Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What Is Lutheranism?

When I first came across the announcement of the Lutheran Carnival, I was excited by the idea, because I truly love Lutheranism and I liked the idea of reveling in it with other Lutherans (perhaps not exactly the point of the carnival, but that's what I think of it). I knew that I swim in different waters than a lot of my fellow Lutheran bloggers, but I thought perhaps a little diversity might be appreciated.

Then as I read the requirements for entries, I saw that the organizers were asking that submitters make a "quia subscription to the Book of Concord." I thought that I was probably the sort of person this meant to disinvite, and I chafed at the idea. I chafed so much that I blogged a complaint.

Then Eric Evers of xphiles fame, a fellow ELCA blogger, challenged my complaint. He said, "it's not exactly unreasonable to expect members of a confessional movement to subscribe to the movement's confessions." I certainly can't argue with that (though I did). His response provoked me to thought, the results of which you are now reading.

Evers described for me a "quia subscription" as believing in the Lutheran Confessions because they accurately teach what the Bible teaches, and he contrasted it with a "quatenus subscription" as believing in the Lutheran Confessions in so far as they accurately teach what the Bible teaches. The thing is, neither one of those positions really describes what the Lutheran Confessions mean to me.

At times, I might use either mode of thought. I do think that the Lutheran Confessions express the truth of the Bible wonderfully. But, in so far as I am a theologian (and that isn't very far), I am not a 16th century theologian (my pen name not withstanding). Thus I occaisionally have issues with the way the Book of Concord (and particularly the Formula of Concord, in its precision) formulates things.

But what do I really think of the Book of Concord? This is what I've been wrestling with since reading Evers' response to my rant. And as I've struggled to articulate it, a good Lutheran theologian came to my aid: George Lindbeck.

In his book The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck considers two models of doctrine, which he calls "cognitive" (doctrines are propositional truths which are either true or false) and "experiential-expressive" (doctrines are merely symbols of inner feelings). He rejects both as being inadequate and proposes a third approach, a "regulative" model that views doctrines as rules which provide a framework for thinking and talking about God.

The dichotomy between a "quia" subscription and a "quatenus" subscription is clearly based on a cognitive model of doctrine. It maintains that if we stray from our Lutheran castle then we must be saying, directly or indirectly, that the Lutheran Confession are in some way false. But in fact, I am saying no such thing. Rather it is my intention to sing the same song, but perhaps in a different key.

I have a fairly low opinion of the experiential-expressive approach to doctrine and so I won't even bother to address it.

But I would like to attempt to describe what it means to be a Lutheran within a regulative model of doctrine. As Lindbeck describes the regulative model of doctrine, it sees doctrine as being analogous to the syntax rules that govern how you speak a language. If you violate the rules, what you say isn't just wrong, it's meaningless.

His primary example is the Christological dogmas of the Church. If we are to speak about Jesus, we must speak about him in accordance with the dogmas of the Church as spelled out at Chalcedon, et. al. If you do not speak about Jesus in this way, you are no longer speaking of the Jesus in whom Christians confess their faith.

The first criticism that will come up is that this is a way of behaving as if our doctrines were true without really committing to that truth. But that's not what I intend by it. I would, however, claim that believing in the doctrines and behaving as though they were true can't be separated.

The Book of Concord, as I see it, defines who we are as Lutherans. Along with the Bible, it is foundational to our Lutheran identity. It expounds the Lutheran way of reading the Bible, and if we do not read the Bible in harmony with the Book of Concord, we are no longer Lutherans in any meaningful way.

When I speak about justification, my speech is shaped by, defined by, given meaning by the expositions of justification by faith in the Book of Concord. Though I may seek other ways of expressing what justification seems to me to mean, justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone will always be the backbone, nay the full skeletal structure of my thought. And I am fully aware that if I stray from it, what I produce will be a grotesque disfigurment.

So, do I make a "quia subscription" to the Book of Concord? Yes, no, kind of, not really.... Can I claim I don't understand the question? But I can say without reservation that the Book of Concord is the shape of my Christian thought.

A curious feature of Lindbeck's proposal is that he isn't saying this is the way doctrine should work. He is saying this is the way doctrine does work, whether we acknowledge it or not. He's not saying, for instance, that the cognitive-propositional model is bad, just that it doesn't account for the way doctrine functions in our churches.

So with what I've said above about the Book of Concord defining who we are as Lutherans, I believe that strongly confessional Lutherans recognize this, and it is certainly true of them. What I'm suggesting is that whether or not we allow our faith and practice to be grounded in the Book of Concord is more foundational than any truth claims we make about it's contents.

This would, of course, still leave the ELCA open to much criticism. A lot of what goes on in the ELCA isn't grounded in the Book of Concord. But it would open an avenue of dialogue, a place of common ground, between those of us in the ELCA who are serious about Lutheranism and those outside the ELCA who don't understand us.


Preachrboy said...

Oh Phil,

If you think the Quia/Quatenus distinction confuses you, you should see my brain swirling about in Lindbeck's distinctions. "Cognitive", "Experiential-Expressive", "Regulative"? What? Maybe I should just read the book.

Perhaps if you could enumerate some examples of the actual problems you have with the BOC, we could better understand your difficulty.

You say you have "issues" with the way it "formulates" things. This does not necessarily preclude Quia subscription, in my understanding. We were always taught that to be Quia means to agree with what the BOC says, not necessarily the exegesis used to get to its conclusions.

Maybe a simpler way of asking, "are you Quia?" is to ask, "Do you agree with what the BOC says?" "Is it right?" If your answer is yes, then you are Quia. If your answer is "partly" then you are Quatenus.

Andy said...

See, this is just my problem. It's not a matter of whether I agree with it or disagree with it. I can't think of anything off hand that I disagree with. But in a lot of places I would think through things much differently than they did, and as a result I would express myself in a much different way.

Original sin is an example. The teaching on original sin in the BoC is based on a metaphysics that I don't use. Whereas the BoC talks about the corruption of our human nature, I would be more likely to talk about the inherent effects of being born into a world where sin is pervasive. If you ask me, "Am I born with a corrupt nature?" I'd give a response that might sound dodgy. I'd start by asking what you mean by that. But I'd have no hesitation to say that the conditions of our birth separate us from God, thus leading me to affirm that "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ...."

Evers said...


Nice post! Here's my two cents' worth. I love the manner in which the Lutheran Confessions are taught at Luther Seminary. The course is always team-taught by a systematics prof and a history prof. In many ways, especially with the Formula, what you read is only half the "conversation," and you can't meaningfully use it without knowing what the writers were reacting to/ against. Certainly, most of us (myself included) would articulate Gospel claims in different language today than are used in the BoC. That doesn't necessarily make us non-Lutheran. We need the historical and systematic understanding to help us maintain fidelity to the Confessions even as we live at a distance of centuries. This doesn't mean we view the BoC as a historical curiosity, or a quaint relic, but rather that we want to hear the Confessors clearly, so that we can speak the same confession of Christ in a different day.

About Lindbeck... I can't claim to have my head wrapped around him. But even if I am grossly mis-reading him, your thoughts help me to keep in mind one of the classic "seminarian mistakes:" mistaking doctrine for what we are to preach. Doctrine is the grammar, the structure, for our God-speaking. (As my Confessions profs put it, "When you're talking salvation, the Triune God is the subject, humans are the object, and the verbs are unconditional.") I'm not going to get up and read from the BoC as a sermon. But my preaching will be shaped by the theological grammar provided therein.

I also like what you say about how we use the Confessions vs. the truth claims we make about them. Reminds me of "fundys" (and I love fundamentalists, I really do. Wouldn't be a Christian without the ministry of fundys. So I talk about them with affection, even as I long to bless them upside the head with a hardcover Bible) who make strident claims about biblical authority, but then treat the Bible like a game book to be decoded to give you the secret answer.

Again, great post. Peace!

Lee said...

There was an interesting dialogue between Avery Cardinal Dulles and Lindbeck in First Things a while back.



Lindbeck's response:


Lindbeck is responding to the charge that his view of doctrine undercuts its propositional truth.

Bob Waters said...

Phil, as an ex-ELCA pastor, your post took me back!

Those of use who enter the ministry sometimes have a tendency to get long-winded, especially when you get us going. I started to comment here on your post. When I found my comment to be in danger of requiring a second volume, I decided, instead, that my response would be my entry in next week's Carnival!

For now, suffice it to say:

1)That while one can err in making complex questions into matters of black and white, one can also err in making straightforward ones into endless color charts of varying shades of gray which are, in fact, identical in all but name;

2)That while the Missouri Synod sometimes does, in fact, fall into the first trap, in my experience, the nearly ELCA nearly always falls into the second on any matter not directly related to Leftist poltics (and in those cases acts very much like the Missouri Synod at its most binary);

3)That nobody has ever claimed that the Confessions are irreformable, and that the conviction that, as statements of Biblical truth, they can be improved upon is by no means inconsistent with a quia subscription to the Confessions;

4)That my own, absolute, sturdy, and heartfelt quatenus subscription to the Koran is a pretty good illustration of the alternative to subscribing not he Confessions quia, and,

5)That there simply is no real third option, as I hope to demonstrate through my Carnival post!

Andy said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your full post.

Andy said...

It strikes me that all people make a quatenus subscription to all truth claims. That is, "I believe everything in so far as it is correct." This is axiomatic.

I suppose the relevant distinction for making the quia/quatenus distinction is whether or not I hold the work in question to have more authority than my own understanding of truth. But that's not really the most relevant question for me. The Book of Concord does form the basis of my Christian identity. Anything I think, whether in agreement or disagreement, is shaped by the Book of Concord, and so evem arguing against it involves some deep level of recursion in which it still holds sway.

Bob Waters said...

You write, "It strikes me that all people make a quatenus subscription to all truth claims. That is, "I believe everything in so far as it is correct." This is axiomatic."

That, Phil, is where I would argue that you are wrong. Far from being axiomatic, it's something only God can say! We human beings all believe many things which are not true!.

To believe something is to believe that it is true, period, paragraph. All belief is quia
by definition!

Now, quia subscription to an idea- i.e., belief in that idea- is not a claim to personal omniscience or infallibility. It is rather to say it is my conviction that this idea is true; that, having examined and weighed the evidence, this is the conclusion to which I come. That conclusion may be firm or tentative, but even that is not the distinction between quia and quatenus.

The key to the distinction is that
quatenus subscription is a weasel-word (well, more properly, a weasel phrase). It says, not "I believe this insofar as it is true," but rather, "I believe this insofar as I believe this." Do you see the difference?

I has no content. It is, in the most literal possible sense, gibberish.

To say "I subscribe to the Confessions quatenus" is simply another way of saying, "I decline to tell you my actual attitude toward the Confessions, but I want you to believe that in some sense I have a generally favorable one." That may or may not be true. I personally subscribe quatenus
to the Communist Manifesto, Hitler's
Mein Kampf, Mary Baker Eddy's
Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the Book of Mormon, and- as noted earlier- the Koran. And such quatenus subscribtions in no way conflict with my quia> subscription to the Lutheran Confessions!

You continue, "I suppose the relevant distinction for making the quia/quatenus distinction is whether or not I hold the work in question to have more authority than my own understanding of truth."

Again, quite to the contrary. What you describe is not intellectually possible, at least for an honest person. Something can have more authority in establishing truth than what my understanding of truth might be without it, if I had to depend only on the other sources of information available to me; that's just another way of saying that I find its authority convincing. But if, in fact, I believe something, then that which causes me to believe it- its authority, if you will- is comprehended in my understanding of truth.

You conclude, "But that's not really the most relevant question for me. The Book of Concord does form the basis of my Christian identity. Anything I think, whether in agreement or disagreement, is shaped by the Book of Concord, and so evem arguing against it involves some deep level of recursion in which it still holds sway."

Well, to ask the most primodial of Lutheran questions, "What does this mean?" Do you believe that there are things in the Confessions which could be said better? More clearly? More completely? Well, guess what? So do I!

It may surprise you to know that Walther, if I'm not mistaken, argued that it is possible to reject the conclusion that the Pope is the literal, biblically-foretold Antichrist, and still subscribe quia to the Confessions!

So let me ask you a question that might narrow the issue down a bit. Speaking now theologically- not historically, rhetorically, or in any other such way; these are theological documents we're discussing- is there anything in the confessions which you regard as wrong? Is there any theological position taken by the Confessions which you would have to categorically reject?

Bob Waters said...

Sorry, Phil.

I just spent the whole evening working on my response to this post for the carnival.

It started off as a longish post. It grew and grew and grew to the point where I thought I'd actually start a seperate blog for my more long-winded efforts. It ended up being so long that it took up an entire page on that "blog," and in fact was so long that Blogger refused to use a title for it.

I renamed the "blog," and it became, in essence, a page-long essay responding to you. If you're interested, it can be found at http://tinyurl.com/849d8 .

Needless to say, I'm not going to submit it to the Carnival, and I'm going to have to revise it even so.

I've read your most recent blog comments on the sexuality issues, and I can't for the life of me reconcile them to any concept of Scriptural authority the Confessions would recognize.

I certainly can't understand how you can miss the point that to welcome practicing and unrepentant gays and lesbians to the Table and to absolve them despite their impenitence is a denial of everything the Confessions teach about the nature of faith, and in fact a sentence of spiritual death upon people for whom Christ died.

I certainly can't understand your failure to see that the presence in a congregation of members of Reconciled in Christ, who deny either the Scripture's teachings about homosexual activity or about the relationship between justifying faith and unrepented sin, would require any faithful Lutheran to instantly break fellowship with that congregation.

I'm talking to somebody other than your Carnival, and I'm certainly disappointed. I'm afraid you may have more in common with some of the phenomena I described in the page linked to above than I would ever have imagined.

Andy said...


What I meant was axiomatic was the observation that I believe everything insofar as I think it's true. Whether or not I'm right is another question. Basically I was saying exactly what you said in "I believe this insofar as I believe it." And, yes, I do see the difference between saying that and saying "I believe this insofar as it is true." But in the end, the quia subscription boils down to the same thing except that you happen to believe it's all true.

What I was trying to get at in the original post is that neither of these is particularly useful to me. I believe it because it's what I believe. It shapes me. And this is the distinction for me -- does the confession to which I am subscribing exert a decisive influence on my thought, or is it just a point of reference which I may use in building an argument?

Is it clear that I'm not defending a quatenus subscription? I think your analysis that it is basically meaningless is quite reasonable.

You ask, "Is there any theological position taken by the Confessions which you would have to categorically reject?" I don't think I do reject any of it.

We could debate the sexuality issues, but I doubt it would get either of us anywhere. That you can't imagine how I could claim to adhere to the Confessions and hold the positions I do is merely evidence that you and I have been shaped by different influences in addition to the Confessions.

You would agree that justification by faith alone is at the heart of the Confession, right? I can't imagine otherwise, but at times you speak as though the authority of Scripture were the center of the Confessions. I'm not denying the authority of Scripture -- it's a truth I hold very dear -- but read Luther's preface to James. Christ is the heart of the Scriptures, and where Christ is there is freedom.

You doubtless now think I've taken an antinomian position. This is far from the case. In fact, it is primarily the Law which compels me to the position I take on homosexuality. This is because I am letting the Law speak to me rather than taking the Law into my own hands and applying it to someone else. See here and here for my thoughts on this.

As to repentance, I believe that the true and faithful Lutheran position on repentance is that true repentance does not consist of enumeration of sins and individual forsaking thereof, but rather of recognition of sin (in general) and fleeing to Christ. Now then, a homosexual who has recognized that he is a sinner and flees to Christ for salvation has received salvation.

You will reply that one cannot live in willful sin and still maintain faith in Christ, but notice that homosexuals do not believe that their homosexuality is a sin and, therefore, they are not living in willful sin whether you are right that it is a sin or not.

You're familiar with the following passage, right?

"If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God's glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner."

Andy said...


I just read your new "blog". I would have left this comment there, but that wasn't enabled, so I'll say it here....

Interesting analysis, I don't know anything about Paul Ricoeur, but I would suggest George Lakoff as a good resource for understanding what Lindbeck is saying.

"Oh no, he's going to get all post-modern on us now, isn't he?" Yes, I am. But don't take that to mean that I think truth is relative. I don't. Also, note that I don't completely agree with Lakoff (and I don't think Lindbeck does either). He just offers a useful point of reference for starting off.

You said, "Doctrine is by its very nature propositional. It consists of propositions!" This demonstrates clearly and without question that you hold the cognitive model of doctrine. But then that's no surprise, is it?

I wouldn't argue that doctrine consists of propositions. The question is how those propositions function in the community.

Let me take a step back. Drawing on Lakoff now, I would observe that all verbal communication is based on prior communication (whether verbal or non-verbal). Lakoff would draw this chain back to some experience, but I would prefer to think of it, especially for purposes of this discussion, as encounter with truth.

Now absolute truth, I claim, is something other than propositional, in as much as it is intrinsically non-verbal. (Strictly speaking, truth is someone not something.) I do tend to like the Platonic idea that Truth is somehow pure idea. Naturally, as a Christian I would locate this truth in God. But for the purposes of this discussion, I think it's helpful just to state that truth is pure idea. Even "idea" here is an imperfect word.

But we humans don't communicate in pure ideas, so we translate this truth into words. We can talk about the words being more or less true based on how well they communicate the idea that is truth, but the point is, they are only representations of that truth.

Now, as we build communities, we agree on common representations of the truth that drew us together. And our further communication is based on this common agreement. The agreement becomes a framework for our community's communication of truth. And the way the community evaluates truth is largely a function of how what is said relates to our framework of communication.

Now it may be that something is objectively false in addition to not fitting the community's framework. But as the idea originates further and further from that community, we have less and less ability to properly evaluate that. (This is part of the reason the LCMS and the ELCA are always butting heads.)

You suggested the possibility that the direction I went with this has some connection to Pietism. I would say that there is no such connection intended, but to the extent that the ELCA is shaped by that community, you may have something there.

Anyway, I expect that you'll have criticisms of this, and I would genuinely like to hear them. But I offer this mainly as an attempt to shed a little more light on what I was saying.

Incidentally, I'm no scholar, and it may be that I have misrepresented Lindbeck and/or Lakoff.