A Message from Pastor Hale

A Message from Pastor Hale

There is nothing particularly holy or spiritual about trying to cash in on the hype of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, what scholars somewhat arbitrarily mark as the beginning of the Reformation. It can, however, be a good occasion to study anew the teaching and doctrinal confessions of Luther and his fellow confessors. However, this activity should not occur only on media-friendly anniversaries. After Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, Luther should always be the foremost teacher of the Lutheran church, because of his faithfulness to Scripture. The Bible does not change, despite the sinful seethings of modernist scholars. God’s doctrine and Word are eternal since they come from Him. Despite our progression in technology and scholarly works, we can claim no more insight into divine truth than Luther. In fact, the opposite is true — in seeking to improve upon the truth we deny it or give it up to some extent.

Confessions, written statements of what we believe and reject, are more significant for Lutherans than for other churches, at least historically. We claim to have the truth. Not just the main or most significant parts, but we possess the entirety of saving doctrine correctly. The Lutheran church, in her confession, claims to have God’s Word free from error in her doctrine. Our claim is that it is pure and true. This gives us the very right to exist as a church. We can know old human writings to be the truth because of the basis for speaking about Christ: His very Word. Just as Scripture is written in accessible words and is understandable, so we can decide disagreements over doctrine by God’s clear Word, summarized in our confessions. This derivative human writing, at least in the case of the Book of Concord, we claim to be God’s Word also. Not that every Word and phrase is inspired by the Spirit, but in the sense that it reproduces the truth of Scripture correctly. The vow all LCMS ministers make reads: “Yes, I believe and confess these creeds and confessions [in the 1580 Book of Concord] as my own because they are in accord with the Word of God. I also reject the errors they condemn.” Because of their truth, these 16th century documents can be a present norm for judging the faithfulness of pastors and all teaching in the church. Human confessions mark and preserve a church as Christian and faithful to God’s Word. So a man who makes this full confession of our Lutheran confessions is voluntarily saying he will bind himself to these old words and teach nothing contrary to them. They are God’s Word for him.

The sad truth, from a human point of view, is that confessions divide and separate. If just labeling oneself a Christian were enough, all churches could unite and join together in full fellowship. But we cannot know each other by faith or recognize who truly possesses the Spirit. We must judge by a man’s confession, what he says about Christ, which is precisely what church membership represents. A denomination is a man-made organization, but it represents and stands for a particular teaching of Christ, which is a divine claim. Church membership signals assent to a particular body of teaching regarding the Lord Jesus. There is no generic 

Christian or Lutheran teaching. Each separated church exists because of some doctrinal difference. But doctrine is revealed by Christ and is the only means we have to know Him. To ignore these differences that have historically divided Christians is to cast aside the plain teaching of Scripture which rules over the Church. To express a churchly unity not based on Christ’s Scripture and teaching is to be indifferent towards Christ. It is a sin against our Lord to pretend differences in divine doctrine do not matter.

Sadly, the drive in mainline churches for about a century has been to visibly unite and declare pulpit and altar fellowship with everyone possible. This very visible, results-oriented motivation, commonly called ecumenism, is so strong it inherently downplays doctrinal differences and written confessions. But from the beginning, the confessions of Lutheranism, especially the Formula of Concord, divided people who called themselves “Christian,” and even “Lutheran,” over the substance of the faith, the doctrines Christ actually gave in written words. We don’t create these differences by speaking the truth, they exist because some people do not follow Christ’s Word. We are warned explicitly against compromising in doctrine and putting human shows of unity above the words of Jesus: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Tim 4:1; 6:3-4). What is not of Christ’s Word is demonic and is contrary to the Lord. We show our faithfulness by our words and pure confession of Christ’s holy teaching.

One of the main disagreements that arose at the time of the Reformation was over the nature of the Lord’s Supper: is Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine and how is it so? Most Protestants (commonly labeled “Reformed”) disagreed with Luther and the true Lutherans, claiming that the consecrated bread and wine is not actually also Christ’s body and blood. But our Lord declared that in the Supper His own body and blood are actually distributed: “Take, eat; this is my body … Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:17-28). While this is only a single doctrinal point, it is precisely this false view on the Supper (and similar disagreements on the renewal and working of salvation in Baptism) that precluded fellowship between Lutherans and the Reformed in the 1500s. But this division was mainly from the Lutheran side, as shown by Luther’s refusal to express full unity with the Reformed at the 1529 Marburg Colloquy. The Reformed have always considered the sacraments minor issues that should not be divisive of fellowship. They do not have the same Lutheran principle of confessing the pure doctrine and the whole truth.

The Formula of Concord divides in the most helpful way. Since more subtle deniers of the Supper argue that faith makes Christ’s body and blood present, our confessions made this the dividing question: Do unbelievers receive only bread and wine or also Christ’s body and blood at the Lord’s table? “Whether in the Holy Supper the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are truly and essentially present, are distributed with the bread and wine, and received with the mouth by all those who use this Sacrament, whether they be worthy or unworthy, godly or ungodly, believing or unbelieving; by the believing for consolation and life, by the unbelieving for judgment? The Sacramentarians [false teachers on the sacrament of the Supper] say, No; we say, Yes.” This leads to the positive Lutheran confession of what everyone receives in Christ’s holy Supper: “We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine.”

A new confession (http://reformingcatholicconfession.com/) came out in September of this year entitled: “A Reforming Catholic Confession – A ‘Mere Protestant’ Statement of Faith to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.” While confessing is good and a part and parcel of being Christian, a confession which denies God’s clear Word is deadly: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32-33). The desire to unite all Protestants is nothing new, but to do so has always meant 

compromising on the truth of God’s Word, because all non-Roman Christians do not actually agree. So I was shocked to learn that ordained LCMS professors signed a confession of the faith which denies the confession they made in their ordination vows.

Even though this anniversary Protestant confession has some positive doctrinal emphases, it is incomplete in many areas and flat wrong in critical ones when compared with the more full doctrinal presentation of the Book of Concord. A modern confession should deal explicitly with modern errors: evolution, the role of reason in interpreting Scripture and theology, Communion fellowship, and the public roles of male and female (an ordained female seminary professor had no problem confessing this generic confession as her own: “Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling, Assoc. Professor of Theology, Northern Seminary”) — the most significant issues of our day. But this confession glosses over those pressing issues to focus only on the “important” teachings of Christ, making everything else irrelevant to true unity in the faith.

It is excellent that separated Christians are able to dialogue and speak similarly on major doctrines, but a confession is much more: it is the basis of churches and church fellowship. The website of “Reforming Catholic Confession” claims: “We invite other believers around the world to unite with us in this joyful confession of our common faith;” “our statement aims at displaying an interdenominational unity in the essentials of the faith.” This is a false unity. Despite intentionally vague and superficial statements, all Protestants do not have the same faith being taught in their pulpits. We cannot fully recognize others who disagree publicly with God’s Word, even if they call themselves “Lutheran.” Christ’s teaching is too important to compromise just to get along with others. We simply do not have unity with all other Christians, even if we disagree on only one point of doctrine. It is unfaithfulness to deny the truth simply for the sake of getting along with sinners on earth. Though the explanation to this confession denies that it undoes each individual's particular confession, for a Lutheran confessing a doctrinal unity of any sort directly contrary to his own historic confession, this is impossible: “We do not intend the present statement to replace the confessional statements of the various confessional traditions and churches here represented but rather to express our shared theological identity as mere Protestants through our common testimony.”

This new “mere” confession starts with these telling words: “What we, protestants of diverse churches and theological traditions, say together: ‘We believe….’.” Then follow 12 short, paragraph-length articles on topics from the “Triune God” to “Last Things.” I encourage all to read and critique it. The problem is not inter -church conversation or that diverse theologians drafted a document together, but that so-called Lutherans willingly signed a confession which denies the one they previously made when they subscribed the confessions of the LCMS — The Book of Concord. The idea that a Lutheran independently corrected his own confessions and overcame 500 years of serious doctrinal disagreement in a few weeks is incredibly arrogant. Declaring unity with the deniers of Christ’s body and blood doctrinally tries to redefine Lutheranism. Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, co-chair of the drafting committee, responds in an interview to the biggest challenge in writing a new common Protestant confession: “To get Baptists and Lutherans and Pentecostals and Presbyterians to agree on what was happening at the Lord’s Supper — it didn’t happen in five minutes. It happened over days and weeks and over much prayer, maybe some people even fasted.” But there was no actual agreement. Any Lutheran making this his own confession has fully embraced the Reformed position. In the same way, the evidently “non-essential” issue of infant baptism is not even mentioned.

The article in this new confession on “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” is introduced with these words: “That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call ‘sacraments,’ are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again.” “Ordinances” are laws, rules we must follow. The word “sacrament” (coming from the Greek word for mystery) denotes something much more. Despite saying some nice things about the Supper, it clearly follows the Reformed denial of Christ’s body and blood. It speaks of the Supper’s ability to “communicate life,” give “assurance” and of its power to nurture “in the faith.” It rightly says that Baptism and Communion “are tangible expressions of the gospel,” but only “insofar as they depict our dying, rising, and incorporation into Jesus’ body.” They merely illustrate salvation, evidently. The issue of what we receive in the Supper is completely ignored. The fact that they “strengthen the faithful” is true, but this article is vague and obviously avoids the most contentious issues that are as old as the Reformation. This meek confession does not do justice to the divisions which still exist. The Formula of Concord easily refutes such trite consensus: “we unanimously reject and condemn all the following erroneous articles …

5. That in the Holy Supper the body of Christ is not received orally with the bread; but that with the mouth only bread and wine are received, the body of Christ, however, only spiritually by faith.

6. That the bread and wine in the Holy Supper are nothing more than [symbols or] tokens by which Christians recognize one another.

7. That the bread and wine are only figures, similitudes, and representations of the far absent body and blood of Christ.

8. That the bread and wine are no more than a memorial, seal, and pledge, through which we are assured that when faith elevates itself to heaven, it there becomes partaker of the body and blood of Christ as truly as we eat bread and drink wine in the Supper.

9. That the assurance and confirmation of our faith [concerning salvation] in the Holy Supper occur through the external signs of bread and wine alone, and not through the true, present body and blood of Christ.

10. That in the Holy Supper only the power, efficacy, and merit of the absent body and blood of Christ are distributed.”

There is nothing new under the sun. These over 400 year old words show the hypocrisy of a supposed “agreement” between Lutherans and Reformed which does not state what is actually received in Communion.

Non-Lutheran Protestants would be following their long-established principles in accepting such a limited agreement, but when an LCMS seminary professor signs this as his confession of the faith, he marks himself as either a hypocrite (confessing two contradictory things) or un-Lutheran. A Lutheran cannot ignore the contentious issue of what Christ actually gives His people in the Sacrament of the Altar. But nonetheless, under the drafting committee is listed: “Dr. Erik Herrmann, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Concordia Seminary.” This would not be a problem if he had refused to sign the confession, remaining faithful to his ordination vow. But he did sign it, making this Reformed confession his own. One other active ordained and rostered LCMS professor also signed it: “Dr. Gilbert Meilaender, Sr. Research Professor, Valparaiso University,” Notably, a respected former St. Louis seminary professor also signed it: “Dr. Robert Kolb, Mission Prof. of Systematic Theology Emeritus, Concordia Seminary.”

What does this mean? The Augsburg Confession defines true church unity: “And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” We judge churches on doctrine, what they confess about Christ, according to the written Word of God. Too often today we latch on to people and projects, rather than definite confessions of God’s Word. But the only infallible person is Christ. All men, even mighty professors, must be held subject to God’s Word, and that Word has been expressed reliably and faithfully in our Book of Concord. The LCMS pastors signing this very limited new confession must repent of their action or be considered outside of true Lutheranism.

It is sad that such decorated scholars and pastors so easily give up the Lutheran confession of the truth. One cannot be born into Lutheranism or inherently “be” Lutheran, it is a continual activity to confess Christ. Confessing the truth of Christ and rejecting denials of His teaching should not stop before Judgment Day. Many of the German Lutherans who came to America uprooted their families so they would not have to commune with the Reformed and accept their satanic confession that Communion is not the body and blood of Christ in the forced Prussian Union of Reformed and Lutheran churches. Following the pattern of Luther, they risked their lives to preserve a faithful confession and establish churches in America to purely confess Christ’s Word. But now “Lutheran” experts say fighting over what the Lord’s Supper is — the precious body and blood of Christ Himself — is “regrettable” and a product of sin. That is to say that Christ’s very own body and blood does not really matter to the Christian, despite the fact that Christ Himself spoke very clearly in His giving of the Supper. Either sinners who say the sacraments do not really matter are right or Christ is wrong. There is no third option. We should be willing to die for even the smallest of divine doctrines, for the sake of our Lord who died to give us righteousness. No teaching which Christ revealed should be ignored as non-essential.

“A Reforming Catholic Confession” states in its official explanation: “It is a fallacy to argue that the divisions that followed from the Reformation were its inevitable consequences. The accidental truths of European history should never become necessary conclusions about the spirit of Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is particularly to be regretted that the early Protestant Reformers were unable to achieve an altogether common mind, in particular as concerns the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We believe these divisive doctrinal disagreements stemmed not from the fundamental principles of the Reformation, but from their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance. Nor can we deny that they sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience.” In these words the Reformation is completely undone — Lutherans are said to have sinned by confessing the Lord’s Supper faithfully and creating these divisions in Protestantism. However, Luther did not fight for a generic Protestantism or just to get rid of the Catholic pope. He fought for God’s Word and to confess rightly the whole truth of Christ. To do the same will not be easy for those today who want to confess Christ without compromise. It will mean human division, rejection, and suffering. As we have one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can only have one confession, which He Himself will judge. Amen.

Rev. Philip W. Hale is a pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Omaha, NE.