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.

 

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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.

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."

PROFESSOR DR. WERNER ELERT

University of Erlangen (Lutheran)

I

“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.

II

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.

III

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.