A Lutheran Pastor Heads East

A Pastor friend of mine resigned a few days ago from the Lutheran parish he was serving in Detroit.  Fr. John W. Fenton announced that he would be joining the Orthodox Church, i.e., the Church of the East.  He did not specify whether the congregation he joined would be Greek or Russian or one of some other “ethnic flavoring,” I’m sure because he considers that to be an irrelevancy.  It’s all one communion, and so that’s all that matters.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.  I graduated from the St. Louis Seminary of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  At least two of the men I knew when I was there have “gone East,” and I am given to understand that a similar number of graduates from our Fort Wayne seminary have done the same.  It’s a fairly steady and constant trickle . . . from well known Lutheran theologians like Jaroslav Pelikan,  And they have the odd tendency to be some of the brighter and better informed men we’ve got.  What’s going on?

Fr. Fenton has left us a paper trail.  That’s one of the things I love about this man: he’s principled, he’s honest, he makes every effort to do whatever he does in the most “right” way he can do it.  So also then with this matter.  I question his decision, but I do not question his integrity.  See his blog, conversiaddominum.blogspot.com.

His statement of resignation offers two categories of points leading up to his decision.

First [A], there are those areas in which he believes the Lutheran Book of Concord teaches false doctrine:
1) It endorses “an amended Nicene Creed.”
2) It teaches that “Jesus died to appease His Father’s wrath.”
3) It contains “a man centered understanding of the church.”
4) It denies the propriety of prayers offered to the saints.
5) It teaches that the liturgy is a man-made product.

Second [B], there are those teachings in the Book of Concord with which he agrees, but which he believes are “denied in practice by nearly all Lutherans today.”  These are:
1) The teaching that the saints do intercede (pray) for us.
2) The perpetual virginity of Mary.
3) The proper respect due the elements in the Lord’s Supper.
4) The scriptural mandate that only ordained men should celebrate Mass and give the Sacraments.

Well, let me respond to those, one at a time.  Because I need to do this just to organize my thoughts, I will refer to the above issues in terms of “A.1,” “B.3,” and so forth.
A.1.  In many Missouri Synod Lutheran congregations, the version of the Nicene Creed they use begins, “I believe.”  It confesses that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son” (this is the so-called filioque).  And finally, it speaks of “one holy Christian and apostolic church.”  The original Nicene (or, actually, Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed said “We believe,” omitted “and the Son,” and confessed “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”  So, what is at stake here?

Lutherans have long insisted that one must believe “for himself,” and so used the singular, “I believe.”  Of course, no one believes “by himself,” and so “we believe” is entirely appropriate.  “We believe” is original, but “I believe” can hardly be called “wrong.”

The filioque is trickier.  How important it is depends on who you talk to.  It was one of the reasons given for the East/West split a millennium ago, but few really believe it was the real issue.  To the Eastern ear, it sounds like the West is claiming that there are two original sources of the procession, and hence the wording of the Western Church contains an implicit ditheism.  To the Western ear, the objections of the East sound like they lend themselves to a subtle subordinationism, i.e., the Son isn’t quite equal to the Father.  I have yet to meet anyone on either side who believes the other side’s accusation is fair.  No one believes either error.  The solution might be something like “from the Father through the Son,” but from an Eastern perspective, that amendment of the creed could only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit speaking through an ecumenical council of the church.  Jesus said, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who goes out from the Father, He will testify about me” (John 15:26, NIV).  So the Holy Spirit “goes out from the Father,” but He is also sent to us by the Son from the Father.  If this is what the Western Church intends to confess by the filioque clause (and it is), terminological negotiation may be in order here, but not the division of the church.

The substitution of “Christian” for “catholic” is something of a Lutheran anomaly these days.  It goes back to the days of the Reformation in which (without doing the research to verify this claim) I believe “Christliche” was considered a legitimate German translation of “catholic.”  Obviously, “Christian” emphasizes the centrality of Christ, whereas “catholic” emphasizes the universality of the one true faith and church (the word “catholic” actually means “universal”).  But the one holy church is still the church to which reference is being made, whether one uses the adjective “Christian” or “catholic.”  On all three of these points, I have some sympathy for Fr. Fenton’s preference for the original wording.  Essentially, the argument is, “this is what the church approved; don’t mess with it.”  As one who subscribes to the Book of Concord, I have no argument with the “amended reading” either.  The amendments simply do not contradict the substance of the original, as far as I can see.

A.2.  This really is the core issue.  Did Jesus die to appease the wrath of God?  This really is the heart of it.  Allow me to digress: The LCMS has, in just the course of the last fifty years, held at least three different positions concerning what the Holy Scriptures teach that the proper role of women in the church is.  The Church of the East is clear.  The LCMS is quite confused on the doctrine of the Office of the Holy Ministry.  The Church of the East is clear.  And concerning the Holy Supper, well, the LCMS is all over the board: can we use grape juice instead of wine? (Synod in convention has, stunningly, answered “yes” to this question!)  Do the elements become the body and blood of Christ when His words are put to them, or do we have to do our part by eating and drinking before the word “is” will actually mean “is”?  Do we use an Epiclesis?  Elevate the Host?  Red wine, or white?  What about reserving the consecrated elements?  Must the Lord’s Supper be celebrated within the context of traditional liturgical structures, or can we have us a good ol’ bogey-band eucharist?  Shot-glasses, common cup, or choice?  Host in the hand, or in the mouth?  And whom should we commune?  LCMS only?  Confessional Lutherans only?  ELCA “Lutherans” (whom the LCMS, in one of her clearer convention moments, declared that she could no longer recognize as an authentically Lutheran body) also?  Any Christian who agrees in some nebulous sense that communion “really is Jesus’ body and blood”?  The array of options (and errors) is (dear Fr. Fenton, please excuse this shameless pun) absolutely Byzantine.  And once again, the East is clear.

Me?  I’m a clarity loving sort of guy.  So when a guy looks at the dizzying array of Gospel-serving, Gospel-betraying, and Gospel-irrelevant practices that one finds in the LCMS today, I understand why a Pastor might look over his Eastern shoulder and ask, “could that be the answer?”  I have done it myself, and even spoke briefly with Fr. Fenton about it . . . just in terms of a “what does this option look like?” sort of a way.  But this is always the sticking point.  What is the Gospel?  The justice of God demands that all sin be punished.  Hence, God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, so that the sins previously left unpunished would receive the punishment due them, thus satisfying God’s justice while also allowing Him to have mercy upon (i.e., justify) those who have faith in Jesus.  Is this not clearly what Romans 3:25-26 teaches?  Is this not the clear meaning of our Lord’s words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me” (Mark 15:34)?  I am not damned, because Jesus was damned (i.e., forsaken by God) in my place.  I am redeemed, because the Redeemer paid the price of my redemption.  Whenever I am tempted to think of going East, this is always what stops me.  Would that Lutheran theology (especially these days) weren’t so messy!  All these problems with which Lutheranism is now afflicted can be solved, if only I could fudge on the Gospel.  That price is too high.  The Gospel is everything.  If we have all else right, but get the doctrine of Jesus’ saving work for us on the cross wrong, we have nothing.  I say it again: the Gospel is everything.  The good news that God is merciful to me because Christ lived a perfect life for me, died a holy death for me, and rose victorious over sin, death, and the devil for me; and the attendant doctrine that God and man are truly united in Christ such that His death on the cross made infinite satisfaction for sin: this is everything.  And on this point the Church of the East, at best, equivocates.

A.3.  It is suggested that the Book of Concord contains “a man centered understanding of the church.”  Well, consider these words, taken from the Augsburg Confession (which is the preeminent document of the Book of Concord), article VII: “The Church is the congregation of saints (Psalm 149:1) in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”  Let us “put the best construction” on that: The church is where God is doing His saving stuff among men.  That’s hardly “man centered.”  It is centered in God and in His activity, albeit for that activity to do “us men” any good, it has to take place among us.  The active agent in the church is God . . . men are but the passive recipients of divine activity.  In fact, given the “synergy” between man and God that the Church of the East considers necessary for man’s salvation (and hence necessary for a man to be part of the church), I find the Eastern understanding of the church to be more “man centered” than the Lutheran.

A.4.  Fr. Fenton notes that the Book of Concord denies the propriety of prayers offered to the saints.  In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (also part of the Book of Concord) article XXI, we read, “Since neither a command nor a promise nor an example can be produced from the Scriptures about the invocation of saints, it makes sense that conscience remains uncertain about this invocation.  Since prayer should be made from faith, how do we know God approves this invocation?”  So, Fr. Fenton is right, that’s what the Book of Concord says.  But the Book of Concord makes perfect sense to me.  It asks the question, “how do we know?”  And that really is the question here.  Church tradition, prior to the Reformation, embraced this practice widely.  Scripture offers no real justification for it.  So if “church tradition” constitutes “knowing,” then we have a strong argument for such prayers.  If our doctrine and practice comes from Holy Scripture, even interpreted within the parameters of tradition, we have no reason for such prayers.  The argument for it is not a matter of receiving a traditional understanding of Scripture, it is a matter of establishing tradition as a doctrinal authority separate and distinct from Scripture.  And that’s a big step to make, especially since the church herself (in the East as well!) has abandoned some traditions that were once widespread, such as (just to name one example) postponing Baptism until death appeared imminent.  If tradition is another “stand alone” source of religious truth, how do we know which ones to keep, and which ones to pitch?

A.5.  Fr. Fenton argues that the Book of Concord teaches that the liturgy is a man-made product.  He clarifies: “The Liturgy never changes.  I don’t mean that chants or prayers or feasts are not added or subtracted gradually over time.  What I mean is that no priest or bishop or congregation can decide to cut the Eucharistic Prayer or go with a new style of worship or change things to suit his convictions or the times.  Why?  Because the liturgy is not something smart men have created and so can modify.  The liturgy is from the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Scriptures are from the Holy Spirit.”

In my opinion, Fr. Fenton is partly right, and partly not.  The liturgy, correctly constituted, it is a weaving together of Scripture verses, done in a manner that optimally confesses the faith and sings it into the hearts of the people.  Scripture is of God, not, as Fr. Fenton states it, “something smart men have created and so can modify.”  But smart (and hopefully pious) servants of the church do decide which verses to use, and which not.  For example, The Lutheran Hymnal (p. 15 service) calls people to confess their sins by paraphrasing Hebrews: “Let us draw near with a true heart and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching Him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness.”  Divine Service 2 in Lutheran Worship (which is, I believe, a Lutheran modification of an Anglican modification of the Eastern liturgy of St. John Chrysostom [who was himself a smart and pious man]) calls people to confess using the words of St. John: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just . . .”  Now, I know that the invitation to public confession is an accretion, and that traditionally the service began where the Introit is now.  This is just an illustration.  The point is, the liturgy does change.  The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom displaced the liturgy of St. Basil in ordinary Eastern usage.  This does not stop the Church of the East from being in full communion with the local Antiochan Orthodox Church, which is “Western Rite.”  The liturgies of St. James, St. Mark, Sts. Addai and Mari, the Mozarabic Liturgy, the Roman Rite, etc., etc., all differ.  They differ regionally and, often, ethnically.  There are structural similarities, to be sure.  Historically, the church catholic has never invited her Priest/Pastors to cook up whatever they thought would be “cool” on Sunday morning.  But the solution to the liturgical antinomianism so rampant in Missouri today is not a liturgical legalism that is not entirely the case in the Church of the East, nor is it the historical practice of the church.

Fr. Fenton, please hear me loud and clear: I understand.  I look at the revivalistic hokum that goes on in many a Missouri Synod congregation, and I do most assuredly understand the pain of conscience that says, “No.  I cannot be in communion with that.”  But what was it that formed many of the men who engage in such practices?  Were they not formed by the battles of the 1960’s in the Missouri Synod, when the authority of Holy Scripture was being challenged?  Undermine Scripture and one undermines the Gospel, so for the sake of the Gospel they defended the Scriptures.  Sadly, it seems some gave in to the temptation to make “inerrancy” rather than “justification” the central article of their faith, in practice if not in theory.  Scripture was divorced from the Book of Concord.  How sad.  In defense of the Gospel, they cast their lot in with other “inerrantists” who turned out to have drunk deeply from American revivalism, and ended up losing the centrality of the Gospel.

Well, I see that, and I want to react.  I love the Gospel, and this ablazing lust to tickle popular American ears has led many Lutheran Pastors to embrace “worship styles” that do not communicate the article of justification nearly as well as our historic liturgies.  So I react.  I push for the use of liturgy that does confess the holy faith in ways that “contemporary” or “blended” services almost inevitably fail to do.  But, shall I be like my inerrantist predecessors and make the liturgy so central that it displaces the Gospel, practically speaking, as the chief article of faith?  I believe this is the first time in my life that I have ever argued for a lower view of the liturgy than someone else whom I was seeking to engage in discussion.  No, for the sake of the Gospel we are not free to do whatever seems right in our own eyes.  No, for the sake of the Gospel we are not free to do “feel good” stuff that fails to confess Christ.  No, for the sake of the Gospel we dare not adopt worship forms that blur the distinction between us and the heterodox.  But we cannot confess the Gospel by displacing the Gospel with the Liturgy as the center point of the faith.  To do so is to give up the very thing we thought we were refusing to surrender.

This brings me now to a consideration of Fr. Fenton’s second group of protestations, namely, those true and salutary doctrines which are “denied in practice by nearly all Lutherans today.”  I must preface these comments by saying that I speak from what is often called the “confessional” wing of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).  Speaking more broadly of “nearly all Lutherans today,” I suppose we would have to bring into consideration those more liberal bodies comprising the membership of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).  Once one does that, I guess one would have to admit that “nearly all Lutherans today” believe women can be Pastors, deny the infallibility of Holy Scripture, deny that faith in Christ is necessary to salvation, deny that doctrinal agreement is necessary to altar and pulpit intercommunion, etc., etc.  For these and other reasons, the LCMS is not a member of the LWF (although, confusingly, they are in altar and pulpit fellowship with some LWF church bodies).  At least officially, we still affirm all these things that our liberal opponents deny.
Within the LCMS, however, do we “deny in practice” (B.1) the teaching that the saints (i.e., those which are deceased and are in heaven) pray for us?  Fr. Fenton may know something I don’t.  There may be those who are openly, publicly denying this.  But for myself, I have never heard such a denial.  I’m not sure how exactly one goes about affirming this doctrine “in practice.”  I give thanks to God for the prayers of my grandparents.  It gives me particular comfort to know that my grandfather Wilhelm Heimbigner prays for me, since he encouraged my teenaged thoughts of becoming a Pastor while he was still with me here in this world.  I rejoice in the prayers of all the saints, living and departed, who would deign to pray for me personally, or even generally pray for all “faithful Ministers of the Word.”  But dear Fr. Fenton, I do not deny this doctrine, and I know of noone in the LCMS who does.

The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary (B.2) is perpetually confusing, due in no small part to the fact that even in her confessional heyday, the LCMS never published a critical text of the precise document to which she demands her Pastors subscribe.  Fr. Fenton mentions that it is taught in the Book of Concord.  Well, at the ordination of a Lutheran minister, he promises to teach in accordance with the Book of Concord of 1580.  That (1580) edition was printed in German.  In 1584, a Latin version was produced, but that is not the version to which Lutheran ministers and congregations vow submission.  Well, guess what?  The “perpetual” word (semper) only shows up in the Latin.  Hence, it is misleading to say that the Book of Concord teaches this doctrine, when in fact it was added a little later, and Lutheran ministers do not subscribe to the 1584 Latin.

Now, that observation simply moves the whole question into a category of doctrinal questions to which neither the Scriptures or the Lutheran Confessions directly speak.  For the record, I believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  In the face of a biblically unanswered question, I am quite willing to look at the consensus of the faithful.  The overwhelming majority of ancient church fathers believed this doctrine (I can think of a grand total of one exception).  Luther believed it, Melanchthon believed it, Chemnitz believed it, Gerhard believed it, the founding fathers of the Missouri Synod believed it, and yes, my grandfather Wilhelm believed it.  So “the tie,” if you will (i.e., since the Scriptures and the [original] Lutheran Confessions are silent on the matter) goes to tradition, at least for my own personal opinion.  But because this doctrine is not clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures, it seems to me that faithful service to the Gospel leaves us perhaps to assume this doctrine, but not to insist upon it.  This question belongs rightly in the realm of “open questions.”

Finally, I think it is fair to ask “what is at stake” with this doctrine.  If, on judgment day, it turns out that I was wrong . . . if, on that day, St. Joseph laughs at me and says, “after the birth of the Savior, I had a completely normal married life with my wife,” how is the faith harmed?  Would the atoning work of the Savior become of no effect if His blessed mother did in fact have normal relations with Joseph after Jesus’ birth?  I must answer that question in the negative.  No, the perpetual virginity of Mary is not a doctrine necessary to the Gospel . . . not like the doctrine that she is “theotokos,” or “Mother of God,” which absolutely is necessary to the Gospel.  Rather, it is a litmus test for the authority of tradition.  Traditional, confessional Lutheranism respects the tradition of the church, at least up until it finds a point at which that tradition has departed from the revealed truth of the Holy Scriptures.  The Church of the East, however, is more inclined to receive a “capital T” Tradition, with authority equal to that of Holy Scripture itself.  And so the question of Mary’s perpetual virginity becomes a sort of circular litmus test: Lutheranism is wrong because it does not value tradition as wielding authority equal to that of Scripture, and since we should value “capital T” Tradition as being equal in authority to Holy Scripture, Lutheranism is wrong.  St. Mary’s perpetual virginity is just a case in point, and the argument itself is not convincing.

In Fr. Fenton’s point B.3, Fr. Fenton contends that the Lutheran Church fails to live up to her own confession concerning the “proper respect due the elements in the Lord’s Supper.”  Well, the congregation which the Lord has entrusted to my care does respect the sacred elements.  We never use “substitute” elements for the bread and grape wine commanded by our Lord.  All remaining elements are consumed at the conclusion of the Divine Service; consecrated and unconsecrated elements are never mixed.  Even the basin used for the cleansing of the paten (plate) and chalice (cup) is emptied onto the earth outside, lest even a slight amount of the reliquae (remainder) be disposed of irreverently.  But that’s us.  How about the accusation of “denial in practice” by “nearly all Lutherans today”?  Fr. Fenton, we are guilty as charged.  Perhaps the most obvious aspect of “proper respect” is being careful to whom it is given . . . wherever the elements are given to those who are unrepentantly heterodox, the body and blood of Christ (the elements) are not properly respected.  All of these other failures of respect can only have the catastrophic result that, as we fail to treat the elements like the body and blood of Christ which they are, we will teach our people not to believe that they are truly the body and blood of Christ.  This horrific failure on the part of “nearly all Lutherans today” must be repented of, and I sincerely regret that we no longer have Fr. Fenton’s voice among us, calling us to such repentance.

Finally, Fr. Fenton protests that nearly all Lutherans today deny in practice that “only ordained men should celebrate the Mass and give the Sacraments.”  Once again, guilty as charged.  With the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s 1989 “Wichita abomination” (Richard John Neuhaus, I believe, called it the “Wichita Recension of the Augsburg Confession”) it has become the received practice of this church body to allow “certified lay workers” to celebrate the Mass.  I believe (even as I hope I am wrong) that the practice of asking unordained interns (“vicars”) to celebrate the Mass with home-bound parishioners is relatively common.  One can receive as reliable only a Lord’s Supper that is consecrated by one to whom the Lord has entrusted the consecrating of His Supper.  This is the clear teaching of the Lutheran Book of Concord (AC XIV).  The LCMS has departed from that; obviously any Lutheran body that ordains (or, more accurately, purports to ordain) women departs from that; if a Lutheran church body wishes to remain orthodox it must excise such error, and the LCMS appears to lack the will to make such a course correction.

Fr. Fenton wrote and presented a brilliant paper here a few years back, entitled, “What Options do the Confessions Give Us?”  He basically listed four possibilities, once one conceded the heterodoxy of their denomination: 1) Stay in the heterodox denomination [wilfully to remain in an heterodox communion he found unconscionable], 2) Join an orthodox Lutheran denomination [he concluded that there were none at the time], 3) Start a new denomination [which, he argued, violates the “catholicity principle,” further fracturing visible Christendom] or 4) Seek orthodoxy outside the pale of Lutheranism [and since Lutheranism has defined itself since its inception as the orthodox confession of the Christian Faith, the likelihood of finding orthodoxy outside of it seemed even more impossible than finding orthodoxy in another Lutheran denomination].  Fr. Fenton’s paper was brutally honest, and that’s what I loved about it.  He identified the options available, and concluded that there were no good ones.

The one drawback of his paper is that, of course, no matter how poor the available options are, a Lutheran pastor or congregation is going to have to exercise one of them.  Fr. Fenton has chosen number 4.  What shall the rest of us do?  For a biblical Lutheran, the answer must begin with the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.  What best serves this core truth of the one holy catholic and apostolic faith?  I have been patient with my heterodox denomination for a long time.  My patience grows thin . . . and thinner still, as I see further departure from, rather than return to, historic Lutheranism being called for by the power elites of the Synod.  I am aware of at least one new Lutheran denomination that has come into existence since the time that Fr. Fenton wrote his paper: The Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America, headquartered in Malone, Texas.  That may serve to qualify the reservations Fr. Fenton expressed about seeking Lutheran orthodoxy somewhere other than within the LCMS.  Regrettably, this was not the option Fr. Fenton chose.

Fr. Fenton’s departure from Lutheranism is, in my mind, a real tragedy.  It is a tragic solution to a tragic problem.  In matters of liturgical innovation, in matters of openly worshiping with pagans, in matters of open communion and the doctrine of the Ministry and the role of women in the church and in many, many other ways, the once staunchly confessional Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has now become a non-confrontational (unless you’re a trouble making confessional type), conservative church body, more interested in preserving its own spiritual “market share” than in confessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its truth and purity.  I blame them for this tragedy.  I blame them for whitewashing a shameless toleration, and even dominion, of heterodoxy by calling it ‘walking together with different strides’.  “How can two walk together unless they are agreed,” asks the prophet.  Synod is not agreed.  We are not walking together.  The very word “synod” (i.e., a “walking together”) is now an institutional lie.  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is not a synod!

But if the problem is tragic, Fr. Fenton’s solution compounds tragedy with more tragedy.  From what I can see, he has chosen to substitute a particular liturgical tradition for the Gospel.  It turns the sinner away from the confidence that his sins are all forgiven because of what Jesus has done for us, and it demands the contribution of our good works too . . . a contribution that we can never be sure of, and so would leave us bereft of any certainty about our own salvation.  Theology is messy, and Lutheranism is a mess.  The devil has asked, “Did God really say . . . ?” and sinful Lutheran theologians have too quickly capitulated into the sophisticated muddle of saying, “well, we’re really not sure . . . it depends on your interpretation.”  I’m doing what I can to deal with it.  I don’t have all the answers.  This I know: God does not lie or deceive.  His Scriptures are true, and the Lutheran Confessions correctly reflect what those Scriptures teach. The core of both the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions is the Gospel.  With this sacred saving teaching, the answering of our struggles is begun, continued, and ended.  The answers have to be answers borne of the complete and entirely sufficient saving work of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

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