Monday, March 31, 2008

Deep theology in the LCMS

After reading (a few years back) Peter Dale Scott's Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, I was struck by his concept of "deep politics": a political structure that runs like an underground river under the above-ground political structures of voting, campaigns, and outward governance. I'm currently reading Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and he mentions in passing where the "deep" concept comes from: Noam Chomsky).

I've been struck by the other areas of life where deep structures operate, and I've been pondering for the last year or so the deep structures in the LCMS, and how those influence and inform the church life of the LCMS.

Much of the problems of deep structures is that they are unknown to most people, and not usually talked about by those who do know. And there's a whole arena of things in the LCMS which are hidden, operating, but not discussed except under the rarest of circumstances. (Without getting into them -- each of them could probably merit a book -- examples are a doctrine of the "invisibility" of the church -- a concept found neither in the Bible nor the Lutheran confessions, but tenaciously held to in the LCMS, the ragged adherence to an emergency concept of church governance, the unspoken fear that leaving the synod equates with leaving the church, and the theory of the wrath of God, that God is hates sinners outside of Christ, when John 3 specifically teaches otherwise).

In any community where there are hidden, "deep" structures operating, the problem is that we are often operating under things we don't even know about. The inability to speak openly about the hidden structures in the LCMS has contributed to an inability to deal with the enormous problems the synod has faced for the last 60 years, and continues to face today.


Carl Vehse said...

a doctrine of the "invisibility" of the church -- a concept found neither in the Bible nor the Lutheran confessions, but tenaciously held to in the LCMS

It is not "a doctrine" but "the doctrine of the invisible church", and the concept is most certainly found in Scripture and the Lutheran confessions.

Scripture makes it clear that the true holy, Christian Church is made up of all true believers and is hidden, or invisible, to all but known by God (e.g., Luke 17: 20,21; John 10:14; Rom.10:9,10; 1 Cor. 4:5; Col. 3:3,4; 2 Tim. 2:19).

As for the Lutheran Confessions, Bjarne W. Teigen, in “The Church in the New Testament, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions” (Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 42:4, Oct. 1978, p.389) states: “[I]it may be quickly discerned that the terms "invisible" and "visible" are not used in the Book of Concord, but they are found among the later dogmaticians. It is the position of this paper that the dogmaticians, the Book of Concord, and the Luther are in doctrinal agreement on this point despite differing terminology.

From early in its beginning (if not all the way back to Dr. Carl Eduard Vehse's 1839 Protestation document, or C.F.W. Walther's 1841 Altenburg Debate), the Missouri Synod has made its doctrinal understanding of the "invisible Church" known in Theses III - VII, IX, concerning the Church (C.F.W. Walther, Church and Ministry, trans. by J.T. Mueller, CPH, St. Louis, 1987, pp. 38-158).

For example, Walther quotes Luther (Comment on Galatians 5:19, Halle Edition, 8:2745): "Therefore we rightly confess in the Creed and say: 'I believe a holy Christian Church.' For it is invisible and lives in the Spirit at a place to which no one can come." [p.41], and Chemnitz (Loci theologici, part 3, p.117): "The true and holy church of the elect nevertheless remains invisible" [p.43], and John Gerhard (Loci thologici, 'De ecclesi", par. 151): "When we say: 'I believe one holy Christian church,' the word 'believe' shows clearly that we speak of the invisible church, which is proved also by the added adjective 'holy' [p.43], and many other Lutheran theologians (Meisner, Mentzer, Huelsemann, Dannhauer, Calov, and Quenstedt) are quoted similarly.

John Theodore Mueller also discusses the "invisible Church" in his Christian Dogmatics (CPH, St. Louis, 1934), in the chapter on "The Doctrine of the Christian Church": A. The Church Universal (pp. 541-562), and in particular, Section 3. The Properties of the Christian Church (pp. 547-549), including his statement: "All who affirm that the Church is either wholly (papists) or partly (modern Lutheran theologians) visible destroy the Scriptural concept of the Church and change it from a communion of believers to an 'outward polity of the good and the wicked'”.

In their "Chapter IX: Four Decades of Expansion 1920 - 1060" (Moving Frontiers, edited by Carl S. Meyer, CPH, 1964), Thomas Coates and Erwin L Lueker also point out that in 1929, the Missouri Synod rejected as a basis for union with the Ohio, Iowa, and Buffalo Synods theses whose language "enables the opponents to retain their old doctrine of a visible side of the Church." [p.417]

From 1851 through 2001, the Missouri Synod in convention has passed fifteen doctrinal resolutions that specifically refer to the Church as invisible, deny that the Church is visible, or adopted theses or statements that make the same statements about the Church. In the 2001 resolution C.F.W. Walther's book, The Voice of Our Church on the Question of Church and Ministry was re-affirmed as the definitive statement under Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions of the Synod’s understanding on the subject of church and ministry and as the official position of the LCMS, including Thesis III - “The church in the proper sense of the word is invisible.”

The continuing angst and objection by some in the Missouri Synod over the term, "invisible Church", is no doubt related to the continuing heterodox influence of Wilhelm Loehe, a German theologian who erroneously held that the Church was primarily a visible institution. (A Century of Grace, Walter A. Baepler, CPH, St. Louis, 1947, p.144).

Jim Huffman said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and well-reasoned comments.

I don't disagree with you that the LCMS teaches an invisible church. What I do argue is that such a notion is wrong.

I think that the problem stems from a mental substitution of "invisible" when the term or doctrine "hidden" is found in the scriptures. The church is clearly "hidden" because there are unbelievers and hypocrites among the people of God. But if the church is found wherever the word of God is preached and the sacraments are given, then the church is not invisible. The hearers are visible, not invisible. I obviously can't determine who is an unbeliever, but that doesn't render them sensually invisible to the eye. Likewise the sacraments, which are sensually accessible: words heard, water seen and felt, the Body and Blood seen, eaten, and drunk.

You are obviously more familiar with the LCMS historical documents than I, but wonder if part of the LCMS' tenacity in describing the church as invisible (despite, as you point out, the terms not being found in the Book of Concord) doesn't stem from the early LCMS history and angst over whether the early settlers indeed had the church, and whether the word of God was actually in their midst, or whether they needed to return to Germany to have the church.

Carl Vehse said...

The Missouri Synod's tenacity in describing the holy Christian Church as “invisible” is because that doctrinal understanding comes from Scripture. Likewise, the terms, “Holy Trinity” or “Triune God” are not found anywhere in Scripture. However, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is indeed found in both the Old and New Testament and is held by all true believers - the invisible Church.

This holy Christian Church (that is, all true believers) is indeed hidden or invisible, to all but God. But where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are present, we know the Church is present. Nevertheless, while the preaching and sacrament can be seen (not hidden), the true believers are still invisible.

Yes, the hearers are visible, but you cannot identify or distinguish the believing hearer from the unbelieving or hypocritical hearer, as you yourself acknowledged. The true believers (the Holy Christian Church) are still invisible or hidden from you.

Luther's discussion of the Third Article of the Creed in his Large Catechism, and Walther's discussion of Thesis III, on the Church, in his “Church and Ministry” are much more thorough. I encourage you to read these discussions.