Where Have you Gone Samuel Nafzger?

Everyone gets what Simon and Garfunkel meant when they sang, “ Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/ A nation turns its lonely eyes to you?/ What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson/ Joltin’ [I always thought it was “jumpin’.] Joe has left and gone away.”  Well we know where Joe has gone.  He’s buried at a cemetery in California, but where has Samuel Nafzger gone?

The Rev. Dr. Samuel H. Nafzger, former head of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations and now Director of Church Relations as an assistant to the president, has written an article entitled “Relating to Other Christians Charitably and Confessionally” (Concordia Theological Quarterly 73 (2009), pp.347-363).

To begin with, I would transpose ‘charitably’ and ‘confessionally’ and I would make the “and” epexegetical.  “Relating to Other Christians Confessionally that is  Charitably.”  I think the best way to be charitable is to be confessional.  However, Dr. Nafzger is, with no sarcasm intended, a much brighter theological light than I.  However, he doesn’t always shine brightly.

In the 90s, the CTCR produced a document called “Levels of Fellowship” under Dr. Nafzger’s headship.  Confessionals, myself included, were up in arms, and we wrote papers in protest.  I never recall a retraction or even a redirection.  In went the way of many LCMS fundraisers and Puff the Magic Dragon.  It went back to wherever it came from never to be seen or heard again.  So I was stunned to read Nafzger saying, “Church fellowship means ‘agreement in doctrine and practice.’  But since this is true, then there can be no ‘levels of church fellowship,” for there can be no levels of ‘complete agreement’” (357).  Bravo!  Well played old man!

Now tell me; what are these two sentences of his saying? “Where there is agreement in the confession of the gospel, it would be separatistic for church bodies not to commune together, to exchange pulpits, to lead public worship services together (i.e., to remain apart from one another).  But where there is disagreement in doctrine, the basis for church fellowship as the church has defined this term throughout its existence, does not exist” (357).

Where have you gone Dr. Nafzger?  I’m pretty sure there is broad agreement among Christians about the confession of the Gospel, but not the doctrine and all it articles that Formula Concord, X, 31 speaks of.  It seems to me that the second statement should again refer to the Gospel somehow.  Where there is disagreement in any of the articles of the Gospel fellowship doesn’t exist.

Finally, Dr. Nafzger refers to the well-known fact that Paul had Pastor Timothy circumcised by not Pastor Titus.  He says, “The same principle that the gospel be purely preached was applied in differing ways in different circumstances, but it was the same principle” (361).  No, this wasn’t about purely preaching the Gospel; it was about exercising one’s Christian freedom or not.

Where have you gone Dr. Nafzger?  Have you gone back to the 2001 prayer service in Yankee Stadium that no one is supposed to speak of?  In the January 2003 “Kiss and Make-Up” conference sponsored by the LCMS in the Texas District, this same way of doing theology was used.  The question officially posed to us all was how could one and the same thing be viewed by some as serving the Gospel and by others as denying the Gospel?  I said then, and I still say now, this can only happen if there is a different understanding of what the Gospel is. 

The Gospel doesn’t care if you circumcise or not.  The Gospel only comes into play if you circumcise or not as a requirement for salvation.  To make Paul’s two different decisions a preaching of the Gospel is to make the Gospel two different things.  As I have said all along in regard to the Yankee Stadium prayer service (Blast! I mentioned it again.), the disagreement in the LCMS is about nothing less than what the Gospel is.  We are free to circumcise or not but we aren’t free or not to participate in a pagan prayer service.  The Gospel says both things, and they really aren’t different. 

Where have you gone Dr. Nafzger?  Away from levels of fellowship into a muddiness about what the Gospel is?

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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One Response to Where Have you Gone Samuel Nafzger?

  1. Bart Goddard says:

    Right. The divide between the confessionals and the liberals in LCMS is not like the divide between the circumcisers and the noncircumcisers, but the liberals think it is. They think we want circumcision, therefore we are pharisees, while they want “freedom from regulation.” What they can’t see is that “freedom from regulation” is still about “regulation”, that is about Law. Studying a list of laws you don’t have to obey is still law-centered. And in their blindness, they assume that when we say so, we’re trying to take away their “freedom”.

    This is, as you say, a matter of different “gospels.” They are like Luther’s drunken sot who brandished the indulgence he’d purchased. He thought that document gave him the “freedom” to carouse as much as he pleased. Likewise, these people to whom we are unevenly yoked, brandish the “gospel” like an indulgence which gives them the “freedom” to pray with pagans, commune Masons, commit atrocities in their chancels, etc.

    If the “gospel” is good only for circumvention of the Law, then it is a Christ-less gospel.

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