Tuesday, 20 October 2009

"Even when steeples are falling..." Yeago on What's Wrong with the ELCA and What Can Be Done About It

These days one would like to be in a position to ignore what happens in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but as it is one of the three largest church bodies in the world that bear the name Lutheran, that is a luxury we do not have. The following is part of a reflection by a noted theologian of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, David Yeago, on the future of that church body following several decisions of its recent Assembly in Minneapolis which amount to a rejection of the scriptural and traditional teaching on homosexuality. This is probably the best response I have read to date on this matter because, in my view, it correctly diagnoses what's wrong with the ELCA (and most other mainstream Christian church bodies in the Western world, for that matter), and that is the disintegrating sensus fidelium, which literally translates as "sense of the faith" and refers to a commonly held understanding of the objective content of the faith among the people. This is happening as a result of the truly terrifying reality that much of the church is no longer living in and from scripture but being blown this way and that by the chill winds of post-modern relativism and subjectivism. Much more could be said about the ELCA and particularly its flirting with methods of Biblical interpretation that undermined the authority of God's Word and hastened the present situation. Once the hermeneutical genie has escaped the bottle, is there a way to put him back? The following recommendations from Yeago are the best, in fact the only place to start.

From The Way Forward (3): The Bible in the Church, by David S. Yeago:

"According to the Formula of Concord, the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” are “the pure clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm by which all teachers and teaching are to be judged” (Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm). Our attention easily locks onto the description of Scripture as the “only true norm” in doctrinal controversy. That’s the contested Protestant bit, the “Scripture-principle.” It’s been endlessly discussed since the Reformation, and entered deeply into Protestant identity.

It has also been viewed with increasing skepticism since the Enlightenment, not without reason. It just doesn’t seem to have worked out very well. Conflicts don’t actually seem to be resolved by biblical interpretation in the Protestant churches; controversies seem more likely to generate schism or else the formation of ongoing opposed parties within ecclesiastical communities. Hasn’t any unity Protestants have enjoyed really been brought about by state-church regimes or capacious denominational structures, rather than a meeting of the minds over Scripture?

Notice, though, that the Formula does not present Scripture only as a norm to be appealed to in controversy. Before Scripture is norm, it is the “pure, clear fountain of Israel,” the source of the water of life. A fountain is different from a norm; its work is prior to any outbreak of controversy, any pressing need for judgment. A fountain gives life and provides cleansing. Its waters sustain travelers, clear dust from human eyes, and turn deserts into fruitful fields. Unless the church is constantly being enlivened and formed by Scripture in this way, appeals to the Bible as norm and judge will be operating in a vacuum.

No method of resolving disputes within the church can function without the support of an underlying sensus fidelium, a common mind among the faithful. Even a teaching office on Roman Catholic lines can only settle disputes successfully if there is a shared perception that the office deserves respect. This can never be wholly a matter of recognizing the formal authority of the bishop or the Pope, as in the slogan “Rome has spoken – case closed.” It has to include a perception that the actual decisions made by the teaching office reliably cohere with central Christian beliefs and practices. Only so can a sense be maintained that obedience to the teaching office is an authentic form of discipleship. But for that to be the case, the teachers and the faithful must share a common formation in faith and life. They can only meet, so to speak, if they live in the same Christian universe.

The root of our problems with authority in the ELCA, I would suggest, is the confusion, weakening, and consequent fragmentation of the sensus fidelium, the common mind of the faithful. This confusion and weakness are by no means all on one side. We’ve all been affected by the biblical illiteracy, thin catechesis, clueless educational programs, and unfocused preaching that are widespread (I’m not saying universal) in our denomination. Seeking scriptural resolution to a passionate controversy on top of such weakness, confusion, and fragmentation is like trying to ride up the glass mountain in the fairy tale: no matter how strong your theological horse or how well you ride it, you’re never going to get traction.

This is one reason I’ve been suggesting that the way forward has to be a renewed formative engagement with Scripture as pure, clear fountain. We need to set the Bible loose in the ELCA; we need to uncap the hydrant and let the waters pour where they will. We need to do this not defensively, nor simply in a new round of argument about sexual ethics, but with the air of people discovering treasure in a field. The new mantra in the ELCA is that our unity is in Christ, not in theology or moral teaching. A confused mantra – but why not respond: “Good – then let’s go looking for him. Let’s dig up the field of the Scriptures to find him.”

I heard a couple of words in church last Sunday that encouraged me: “The word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). When we let the Bible loose, we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. But it’s not just our own power we have to reckon with. And we’ve just about run out of other things to try."

Addendum: If you've read this far, you might also enjoy reading another interesting recent reflection on the marginalisation of scripture in the church from another quarter entirely, namely Robert Forsythe, an Anglican Bishop in Sydney, Australia, which for overseas readers not familiar with our Australian church scene, is a bastion of conservative evangelicalism which lives in some tension with what passes for mainstream Anglicanism these days. You can read it here: http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/news/communion/the_marginalisation_of_scripture/


Schütz said...

Yeago is an intelligent theologian and his writings about Justification are significant for the Catholic Lutheran dialogue in the States.

I have read all his posts on this matter so far, including his intitial post "In the Aftermath" (see all posts on this topic here) and intend to comment on this sometime soon.

Essentially, even and perhaps especially in this piece, he consistently forgets to ask the "ecclesiological question": "Where is the Church?"

In his post "The Way Forward (2): the Scriptural Christ, part 4", speaks of Christ as "a particular person in whose singular flesh God has put the whole creationto rights once and for all" (shades of N.T. Wright in that expression, I see) without realising that the particular person must have a particular body. In other words, while combating gnosticism in Christology, he allows it back in in Ecclesiology.

This is especially evidenced in his comment that "Our relationship to Jesus Christ is inseparable from our relationship to the Bible."

How would his perspective change if he were convinced that "Our relationship to Jesus Chrsit is inseparable from the Church"?

On top of this, in the particular post that you include here, he quotes the Formula of Concord as saying: "The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament...is the only true norm by which all teachers and teaching are to be judged."

He goes on to claim that the FC thus "appeals to the Bible as the norm and judge". In fact, as my friend and yours, Pastor Fraser Pearce points out, it does not call the Scriptures "the judge", but only the norm by which "all teachers and teaching are to be judged." The FC leaves completely open the question of WHO will do the judging! (If CA XXVIII is to believed, it is the bishops).

I will write more of this anon on my own blog.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks for those comments, David. I will take time to digest them before responding, and I will follow your promised posts with interest. While I was at sem we had two ELCA students from North Carolina in our care group for six months, a lovely young couple who spoke very highly of Dr Yeago.

Schutz said...

Sorry, my link didn't come through in the above comment. It is:




Mark Henderson said...


I hadn't read all the way down your comment before, so I didn't get to the last point.

I would say that your first concern about Yeago is answered by the fact that he must believe and confess CA VII and still find it compelling.

On the matter of scripture as norm and judge, I think the Lutheran confessional writings are rather more nuanced than you suggest; the divine right to judge doctrine is given to bishops in a ministerial, not a magisterial sense - it is the right to judge who is right or wrong in controversies that is in view, not the right to judge scripture! (Not to mention that the confessions' view of the ministerial office is really unitary rather than three-fold in a doctrinal sense, whatever arrangements may be put in place practically speaking)

Schütz said...

"Yeago...must believe and confess CA VII and still find it compelling." But this is indeed the problem. CA VII ends up with a dynamic, "event-based" or phenomenological definition of the Church. I believe it to be fundamentally correct, but not sufficient of itself. It says nothing, for instance, about that other doctrine of the creed tied to the doctrine of the Church "the communion of saints". The whole koinonia/communio issue is absent from the Augsburg Confession's definition of "Church".

(Incidentally, I think it is a valuable exercise to put CA VII next to Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans on the issue of where the true Church can be found. Like the CA, Ignatius defines it in terms of the ministry of word and sacrament, but unlike the CA, he ties the ministry of word and sacrament to a particular person - rather than simply the "event" or "phenomena" of this ministry - so as to avoid the pitfalls of gnosticism).

As for the CA teacing that the office of the ministry is unitary rather than threefold, this is not borne out by CA XXVIII, which make a distinction between "bishops" and "parish ministers" in the following sentence:

"On this account parish ministers and churches are bound to be obedient to the bishops according to the saying of Christ in Luke 10:16, “He who hears you hears me.” (AC XXVIII 21,22)"

Schütz said...

"the divine right to judge doctrine is given to bishops in a ministerial, not a magisterial sense - it is the right to judge who is right or wrong in controversies that is in view, not the right to judge scripture!"

What a curious thing to say, Mark.

You give a false dichotomy between "ministerial" and Mmagistial". Magisterium is always about judging "who [or what teaching] is right or wrong in controversies" and is never about "the right to judge scripture"! Thus the exercise of magisterium is at the service (ministerium) of the Church and the Word.

I do not know of any Catholic bishop who has presumed to use his magisterium "to judge scripture". Certainly, I have never heard any Catholic bishop say of the Scriptures such things as I have heard among protestants (for eg. "this scripture doesn't apply any more" or "here the scriptural author was blinkered by his cultural prejudices").

The point is that the Sacred Text itself cannot "judge" anyone, just as it cannot "teach" anyone, or, in fact, do anything else. "The Word of God" can certainly do these things, but the Scriptural Text needs to be proclaimed, expounded or comprehended in some fashion by someone other than itself.

Mark Henderson said...

At least we can agree that CAVII is fundamentally correct.

On the question of scripture as magister and church as minister, perhaps only a Roman Catholic would find that curious. But you will just have to wait for the relevant post on scripture's authority over at 'Lutheran Catholicity' for the explication of this issue.