Questions on Confessional Subscription

from Pontifications, a Roman Catholic blog. What I think is interesting about the post is that these questions asked by the Roman blogger, Alvin Kimel, (seem to) have long since ceased to be asked by those who take their ordination vows in the LC-MS. I think they merit attention by those who aspire to the Lutheran ministerium.

Mr. Kimel writes:

Lutherans distinguish between two kinds of subscription: quia subscription and quatenus subscription. The quia subscriber assents to the Lutheran confessions because they accord with the written Word of God. The quatenus subscriber assents to the Lutheran confessions insofar as they accord with the written Word of God. Quia subscribers think that the quatenus subscribers arenít really subscribing to anything at all. Quatenus subscribers think that quia subscribers have elevated fallible churchly confessions above the authority of Holy Scripture. Both have a point.

I think it is ironic for a Roman Catholic to attribute “a point” to those who think quia subscribers “have elevated fallible churchly confessions above the authority of Holy Scripture.” This is still Rome, right? They still have that guy in the Vatican, don’t they?

As a Catholic I am sympathetic to the quia position; but its problems are serious. First, does any Protestant Church body have the moral right to demand an unconditional assent to its teachings? Only teachings that enjoy divine authority can claim such unconditional assent; but no Lutheran synod claims that its confessional interpretations of Holy Scripture are infallible, inerrant, and irreformable. Theoretically, therefore, Lutherans could change or abandon their doctrinal formularies if they were to decide that the formularies were mistaken. Newman saw this clearly when he declared that he would never again bind himself to “mere matter of opinion.” Conscience can surrender unconditionally only to “teaching which comes from God.”

Once again, the irony is palpable, at least from a Lutheran perspective. “Conscience can surrender unconditionally only to ‘teaching which comes from God'”? As far as I’ve read in the Scriptures, nowhere are Mary’s immaculate conception or her assumption into heaven mentioned. Clearly, then, Roman Catholics should not be “surrendering unconditionally” to those teachings. Now, I understand that they believe that the papal office is divinely instituted, so that, to their minds, such pronouncements are “teaching which comes from God,” but that’s one part of the canyon of difference between Rome and Wittenberg.

“Theoretically, therefore, Lutherans could change or abandon their doctrinal formularies if they were to decide that the formularies were mistaken.” This is not quite accurate. Lutherans would only “change or abandon their doctrinal formularies,” not if they decided that they were mistaken, but if it could be shown that they contradicted the Scriptures. That’s an important qualification. So far, 500 years have not shown the Confessions to be mistaken in their explication of the Scriptures. Until they are shown to be in conflict with the Scriptures, the Confessions must be subscribed in a quia fashion for anyone who claims to be a Lutheran pastor.

Second, the demand for an unconditional assent to fallible formularies puts a terrible burden upon the subscriber. He must declare that he believes in the doctrinal content of the Book of Concord because it fully accords with the witness of Holy Scripture. I would think that such a declaration would require the subscriber not only to know his Bible backwards and forwards but also to be well acquainted with non-Lutheran exegesis, critically evaluated, before heíd be prepared to unconditionally assent to the Lutheran confessions. Surely this is beyond most mere mortals who are presenting themselves for ordination. Can the Lutheran really be certain that his interpretation of Scripture is superior to the Reformed or Catholic interpretation? And even if I am persuaded today that the formularies are correct, what about tomorrow?

These are good questions. Again, though, I find the Roman position as equally suspect in these areas as the Lutheran one. Simply substitute “the Roman Pontiff” for “fallible formularies” in the following phrase: “the demand for an unconditional assent to fallible formularies puts a terrible burden upon the subscriber.” Indeed.

And there remains the hermeneutical problem: To what extent are the confessions guiding my reading of Holy Scripture as I seek to judge whether the confessions accurately state the authoritative teachings of Holy Scripture? If Iím wearing LC-MS spectacles, then itís hardly surprising that I find the Bible to be Lutheran.

Again, if I’m wearing Roman Catholic spectacles, then it’s hardly suprising that I find the Bible to be Roman Catholic. To what extent is the Magisterium guiding my reading of Holy Scripture as I seek to judge when the Magisterium accurately states the authoritative teachings of Holy Scripture? I don’t see any way around this. We all read with our own “spectacles.” There is some appeal to conscience here, because no one can be forced to adopt one set of spectacles or another. But speaking personally, I’m going to be a Lutheran pastor because I find the Lutheran Confessions to be aligned with the Scriptures in a way that no other tradition’s documents are.

Third, does quia subscription to the Book of Concord prevent or forbid subscribers from entertaining fresh exegetical insights into Holy Scripture? Is the subscriber bound to confess that the views of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn on justification are wrong because they contradict the Lutheran confessions? Is the subscriber forever precluded from reconsidering the Lutheran commitment to the eucharistic real presence in light of deeper exegesis? Do the confessions trump the Bible?

It depends, of course, on what those “fresh exegetical insights are.” Perhaps they are simply rotten ones with a fresh skin on. To the Lutheran mind (no pun intended, seminarians), it doesn’t make any sense to ask whether the Confessions trump the Bible, because they, by definition, sum up the Biblical teaching. Now, if someone is convinced that the Lutheran Confessions are wrong in their doctrinal stance, especially on something as central as Justification, he is certainly entitled to that belief; he simply cannot be a Lutheran pastor.

Fourth, who interprets the Book of Concord? Who decides whose interpretation of the confessions is correct? The pastors? the faculty of Concordia Seminary? all the baptized? As recently pointed out by Bill Tighe, the LC-MS authorizes the lay celebration of the Eucharist under specific conditions. Is this authorization in fact compatible with the confessions? Who has the authority to decide? And how do we know whose interpretation is correct?

More good questions. This is a fundamental “problem” for Lutherans. We do not have a Magisterium to decide such a question for us. On the other hand, I think the ideal is that if pastors or people disagree about an interpretation of the Confessions they would discuss it over a good beer. It seems that those days are gone for the moment. Here’s to the day when that’s once again possible.

I think there could conceivably be an instance when lay consecration would be possible, but that instance would be when there are no pastors called by the Church to do it. That day is not today. And, if there were no pastors, and a congregation called one of its own to be its pastor, that man would be a pastor. He would then ordain others to serve in other places. But hypotheticals are hypotheticals and, again, that day is not today. Those who pretend that there are such emergency situations all around us are playing fast and loose with the Confessions to support their position. (Of course, I guess that’s my interpretation of the Confessions versus theirs. I think I have history on my side, though.)

Thanks to Pontifications for raising these questions. We in the LC-MS need to ask and answer them.

Timotheos

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3 thoughts on “Questions on Confessional Subscription

  1. Depends on what we think the Confessions are.

    We need to first answer these questions:
    1. Why where the Creeds written?
    2. Why was the Book of Concord written?
    3. Why was(is) the Bible written?

    One and Two where written as doctrinal expressions of what is written in the Bible. This was necessary because of any number of “false” teachings that were being confused with actual Biblical teachings. The church leaders at the time needed to document the disagreements in order to resolve conflict and provide textual references for teaching.

    Three is written for reasons we all agree. No reason to go into detail.

    >>>

    Now, if the creeds and confessions are simple (or not so simple) expressions of proper Biblical doctrine, then the only way to properly subscribe to them is “quia”.

    Because why subscribe “quatenus”? Why subscribing to doctrine that you don’t believe is specifically true? (This would be like me joining the Shriners and taking their oaths of membership while not really believing in those oaths.) Very disingenuous.

    If we have LC-MS Seminarians and Pastors taking a view of the Creeds and BoC confessions in any way other than “Quia”, then maybe we’ve uncovered a major cause of our theological strife.

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