A book review of A Daystar Reader. Edited by Matthew L. Becker. Daystar.net, 2010. xx, 245 pages. Review by Dr. Holger Sonntag.
1. According to the Preface for this collection of essays by Rev. D. Stein, the president of Daystar.net, “the Daystar Network was designed to be a forum for gospel-oriented members of the LCMS who desired to work together to demonstrate the light of Christ as it illuminates the mission and ministry of the church ‘until the day dawn [sic] and the day star arises in your hearts’ [Second Peter 1:19]” (v).
The present Reader “is a gift from this association to key leaders in the LCMS” (ibid.). It “looks forward.” And its editor, Rev. Matthew Becker, regards it as “kind of contemporary ’95 Theses’ for the LC-MS.” Matthew Becker teaches theology at Valparaiso University in Northern Indiana. Its theology department website is graced by a picture of the cupola of St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Those who know church history will see the connection between Luther’s 95 Theses and St. Peter’s cupola.
First of all, if you look for Daystar.net on the internet – it, after all, calls itself a “cyberspace association” in keeping with the internet craze of the late 1990s when it was founded – don’t look at www.Daystar.net. This address gets you to a telecommunications company in Southwest Florida. Go instead to www.daystarnet.org.
Second, if you scan the three pages listing the contributors (p. vii to ixi [sic]), then a single word stands out: “retired.” The Reader might be conceived as forward-looking, containing pieces written in the last decade. But the bulk of its contributions come from people who due to age are no longer holding any office in the church they seek to reform. (Others – two of the three female contributors – are no longer members of the church they wish to change.)
This, in addition to rhetorically hanging on to the burst internet bubble of the past century, gives the Reader a decidedly backward-looking feel. The past things looming large in the hearts, biographies, and essays of the contributors are the “walk-out” and Seminex in the 1970s. Neo-orthodox Erlangen theologian Werner Elert is still their ticket to theological respectability. One gets the impression that in the early 1970s a key opportunity was missed to bring the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod up to speed with all the exciting things going on in society and other churches.
For those were the heady days when the world’s reforms and revolutions began to make their way into many church bodies in Western countries and when, as a result, social ministry (man’s work) overtook word-and-sacrament ministry (God’s work) in importance. Because this opportunity was missed when the change seen in other church bodies (along with the exegetical methods making it possible) was rejected by the LCMS, the “Daystars” of today need to remind this church body of what could have been – and what still could be, if only their reform proposals were heeded.
It is important to remember that Daystar was started during the presidency of Rev. A. L. Barry, the first synodical president to die in office (March 23, 2001). His time in office was perceived by some as theological stagnation in that he simply did what he was called to do as a Lutheran church leader, that is, preserve the faith given to the saints once for all (Jude 3). Under him, so the perception, the issues on the minds of those coming together in Daystar.net would never be openly discussed and decided in their favor.
Those issues are familiar: fellowship with other Lutherans and Christians; ministry and women’s ordination; and science and theology. And these are, not surprisingly, the main topics also discussed in the collection at hand. To summarize the findings briefly, fellowship with other Lutherans and Christians should be easier – not tied to a legalistic doctrinal maximum (including the sacraments!), but to an evangelical minimum, also by means of seemingly mere social ministries. All the baptized should be recognized as ministers which conveniently paves the way for women pastors. And science should be magisterial where it collides with the bible, including evolution and homosexuality.
2. In that these are all significant innovations in doctrine and practice, one sees immediately the difference between these “95 Theses” and the original ones. And this sheds some important light on the difference between reform and reformation. All these issues raised and decided in a certain way by the “lights” gathered in this volume have their origin in social changes and historical developments. They, thus, are not at all about what Luther’s work as a reformer was all about: the undoing of deformations originating in social changes and historical developments. In fact, not only are they not about Luther’s concerns. They represent the very thinking that made Luther’s work of reformation so necessary.
Because of this, they are also very provincial and tied to a specific time. Because they are not firmly grounded on God’s universal Word, they merely articulate the particular “issues” well-educated men and women in affluent Western societies in general have had with God’s Word since the age of Enlightenment. In each generation since, there have been at least some whose education and affluence did not lead them to become atheists, but who, claiming to continue Luther’s reformation, instead have sought to eliminate from the Church unenlightened “leftovers” of some previous “dark age.”
Christians in ages past, but also Christians in other parts of the world today, do not agree with this call for enlightenment in the Church. They are often silenced and maligned as benighted, uneducated, and fundamentalist by the “enlightened” Christians of the West because of their resistance. Nonetheless, those Christian contemporaries of ours from, say, Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe are now beginning to turn away from what they see as Western Protestantism’s apostasy from God’s Word. What prevents them from freely doing what they believe to be right according to God’s unchanging Word is often only “the power of the purse” still wielded by the corrupt churches in the West. Moreover, there is a growing number of Christians in the West – e.g., in Scandinavia, but also in the US – who, while originally members of those church bodies that presently enjoy all the convenient “blessings” the Daystar network wishes to bestow on the LCMS as well, are turning their backs on these blessings in disappointment and disgust.
Of course, it is conceded that such “movements” that are often sketchy theologically go this direction today and that direction tomorrow. Still, it is important to point them out to break the arrogance of the late 1960s and early 1970s which believed that the particular developments in the West at that particular time axiomatically show the way the whole world is going to go. However, the direction of these movements at a given time cannot finally be the decisive criterion for the truth in God’s Church.
This is why Luther is so important – not as a quarry for ideas that we can still fit into our own preconceived notions, but as a teacher of the Church faithful to the bible whose “ideas” are connected into a meaningful and correctly assembled whole. For instance, he deliberately did not jump on the bandwagon of the reform movements at the time. Had he done so, either he might have stayed a Roman Catholic like Erasmus, being content with making some proposals for external reforms – or he might have become an “enthusiast” like Zwingli who threw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, he, at a time of God’s choosing, was granted to see the light of the gospel from the pages of Scripture, which, in time, led him to do away with the deformations that had crept into the various areas of doctrine and practice due to a flawed doctrine of justification.
3. It must be remembered that all of Daystar’s proposals for innovation are not made for the sake of change. They are made with the good intention of reaching more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is very positive. Yet this is also very dangerous and deceptive. For here we see a flawed doctrine of justification show itself in practical and doctrinal terms. It is as if we, the Christians of today, bear the burden of making or keeping the gospel relevant to modern man who seems to have the power to accept at least the gospel’s core message. Yet as can be seen especially during the past 250 years of church history in the West, whenever this burden is taken up by (regenerated) man – and not left to God’s omnipotent, self-authenticating, efficacious Word – then disaster ensues. Since we cannot bear this burden, and since sinners are unable to believe anything of God’s revelation out of their own powers, we make it lighter for ourselves and others: we strip what seems non-essential from the church’s message and thereby self-servingly accommodate what we say to what others expect us to say. Why make believing the gospel harder than necessary – for others, but also for ourselves? Our legalistic intransigence when it comes to doctrine might prevent people from being saved!
Unsurprisingly, what is non-essential is identical with what seemingly causes people (and us?) to reject some evangelistic “core message.” For those associated with Daystar – and this is currently at least one sitting district president of the LCMS – this is concretely the LCMS’s insistence on a male-only clergy, on marriage to be exclusively between a man and a woman, on a scriptural doctrine of creation, but also on baptismal regeneration and the presence of Christ’s true body and blood in the bread and wine of the sacrament of the altar. This is how, in a Pharisaic manner, the appearance of godliness and newness can conveniently be maintained while hearts and minds remain captive to old Adam’s resistance to the underlying and transforming power of God’s Word (cf. Rom. 12:1-2).
The doctrine of justification of the Pharisees was wrong because it attributed the justification before God to man’s obedience to the law. Therefore, they had to limit what God actually demanded in the law because man’s powers and free will are not that free and powerful after all. That is, instead of calling for obedience growing out of a new heart, they reduced the demand to exact external fulfillment of the traditions of the fathers at the expense of God’s Word (cf. Matt. 15:3!). This was not easy, but dedicated individuals like one Saul of Tarsus could pull it off.
Similarly, these new lights also seem to have gotten something central terribly wrong: because man “cannot by his own reason or strength come to Jesus Christ or believe in him” (Luther), “winning” unbelievers for the gospel is not (and cannot be) our work. And we also don’t have to do our part for it to happen, e.g., by stripping God’s Word of what is not central in our own mind because it offends the modern mind. Bringing sinners to saving faith in Christ is entirely God’s work which he accomplishes when and where it pleases him through the Word his Church on earth proclaims in law and gospel. As Luther put it, we are servants of the Word, not its lords. God is its Lord, as He alone has the power that makes it grow and prevail (cf. Acts 19:20) as he sees fit.
Flawed doctrines of conversion and evangelism and flawed hermeneutics point to a flawed doctrine of justification in that they attribute more to man’s free will and reason than God’s Word does (e.g., modern man can believe in Christ as virgin-born Savior, but not in baptismal regeneration, six-day creation, or male-only clergy). At the very least, they point to a doctrine of justification that is not allowed to guide the interpretation of all other articles of the faith in a proper way (cf. Rom. 15:4; SD XI, 12). For as we remain passive in justification, so we remain passive in conversion. As we remain passive in conversion, so we also remain passive when it comes to simply receiving from God’s Word all the articles of the faith revealed there. No human creativity, individuality, activity, or critical thinking is called for in this place. When it comes to God’s Word, we can be, and by faith are, freed just to be receivers of the gift of his doctrine.
The survival and growth of the Church, in other words, does not depend on our ability to adapt the message to modern sensibilities, but on God’s operation through his unchanging Word of the bible. The ends need not justify the means because God justifies the ungodly for Christ’s sake by means of the gospel in Word and sacraments.
4. Zwingli and his associated berated Luther for being loveless because he would not have church fellowship with them “just because” they didn’t believe the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. In their mind, this was a minor matter, given that all Protestants agreed on some basic message of forgiveness and gospel and held God’s Word in high regard, generally speaking. One wonders: if this was such a minor matter, why did they spill so much ink on it instead of simply following Luther’s lead?
The modern heirs of Zwingli, who have made their teachings known in A Daystar Reader, call on the unenlightened heirs of Luther not only to have church fellowship with them and non-Lutheran church bodies, but also actually to make their points of view their own. They issue this call even though they wish to introduce major changes into the scriptural teachings of Christendom, such as denying the inspiration of Scripture, tolerating heterodox views of the sacraments, ordaining women, teaching evolution, and blessing homosexual marriages. As they see it, these are all minor matters when compared to some basic “agreement” of honest Christians concerning the gospel message, defined as narrowly as possible. One again wonders: if these are all minors, why make them into majors by dedicating a whole reader to them? Maybe they only need to be majors until the rest of us finally see the light and realize that they are negligible minors? May God protect us from ever following these will-o’-the-wisps!
5. Since with A Daystar Reader we are supposed to have in our hands the 95 Theses for our times, let us give the author of the original 95 Theses the last word. He certainly understood better than anybody else what he meant and what he didn’t mean (cf. SD VII, 41). Concerning Zwingli and company he wrote (AE 37:26-27):
[It does not] help them to assert that at all other points they have a high and noble regard for God’s words and the entire gospel, except in this matter. My friend, God’s Word is God’s Word; this point does not require much haggling! When one blasphemously gives the lie to God in a single word, or says it is a minor matter if God is blasphemed or called a liar, one blasphemes the entire God and makes light of all blasphemy. There is only one God who does not permit himself to be divided, praised at one place and chided at another, glorified in one word and scorned in another. The Jews believe the Old Testament, but because they do not believe Christ, it does them no good. You see, the circumcision of Abraham [Gen. 17:10 ff.] is now an old dead thing and no longer necessary or useful. But if I were to say that God did not command it in its time, it would do me no good even if I believed the gospel. So St. James asserts, “Whoever offends in one point is guilty in all respects.” He possibly heard the apostles say that all the words of God must be believed or none, although he applies their interpretation to the works of the law.
 In light of the most recent decision by the 2010 LCMS convention in Houston, TX, to continue cooperation “with integrity” in external matters with the ELCA (Res. 3-03), it is interesting to see that the person chairing Committee 6 on social work (“human care”) was Rev. Dr. Benke, president of the Atlantic District of the LCMS and the author who wrote for the Daystar Reader the piece on social ministry as a welcome leaven in the fellowship debate. As Paul says, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9).