Is This Confessional Lutheranism? A Critique of Confessing the Gospel, Volume I


            The following is based on a presentation to my Bible Class on April 22, 2018. It was suggested that I put it in a blog. I would like to think I have refined it and not watered it down, but when self-editing it’s hard to know. In any event I publish this because I thought surely Confessional Lutherans would be on this like white on rice. But from what I overheard, this is not so. So, I offer this critique of what according to press releases is our new dogmatics text.

            I found this book strong and thorough on confessing Objective Justification, and strong in its lengthy attempts to establish doctrine based on specific texts. I fear, however, this is a subtle rejection of the orthodox confessional Lutheran principle that has been rejected by liberal Lutherans at least since the 1930s and the CTCR in their responses to my dissent. Robert Preus states the important principle saying that in Post-Reformation Lutheranism “we notice the free use of a very important hermeneutical rule…namely that is proper and necessary in exegesis to draw inferences, or consequences, from Scripture.” “Calov believes he is following the practice of Christ and the apostles at this point, for Christ and His apostles proved many things by inference, notably that Jesus was the Messiah and Savior, and considered these things to be articles of faith” (Theo. Post Ref Luth II, 137-8). I can tell you that this “very important hereneutical rule” is not confessed at all in the Volume 2’s treatment of Holy Scripture. As to Volume 1, I found it weak or wobbling in confessing a 6-day creation and the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, It is gender neutral throughout, not in reference to the Godhead but to humanity. As doing away with the capitalization of the pronouns first referring to Christ and then to the true God in general says something about those who do it and does something to those who read it, so does using and reading gender neutral language.

 Creation – Wobbling on Creatio ex nihilo 

Tohu wabohu refers to the formless matter created ex nihilo to which God gives form and order in the days of creation. Some argue that it should be translated, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth….In this case tohu wabohu may imply a persistent chaos.” This is grammatically defensible but need not imply a preexistent chaos. “It may be that the purview of the author’s intention does not include the specific question of ex nihilo but rather focuses on God’s sovereignty over the world.” But the book admits that LXX supports ‘in the beginning’ as does Jn 1:1 “although this may be simply dependent on the Septuagint” (1, 127). PRH – What about Jesus’ statement in Mt. 19:6 where Jesus says that from the beginning God made them male and female which means that they were the first people? And is John the Apostle dependent on the Septuagint or the Holy Spirit?

Old Testament – Intertestamental writings?

“The intertestamental literature expanded the Old Testament picture of the angels and was more explicitly in giving them names:” It cites 1 Enoch and Tobit (1, fn. 30, 150). PRH – What an uproar ensued at the seminary when circa 1980 in a chapel prayer the liturgist cited the name of Raphael, which is only found in the Apocrypha, in a prayer of thanks along with Michael and Gabriel.

Creation – Is the door of evolution left ajar?

“Furthermore, although certain philosophical and scientific claims may be inimical to the confession that God is the Creator of the world, the confession that God is the Creator of the world does not demand nor does it claim any particular understanding of the cosmological processes that might have been involved in the original creation of the universe. …Not cosmology or science, as such, but the realities of faith and home and charity are introduced through the confession, ‘I believe in God; the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’” (1, 161-2, emphasis mine). PRH- Really? It isn’t making definite statements about the reality of creation?

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“Today’s actions in caring for God’s creation – as creatures who have been made from the earth – provide a glimpse of the recovery of humanities lost dominion and the goal toward which it looks, namely the flourishing of all creation” (1, 214-5). “In the present day there are signs of human abuse of the world. Unchecked and irresponsible growth and industrial development may well produce a resistant earth that becomes God’s instrument of wrath and judgment” (1, 215). “This means that the church, precisely as the community of the baptized must be vigorous in the pursuit of social charity” (1, 214-15). PRH – Search the ELCA’s or the United Methodist Church’s websites and you will find this way of ‘doing’ theology.

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“In the Old Testament there is no speaking of cities with pearly gates or streets paved with gold. The expectations of the Old Testament are always far more down to earth. The expectations of people had not yet been shaped by the incredible wealth accumulated and lavishly displayed by the Greek and Roman empires” (1, 235). PRH – But they knew of Egypt and Babylon which were far beyond those! And don’t you feel stupid, simple, Sunday School-ish for picturing heaven as it was revealed to St. John?

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“These two examples [in Christian Dogmatics, the 1984 book which codifies Liberal American Lutheranism] of attempts to determine the meaning behind what are regarded as the ‘symbols’ of the Genesis myth are troublesome in many ways, not the least of which is the repudiation of the stated intent of the biblical accounts to present the origin of humanity from God’s creative acts in history. Nevertheless, such discussions may present some good insights about the nature of human beings and of sin” (1, 331-2). PRH – This is in line with saying that although Jonah might not have really been swallowed by a great fish and Jesus might not have physically rose from the dead, truth can be garnered from myths as in Hercules and his 12 labors. That is not the position of this book, but it is saying that we can learn from those who regard Genesis as myth. Yes, only in how not to read Scripture.

 Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“’According to Old Testament usage – which alone is decisive here – almah is not used of wives or concubines, but only of young girls of marriageable ages, who presumably have not had intercourse with a man…” (1, 348, fn. 5). PRH – No, we say that since the NT interprets the OT, Matthew’s use of parthenos which only means virgin is decisive here.

 Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

Quoting Reformed scholar Anthony Hoekema: Man has a physical and non-physical side: “’He has a mind with which he thinks but also a brain which is part of his body, and without which he cannot think’” (1, 283). PRH – But souls in heaven pray, praise and give thanks in Revelation. Faithful Christian teaching doesn’t have to maintain that the soul is a separate principle, an independent entity, in human beings. But the physical death of human beings doesn’t mean that their souls have ceased to exist (1, 284). Scripture teaching denies “’immortality of the soul” “if by ‘soul’ one means, as is usually intended, a separate principle that a human being has or receives. But to reject the immortality of the souls as a separate principle is not to affirm that the soul ceases to exist at the death of the body” (1, 285). It quotes a 1969 CTCR “A Statement of Death, Resurrection, and Immortality”. PRH – This document was produced at the virtual zenith of liberal theology in the LCMS. “The Missouri Synod’s CTCR rejects both ‘the teaching that the souls is by nature and by virtue of an inherent quality immortal, as the pagans thought and as taught in a number of fraternal orders today.’ Such a position denies ‘the Christian gospel of the resurrection of our Lord and of the resurrection of the believers through him alone.’ PRH – St. Catherina’s professor, Dr. John Stephenson’s 1993 book Eschatology is Volume XIII in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics (This series which is still being written is NOT meant to replace Piper’s 4 volume Christian Dogmatics but to supplement it. Confessing the Gospel is meant to replace it.). There Stephenson says if we’re going to reject a Biblical concept because it is found in pagan writers, then we can throw out the confessional concept of adiaphora since we get that from Aristotle (48). In communicating with Stephenson on these statements, he admitted that he hadn’t gotten Confessing the Gospel but suspected they would take a LCM (Least Common Multiple) rather than a HCF (Highest Common Factor) approach to divine truth “going for the least that has to be confessed concerning Christ Himself and with respect to each article of faith.” Please note. I am not saying Stephenson says this is what they did but what he suspected they did. I don’t want to put conclusions in his mouth. At the same time, this report does reject the teaching that the soul is asleep between one’s death and the resurrection ‘in such a way that it is not conscious of bliss.’ But the report affirms ‘the continued existence of all men with their personal identity intact between death and resurrection, and thereafter’” (1, 285, fn. 68). PRH – Over the years, pastors 10-15 years older than I would come up to me at conferences and confess they were really unsure about the immortality of the soul. I believe this uncertainty is fostered by handling that doctrine this way.

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“: the Roman church at the time of the Reformation denied that concupiscence, or the inclination to sin, is itself sin and therefore incurs God’s wrath and judgement” (1, 292) . PRH- The current Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 405 says they still do.

 Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“Many Jewish people continue today to reject Christ. To a certain extent one can understand this. …Nothing could have been more offensive to Jesus’ Jewish hearers. For those who fear even to speak the name of God because of its holiness and transcendence, the claim that a human being in history is God must necessarily be deeply offensive. In Christ a human being has not become God. Instead, the God of the Old Testament has come to his people by becoming a human being. These are radically different ways of interpreting what took place in Christ (1, 397). PRH – The above is the Athanasian Creed’s way of speaking of this. “Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.  One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.” However, what happens to St. Paul’s Roman’s 1 statement than even pagans are without an excuse? And later Paul’s statements that to the OT Jews belong the “the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory and the testaments; theirs the giving of the Law, the temple worship, and the promises”? What about Ephesians 2: 11,12  “Remember that at one time you Gentiles . . . were without Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world”? Seems to me, the rejection by the Jews is less understandable than that of the Gentiles.

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“The connection between these two events [the kingdom coming and Jesus struggling against satanic forces] may be seen also in the fact that the three synoptics record the Baptism of Jesus – a visible sign of the arrival of the kingdom – in close relation to the Savior’s temptation by the devil and his mastery over him” (1, 430). PRH – But Mark 1:12 says “immediately after.” Granted that the Evangelists don’t always follow chronology, but sometimes they do. And it is Form Criticism to imply an event presented as historically happening in a particular chronological order is orchestrated to look that way.

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

It is a matter of disagreement as to exactly how Christ’s work effects humanity’s salvation.  This is due to Scripture using a variety of metaphors and analogies in regard to God’s grace in the work of Christ. “…and also due to humanly originated ideas that contradict Scripture. As a result, various ‘atonement theories’ have been proposed in the history of theology. A brief examination of the more prominent theories reveals not only the complexity of this doctrine but also the inadequacy of any one of the theories when taken by itself” (1, 480). PRH – I don’t think you can or should speak this way unless you mean that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and His ways are not our ways.

Is This Confessional Lutheranism?

“On the basis of the New Testament, Luther saw the order of salvation as Christ-Spirit-Individual-church. This is clearly set forth in Luther’s explanation of the Third Article…(LC II, 35-42)” (1, 595) PRH- I struggled with this. First, I said that the primacy of the individual here conflicts with Luther’s own words “in this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers”.  However, it’s true that Adam was created first, alone, and then with Eve the Church. However, from the beginning, in eternity, He knew He would create Eve. So, the Church exists from eternity, and She is made up of individuals gathered together.

In summary, this volume does not reflect the thoroughness, the certainty, or the spirit of how I was taught dogmatics almost 40 years ago. As Luther says many times at the end of his writings, let him who can do better than this – for they are surely out there – please do so.


Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

28 May 2018 A.D.

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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