The Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sola Scriptura

From the New York Times:

The denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is considering lifting a ban on noncelibate gay and lesbian pastors, permitting the ordination of people in committed same-sex relationships.

At issue is how the Bible should inform policy, how the denomination can best serve its mission, and how a vote to ordain gay men and lesbians would affect the church’s relationships with the broader Christian community.

Remember that in Luther’s famous “Here I stand” speech, he demanded to be convinced by Scripture or reason. More from the Times:

The scriptural framework of the debate only feeds those divisions, [delegate Chelsea] Mathis said. “There are dueling Bible verses when the microphone is open to people,” she said.

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems very much like the pro-noncelibate gay ordination crowd position is arrived at as follows:

  1. They think that gays and lesbians should be able to be ordained. Perhaps it’s out of a misplaced sense of equality, perhaps it is out of sympathy for those who truly love the Lord and struggle with homosexuality, pehrpas it’s just because they know so many gays and lesbians who seem like normal enough sorts. Whatever the reason, I suspect it isn’t some devious plot to try and destroy the ELCA. By reason, they’re more or less convinced that this is the right direction to go, and frankly, the ELCA has been moving in a very liberal trajectory for a while now. (Besides that, if the Anglicans are doing it, ELCA has to follow; PCUSA may well go next).
  2. Tradition’s out already: they already allow women’s ordination, so one of the largest barriers to these sorts of “innovations” is gone.
  3. Reading Biblical passages with a new set of eyes, they begin to “notice” verses which might sort-of kind-of lead to the conclusion they’ve come to by reason.
  4. There are plenty of Bible verses specifically forbidding the conclusion they’re coming to on the basis of reason, but then again, if you only read certain verses, about love and not judging, you can use those to justify just about anything.

I’ve said earlier that whatever Luther’s intent, it’s the light of individual reason which guide much of Protestantism in its varied forms. (I readily acknowledge that the early Reformers were much more creedal than their liberal descendants).

  • Calvinism is a logically coherent philosophy, and if you accept certain metaphysical assumptions about the impact of total depravity, it’s an easy enough conclusion (i.e., if we’re so totally depraved we won’t desire goodness, then grace must be irresistable, or we’ll resist it; therefore, anyone who doesn’t have irresistable grace must be denied it by God, since they couldn’t have rejected it themselves; therefore, Christ only died for some). It is, in other words, logically sound. It’s much harder to make the case for something like limited atonement from Scripture alone. It is no coincidence that Calvinism thrived in the Universities (due to its metaphysical appeal) and amongst the middle class (since it was understood as saying that prosperity was a mark of eternal election).
  • Anglicanism used really simplistic reason for a long time in its early years, as Tumbleson has shown. Since England is obviously God’s favorite country (hence, the destruction of the Spanish Armada), it should have its own Church. To deny this is treason. On the other hand, anyone proposing radical reforms threatens the national stability and to abolish Christian Tradition. So only those reforms which are… reasonable. The Catholic critics of Anglicanism would frequently use the Anglican’s own arguments against the Dissenters as an argument against schism, but the original schism, you see, was reasonable. (In this instance, the Anglicans actually followed the Lutherans’ lead, instead of the reverse).
  • Anabaptists, the (sort of) precursors to Baptists, and more direct precursors to the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, decided that violent revolution was a logical way to create a Christian theocracy which would live as they thought the early Christians lived. (It’s fair to say that their theological descendants don’t follow the same teachings).
  • Many Christian Scientists have claimed that the birth of their founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was foretold in the Bible. In Eddy’s own case, the Christian Science movement was almost completely due to her recovery from an 1866 illness that convinced her that medicine was against the Bible. When she looked in the Bible, she was unable to find any reference to medicine and, she decided that if Jesus wanted us to use medicine, He would have prescribed it. It’s the same Protestant argument against Purgatory taken to strange new lengths.
  • Some Dispensationalists, particularly the Hal Lindsey crowd, thought or think that the world will end soon. Seeing things like the restoration of the State of Israel, Communism, the Sexual Revolution, and so forth, they came to a lot of conclusions. In Late, Great, Planet Earth, he hinted that 40 years from the founding of Israel would be the Second Coming. That date came and went in 1988. In The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, he said that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” It wasn’t. Lindsey and others are still at it. Most recently, he’s stated that Obama may be preparing the way for the Antichrist. Others like him, like Tim LaHaye, have been doing the same thing, and they’re making a load of money off of it, even while prediction after prediction is rendered false. Why? Because people feel like there’s something gravely wrong with the world, so obviously, this must be the end times. It’s fueled at least in part by the sort of self-important generational navel-gazing the 20th century has bred (Of course Jesus is coming back in my generation!) coupled with a lot of historical ignorance.
  • The same sort of eschatological nuttiness lead to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. A man named Hong Xiuquan had a series of dreams after reading some missionary Bible tracts, where he claims that the Godhead appeared to him and introduced Itself/Themselves (you’ll see the distinction shortly). Some years later, after studying under Issachar J. Roberts, a Southern Baptist minister, Hong formed a cult set to destroy idolatry in China. His goal was to create a (sort of) Christian theocracy in China, a “Great Peace” formed through violent revolution. I say “sort of” Christian, because it was a religious system heavily influenced by his own delusions, was non-Trinitarian, and had lots more wacky beliefs. No matter. Millions of Chinese followed him to their own, and many more, deaths. Some 20 to 30 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the Taiping Rebellion he began.

In every case, the conclusions arrived at by reason could find Biblical support. Sometimes, a reading of a particular passage in isolation (from the rest of the Bible, or from Christian tradition) would start the ball rolling. Sometimes, it was a remarkable thinker or visionary who proclaimed a radical new understanding of Christianity. Other times, exigent circumstances would: when the pope says you’re excommunicated unless you change your views, and you really don’t want to change your views, you suddenly realize that Scripture teaches that the pope is the Antichrist (or later, an Antichrist, with “Antichrist” meaning whatever the author says it means), and write The Babylonian Captivity. Or, as in the case here, you’re neck-deep in a culture promoting homosexuality as being morally equal, and where the notion of celibacy is too quirky for serious consideration.

Every one of these conclusions are a “product of their times,” or of the particular lives of their founders (more extreme cases, like Joseph Smith’s discovery that Joseph Smith is the True Prophet and can have as many wives as he would like, exist as well). Some of these are genuinely respectable conclusions or reasonable assumptions, some aren’t. But it certainly shows that even amongst the well-meaning, there are some awfully divergent conclusions. Individual reason, influenced as it is by one’s culture (the current ELCA scandal), health (Eddy), dreams (Xiuquan), time and place (Lindsey), and so on, mixes poorly with Scripture.

One of the most obvious benefits of Tradition is this: it shatters the self-important generational navel-gazing. It forces you to look at things through a different lens, by the mere fact that these earlier writers lived in a different culture. The life story of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Ignatius of Antioch are radically divergent. The culture surrounding (or not surrounding) St. Vincent De Paul and the Desert Fathers are quite distinct. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day had different influences than one another, or their (relatively close) contemporary, Avery Cardinal Dulles. They share a Catholic Faith, but little else: this Catholic outlook has weathered the storms of ancient Rome, Soviet Russia, urban America, Napoleonic France, modern China, Colonial Latin America, and countless more inhospitable climates.

In other words, with Sacred Tradition, you get a religious system that’s tried, tested, and true from ages before, practiced in various cultural settings, and so forth. It’s less prone to these sort of radical depatures from Scripture, like what we’re seeing once more in the ELCA crisis.

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