April 14, 2007

Descriptive of What?

I think I am all alone in the world. Men I admire and respect, whose intellects and academic accomplishments far surpass mine, simply do not agree with me. Here is my problem: When the Lutheran Confessions describe a practice that "we" or "our churches" hold to, to what extent does that apply to synods, congregations, and pastors who unconditionally subscribe to said Confessions?

A litmus test of sorts is the use of the historic lectionary; but this is not really my topic. It simply serves as a nice window into the problem. AP XXIV states (Tappert), "We keep ... the order of the lessons (ordo lectionum)." When it says that we keep this order of lessons, is this merely meant to describe the historical practice of the reformers, or should it also describe the practice of "confessional Lutherans" in our day?

If we are not confessionally bound to the lectionary, what happens to the other described practices in AC/AP XXIV? For example:

  • "We do not abolish the Mass but religiously keep and defend it."
  • "Mass is celebrated every Sunday."
  • The Sacrament is offered only after prospective communicants "have been examined and absolved."
  • "We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as ... prayers."
  • "We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as ... vestments."
My position starts to run into some problems, such as the descriptive statements of Latin being retained in the Evangelical Mass, with German interspersed. Clearly we are not bound to using German; the point is made in several places that it is the "common language" or a language that people can "understand" that is the confessional principle.

Excellent arguments can be made for the ancient practice of lectio continua (although there is nothing ancient about the three-year lectionary, unless you consider the 1960's ancient), and problems can certainly be identified in what we call the historic lectionary. I simply do not believe that I am free to pick and choose which parts of the Confessions apply to me, and which I shall change. (Why Lutherans were so quick to adopt the liturgical reforms of Vatican II is another item that boggles the mind.) If I were to jettison the historic lectionary, I would find it virtually impossible to turn around and use the Confessions to say that we keep the order of Mass, examine and absolve communicants (closed communion), use traditional vestments, and the like.

Many encounter Lutheranism in books - the Confessions and other Lutheran writings. Then they go looking for that Lutheran Church, and cannot find it. Should not our goal be that the confessional description of the practice of "our churches" also describe our churches?


Rev. David M. said...

Sure the Confessions are "descriptive".

They DESCRIBE how Lutherans PRESCRIBE the Faith!

So much for that argument....

Eric said...

I think it's good policy to stay as close as is practical to the original traditions, but descriptive statements, by their nature, do not require this. The prescription would have to come from the church or synod that requires the pastors to subscribe. And if pastors subscribe to the BoC on grounds that the Confessions faithfully and accurately express the teachings of Sacred Scripture, how can this subscription bind them to statements that describe 16th century Lutheran practices but do not claim a Scriptural derivation for them?

Christopher Esget said...

That's a fair point. Yet there is an overarching claim being made by the Reformers that they are not departing from the church catholic; that they are retaining what they have received insofar as it is not contrary to the Gospel. It seems like the spirit of said Confessions is absent when each church and pastor does what is right in his own eyes. I don't know if that can be quantified, but it should be our goal (it seems to me) to stand in that tradition, not see how innovative we can be. "Descriptive" seems to be equated with "history we can ignore," which makes me rather uncomfortable.

Eric said...

Yes, I agree entirely about the spirit of the Confessions, and the goal of standing in the tradition as much as we can. Those who are too eager to ignore tradition often learn the sense behind tradition the hard way.

Richard Townes said...

Paul H. D. Lang speaks to this issue in "Ceremony and Celebration." He writes, "Our fathers who wrote the 'Book of Concord' were very careful not to apply the word adiaphoron to the liturgy but to human rites and ceremonies (pp. 16)." Even in the case of human rites and ceremonies, adiaphora still does not mean that these things are indifferent, they are simply not essential. It is indeed a slippery slope when we start discarding faithful historic practices.