I'm a member of the Association of Confessional Lutheran Churches (ACLC). My very small church body consists chiefly of congregations and pastors that were involuntarily removed from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) in a dispute over the doctrine of church and ministry. The ACLC is in fellowship with another small group called the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA), whose pastors and parishes emerged from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), also following a struggle with the synod hierarchy's response to dissent. Though the two groups come from different backgrounds and are differently structured, they have—at least until now—worked together in mutual respect and harmony, recognizing each other's faithfulness to the same norms of doctrine and practice.
One of the stumbling-stones in the way of these two groups walking together takes the form of a document adopted by the pastors of ELDoNA, titled "Theses on the Article of Justification as Taught in Holy Scripture and the Confessions of Christ's Holy Church, with Special Attention to 'Objective Justification.'" This document was studied at ELDoNA's 2013 colloquium and synod, then approved by the pastors of ELDoNA. This is a very serious and important doctrinal statement because, as its Conclusion states: "We see [these theses] as defining the limits of our fellowship with regard to these issues until such time as we are convinced otherwise from the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions, or until further clarification is needed." Again the document explains its own significance: "These theses are not a declaration of fellowship. Those inside our fellowship voluntarily agree with these theses and support them, but we also wish to have these theses function as a marker of agreement between Christians who are not yet necessarily in fellowship."
So, while agreement with the ELDoNA theses on Objective Justification (OJ) may not by itself result in fellowship between it and another group, it will be understood as an important step on the way to a fellowship agreement. And conversely, if the ACLC cannot reconcile itself to a doctrinal statement that ELDoNA adopted without the ACLC's counsel or assent, the result may be a breaking of fellowship between ELDoNA and the ACLC. I would be sorry to see this. Having read the theses, I do not think this should be the result. If the leadership of both groups would discuss their concerns openly and with good will, I believe there may be a peaceful resolution satisfying both parties. But my impression of the language, method, and evidence chosen by the pastors of ELDoNA in these theses, does nothing to encourage me to believe such a resolution will take place. Indeed, my opinion of the quality of ELDoNA's leadership, scholarship, and theological insight has taken a beating during my study of these theses.
Another word of background is due. It is no coincidence that ELDoNA undertook this study of OJ at about the same time that it invited a former Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) pastor first to address them in a theological paper, then to join the ELDoNA fellowship. I met and spoke with Rev. Paul Rydecki in 2012 at a conference in Chicago. I felt sympathy toward him as he reported the progress of his removal from WELS over doctrinal concerns that he raised regarding the teaching of Objective Justification. I thought then, and still think, this is an interesting topic that deserves open discussion; and I was sensible of the disservice WELS did to the art of theology when it reacted so harshly to what Pastor Rydecki described as "simply asking a question," when at a WELS pastor's conference the keynote speaker took an extreme position on OJ and discussed it in terms not supported by the Lutheran Confessions or the writings of the "orthodox Lutheran fathers." Yes, I think Pastor Rydecki's concerns need some airing, and answers to his concerns should also be discussed fairly, openly, and with brotherly forbearance. But whatever credit I give to the reports of the ACLC representatives who attended the ELDoNA colloquium, the rapid-fire timing of Pastor Rydecki's acceptance into ELDoNA fellowship and the adoption of these theses suggests to me that this very serious matter was pushed through with unseemly haste, and without enough serious discussion and consideration of opposing views. And now the wind is alive with whispers of the type of charges from both sides that cannot be brushed aside lightly. In effect, I see a schism between ELDoNA and the ACLC swiftly approaching.
Insofar as I understand the basic reasons pastors and parishioners ventured to leave their established synods and start new ones—generalizing bravely but trying to put the best construction on things—it basically boils down to the hope that our new church bodies will provide better leadership than the old ones. Where ELS, WELS, and LCMS failed, we will learn to do better; etc. So I am upset by what I see happening here, first of all, because I do not see the quality of leadership members of both ELDoNA and the ACLC should expect and demand. While I have no doubt that the leaders of the ACLC have their shortcomings, what I particularly see is room for improvement in the way the ELDoNA's leadership runs things. But if either group hopes to grow by enticing other disappointed members of the LCMS, ELS, WELS, or other groups to join it, it is incumbent on both groups to avoid advertising itself as a moribund sect. And that is exactly what the whole world will see—or, at least, the small corner of the world that is interested in what we do—if ELDoNA and the ACLC continue to run plays out of the "tiny group of sectarian nuts tearing itself to pieces" playbook. To put it another way, having set out to do things a better way than LCMS and company, it behooves us to show that we (1) actually do things perceptibly better, and (2) exist for a better reason than to be whatever the LCMS (or ELS or WELS, etc.) is not.
The ELDoNA theses on OJ mostly seem fairly persuasive. But I do not think their pretensions to be self-evidently the position of Luther, the Confessions, the dogmaticians of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, or Scripture meets the test of explaining all of the evidence. Where the theses portray the rejection of OJ as the only reasonable conclusion based on the evidence, I think it is at least possibly shows a refusal or inability to deal with a paradox. While some of the extreme formulations by WELS and even LCMS theologians are perhaps rightly condemned, I reserve judgment, until more evidence has been aired, as to whether these quotes represent the real position of those theologians or are merely cherry-picked, straw-man arguments. (Easy on the mixed metaphors, self!) While I think the WELS may indeed have erred and/or sinned in its treatment of Pastor Rydecki—suggested by the language of Thesis 41, the ACLC's representatives have reported similar treatment in response to their concerns by ELDoNA's leadership.
The ELDoNA Theses on OJ briefly cite, and then tacitly brush aside, an alternate solution to the problem of Objective Justification (in a paper by the late Prof. Kurt Marquart), in which the justification of "Man" as a class, through Christ's acquisition of merit for all sinners, was distinguished from the application of Christ's merit to particular men, through faith in the Gospel. The theses then go on to reject any language that comports with the evidence in Scripture, to the effect that "all are justified." I do not think this is a valid and necessary conclusion from the evidence given; I say nothing of evidence the ELDoNA document chooses not to discuss.
The problem is indeed a poser. Separate the justification of sinners from faith in Christ and one could skid off the narrow way in the direction of universalism; deny that every sinner's justification is complete in Christ, prior to faith, and it loses the character of an unconditional (one may say, objective) fact that can therefore be an object of faith, with full assurance. Our faith, though a gift from God, is contingent; God's promise of justification is absolute. ELDoNA's theses shy away from this complex, paradox-ridden problem, condemning only the most blatant heresies at both extremes and then, unless I am mistaken, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
I would expect people who pretend to have the scholarly credentials of ELDoNA's presiding bishop—Rev. James Heiser has husbanded the translation and publication of many serious works of Lutheran theology, and has written and spoken engagingly about the philosophy of history—to write in a more circumspect manner than the language to which he and his colleagues commit themselves in these Theses. Under Thesis 6, the phrase "Golden Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy" struck me as contrary to Bishop Heiser's view of the nature of human history; at least, it seemed the sort of clumsy editorializing than which better should be expected in a doctrinal statement as carefully worded as this should be. A document like this is too serious and important to be written with haste and unconcern for clarity and precision.
Thesis 11 makes an assertion about Christ to which I do not agree: "The fact that the Christ was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and bore our sins as His own (Psalm 69:5) does not require Him to be absolved, since, again, He was not forgiven for our sins," etc. This is easy to say, and seems reasonable, but it does not account for the fact that Christ submitted himself to rituals of repentance unto forgiveness, from the sacrifices given in his behalf to his baptism by John, all by way of fulfilling his office as the bearer of the world's sins. I do not have a full and systematic answer to this, but I think one is possible, and the pastors of ELDoNA may find they have overstepped themselves in this thesis.
I think Theses 13 and 14 are more clever than clear. 13 Says: "To make the 'justification of the Christ' in any way similar to our justification in connection with Christ is to cheapen the merit of Christ." The predicate, "to cheapen the merit of Christ," seems weak to me. It would have been better to say it is equivocal and have done. As for Thesis 14: "Again, to make the justification of the sinner anything less than the 'justification of the Christ' is to cheapen the merit of the Christ." Were it not for a footnote explaining, "Since what the justified have is the very righteousness of Christ Himself," this thesis would make no sense. A serious doctrinal statement is no place to be cute. There is also a footnote under Thesis 13 that redeems it somewhat. It's too bad the author(s) of these Theses chose to reserve the sense of what they were saying for the footnotes.
Theses 19 and 20 attack the extreme formulations of OJ that, if they are not "cherry-picked straw-men" (sigh), really deserve to be attacked: that OJ means "there took place a change in the heart of God" (whom nothing changes) or that God made a "pre-existing forensic declaration...about the world being without sin," even apart from the merit of Christ.
Footnote 39, under Thesis 24, takes a cheap shot at Walther—something the leaders of ELDoNA seem to think passes for a substantive argument. Their analogy to the historical development of Walther's position on church and ministry is not to the purpose. It is scarcely distinguishable from an ad hominem argument to the effect that, since Walther revived the language of "objective justification" for reasons ELDoNA is uninterested in considering, we may presume that his motives were impure. Hating C. F. W. Walther's guts is not a sound basis for a theological system.
Thesis 29 boasts: "The orthodox Lutheran position, as easily demonstrated from the fathers of the Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy..." Should we accept a mere easy demonstration? How about something more in-depth and pains-taking? In the meantime, the word "easily" bears the odor of an arrogant sneer. Pride goeth before a fall.
Finally, the first paragraph of the Conclusion states that the teaching that "all mankind is sinless before God before and apart from faith in Christ" is "not only dangerous in its grossest abuse (crass universalism), but is itself contrary to God's Word and the exhibition of the same by the Symbols of Christ's Church." By dint of careful wording, this statement just avoids the indefensible assertion that the teaching it describes actually is, or necessarily leads to, crass universalism. I think it may be because of the word "crass"—a word that itself suggests a hostile exaggeration delivered in a bullying tone of voice—that I initially thought this was actually what the sentence meant. I am still not quite sure that such an hysterical overreaction does not lurk in the hearts of some who subscribe to these theses; but I admit it is uncharitable of me to say so. In charity, however, I again warn ELDoNA not to fall into the error for which they wisely reproach the WELS (only not by name) in Thesis 4. I think the conclusion they make here does condemn the intended sense of what Luther wrote in his Galatians commentary, a concern this document unconvincingly attempts to answer.
Again, more evidence on this (Luther on Galatians, etc.) needs to be studied. More exegesis of Scripture and more wrestling with the full testimony not only of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, but of the theological and historical reasons that have given the doctrine of Objective Justification the definition it has today, is not only desirable but necessary before the pastors of ELDoNA should do their "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me, Amen." Any less than that is not only cheap, but it could have dangerous consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, far into the future. It is that serious. More is at stake here even than the fate of two tiny church bodies that want other Lutherans struggling to confess their faith to know, "Here we are, and we're not sectarian nut-jobs." After the ACLC and the ELDoNA have both passed out of human knowledge, we will be answerable for pull we exert on the faith and fellowship of Lutherans yet to be born. Theses for debate and consideration? Bring them on! A line in the sand of church fellowship? It is too early for that yet. We need to study this more. And we need to do it in, dare I repeat myself, a spirit of peace, openness, and brotherly forbearance. God help us!
1Thesis 4: "It is unfitting simply to label one another as having a position identical to one in a previous battle [n.: Unless one can absolutely show such to be the case], though it may rightly be said that a position bears similarities or could lead to such a historic position [n.: If and only if it can be demonstrated that such is so.] That is, we must not condemn by the application of labels, but must address what is actually taught or not taught by any party."