Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 2, 2008

Sola Scriptura

Last week, I attended the annual theological symposium at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (Mequon, Wisconsin).  The symposium is typically held each year on the two days after the third Sunday of September.  Since my parents live very close to the seminary, any event held there is a nice chance to visit them.  It also means that neither I nor my congregation have to worry about any expenses beyond airfare!

I have three criteria for attending the symposium: (1) Does the topic interest me?  (2) Is there a speaker that I’d really like to hear?  (3) Does my dad have tickets for the Packer game the day before?  As it turned out, the answer in each case was, “Yes!”  So I bought the plane tickets in April (before the prices went through the roof, thankfully — and on my favorite carrier, Midwest Airlines), and off I went to Wisconsin last week.  The symposium was definitely the highlight of the trip.  The Packer game?  Not so much.

The subject for the symposium this year was Church and Ministry.  Perhaps that sounds like a real snoozer to most people, but it’s an interesting topic in that it is one of the main doctrinal differences among confessional Lutherans today.  I suspect that most lay people are not aware of the fact that church and ministry is one of the key doctrinal differences today between the WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) and LCMS (Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod).  To make a long story short, the WELS position is that the church is “where two or three are gathered” in Jesus’ name; the LCMS position is that the church is properly the local congregation.  The WELS position on the ministry is that anyone called by believers to serve them with the gospel (pastors, teachers, professors, vicars, staff ministers, etc.) is a minister; the LCMS position is that the pastor is the (only) divinely ordained form of the ministry.  Rather than reiterate what has been said zillions of times elsewhere, I will simply point you to the symposium essays on the church’s members, ministry, and ministers for further reading and study.  This post on the WELS Q&A page might also be helpful.

You’ve noticed by now that I did not title this post “church and ministry.”  The church and ministry discussion brings me to another discussion: the need for the church to stick solely to the Scriptures as the basis for what it believes, teaches, and confesses.

One of the points raised repeatedly during the symposium is that we, as pastors, need to strive to make sure that we do not say anything more or less than Scripture says.  That sounds easy enough.  But in reality, this fails to happen more often than we’d care to admit.  And it is this tendency that results in the differences on the issue of church and ministry between WELS and LCMS.  While I do not subscribe to the “every member is a minister” thinking, I find it difficult to say biblically that only the pastor can be considered a minister, and only the local congregation is the biblical definition of “church.”

I have absolutely no intention of picking on the LCMS.  I know many LCMS pastors personally (the confessional guys, that is), and I have great respect for them and what they’re trying to accomplish in a synod that is rather fractured right now.  I also know that not all in the Missouri Synod hold strictly to this view of church and ministry.  Finally, I’m well aware of the fact that WELS has its own set of issues, challanges, and problems to deal with.  No mud-slinging from this post!  (Disagreements?  Yes. Mud-slinging?  Go blog somewhere else!)

That said, I can’t help but notice (and many others have observed) that the Lutheran Confessions or the writings of Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther often get more attention and exegesis than the writings of Scripture themselves.  I think that’s one of the factors in the church and ministry discussion.  Luther and Walther may have made statements about these issues, but those statements were made in a particular context, and our current context may or may not reflect the same issues.

The introduction of the Formula of Concord (1577), the last of the Lutheran Confessions to be written, even addresses this matter.  I think Lutherans today can learn a lot from these opening comments in the Formula of Concord.  On the one hand, you can see that our Lutheran forefathers did not disown the past or the writings of the church fathers.  There is much to be learned from the past, and we suffer greatly as a church if we become ahistorical.  On the other hand, the Formula’s writers are careful not to put the cart before the horse.  There is no question that the buck stops with Scripture.  With that, here is the valuable commentary that opens the Formula of Concord.  This is taken from the Kolb-Wengert translation.

(One note for those to whom this is “new reading,” particularly lay people: The reason for the [brackets] around the verse numbers is that verse numbers didn’t yet exist for Scripture books at the time of the Reformation.  These were added later, so the editors added the verse numbers in brackets to create more complete references for modern readers.)

1. We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone, as it is written, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119[:105]), and Saint Paul: “If . . . an angel from heaven should proclaim to you something contrary, . . . let that one be accursed!” (Gal. 1[:8]).
Other writings of ancient or contemporary teachers, whatever their names may be, shall not be regarded as equal to Holy Scripture, but all of them together shall be subjected to it, and not be accepted in any other way, or with any further authority, than as witnesses of how and where the teaching of the prophets and apostles was preserved after the time of the apostles.
2. Immediately after the time of the apostles—in fact, while they were still alive—false teachers and heretics invaded the church. Against them the early church prepared symbola, that is, short, explicit confessions, which were regarded as the unanimous, universal, Christian creed and confession of the orthodox and true church of Christ, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We pledge ourselves to these and thereby reject all heresies and teachings that have been introduced into the church of God contrary to them.
3. Concerning the division in matters of faith that has occurred in our times, we regard as the unanimous consensus and explanation of our Christian faith and confession, especially against the papacy and its false worship, idolatry, and superstition, and against other sects, as our symbol for this time, the first, unaltered Augsburg Confession, which was delivered to Emperor Charles V at Augsburg in 1530 during the great diet of the empire, along with the Apology of this Confession and the Articles that were presented at Smalcald in 1537 and were signed at that time by the foremost theologians.
And because these matters also concern the laity and the salvation of their souls, we pledge ourselves also to the Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, as both catechisms are found in Luther’s printed works, as a Bible of the Laity, in which everything is summarized that is treated in detail in Holy Scripture and that is necessary for a Christian to know for salvation.
All teachings should conform to these directives, as outlined above. Whatever is contrary to them should be rejected and condemned as opposed to the unanimous explanation of our faith.
In this way the distinction between the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments and all other writings is preserved, and Holy Scripture alone remains the only judge, rule, and guiding principle, according to which, as the only touchstone, all teachings should and must be recognized and judged, whether they are good or evil, correct or incorrect.
The other symbols, however, and other writings listed above are not judges, as is Holy Scripture, but they are only witnesses and explanations of the faith, which show how Holy Scripture has at various times been understood and interpreted in the church of God by those who lived at the time in regard to articles of faith under dispute and how teachings contrary to the Scripture were rejected and condemned.

-Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 486-487 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).


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