Faithful before God and Man

The recent storm of controversy over Rev. Robert Morris’ apology for participation in the Newtown, CT worship service reveals several common misunderstandings. If reporters had looked more closely into the events, the letter from Rev. Robert Morris and the letter from Pres. Matthew Harrison both make it very clear that no “censure” or “reprimand” was given, but the apology was freely offered and accepted. Other misunderstandings come from a difficult tension that arises during times of tragedy, such as the shootings in Newtown, CT. Church leaders must struggle to 1) be faithful before God and 2) faithful to those with whom they share a confession. Here's an essay from Werner Elert that reflects on some of these truths below. By way of introduction to this essay from Werner Elert, Prof John T. Pless comments:

"Robert Preus once described Werner Elert (1895–1954) as one of the 'the three most significant confessional Lutheran theologians of our century.' (( see Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume I by Hermann Sasse, p xiii)) Like Sasse, Elert was no sectarian but widely engaged in ecumenical conversation. His ecumenical engagement was fueled by his recognition that truth must be confessed and error rejected. In 1927, Elert gave this short essay at a meeting of the World Conference in Lausanne. It was published in Faith and Order: Proceedings of the World Conference, August 3–21, 1927, 1927, edited by H.N. Bate (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), 13–18. There is much in this essay that is still timely nearly 90 years later. Especially note the Erlangen theologian’s accent on the confession of the truth necessitating a rejection of error. Timely, indeed, in light of defenses being offered for the Newtown prayer vigil."


University of Erlangen (Lutheran)


“He that is of the truth heareth my voice," saith the Lord. If we are of the truth we follow where He calls; and He calls us to unity. So following, we are at one in Christ, and—which is the same thing—we are one in the Truth, for Christ called Himself the truth. Conversely, if we are not one in the truth, we are not at one in Christ. Therefore, all who seek for union in Christ must examine themselves whether they are in the truth. Truth indeed is not a thing which we can possess like a book which may be opened or closed at will. We can possess truth only in an act of recognition, which no wilfulness of our own can affect. To recognise truth is to feel its compulsion; and this yielding to the compulsion of truth is faith. Faith is, indeed, more than this: in faith we receive our individual deliverance, the forgiveness of sins. Only in virtue of this faith are we members of the one Holy Catholic Church. But what binds Christians into a oneness that transcends individuality is the objective force of that truth in which we, through faith, come to have a share.

Since faith and truth are so closely linked, whenever truth is obscured faith is imperilled, and with it our membership of the Church of Christ is imperilled also. We must, therefore, allow ourselves no communion with error: truth and error can enter into no concordat. When truth is involved there must be no compromise. The early Councils were right in appending a rejection of error to the positive clauses in which they expressed and acknowledged the truth. Not infrequently, perhaps, they failed to distinguish rightly between the true and the false: still, they did believe in truth, even though they discerned it only in part. They knew that truth is no child of this world: that truth betokens its presence, as Kierkegaard said, by a challenge. There can be no recognition, no confession of truth without a recognition and rejection of error. To say this is not to demand a heresy hunt. We love those who err, as our Lord and Master loved them. But unless we would deny the truth, we must combat their errors.

The task laid upon the Church to discern between the true and the false becomes more complicated as the centuries pass on. History evolves ever new forms of error which seek to disguise themselves in the luminous garb of truth. This is a process which we are unable to reverse, nor can we silently evade the problems which it creates. As soon as they are asked, the questions raised by the subjects of this Conference demand to be answered. It is, therefore, our desire that this Conference, seeking the unity of Christendom, may find it in the truth, and that it may express the truth in plain terms, making no compromise with error.


The true cannot be discerned from the false until both are expressed. Wherever the need has been felt to make a common acknowledgment of truth as a basis of unity, it has always been found possible in the Church of Christ to discover terms which gave undisguised expression to that truth. This is the meaning and origin of the Creeds, Confessions and dogmas which are held to be valid, universally or locally, in Christendom. Our convictions, indeed, do not permit us to admit the existence of laws of belief. Councils cannot determine what must be believed: they can only establish what is believed.

I ask leave now to speak from the standpoint of the Church to which I myself belong: believing that the sense in which I declare my adhesion to the idea of this Conference is of cardinal importance.

It is true that the special Confessions of the particular Churches are in one sense divisive. But they did not create the divisions which they express: these already existed. Nor have they been merely divisive. They divide because error always dogs the steps of truth. Yet their primary purpose was not divisive but unitive. The Confessions have always expressed the common convictions of a multitude of individuals. And, further, they have served to hand on the convictions of one generation to its successors, and thus to form not only a link between contemporaries, but also a bond of unity between successive epochs and generations.

We Lutherans have, therefore, followed the activities of the World Conference on Faith and Order with close attention. The members of our Church present here to-day are in sympathy with the general aim and the work of this gathering. We thank God it has been possible to assemble a Council of the Christian Churches in which the problems of belief, doctrine, dogma, are to be taken quite seriously into consideration. We fear, indeed, that the discussions now about to begin will disclose differences of grave import. But we rejoice that the evil of disunion is here to be grasped by the roots. Our chief Confession teaches thus: Ad veram unitatem ecclesia satis est consentire de doctrina evangelii et administratione sacramentorum. Nec necesse est ubique esse similes traditiones humanas seu ritus ab hominibus institutos. We are glad, therefore, to note that the unity of Christians will be sought for in a consensus de doctrina evangelii. For history has shown us that there are spurious modes of unity which offer an illusory oneness in which true Christian unity, unity in the truth, is not found. We come, therefore, not as individuals, but as a great and world-wide community with centuries of history behind it. Indeed, we own our oneness with all those who in any age have confessed the Christian faith as we profess it. And thus our second desire for this Conference is, that the great unity towards which it strives may not destroy existing unities, but may rather, like a mother, gather within one home the mature and independent children of the house.


We believe that such a respect for existing unities does not imply the enduring perpetuation of confessional division. As far as our Church is concerned, this would only be a real danger if our Reformers in the sixteenth century had purposed to found a new Church and to cut themselves off from the Church Catholic. It was not so. Our chief Confession lays stress upon our agreement with the Church of antiquity, and it was thus that our theologians in the seventeenth century persisted in claiming membership of the true Catholic Church. The man who joins in the affirmations of the confession of our Church must have the will to be a Catholic Christian. Desiring, moreover, as we do, to find ourselves in agreement with the sound faith of the Church in all centuries, we give our assent to the development which history has brought. With all Christians we believe that Holy Scripture has Divine authority, as the document and evidence of the historical revelation of God. But we are convinced that it is impossible to reproduce the conditions and order of primitive Christianity as the Bible reflects them. It is for this reason that the leaders of the Lutheran Reformation would not consent to destroy the existing fabric of the Church, or to set in its place a structure framed on the pattern of the primitive Church. They knew that to do so would be Utopian. Therefore, while determined to do away with usages and teachings which seemed to them to stand in contradiction with the Gospels, they pursued a conservative policy wherever no such aberrations were concerned. And thus they were able to link themselves on to the dogma of the mediæval Church at all points where they observed no contradiction with the Gospels: they took over many liturgical forms; they translated the hymns of the mediæval Church into their own language; and they preserved much of the episcopal constitution of the Church.

It is upon this assent to the facts of historical development that the great tolerance of our Church in outward and temporal things is based. We tolerate much variety of constitution and rite; and we yield to each other mutual recognition as equal members of the orthodox Christian Church, because we agree in one and the same confession of belief.

Our third desire for this Conference is, therefore, this: that varieties in constitution and rite may form no hindrance to that affirmation of unity in the truth, which it is our desire to achieve, and we feel in particular that all those forms which give external expression to our unbroken relationship with the ancient Church have a special claim upon our sympathy.

Patres reverendissimi! Fratres carissimi! The call of unity has been sounded. We have heard it and count ourselves bound in duty to obey. I have attempted to tell you what it is in this call that specially moves us, and have spoken from the standpoint of the Lutheran Church. I have done so because I believe that no one can abandon the standpoint of his own Church without losing his relation­ship to the Church of Christ in general. But we also believe that the best contribution we can bring to the deliberations of this Conference consists in the truths and the experiences which we have gathered in the Church which is our home. The great inheritance handed down to us by the fathers of our Church includes the will to Catholicity; and I trust that this will to Catholicity has made itself plain to you all in the words that I have spoken.

There are two responsibilities of which we are gravely conscious—our responsibility before God, and our responsibility before those whose faith we share. We, therefore, ask the help of the Holy Spirit that the great hour of this Conference may find us not narrow-hearted, not contentious, not self-assertive, not faithless or of little faith, but broad-minded, peaceable, conscious of high responsibility, filled with faith and with the wisdom of God.


UPDATE: For an update on the situation from all the involved parties, please click here.

The Hour of the SELK

—by Jürgen Diestelmann, Translated by Peter A. Bauernfeind. Editors note--This article first appeared as “Die Stunde der SELK” in Lutherische Beiträge Nr. 4/2009.

“The denial of Luther in modern Protestantism”—that was the title lying before me, which appeared in a book in 1936. The author said to those of his era that a great danger was approaching Luther’s church, the danger of a new clericalism and priestly dominion. He came to this verdict because he saw the universal priesthood of believers as being in opposition to the apostolic office of word and sacrament. One could ask the author if he denied that such a premise was not the same as Luther’s, because these are two complementary concepts that supplement one another, and both are of fundamental importance for the life of the church. “The denial of Luther in modern Protestantism”—one could also write a book using this title today, albeit under very different conditions. In fact, many Protestants today see the universal priesthood of believers as being in opposition to the apostolic office of word and sacrament. But the denial of Luther in modern Protestantism continues in our time.

It was the will of Jesus Christ that the apostles bear witness to the Christian message, the gospel, “to the ends of the earth.” This is the commission and the mission of the church. Therein lies our promise. Therefore, we confess the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Therefore, Luther called the church to return to the gospel. Yes, the Reformation signals “a return to the original form.” The commission and the mission of the church is classically described in AC 7: The “one, holy, Christian (catholic) Church…is the assembly of all believers, by which the gospel is properly preached and the Holy Sacraments administered according to the gospel.” This is how the church should be in modern times!

The reality, however, seen over a long distance, is something entirely different. One hears complaints from the Roman Catholic Church and also from the national churches of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) that more and more people continue to give up on the church—and they are by no means the only ones who turn away from the faith. Now faithful people often see the gospel as no longer a credible witness in the church. The well-known public example is that of the former Federal Minister Apel, who left the EKD for that very reason.

In fact, the church appears to be largely swept into the maelstrom of modernity’s addiction to “political correctness.” This maelstrom reminds me occasionally of something, which I as an adolescent often had to reflect upon. I was fifteen years old after the catastrophe of Stalingrad and had heard on the radio the infamous Sports Palace speech in which Joseph Göbbels hysterically asked the audience, “Do you want total war?” After the war had ended, I saw the destruction of Braunschweig, which had been bombed to smithereens. It then became clear to me what this question had actually involved: total war means total destruction. I ask myself how it was possible that rational people could be dragged into such an irrational maelstrom to the point that they enthusiastically agreed to the total war. Not only is the rousing rhetoric of Joseph Göbbels still ringing in my ears, but also is the knowledge that his rhetoric had swept the people into the blindness of the Zeitgeist, which at that time was shaped by National Socialism.

Similarly, the question presents itself to me when I see that Christians who know the Bible, and know exactly what it says, nevertheless allow themselves to be swept into the maelstrom of the Zeitgeist, which is always the exact opposite of what is in the Bible. What was impossible for two thousand years in the church is now possible. Faith in the triune God, the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the holiness and reliability of his word, and the foundational declaration of faith are frequently placed into question, since they do not appear acceptable in the prevailing Zeitgeist. Often this goes along with an argument that appears biblical. Thus the demand that we preserve creation is all the rage—but God has crowned his work of creation so that he created and blessed mankind as male and female, and he called marriage a holy estate. This, however, is often overlooked, even as the demand for the preservation of creation is being affirmed. In any event, we are experiencing in our time understandings of marriage and sexuality that spread rapidly, which will make it questionable whether the Christian understanding of marriage will be subscribed to at all in a few decades. And this is only an example from today’s current opinions, in which the message of the Bible is placed into question. A new paganism arises.

The church lives in such a world today. How does she respond to this? Little congregations become combined with larger congregations. Structural debates occupy committees, associations, and high ecclesiastical bodies. Bureaucracies expand, and pastoral offices and congregations are sacked. Certainly the ecclesiastical apparatus becomes impersonal and alienated from the people.

And what appears? The church noticeably loses her unique profile. The union of the Lutheran Church of Thüringia with the Union Church of Saxony, and of the—for the time being—failed experiment of the establishment of a Lower Saxon Church, which is expected to join together without respect for the confessional profile of three regional Lutheran Churches and the Reformed Church of northwest Germany, signals the characteristic way.

The merger had “laid the tracks on which the train can now travel,” says Thüringian Bishop Vähler after the union of the Church of Thüringia with the Church of Saxony at the beginning of 2009. This statement agrees with the statement of Berlin’s Bishop Dibelius, who once said in consideration of the DEK (the predecessor of the EKD) that she was “the sleeper car in which we Lutherans travel into the Union.” The Lutherans appear actually to have fallen asleep in the EKD. There are no longer any churches in the EKD with a clear Lutheran profile, and the same is true in the Vereinigte Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche Deutschlands (VELKD), which barely has any Lutheran impulses. One need only read the VELKD promotional flyer officially advertising the Lord’s Supper. It is quite evident that modern Calvinist slogans are used at the highest levels as Lutheran slogans. All this occurs simultaneously with the demand to promote the unity of the church not only by creating an inner-confessional sphere, but also by fostering opposition to Rome. One calls for the “common Lord’s Supper.” One calls for “unity,” and destroys it at the same time where it still exists. How can unity with the Roman Catholic Church be achieved when one still wants to remain “Evangelical” in the sense of “not Catholic”? How can one demand a union with the Roman Catholic Church, if at the same time two thousand years of a common understanding of the office of the ministry and the sacraments are destroyed by the introduction of certain alterations?

This is the ecclesiastical environment in which the Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche (SELK) lives. She is a confessional Lutheran Church who owes her status to the fact that her fathers were in a bitter struggle for existence, fighting for the preservation of their confessional position. From there she should be immune from being drawn into the maelstrom of the modern ecclesiastical Zeitgeist. Otherwise even she herself would give up. She bound herself to preserve the legacy of her fathers.

This is the great opportunity of the SELK in our time. She is bound to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, and that is why with complete justification she confesses in the sense of the Nicene Creed “one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” She builds her life and her proclamation upon that foundation, and she is in the position to give a clear witness regarding the confusions of the ecclesiastical and intellectual pluralism of our times. She can give direction and support to all Protestants who suffer under those disowning the reformers, especially in the church that bears the legacy of Martin Luther. She clings to the Bible as the word of God, which leads to eternal salvation. She can give the young (and not only them) a solid path of guidance with Luther’s Small Catechism, to lead a life in relationship with the triune God.

Of course, the SELK also knows from her own history that this could mean a struggle. She asserts a claim so that she herself is not “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2). This could mean new threats from today’s Zeitgeist, which knows no tolerance if it sees current ideas of equality and self-determination of people attacked by the claims of the Bible. There are increasing examples that this could signal intense spiritual attacks when the public media discover that Christians “still” cling to their old, obsolete “ideas.” An entirely different kind of “total war” can very quickly begin.

Many Christians wait to be given a clear witness of faith, and they may again recognize where the church truly is the church. The SELK’s opportunity lies in this confusion of our modern times. The hour of the SELK has come!

Jürgen Diestelmann is pastor emeritus of St. Ulrici-Brüdern, Braunschweig, Germany. Peter A. Bauernfeind is pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Palisades Park, NJ.

There’ll always be an England?

—by John Stephenson

There’ll always be an England—won’t there? Dame Vera Lynn, the “Forces’ sweetheart,” is famous for assuring her fellow countrymen, in the darkest days of World War II, of their nation’s survival of the deadly threat posed by Nazi Germany. The memorable refrain of Dame Vera’s song was uttered most emphatically as an assertion, not as a question. View "There'll always be an England" on You Tube

As a bald topographical assertion, the title of Dame Vera’s trademark song will likely remain an incontestable statement till the Last Day dawns. But as she toiled under George VI and Churchill to rally the British nation in the aftermath of the evacuation of Dunkirk, Dame Vera—who is still alive at the grand old age of 94—was patently dealing in the genre of civilization, not geography, when she sang “There’ll always be an England” with such superb defiance into the Führer’s face.

Remarkably, although he saw himself as a buttress supporting the Church from outside rather than a pillar propping her up from within, in his famous “Finest Hour” radio address delivered shortly after he took over as Prime Minister, the agnostic Winston Churchill declared that “Upon this [just starting] battle [of Britain] depends the survival of Christian civilization.”

Secularization, using as its tools such characteristically twentieth-century phenomena as Communism, Nazism, Fascism, and—especially during the half century of unprecedented prosperity that followed the Second World War—good old utilitarian hedonism, has done its work so thoroughly across the ocean that we must wonder how, in a book published in 1920, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) could seriously state, “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.” For by the turn of the third millennium the European Union would define its cultural origins in terms of ancient pagan Greece and Rome, on the one hand, and of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment on the other, resolutely omitting all mention of Christianity in this context, despite persistent prodding from the papacy to do this very thing.

Considered in the wider context of long-term cultural trends, the three nights of rioting, looting, and arson that broke out in London on 6 August 2011 and began to spread to other major English cities, where they continued into a fourth night of disturbances, justify our placing a sombre question mark behind Dame Vera’s song. Will there in fact always be an England, if by this proper noun we understand the Christian civilization that was planted in Roman times already, that overcame the shock of Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasion, and that endured in large measure into the middle of the last century? Humanly speaking, the answer to this rhetorical question can only be a trembling No.

Over the years I have dimly remembered reading somewhere in Hermann Sasse the claim that no Christian nation has survived after turning its back on Christ. Try as I might, I have been unable to locate such a crisp statement anywhere in Sasse’s writings. The closest I have come has been to a lengthy essay of 1932, penned in the shadow of the imminent Nazi takeover. As he dealt with “The People” (das Volk) in “Vom Sinn des Staates” (= On the Meaning of the State), Sasse argued that “peoples” arise on the face of the earth in response to a call from God:

The Christian faith maintains that what makes a people a people is the call of God who, in the ups and downs [Schicksale] of history, calls men, families, races [Geschlechter], and tribes into the community of a specific people [Volkstum] (In Statu Confessionis II: 346f.).

Sasse concluded this section of his 1932 essay by speaking of the “death sentence” in store for all nations who turn a deaf ear to the divine call that once forged their existence—“where this call is no longer heard by anyone in a people, where no one any longer has a clue about the connection between God and people, there people and their distinctive characteristics [Volk und Volkstum] perish” (ISC II: 348). Sasse’s bold testimony against the Third Reich (he was one of the only German Lutherans to join Pius XI in calling a spade a spade with respect to Nazism) might fitly be (a) Christologically sharpened and (b) applied to the current state of Europe in general and Britain in particular (bearing in mind that Canada and the US do not lag so far behind old Europe!).

Is it not significant that “England” emerged as a single conceptual entity only simultaneously with Bede’s account of its definitive Christianization in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation? Until well into the twentieth century one could distinguish between, but not separate, the English nation and Church from each other. This statement holds good for English history throughout the confessional upheavals that produced Anglicanism, “English Dissent” (=Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists), and Methodism. By the nineteenth century Roman Catholicism was able once again to take a modest place in English public life. In this wide context English (and British) public culture was confessionally pluriform indeed, but distinctly Christian nonetheless.

To cut a long story short, the 1960s and their after-effects have changed all of that, overturning the heritage of almost two millennia. Anyone who wishes to understand the “anti-cultural revolution” that has marked the ensuing decades is advised to peruse with care the essays of the retired English physician who writes under the nom de plume of Theodore Dalrymple. His Our Culture: What’s Left of It is a particularly eye-opening piece of work.

As they issued a judgment effectively barring a devoutly Christian middle-aged black couple from fostering children (they would teach the sixth commandment, after all, and we couldn’t have that, could we?), on 28 February of this year two High Court judges issued a lengthy ruling that contained the following stunning sentence: “But the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form.”

The learned gentlemen might have done well to cast a glance at the Coronation Service, at whose last observance, in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II responded in the affirmative to Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher’s question, “Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?” See

Moreover, they might have considered how the 1944 Education Act, which still remains on the statute book, lays down that each State-funded school must begin each day with a “broadly Christian” act of public worship. This provision having fallen into abeyance in recent years, it can no longer count on much public support, especially among the younger generation. See

And they might have done well to reflect that England and Scotland each still have “churches established by law,” a fact indicating that “the laws and usages of the realm do include Christianity,” in many and various ways!

It would be hard, indeed almost impossible, to exaggerate the collapse of Christian religious practice among all confessions in England in particular and in the UK in general over recent decades. The old parish system, which predated the Reformation, is everywhere in a state of collapse and, with very few exceptions, doctrinal substance has been diluted beyond recognition. Pagan generations have therefore grown up on formerly Christian territory, a facile utilitarianism their only spiritual armour, unbridled hedonism their only pursuit. The UK now “boasts” an abortion rate of 200,000 slaughtered infants per annum (189, 574 in 2010, to be precise). Following the ways of the ancient Canaanites and of the Israelites who joined their bandwagon can only result in Britain’s sharing their ineluctable fate. Which preachers in the British Isles are currently pointing out these sorry facts to their benighted compatriots?

The recent disturbances in London and other major cities took place against the dual background of the realm’s slipping into a spiritual dark age of secularization and of its succumbing to tidal waves of Islamization. In earlier ages Islamist aggressors ran into stout resistance from such rulers as Charles Martel, Charles V, and Jan Sobieski. This time around, though, they can only prevail against the effete ruling elite in the manner of knives slicing through hot butter.

North Americans do not have the luxury of beholding the cultural collapse of Europe in general and England in particular from the safe distance of a secure haven. Weakened by runaway debt and sinking under the costs of a decade of war, the US economy is tottering close to the abyss into which the Eurozone has plunged. Moreover, Christian religious practice has taken a nosedive on this continent also, not only in Canada, which has followed European patterns for some time already, but also in the US. Here in Canada the ruling elites increasingly enforce a “soft” totalitarianism of secularist utilitarianism—the final volume of novelist Michael O’Brien’s Canadian trilogy seems not so sensational to a soberly realistic analyst of the times. Marriage no longer exists as such, and the lives of the weakest in society have less and less status in public law—babies have none, and the rights of the old and the sick are increasingly precarious. Let’s not forget how “Dr” Morgenthaler, the “father” of abortion provision in this country, received in succession an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario and the Order of Canada from our last Governor General. It seems that Hitler lost one war only to change shape and win another.

Thinking with Sasse, we might picture the US as called into being by the voice of God through the events of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, forming a religiously and confessionally pluriform society, but coming together nevertheless as a preponderantly Christian nation. As it relegated the native peoples to the margins and contended with the tensions between the French and the English, Canada’s call to nationhood was likewise confessionally pluriform, and yet came together into an overwhelmingly Christian nation, where many native Canadians freely embraced the Gospel and where Jews have rightly enjoyed security and felt at home. But can the US and Canada endure in, with, under, and after breaking their bonds of allegiance to Christ the King? I very much doubt it.

It remains to be seen how the British Government and society will deal with the aftermath of the London riots, which are but the tip of an immense iceberg of social decay that has formed in tandem with the radical dechristianization of England and the other nations of the British Isles. But the ruling elites of all the major parties could not possibly put the 1960s into reverse gear—God the Holy Trinity, the Decalogue, and Christian dogma are definitively out: just ask the judges of the High Court.

At all events, though, there will only be an England in Dame Vera’s sense of the word if the land returns to the obedience and gentle rule of Christ the King. May it please God, using the clergymen of whichever confession He pleases, to grant a mighty revival of English Christendom at this time through a prolonged and resounding proclamation of His Word that must begin with the boldest imaginable call to repentance. Oremus pro Anglia—Let us pray for England.