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.  ↩

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.

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.” http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2011/375.html

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 http://oremus.org/liturgy/coronation/cor1953b.html

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 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8743072/Most-schools-shunning-law-on-Christian-assemblies.html

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.