An Eternal Gospel to Proclaim

We are here today to do what Lutherans have done for generations, that is, celebrate the Reformation of the church which a 33 year-old priest ignited on October 31, 1517 when he tacked his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Of course whether you are a Christian or not, you can’t escape the significance of the Reformation. It is an important chapter in Western history; yes, in world history.

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St. Joseph, Guardian of Our Lord

Here in these later days of Lent, we hearken back to Christmas and that is not just because it is snowing outside this morning. The theology of the cross is no mere addendum to the story of Christmas. It is not the product of an overly pessimistic former German monk who was obsessed with suffering and death. Rather the theologia crucis makes its imprint over all of Holy Scripture.

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Theses on Infant/Toddler Communion

—by John T. Pless

1. The question of admission to the Lord’s Supper is addressed from the instituting words of the Lord, which also disclose the purpose and beneficial use of the sacrament.

Jesus’ words tell us what the sacrament is, his body and blood given Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of their sins. As Luther puts it: “We know, however, that it is the Lord’s Supper, and is called thus, not the Christians’ supper. For the Lord not only instituted it, but also prepares and administers it himself, and is himself cook, waiter, food and drink.”1 The sacrament is to be received in “remembrance” of the One who instituted it, that is, in faith trusting in his gracious words, “given and shed for you.” The sacrament itself is the preaching of the Gospel. It is misused when it turned into an enactment of inclusiveness or thought of as the impartation of a mystical energy through the act of eating and drinking. Arguments for the communion of infants and toddlers tend to drive a wedge between “take eat, take drink” and trust in “these words, given and shed for you.” It is not simply eating and drinking that constitute the salutary use of the sacrament but eating and drinking accompanied by trust in Christ’s words, that is, the explicit promise of his Supper.

2. The apostolic teaching that a man examine himself (I Corinthians 11:28) cannot reasonably be interpreted as to exclude the noetic dimension of which infants/toddlers are not capable.

Paul speaks of self-examination in verse 28 in conjunction with “discerning” (diakrino) the body in verse 29. Both BAGD and Kittel demonstrate that this term means to separate, arrange, make a distinction, differentiate, evaluate, judge.2 This text cannot be dismissed by limiting its application to the original context of the Corinthian congregation as Wolfhart Pannenberg does when he asserts, “The self-examination that I Corinthians 11:28 demands does not relate primarily to the individual moral state but to the breaches of fellowship that ought not exist between members of the body of Christ.”3 While the apostle is certainly addressing and correcting these breaches of fellowship enacted in the way the rich assert their priority over the poor, he does so on the basis that this is no ordinary meal but a communion in the body and blood of the Lord. Communicants are not to eat and drink without the discernment of this reality.4

3. Baptism is an absolute prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s Supper, but it does not follow that all the baptized are categorically to be admitted to the altar.

The slogan “Communion is the birthright of the baptized,” sometimes used to assert that all the baptized are entitled to eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, is not only problematic in making admission to the Lord’s Supper a “right” rather than a gift, but it also misses the point that for numerous reasons baptized Christians are excluded from the Lord’s Table. Those under church discipline are barred from the altar as are those do not share in the confession of a particular altar. Infants and toddlers who have not yet been taught the faith and examined on the basis of this teaching are not admitted to the Supper. As Werner Elert notes, “Even though a man must first be baptized before he may partake of the Holy Communion, this does not mean that all the baptized may without distinction partake of the Eucharist together.”5 The baptized are to be taught according to the Lord’s bidding (see Matt. 28:19–20). This teaching leads to the sacrament not vice versa.

4. Arguments for infant/toddler communion bypass the truth that in Baptism, we receive “victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts” (LC IV:41–42, Kolb/Wengert, 461) as though the promise of Baptism remained unfulfilled without the Lord’s Supper. By waiting until children have been instructed, examined, and absolved before admitting them to the Lord’s Supper, they are not being deprived of Christ.

In the New Testament and the Lutheran Confessions, Baptism is not an event in a series of “rites of initiation” that is left incomplete without participation in the sacrament. Instead Baptism bestows the “entire Christ” and encompasses the whole life of the believer. Not only is it foundational, but it is also enduring in the life of Christian. The teaching that our Lord attaches to Baptism (see Matt. 28:16–20) surely leads the baptized to eat and drink his body and blood as the Lord bestows his gifts in more than one way, but infants and young children are not deprived of Christ before this teaching has been accomplished. Here note Craig Koester: “The Lord’s Supper was instituted for ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ to be received with a discerning faith. Adults and children who recognize their sin and seek forgiveness should be encouraged to partake of the meal. Since infants are not capable of recognizing sin or desiring forgiveness, they should not participate in the Supper. The grace given in Baptism is sufficient for them at this early stage of their lives. It is when they reach the point where they recognize the need for forgiveness for their sins that they should be instructed and encouraged to take, eat, and drink of Christ’s body and blood at the Lord’s table.”6

Maxwell E. Johnson, himself an advocate of infant communion, notes that through a coupling of John 3:5 (unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom) and John 6:53 (Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man) into a single logion in the traditio fidei, both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are made necessary for membership in the Christian community.7 Unlike Cyprian (and Augustine for that matter), the Lutheran Confessions do not operate with what might be called a “unitive” understanding of the sacraments. Baptism is the rebirth into the body of Christ as in it sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit bestowed. The Lord’s Supper is not an additive to Baptism but serves instead to strengthen the Christian in the forgiveness of sins according to the word and promise of Christ to which faith clings.

5. Faith does not make the sacrament, but it is only by faith that the benefits of the sacrament are received. Faith is precisely trust in these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (SC). In the Small Catechism, eating and drinking are joined together with trust in the spoken word, “given and shed for you.” The Lord’s Supper is given precisely to strengthen the faith of those who through the accusation of the Law recognize their sin and whose terrorized consciences acknowledge their need and desire the forgiveness of their sins. “For people are admitted only if they have first had an opportunity to be examined (explorati) and heard. The people are also reminded about the dignity and use of the sacrament—how it offers great consolation to anxious consciences—so that they may learn to believe in God and expect all that is good from God” (AC XXIV:6–7, Latin, K/W, 68).8

Eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood worthily requires instruction. Admitting the uninstructed and therefore unexamined, whether they are adults or infants was out of the question for Luther. Already in 1522, Luther provides descriptive template for the structure of the Catechism: "Thus the commandments teach man to recognize his sickness, enabling him to perceive what he must do or refrain from doing, consent to or refuse, and so he will recognize himself a sinful and wicked person. The Creed will teach and show him where to find the medicine—grace—which will help him to become devout and keep the commandments. The Creed points him to God and his mercy, given and made plain to him in Christ. Finally, the Lord's Prayer teaches all this, namely, through the fulfillment of God's commandments everything will be given him. In these three are the essentials of the entire Bible.”9 Instruction in and confession of these essentials of the Christian faith are a prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s Supper. Four years after writing the Catechisms in 1533 in his “An Open Letter to Those in Frankfurt on the Main” Luther writes, “It is quite true that wherever the preacher administers only bread and wine for the sacrament, he is not very concerned about to whom he gives it, what they know or believe, or what they receive. . . . However, because we are concerned about nurturing Christians who will still be here after we are gone, and because it is Christ’s body and blood that are given out in the sacrament, we will not and cannot give such a sacrament to anyone unless he is first examined regarding what he has learned from the Catechism and whether he intends to forsake the sins which he has again committed. For we do not want to make Christ’s church into a pig pen [Matthew 7:6], letting each one come unexamined to the sacrament as a pig to its trough. Such a church we leave to the Enthusiasts!”10

Often left out of the discussion of infant/toddler communion is the aspect of the terrorized conscience, which Luther includes as a dimension of the examination of communicants. Examination includes exploration of why it is that the body and blood are needed. Lutheran practice should be both catechetical (the communicant should have knowledge of the basic texts and how to use them) and diagnostic (the communicant should have an awareness of his/her sin). The communicant should know what the sacrament is and how the body and blood of the Lord are to be used against the conscience which is afflicted by sin.

6. The Lutheran Confessions assert that none are to be admitted to the sacrament who have not been instructed, examined, and absolved. See LC V:1–3, K/W, 467; AC XXV:1–3, K/W, 73.

Arthur Carl Piepkorn summarizes the position of the Lutheran Confessions: “Communicants are to know from memory at least the Decalog, the Creed, the Our Father, and the words of institution of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.”11 Evidence for Piepkorn’s assertion may be seen in the Large Catechism where Luther writes, “All this is established from the words Christ used to institute it [the Lord’s Supper]. So everyone who wishes to be a Christian and to go to the sacrament should know them. For we do not intend to admit to the sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come” (LC V:1–2, K/W, 467). Near the end of this section of the Large Catechism, Luther does speak of children (not infants!) being instructed in the Catechism so that they may come to the Supper: “Therefore let all heads of a household remember that it is there duty, by God’s injunction and command, to teach their children or have them taught the things that they ought to know. Because they have been baptized and received into the people of Christ, they should also enjoy this fellowship of the sacrament so that they may serve us and be useful” (LC V:87, K/W, 87). Article XXV of the Augsburg Confession coheres with the Large Catechism: “For it is not our custom to administer the body of Christ except to those who have been previously examined and absolved” (AC XXV:1, K/W, 73).

7. Lutheran theology does not begin with a generic category of sacraments but works instead from the Lord’s mandates for Baptism and the Supper. Each has its own distinctive features. They are not interchangeable. It does not follow that arguments for the baptism of infants are to be applied for the communion of infants/toddlers.

Neither the New Testament nor the Lutheran Confessions operate with a generic definition of “sacrament” but instead begin with the Lord’s instituting words for Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution. What might qualify under the heading of “sacrament” is rather elastic, but it is clear that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not interchangeable. What applies to one does not necessarily apply to the other. Baptism is administered once for incorporation into the one body of Christ, while the Lord provides his Supper to be administered time after time to strengthen believers in the forgiveness of sins.

8. The Lord’s Supper is the new testament of the Lord, not the new Passover. Hence it does it does not follow that because infants/toddlers were included in the Passover meal that they are to be communed.

Paul G. Bretscher sees the inclusion of infants in the Passover seder as a grounds for their admission to the Lord’s Supper. In a paper first presented at the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University in 1963 and subsequently published in Una Sancta, Bretscher writes, “Little children, even infants, were never excluded from the history itself which worship is designed to relive and recover! In the case of Ancient Israel it is ridiculous even to imagine such a possibility. When that first Passover was celebrated in Egypt, and God commanded all Israel to keep it, did they leave the babies out of the house? Or, when they ate of the roasted lamb and unleavened bread, did they deny this food to their children? When they left the land and crossed the Red Sea and made their way through the wilderness, were the children left behind? It is interesting to note that Pharaoh at one point during the plagues offered to let the men go but not the children (Exodus 10:7–11, 24). The children must be participants in the saving history.”12 Bretscher’s desire for inclusivity presses the argument without regard to the obvious, namely, that an infant would choke on such food. On a deeper level, Bretscher operates with a faulty theology of worship as “reliving” a past event.

Following in the wake of Odo Casel, Louis Bouyer asserts in a discussion of Luke 22:19, “Far from needing or not needing to create a new rite for future use, Our Lord was only performing again a very ancient rite which, even without him, his disciples would have certainly gone on performing so long as they lived together. What our Lord intended by these words was to give new meaning to this old rite.”13 However, this approach fails to acknowledge the newness of the New Testament in what Christ bestows—his body and blood for disciples to eat and to drink. Norman Nagel would often point out that when we line up the Passover as described in Exodus with the narratives of the Lord’s Supper’s institution in the synoptics and I Corinthians, the first and crucial question is not how are they similar, but how are they different? This is also Luther’s approach in the Large Catechism. To paraphrase Sasse, the Lord’s Supper renders the old Passover obsolete.14 Likewise Mark Throntveit writes, “Jesus ‘fulfills’ the Old Testament Passover, but not by instituting the Lord’s Supper in ritual continuity with the Old Testament seder. By dying on the cross, Jesus ‘fulfills’ the Old Testament Passover in the sense of bringing it to an end, thereby becoming the last paschal lamb, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ ”15

The nature of the Passover does not establish a basis for communing infants and toddlers any more than it provides a basis for a yearly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or making the appropriate setting of the sacrament the family dining room rather than the church. Here also see Luther in the Large Catechism where he argues that the Sacrament of the Altar is not like the old Passover bound to a special time but frequently where there is “opportunity and need” and not like “the pope (who) perverted it and turned it back into a Jewish feast” (LC V:47–48, K/W, 471–472).

9. Evidence for the communion of infants/toddlers in the early and medieval church is there in some places, but it is not clear that the practice was universal or when it was first practiced. Lutheran liturgical practice is not based on historical precedent but on the Lord’s mandates. Not all practices of the early church are to be emulated. Infant/toddler communion is one of those practices.

That infants were communed in some places in ancient Christianity is not disputed, but to assert that it was a universal practice or that it is normative for historical reasons exceeds the evidence. Marc Kolden writes, “Infant communion was not widely practiced in the early church. Indeed, this practice only became more common later and then for questionable historical reasons. The first mention of it is by Cyprian in about AD 250, but it does not appear to have been well established. Origen, for example, notes that infants were not communed in his church.”16 Likewise, Justin and Cyril of Jerusalem cast doubt on the communing of infants.17

The Lutheran Confessions honor the church fathers. When their testimony is in agreement with Holy Scripture, they are gratefully cited as confessing the apostolic faith. However the Confessions also realize that the teachings of the patristic writers are fallible. They can and do disagree with one another. They certainly do not represent an unbroken continuity with the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, which alone are the rule and norm for church teaching and practice. The fact that one or another or even the majority of patristic writers support the communion of infants does not establish the practice for Evangelical Lutherans. Unlike the Lutheran Confessions, which are received because they are in agreement with sacred Scriptures, the church fathers are received in so far as they concur with the biblical Word.

10. Arguments for infant/toddler reveal a problematic hermeneutic of the Lutheran Confessions, which undercut a quia understanding of confessional subscription.

Given the numerous references in the Book of Concord to the nature and benefit of the Lord’s Supper as well as the need for catechetical and diagnostic examination prior to admission to the Lord’s Supper, one cannot endorse the communion of infants/toddlers while maintaining an unqualified subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. To claim otherwise yields a completely ahistorical reading of the Confessions. Such a reading avoids both the meaning of the confessional texts and the actual practices of those who wrote them.

11. Luther may not be cited in support of infant/toddler communion. He knew of the practice among the Hussites and while he would not condemn them as heretics (those who deny the fundamental Christological and Trinitarian dogma), he did not accept their practice as correct.

On occasion, Luther’s comments recorded in a “table talk” in 1532 are cited in support of infant communion. Apart from the fact that these comments were made in rather “off the cuff” fashion and that it that they were recorded by auditors at the table, Luther’s words as we have them do not speak of the communing of infants but of children. In response to the question, whether the Lord’s Supper should be given to children, the Reformer replies that “there is no urgency about the sacrament of the altar” and then refers to I Corinthians 11: “When in I Corinthians [11:28] Paul said that a man should examine himself, he spoke only of adults because he was speaking about those who were quarreling among themselves. However, he doesn’t here forbid that the sacrament of the altar be given even to children.”18 Luther notes that contextually, the I Corinthians 11 pericope is not addressing children but adults. However, given the range of Luther’s other statements regarding the need for examination undergirded by teaching, it is quite a jump to conclude from this statement that he endorses the communion of infants. Children are capable of instruction and examination in a way that infants are not.

Luther was aware that the Bohemian Brethren (Hussites) admitted infants to the Holy Communion.19 While Luther did not condemn them as heretics for this practice, he clearly did not approve of the practice as in the same letter he speaks of communicants being examined and responding concerning their faith.

12. Infant/toddler communion is a novel practice in the Lutheran Church. In American Lutheranism, it gained traction only in the 1970’s as it was fueled by particular aspects of the liturgical and ecumenical movements.

Frank Senn has chronicled the move toward infant communion in the predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America noting the influence of these movements.20 In regard to the liturgical movement, the work of Eugene Brand, an architect of the Lutheran Book of Worship and chief drafter of its baptismal rite indicates the connection as can be seen in his essay, “Baptism and the Communion of Infants: A Lutheran View.”21 Ecumenically, the World Council of Churches consultation at Bad Segeberg in Germany concluded, “If children are incorporated into the body of Christ through baptism, then they belong to the whole body of Christ. As there is no partial belonging to the body of Christ, children must also have a part in the eucharist.”22 The dual trajectories of ritual participation derived from early church practices (liturgical movement) and inclusiveness in the one body of Christ (ecumenical movement) converged in providing a platform for a change in Lutheran practice.

13. The fact that children who have been instructed, examined, and absolved may be admitted to the sacrament at a younger age than has been the general custom in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is not to be confused with the admitting of infants/toddlers to the Altar. Churchly and pastoral concerns for unity in practice are important considerations. But the communion of infants/toddlers is not an adiaphoron to be left up to individual parents, pastors, or congregations.

The Lutheran Service Book Agenda makes provision for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper prior to Confirmation with this stipulation: “Candidates for admission to the Lord’s Supper have learned the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. They have received careful instruction in the Gospel and sacraments. Confessing their sin and trusting in their Savior, they desire to receive the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of their faith in Christ and their love toward others,” and “Baptized Christians are admitted to the sacrament when they have been examined and absolved by their pastor in accordance with the practice outlined in the Augsburg Confession (Article XXV)” (LSBA, 25). Younger children who have learned these texts, know what the sacrament is and why they need it and have been examined by the pastor may be communed prior to the rite of confirmation. Concern for unity of practice especially as families move from one place to another would dictate that a common form of instruction and examination be used by pastors within our fellowship. The material in the Pastoral Care Companion under “Guidelines for Pastoral Examination of Catechumens—Before the Rite of First Communion” (PPC, 664–70) provides such an instrument. In congregations where children are admitted to the Lord’s Supper prior to Confirmation, it is the responsibility of the pastor to see to it that such instruction is given and candidates are examined accordingly.

Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

As an extension of LOGIA, BLOGIA understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed on Blogia are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA's editorial board or the Luther Academy.


  1. LW 37:129–30.
  2. See Walter Bauer, William Arndt, Fredrick Danker, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 231 and Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume III, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 946–49.
  3. Wolfhart Pannbenberg, Systematic Theology-Volume 3, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 327.
  4. For more here, see Gregory Lockwood, Concordia Commentary: I Corinthians (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 405–8. Also see Jeffrey Gibbs, “An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion: I Corinthians 10:14–22, 11:17–34” Concordia Journal (April 1995), 148–63.
  5. Werner Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, translated by Norman E. Nagel (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966), 80.
  6. Craig Koester, “Infant Communion in Light of the New Testament” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1996), 238.
  7. Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: The Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 68–69.
  8. The Augsburg Confession continues the same trajectory set by Luther in 1523 in his “An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg” where he outlines how those who would commune are to be examined: “But I think it enough for the applicants for communion to be examined or explored once a year. Indeed a man may be so understanding that he needs to be questioned only once in his lifetime or not at all. For, by this practice, we want to guard lest the worthy and unworthy alike rush to the Lord’s Supper, as we have hitherto seen done in the Roman church. There they seek only to communicate; but the faith, the comfort, the use and benefit of the Supper are not even mentioned or considered. Nay, they have taken pains to hide the Words of Institution, which are the bread of life itself, and have furiously tried to make the communicants perform a work, supposedly good in itself, instead of letting their faith be nourished and strengthened by the goodness of Christ. Those, therefore, who are not able to answer in the manner described above should be completely excluded and banished from the communion of the Supper, since they are without the wedding garment [Matt. 22:11–12]” LW 53:33. Just a bit later in the same work, Luther continues, “They should request in person to receive the Lord’s Supper so that he may be able to know both their names and manner of life. And let him not admit the applicants unless they can give a reason for their faith and can answer questions about what the Lord’s Supper is, what its benefits are, and what they expect to derive from it. In other words, they should be able to repeat the Words of Institution from memory and to explain that they are coming because they are troubled by the consciousness of their sin, the fear of death, or some other evil, such as temptation of the flesh, the world, or the devil, and now hunger and thirst to receive the word and sign of grace and salvation from the Lord himself through the ministry of the bishop, so that they may be consoled and comforted; this was Christ’s purpose, when he in priceless love gave and instituted this Supper, and said, ‘Take and eat,’ etc.” (34).
  9. Martin Luther, “Personal Prayer Book” LW 43:14.
  10. Martin Luther, “An Open Letter to Those in Frankfurt on the Main” Concordia Journal (October 1990), 343.
  11. Arthur Carl Piepkorn, What the Symbolic Books of the Lutheran Church Have to Say about Worship and the Sacraments (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1952), 37.
  12. Paul G. Bretscher, “First Things First: The Question of Infant Communion” Una Sancta (Advent 1963), 37.
  13. Bouyer, The Christian Mystery from Pagan Myth to Christian Mystery, translated by Illtyrd Trethowan, (Edinburgh; T & T Clark 1990), 122–23.
  14. Here see, Hermann Sasse, “The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament” in We Confess the Sacraments, translated by Norman E. Nagel (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 49–97. Sasse observes that “all the details of the traditional Passover ritual, which Jesus doubtless observed, was irrelevant for the Lord’s Supper itself” (64). And again since Jesus himself is the Passover Lamb who gives his body and blood to be eaten and drunk, Sasse argues that “there is no analogy to this fellowship, just as there are no parallels to this celebration. The Lord’s Supper received this character as something unique, something remarkable from the Words of Institution” (66). Also see Otto Procksch, “Passa und Abenmahl” in Vom Sakrament des Altars, (Leipzig: Dörffling and Franke, 1941), 11–25.
  15. Mark Throntveit, “The Lord’s Super as New Testament, Not New Passover” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1997), 284.
  16. Marc Kolden, “Infant Communion in Light of Theological and Pastoral Perspectives” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1996), 249–50.
  17. Mark Tranvik, “Should Infants be Communed? A Lutheran Perspective” Word & World (Winter 1995), 86.
  18. LW 54:58.
  19. Here see, Thomas A. Fudge, “Hussite Infant Communion” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1996), 176–94.
  20. See Frank Senn, “Issues in ‘Infant Communion’ ” in A Stewardship of the Mysteries (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 155–70.
  21. Here see Eugene Brand, “Baptism and the Communion of Infants: A Lutheran View” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, edited by Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 350–64.
  22. Senn, 164.

Confessing the Truth of Jesus

Jesus puts the question to his disciples, a question that will not go away: "Who do men say that I am?" Whether on the History Channel, in popular magazines, scholarly seminars, or chance conversations, it is an enduring inquiry, this question about Jesus. The disciples chime in with their speculative answers: "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 

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The Office and the Sacrament

—Prof. John T. Pless

The practice of licensing laymen to preach and administer the sacraments by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at its convention in Wichita in 1989 is widely recognized as theologically problematic. Attempts to address the so-called “Wichita Amendment” to the Augsburg Confession, as the late Richard John Neuhaus called it, have been diverse and have, in some incidences, created additional and ongoing difficulties of both a doctrinal and practical nature. Sometimes the debates surrounding the office and the attempt to correct Wichita overlook the fundamental unity of the office.

The office is inseparable from the means of grace that it is instituted to serve (cf. Matthew 28:16–20; Mark 16:14–16; Luke 24:44–49; John 20:19–23; AC V).

In the view of the New Testament there is but one office which derives its right to existence from the founding will of Christ Himself, namely the *ministerium verbi*, the ’ministry of reconciliation,’ administered by persons bearing varying titles. For practical reasons, it may also, according to the discretion of its incumbents, create special sub-agents for itself. However, titles and sub-divisions are human regulations. The *jus divinum* is confined to the *ministerium verbi*, because it was bestowed on this office, and on this office alone, by the one materially indivisible commission of Christ.[1]

The “ministry of reconciliation” of which the apostle writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18 is singular even as there is one Gospel announcing that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Those placed in this one office are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) making Christ’s own appeal to be reconciled to God. As Elert points out, the nomenclature of the New Testament may vary as the officeholder is identified as evangelist, teacher, elder, overseer, and so forth, but these are not divinely established grades or ranks but ways of speaking of the singular office instituted by Christ for the sake of the Gospel. “For there is only one office of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.”[2]

AC XIV tells how men are put into this office in the way of the *rite vocatus* without which no one is to preach or administer the sacraments. Preaching and administering the sacraments go hand in hand. There is not one office for preaching and another for the administration of the sacraments. The linkage of proclamation and administering the sacraments demonstrates what Elert has identified as the coordination of word and sacrament. Problems come when word and sacraments are split off from each other so that preaching becomes a verbal abstraction or the sacraments become wordless rituals.

The coordination of word and sacraments is expressed in the fact that the one office of preaching has responsibility for the administration of both. The office bearer is entrusted with the stewardship of the mysteries of God according to the apostle: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2). The preaching of God’s word both calls to the sacrament of the altar and governs its use.

One person must bear the responsibility for the conduct of this concrete worship. If this is to be orderly and really edify the congregation. Its course dare not be determined by opposing or clashing wills. All other wills must cooperate with and merge in the will of one man. The administration of the sacrament of the altar in particular demands one man, who is responsible for the admission to it. Thus every administration of the Holy Communion also includes an act of church government. Therefore the chief form of worship cannot be executed properly without a man, who as shepherd of the congregation, administers the main worship service.[3]

Writing during World War II, Hermann Sasse makes the case for the unity of word and sacrament:

The office of preaching the Gospel is also the office which baptizes and celebrates the Supper. It is also the office of the keys, whether or not this is reckoned among the sacraments, as in the Augustana, or viewed as a special case of proclamation of the Gospel, as happed later in the Lutheran Church. At all costs it is the office of the administration of *the* means of grace, not only of *one* means of grace. And the Lord who left behind these means of grace for his church is also the Lord who instituted the office of the ministry.[4]

More recently Dorothea Wendebourg:

The ministry is one. It is one because its task, the public proclamation of the gospel in twofold manifestation, preaching and the administration of the sacraments is one.[5]

The role of the pastor cannot be viewed in a reductionist way that only applies to the speaking of the words of consecration; the pastor is also responsible for admission/distribution. The practice of having the pastor speak the words of consecration and then have vicars, deacons, or lay persons distribute the sacrament at another time or place cannot be defended on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions.[6] If a layman assists in the distribution in the Divine Service, he should do so by serving the Lord’s blood as the pastor admits to the altar with the administration of the Lord’s body. But it should be recognized that the practice of laymen assisting with the distribution is relatively recent in American Lutheranism and is not known in some areas of the Lutheran world, Madagascar, for example.[7]

The apostolic exhortation for self-examination (1 Corinthians 11:27) does not relieve the pastor of his responsibility as a steward of the mysteries of God (see 1 Corinthians 4:1–2). Also see AC XXIV: “Chrysostom says that the priest stands daily at the altar, inviting some to Communion and keeping others away” (AC XXIV:36, Kolb-Wengert, 71). Nor can the pastor hand this responsibility off to others; it belongs to the nature of his office as overseer. Again Sasse:

The *ministerium ecclesasticum* may also be unburdened of peripheral tasks through the establishment of new offices. That happened already in the ancient church through the creation of the diaconate, or in more recent times by the creation of the office of church counselor, church elder [*Kirchenvorsteher*, *Kirchenältesten*], or whatever else those who lead the congregation may be called. The essence of the *ministerium ecclesiasticum* is in no way impinged upon by these offices. Preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments belong neither to the deacons nor to him whom we today call the presbyter. The former have the work of love and caring for the poor. The latter has the duty of helping in the administration of the parish. According to Lutheran doctrine, they do not have a part in church government [*Kirchenregiment*]. For Luther and with him the confessions of our church (AC XIV and XXVIII) mean by church government the exercise of the functions peculiar to the office of the ministry: ‘an authority and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to dispense and administer the Sacraments’[AC XXVIII:5].[8]

The suggestion of the “Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Task Force” that perhaps the Synod establish an “ordained diaconate” where “perhaps they (the ordained deacons) could preach and baptize but not consecrate the elements” (Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures 2013, 417) splits apart what the Lord has joined together in the one, divinely instituted office. It amounts to attempting to fix one problem (laymen functioning as pastors) by creating another. A more careful solution is needed for which Lutheran theology has the resources.

Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

As an extension of LOGIA, BLOGIA understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed on Blogia are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

  1. Werner Elert, The Christian Faith, 264.  ↩
  2. Edmund Schlink, The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, 230.  ↩
  3. Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, 237.  ↩
  4. Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way Volume II: 1941–1976, 128.  ↩
  5. D. Wendebourg, “The Ministry and Ministries” Lutheran Quarterly XV (Autumn 2001), 139.  ↩
  6. Here see, Roland F. Ziegler, “Should Lutherans Reserve the Consecrated Elements for the Communion of the Sick?" Concordia Theological Quarterly (April 2003), 131–147.  ↩
  7. See “Administration, Not Presidency” in Reclaiming the Lutheran Liturgical Heritage by Oliver K. Olson, 36–39.  ↩
  8. Sasse, The Lonely Way Volume II:1941–1976, 128–129.  ↩

Salt & Light: Syncretism?

—Prof. John T. Pless

Jesus says that his disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13–14). Salt preserves, but, rubbed into an open wound, it irritates even as it purifies and heals. The light of the world is not concealed under a basket (Matthew 5:15) but enlightens so that “they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). There is no question that Lutherans should not be sequestered in their religious ghetto but in the world, in the public square, as salt and light. It is precisely for this reason we must reject syncretism.

With syncretism, the salt loses its saltiness as under the pressure of pluralism distinctions between the truth and the lie are blurred and obliterated. Salt will sting just as the confession of Christ alone will stand in necessary contradiction to the claims of other religious systems. Where truth is confessed, error must necessarily be denied. Letting the light shine means that works of darkness are exposed for what they are (see Ephesians 5:7–11). We are not to have any fellowship with unbelievers for “what communion has light with the darkness” (II Corinthians 6:14–16). Worship with those who do not confess Christ Jesus is a denial of the light. This is not a self-invented Missouri Synod doctrine but the teaching of Holy Scripture. For many in our pluralistic age this is a “hard saying” in the way of John 6:65–66. Yet it is necessary if Christians are actually to remain in the public square as salt and light. Proclamation of the saving truth of Jesus Christ requires also the antithesis, that is, the rejection of all that is not Christ.

Participating in interfaith worship does not allow for the antithesis. Civility prevents the preacher from announcing the truth of Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Where this proclamation is not made, the salt loses its saltiness and the light is dimmed.

Much is made of “witness in the public square.” But “witness in the public square” does not equate with “worship in the public square.” We will indeed witness to Christ Jesus in the public square, speaking his truth both prophetically to the powers that be and evangelically to those broken by their sin and victimized by evil. But we will not worship in the public square in such a way as to diminish the clarity of the only saving Gospel. We will be guided by the words of our Lord in Matthew 6:5–6 not to pray so as to be seen by men but pray rather in “our room” which is the church. There in the liturgy we will make thanksgivings, intercessions, and prayers for all people in the way I Timothy 2:1–6. “Worship in the public square” of American pluralism cannot help but be molded into the therapeutic and universalistic nature of civil religion. The context will even shape how the texts of Holy Scripture and Christian prayer are heard and thus undermine the capacity for confession and proclamation of Christ. On the other hand, genuine witness in the public square can take place through discerning dialogue and engaging conversation as well as acts of human care and mercy.

We witness in the public square, but we do not worship there. I asked one of my African students, “What would your people perceive if in your village during a time of drought or famine, the Lutheran pastor appeared alongside of a Roman Catholic priest, the village shaman, and a Muslim cleric in a community prayer vigil, each praying in his own way for favorable weather?” His answer was clear: “We could never do this. It would contradict our witness to Jesus Christ, the only true God.”

Lutherans will show mercy to all who suffer and groan in the travail of this fallen creation regardless of their religion. We will exhibit the compassion of Christ Jesus to those who tremble in the face of indescribable evil in word and deed. We will be the salt and light Christ has made us to be in this dying and desperate world. It is precisely for this reason that we must decline syncretism. Witness in the public square, “Yes!” Worship in the public square, “No.” Both the yes and no enable us to remain salt and light in the world.


Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.


As an extension of LOGIA, BLOGIA understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed on Blogia are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

Book Review: Theology is Eminently Practical


Theology is Eminently Practical: Essays in Honor of John T. Pless. Edited by Jacob Corzine and Bryan Wolfmueller. Fort Wayne, Indiana: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2012. Paper; 272 pages. Click here.

These fourteen essays by Concordia Theological Seminary (CTS) alumni pay tribute to the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of their teacher, John Pless, who is well known to LOGIA readers and those who uphold confessional Lutheranism. The high academic caliber of these essays testifies to the outstanding education offered at Ft. Wayne—a benchmark due not only to the faculty’s academic stature or to library resources, but also to the quality of the students. The essays are somewhat eclectic, but, in general, focus on issues broadly related to apologetics, the use of reason in Christian theology, aspects of the Christian life, the work of Christ, and Christian theology. While these forays are products of young theologians, it does not mean the essays lack weight. Just the opposite: they are meaty, vigorous, wise, and daring. Several of the papers had been developed originally for CTS’s “Luther Seminar,” a group of faculty and students facilitated by Prof. Pless for presentation and discussion on Luther and Lutheran theology.

Originally raised in The American Lutheran Church, Prof. Pless was persuaded to join The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod due to the efforts of Norman Nagel. Prof. Pless was called as the LCMS campus pastor for University of Minnesota for nearly two decades. Naturally he had a concern for apologetics. Since the summer of 2000, he has taught pastoral theology at CTS. He expresses a passionate commitment to law and gospel preaching and ministry and those who support that view, a voice in right-to-life issues, and a critic of liberal trends in American Lutheranism.

To summarize the essays, we start with Peter Brock who makes a case for apologetics among Lutherans. Apologetics encourages faith and helps with evangelism. For instance, it helps counter hostile objections to faith and can offer arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. Even so, it has its limits. As David Scaer notes, faith is grounded finally in history not logic. Even appealing to evidences from science is limited in its apologetic prospects since science produces knowledge that is ever under constant review. Most importantly our audience, as the late Kurt Marquardt noted, is composed of “condemned criminals searching desperately for escape” but who seldom want the gospel to rescue them (27). For Brock, apologetics is best understood as a secular task of the baptized. Following C. S. Lewis, Brock concludes that the “best apologetics in which Christians can engage will be the best secular work such Christians can produce” (29).

Roy Axel Coats offers an interpretation of Johann Georg Hamann’s political theory, showing how Hamann finds autonomy as a basis for government to be inadequate. Hamann’s work is done in conversation with that of the Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelsohn. Both Mendelsohn and Hamann seek a path to political theory beyond the voluntarism of Hobbes, based on individual’s agreeing to establish a political state, or the essentialist approach of Leibniz, in which government is etched into human nature. What Hamann sees in Mendelsohn, however, is a stance more Hobbesian than what Mendelsohn intends. Mendelsohn’s political theory grounds the basis for society in the individual agent’s will (42). What he ignores, as Hamann points out, is that the basis from which social contracts can be formulated—reason—is mediated through language (43). Mendelsohn’s approach to government is far too simplistic. Ultimately, for Hamann, Jesus Christ is the Word by which all created reality holds together.

Jacob Corzine raises the question: from where have the Reformation “solas” come? He notes that there is no standard list of solas and that there is often a hidden agenda when someone favors one list of solas over another. A thorough list of proposed solas include: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo verbo, solus deus, solus Christus, and (new for me) sola experientia. Corzine shows how contemporary German thinkers such as Jüngel, Beintker, and Beutel situate the solas within preestablished commitments. Interestingly, while sola gratia and sola fide have long histories in the Lutheran tradition, the triad of solas can be traced to the work of Theodore Engelder who, in 1916 advocated three: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura, the latter a likely confessional Lutheran response to modernism’s rejection of scriptural inerrancy (67).

With pastoral sensitivity, Michael Holmen comments on Romans 1–3, focusing especially on the phrase “let God become true and every man a liar.” Given that people tend to be hypocritically pious (self-justifying), if we are to apprehend Christ our savior and thus justify God in his words, it will only happen by agreeing with God against ourselves (79). Thereby our salvation renders all the glory to God.

Jason Lane takes on the critical supposition claiming that since Luther called James as an “epistle of straw” we are not required to maintain the trustworthiness of the Bible. Lane skillfully points out that Luther only seems to reject James. In fact, he preached on James, affirmed that James shows that faith leads to new impulses and good works (93), and finally interpreted Abraham in his Genesis commentary as an example of the working out of such a Jamesian approach to good works within the life of faith (97).

Benjamin T. G. Mayes points out the weakness of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s doctrine of the atonement that is due primarily to Pannenberg’s Hegelian, panentheistic belief that God will not fully be himself until the ultimate fulfillment of all in the eschaton. Given this philosophical commitment, Pannenberg’s view of the gospel does not square with that of historic Christianity.

Finnish pastor Esko Murto situates prayer within the context of battle—the believer as a battlefield between God and the devil. He notes that for Luther the creation is spiritual, a mask (larva) of God, but given the devil’s contention throughout the world, the masks of God are countered with larva diabolic. Christian prayer must pray against such evil powers (137).

Steven Parks examines Johann Gerhard’s classic Loci Theologici as “pastoral care.” Of course, for some, that is a counterintuitive claim. However, Parks makes it clear that the “greatest of dogmaticians” offers pastoral care especially in his polemics (154). He guards the flock from the wolves of false doctrine.

For Mark A. Pierson, Luther’s view of grace is no more compatible with Thomas Aquinas’s than it is with nominalists such as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. Luther’s Against Scholastic Theology is directed as much against Thomas Aquinas as the nominalists (168). In common with the nominalists, Thomas affirms the exercise of free will and cooperation in our pilgrimage toward God. Pierson wants us to understand that for Luther, the problem about reason in our relation to God is not reason per se, but reason under the control of the bound will that wants to take credit for believing in Christ (167).

David R. Preus shows how the Wittenberg theologian Balthasar Meisner (1587–1626), following Luther, was able to show how philosophy can serve theology. “Since one branch of learning operates with a set of principles that is different from another (geometry deals with shapes and sizes, whereas arithmetic involves the study of quantities), the one cannot deprive the other of its unique properties. Likewise, theology, which assumes the grammar of Scripture and teaches salvation and eternal life, may no more rescind the laws of physics than physics may annul the promises of the Bible” (190). Each discipline can honor its unique sphere making a mixture between them unnecessary.

Mark Preus shows that our original righteousness was destroyed by Adam’s sin, and thus no sinful man can propitiate God’s wrath. Christ’s atonement is absolutely necessary if sinners are to be saved and express the truly human vocation of praising our Creator.

David Ramirez presents the phenomenon of evangelical Catholicism as found in recent decades in North America. He highlights a distinction between the Neo-orthodox type found in the Society of the Holy Trinity from that of Concordia Theological Seminary, who appeal to the standards of orthodoxy. Both are to be contrasted to high church liberals found in the ELCA and who support various unscriptural decisions in the ELCA.

Holger Sonntag notes that in opposition to Catholic views of sanctification and antinomian rejection of sanctification, Luther contends that we need to exhort people to good works that constitute Christian love.

In the concluding article, Bryan Wolfmueller accentuates one of Pless’s favorite topics, law and gospel preaching as able to overcome the devil’s hold on the conscience.

The most important book a teacher will ever write is that of his impact on his students’ lives. That alone makes this collection a powerful tribute to John Pless. More importantly, each essay in its own way witnesses to Christ.

Mark Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, IA

Fanaticism is Not the Answer

–Prof. John T. Pless

In a very instructive essay of 1965, “The Ecumenical Challenge of the Second Vatican Council,” Hermann Sasse wisely observes: “We have been too much influenced by a certain type of sectarian Christianity which for a long time flourished in America. The sect cannot wait; it must have everything at once, for it has no future. The church can wait, for it does have a future. We Lutherans should think of that.”

I have pondered these lines from Sasse often these last few days, watching and hearing charges and countercharges within the LCMS. The president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod attempted to deal with a difficult and problematic incidence of syncretism. He attempted to address the pastor involved “in the spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). Admitting that he had mishandled the case, failing in his efforts, and causing additional pain for a community that had already endured much suffering, President Harrison repented and asked for forgiveness (see video here or text version here). Stirred with self-righteous indignation, some launched violent verbal attacks even calling for his “impeachment.” The ex-president of the Synod fanned the flames even more by suggesting in a widely distributed letter that he would be available to stand for election if nominated by February 20.

Zealous defenders of syncretism do so in the name of compassion. Speaking to a situation in his own church body, the ELCA, Steven Paulson’s observation also fits Missouri’s liberal Pharisees: "[T]he ELCA has become enthusiasts, fanatics, who swallow the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. They are not immoralists; instead they are on a quest for a greater holiness than yours—and you ought to be ready, since they are ready to fight you on this particular matter.” Paulson continues “At the root of this fanaticism lies a confusion of law and gospel, and so a demonic lie—that justification is by love—unconditional love.” Fanatics cannot be convinced from the Scriptures. Their righteousness is already established and, make no mistake about it, they are on a crusade, and they cannot wait. They must have the church of pure and unconditional love now and nothing, not even the First Commandment, dare stand in the way.

But the problem does not reside with Missouri’s liberals only. Those of us who rightly recognize how lethal syncretism is to authentic Christian witness can also be lured into fanaticism. There are voices from the right, criticizing President Harrison for not acting decisively or even for having the audacity to repent and apologize. They want a church free of the leaven of syncretism and they want it now. No waiting on the Word to do its work, no imploring the Lord of the church to look down in mercy on this poor, wretched, and miserable band of sinners known as the Missouri Synod. Instead there should be an apocalyptic show down. The church cannot wait. This is a fanaticism to be repented of.

The New Testament bids us be “sober-minded” (1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim 4:5; 1 Pet 1:13; 1 Pet 4:7). Rather than becoming intoxicated with a fanaticism to the left or the right, we pray the Lord would give us minds of discernment rooted and grounded in the Holy Scriptures that do not overlook or brush aside the real threat of which the Newtown prayer vigil was a symptom of, namely, the pluralism of American civil religion that requires an even more stringent “no” to unionism and syncretism of every stripe. Indeed, it is for the sake of witness in the public square that we will decline to worship there. Fanaticism is never the answer; faithfulness is.


Prof. John T. Pless teaches at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.