The Structure of Synodical Revolutions

This title might ring a bell.  It’s a shameless rip-off of Thomas S. Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  It was published first in 1962.  I bought it circa 1996 after finding it referenced time and again in works on a variety of subjects.  I finally got around to reading it.  Another time I will share some of his insights as they pertain to science.  Here I want to cite him as he pertains to Synod.

The once proposed, now convention endorsed Koinonia Project – I’m sorry; whenever I read it, write it, or say I can’t help but think of the Manhattan Project and find myself alternating between hoping it will and won’t produce a bomb. The Koinonia Project has been criticized for saying that we will not assume we agree on what the Gospel is.  I have never criticized the project on those grounds because I think this is spot on.  Here’s where Kuhn comes in.

He says, “Two men who perceive the same situation differently but nevertheless employ the same vocabulary in its discussion must be using words differently.  They speak, that is, from what I have called incommensurable viewpoints.  How can they even hope to talk together much less to be persuasive” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 200).  We saw the truth of this in the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” prepared and proudly proclaimed between 1995 and 1997.  Roman Catholics and liberal Lutherans could come to agreement because though they used key words like “grace” with different meanings each tacitly agreed to hear the other using their meaning.

We’ve done the same thing in our Synod.  We’ve used key words with different meaning, while virtually all our ecclesiastical supervisors and some layman pretend we’re not. In the Synod wars of the 60’s and 70s, it was the inexpediency clause of our constitution (The book to read is The Theology of Inexpedience by Jeffery S. Nelson.).  In the 80s it was the word “extraordinary” in our Communion practice.  In the 90s it was the words unionism and degrees of fellowship.  In the first decade of the 21st century it was the words syncretism and worship service. In this second decade, we’re admitting that we don’t even agree on what the Gospel is.

As the decades have gone by, our questions have been over increasingly more foundational words. The fact that we have gone from arguing about what our words mean i.e. “inexpedient” and “extraordinary;” to arguing about Biblical concepts such as fellowship, unionism and syncretism mean; to arguing about what does the Word Gospel mean is a sure indication of a house divided against itself.

If a real revolution is going to happen that will bring about a genuine walking together, a real synod, then we must first come to agreement on what the words we use really mean.  If we can’t do that, then not only can’t we agree we can’t even talk.



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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