposing Lutheran Orthodoxy. It remains to be seen if they will be able to possess the LCMS or if they will go over the cliff with the herd of all the other church bodies which “gain the world, but lose their souls” by assimilating themselves into various segments of the popular culture to seek success or popularity, or losing whatever remains of their character, integrity and beliefs to win the approval of some larger academic or political faction.

There are also great ironies here for both The AALC and the LCMS.  The period of time when the LCMS was most concerned with doctrine (roughly from its inception up to the middle of the 20th century) is also the time of its greatest numerical growth.  That rate of growth declined (and at times even reversed) when the LCMS has been less concerned with doctrine and more concerned with matters such as growth, success and acceptance.  I do not suggest that there is a causal relationship here (i.e., that concern with doctrine leads to growth), but it might just be that God has a sense of humor.  The modern explanation for the earlier growth of the LCMS (immigration to the US from Germany) may have been a factor, but this may prove ultimately to be of less consequence.  Mass immigration from Northern Europe began in the 1840’s, but had declined by the end of that century.  The LCMS continued to grow well after the restrictions imposed by the Immigration Act of 1882 and the Quota Act of 1921.  The Quota Act of 1921, in fact, attempted to encourage immigrants from Northern Europe at the expense of those from Southern and Eastern Europe, an indication that immigration from Germany (in either real or relative terms) had been in decline for some time.

As Academic Dean of ALTS, I find myself in the unique position of observing these two churches as an employee of AALC/ALTS, and as a pastor in the LCMS.  As such, I am only an academic employee of the AALC, not a pastor, and while I am a pastor in the LCMS, I do not speak for either church in any official capacity.  I am also very much aware of my limitations.  I do not pretend to know as much about The AALC (or even immigration history!) as those who are members of The AALC.  And, while my field of study is history, there are those who greatly differ with my description of the LCMS, as well as my description of the general condition and history of Lutheranism in North America.  My job is to try to best execute what The AALC has decided (and will decide at its next convention) should be the shape and form of the education of its pastors.  It is in that capacity that I offer my observations here.

In the short term, The AALC is faced with the decision to keep its seminary, ALTS, in its present location, or to locate it near a cooperative and sympathetic Lutheran seminary that would help to educate its future pastors.  In the long term, The AALC will decide in what way it will relate to the LCMS.  For the short term, my suggestion would be that The AALC, and ALTS, make as much use as it can of the generous offer by the LCMS to help educate its future pastors.  For the long term, I would suggest that The AALC move very, very slowly and deliberately in its discussions with the LCMS on Altar and Pulpit Fellowship.  While the financial considerations for having ALTS cooperate with a sympathetic Lutheran seminary are considerable, it is also my belief that pastoral students in The AALC would receive a good education at an LCMS seminary.

The long-term consideration is somewhat more complicated. The AALC has demonstrated a surprising capacity to continually reassess what it means to be faithful to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and to take right actions accordingly.  It would be tragic if The AALC, which has fought to resist the pressures of the prevailing societal and cultural winds in this regard, should be influenced by the recent efforts in the LCMS to redefine and explain its understanding of Church and Ministry, as well as doctrine and practice, in order to present a superficially more appealing image to society at large.  While neither is a monolith, these two churches find themselves on two different trajectories: The AALC largely has asked “How can we be faithful?”  The LCMS once asked the same question, but it has now begun to ask, “How can the Gospel be more successful?”  Should this trajectory continue, the two church bodies may pass each other in mid flight, and The AALC may come to occupy the position that the LCMS traditionally held, that is, the orthodox center of Lutheranism in North America.  Such categories are, of course, notoriously difficult, and of limited use, much like the meaningless use of terms like “mainstream” and “extreme” by some (such as the media) to describe themselves as the first to hide the fact that they are the second (which would explain why they rarely, if ever, use the more accurate terms “liberal” or “leftist” to describe themselves).  But if we use these terms in a doctrinal (instead of a numerical) sense, it would be tragic if The AALC would find itself interrupted in mid flight toward a very worthy goal.

As for the specific doctrinal differences between the LCMS and The AALC, reference is made elsewhere.*
* Both the AALC and the LCMS published the results of their doctrinal discussions in various places.
I think it is fair to say that Lutheran Christians have had lively discussions, agreements, and disagreements on topics such as the Christian Life and the Pastoral Office.  But only in relatively recent decades have Christians, much less Lutheran Christians, taken such pride in awarding themselves the theological and intellectual "Booby Prize" commonly known as "Agreeing to Disagree". While this can be a common and acceptable solution to disagreements of political or social import, it tends to fatally cripple the theological and doctrinal capacity of churches, and then, inevitably, their moral capacity. Among Lutherans, this process has much historical testimony. Lutheran Orthodoxy, for example, disagreed with famous Lutheran theologians like Philipp Melanchthon over the capacity of the human will in our salvation.  Later, movements of Lutheran Piety would later disagree with Lutheran Orthodoxy on the expression of faith in the Christian’s life and the relative value of experience.  It is safe to say that the historic position of the LCMS tends to be that of Lutheran Orthodoxy.  I believe it is also safe to say that The AALC is historically more open than the LCMS to what can positively be called “piety”. The AALC would object to being called "Pietists", and they may have good reason for distinguishing themselves as "pious", as opposed to "Pietists". Whether this is a "distinction with a difference" I leave to another discussion, but Lutheran Orthodoxy usually follows the rule enunciated by that great poet philosopher, Satchmo Magni (aka Louis Armstrong): You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off. In my opinion, the LCMS and The AALC disagree on these two points.  The LCMS is more inclined to believe that faith in Christ cannot be separated from, and is expressed in, doctrine.  Doctrine, likewise, cannot be separated from, and is expressed in, the Christian life.  The AALC may be more inclined to elevate the experiential aspects of the Christian life.  This probably reflects The AALC’s tendency to embrace "Lutheran Piety".

The Criticisms of Lutheran Orthodoxy



I am unable to do complete justice to the criticism of Lutheran Orthodoxy made by Lutheran Piety here, but I believe it is striking that a host of others have leveled the same set of charges.  In fact, the common perception that Orthodoxy and Piety formed opposite poles is challenged by the fact that Orthodoxy found - and finds - itself attacked by a whole host of ideologies and movements (or, as described above, "Legion"). Like Pietism, the Charismatic Movement, Liberalism, Gospel Reductionism, Church Growth, pragmatism, multi-culturalism, Rationalism and the Enlightenment (just to name a few) have called Lutheran Orthodoxy unloving, authoritarian, a “religion of the head but not the heart”, overly fond of “creeds and not deeds”, stifling of True Christianity and the Genuine Christian Life and (perhaps the greatest sin) “out of touch with modern culture and unaffirming of the individual”.  Well, as someone sympathetic to Orthodoxy, I would hardly know where to start with this list, and I am keenly aware that the list so far is only partial.  I can say that I am glad that other people love me so much that they are willing to tell me what is wrong with me, and what I, and my church, believe, think, practice and do.  I would like to love others in this way, and love them as much as they love me (perhaps even more so).

When Orthodoxy returns this favor, however, and attempts to discuss these matters with its critics, it finds itself at both a serious disadvantage (from their point of view) and a serious advantage (from its own point of view).  Orthodoxy knows Jesus (and therefore the Christian faith) from His Own Words (the Scriptures), and from the Confession of the Faith that agrees with His Words (the Lutheran Confessions).  The Jesus of Piety and the Charismatic Movement is fully known (perhaps exclusively known) through experiential means, the Christian Life, and the Holy Spirit.  The Jesus of Liberalism and Gospel Reductionism seems to be a particularly permissive Savior Who would never say anything bad about anyone, or point out their sin, which is a picture strangely at odds with the genuine Savior presented in the Bible as speaking both Law and Gospel. Church Growth and pragmatism know Jesus (and the doctrine of the Church) through success, greater numbers, and worldly acceptance, which appears to be a very different god from the One Who was “rejected by man”, bruised and “smitten for our iniquities” when He died on the Cross.  The Jesus of multi-culturalism seems to be a kind of tribal deity of many different incarnations who has a particularly strong animus against Western Civilization and white males, which is at odds with what Our Savior says in Scripture about the love of God for each and every individual regardless of the accident of their birth. 

This is not to say that the critics of Orthodoxy do not also claim Scripture and the Confessions.  But I must join Orthodoxy and admit that I am at a loss as to explain the differences in doctrine and practice.  It is apparent that Scripture and the Confessions are our common  sources when we agree on Who Jesus is, and what He says.  But, where we disagree, there must be something else at work.  I must confess my own sin and admit that I am not as pious as those who adhere to Lutheran Piety say I should be.  I also know I am not as pious or holy as they tell me that they themselves are.  I must also admit that I am not “spirit filled” in the same way that Charismatics say that I should be. 

But at some point I (and Orthodoxy itself) poses the question to them, "How do you know this?" And the answer appears to be one that is entirely subjective and comparative. How does the Pietist know that he or she has more genuine piety than myself, and other followers of Orthodoxy? How does the Charismatic know that he or she has more of the real and true Holy Spirit (or "Fullness of the Spirit", or whatever term they use) than myself, and others like me? Unless they point out to me how much more of the Spirit they have, and how little I have, or how much more pious they are, I would miss this point entirely.  That’s probably because I have always thought of the Holy Spirit as being very shy about Himself, but very emphatic in always pointing to Christ.  In the same manner, I believe that genuine Sanctification (or the Christian life) always points back to its source, Justification achieved by Christ, and not to the piety, or pietism, of the individual Christian. Liberals and Gospel Reductionists obviously love more than I do (at least in modern terms), because they seem to love and affirm behavior, doctrine and practices that I find morally and ethically wrong.  And, sadly for my checkbook and personal fame and fortune, those who are followers of Church Growth and pragmatism have found a much greater earthly reward than I have.  They also tell me that God must be terribly disappointed in me that I have not done more to grow His church.

Well, my only hope is that He can forgive me, and I join the Apostle Paul in saying, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver from this body of death?”  My sympathy for Lutheran Orthodoxy stems from this, that Orthodoxy has been most clear, articulate and unambiguous that  the only righteousness I can plead before God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ.   I can plead nothing that is mine – be it my righteousness, my piety, my holiness, my experience, my charismatic gifts, my love, my success, or my growth – before the Throne of God.  And it is quite true that Lutheran Orthodoxy does differ from its critics on sanctification, that is, the Christian Life.  That is because Orthodoxy believes that the subject and source of sanctification is always what Christ has done in justification.  Where the critics of Orthodoxy look to the subjective experience of the individual to validate and inform sanctification and the Christian Life, Orthodoxy continues to look at the objective work accomplished by Jesus Christ in justification.  For Orthodoxy’s critics, this is an entirely inadequate conception of sanctification, and, in their opinion, no doctrine of the Christian Life at all.  The theme of sanctification should be, in their opinion, the Christian, and his certitude, struggle, experience, holiness or some other subjective aspect.  Orthodoxy preaches that the theme of sanctification remains and points to what Christ has done in justification, which the Christian lives out in the daily vocations that God has given as husband, wife, son, daughter, employer, employee, citizen and neighbor.