Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Faith and Life of the Body vs. Missional "Lutheran" Gnosticism

Sound doctrine is fundamental and foundational to the Christian faith and life, and the right distinction of the Law and the Gospel is the particularly bright light by which the Holy Scriptures are correctly understood.

To have the mind of Christ, however, is not merely a matter of the intellect, but of humility in body and soul, of obedience unto death, and of living self-sacrifice to the glory of God and for the good of the neighbor.  To live by the Spirit of Christ is to live by faith in His Word, and so also to live in the body on earth, in love for God and man.  For the Spirit descends in bodily form, and rests and remains upon the Body of Christ.

Real Wisdom belongs, not to the raw intellectual mastery of data, facts and information, but to the fear of the Lord.  It is not academic, nor clinical, but is possessed by the solemn awe of the great Mystery of godliness.  This true Wisdom is known in her children, who bend their hearts and knees, along with their minds, before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and at the great and holy Name above all others, which has been given to Him, who alone was crucified for our transgressions and is raised for our justification.

When faith and life are reduced to the formulations and clich├ęs of dogmatic propositions and jingled slogans — asserted and assented to, repeated ad nauseam, and given lip-service while "anything else goes," in the great free-for-all, the banner over which is "adiaphora" — it is no longer Christianity that we are dealing with, but the latest non-incarnation of gnosticism.  Whether the list of facts is long or short, intricate or simplistic, if that is all there is to it, then that is not the faith which is reckoned as righteousness for the sake of Christ; it is a farce and a fiction, which relies upon itself and on the self-righteousness of its own mental mastery.

Twenty years ago, when I was a seminary student, the powers that be and their clever speech-writers suggested that several of my favorite professors were guilty of a "confessional Lutheran gnosticism," because, it was claimed, those men insisted on right doctrine, supposedly to the detriment of missions and evangelism.  The politicos who made such claims knew not the good people they accused, nor the things concerning which they made such confident assertions, but I find it particularly ironic in retrospect.

In the decades that have followed, I have frequently heard the arguments that the actual practice of worship is utterly neutral and of no real significance to the heart and soul of what we are about.  The Lutheran Confessions are thumped as loudly as ever they were in defense of right doctrine, in promotion of the popular theory, that rites and ceremonies are adiaphora, and are therefore up for grabs.

Over and over, I hear tell that, so long as we all agree on the same "doctrine," the differences in practice don't matter.  And, on the surface of such words, what can I possibly do but agree?  I recognize and affirm, as boldly and confidently as anyone, that the unity of the Church does not depend on uniformity in man-made rites and ceremonies; and that differences in adiaphorous traditions are not divisive to the Body of Christ.

The premise I cannot accept, but which I fear will bring great harm upon the fellowship of the Church on earth, is that her doctrine can be hermetically self-contained, inviolate and vital, in well-worn sound bites and in the hallowed pages of CPH publications.  Such a great treasure the Small Catechism is, Christ be praised for His mercy in preserving it among us these many years, and for granting us a renaissance in its actual use!  But the Catechism, and all doctrine, is to be prayed and practiced, not simply memorized and repeated.  The practice won't look quite the same in every place, but the practice actually matters, and it can be externally measured and evaluated because it is practiced in and with the body.

It is the body, first of all, that receives Holy Baptism for the cleansing of the conscience by faith.  It is the body that eats and drinks the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  It is the body that kneels at the Altar, where the penitent asks, "Dear pastor, please hear my confession, and grant me forgiveness in order to fulfill God's will."  It is the body also that rests in the Sabbath of Christ, in order to hear and receive the Word and work of the Lord in the external preaching and administration of the Gospel.  So, too, it is the body that gives voice to the Name of the Lord in prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and intercession.  And it is the body that loves the neighbor in his body and life with genuinely good works.

What I long for is not a lock-step uniformity in every jot and tittle of practice.  I don't believe that such a thing is either possible or desirable.  But it is a dangerous gnostic cancer to suppose that our Christian faith and life and fellowship can be summed up in slogans and dogmatic affirmations, while practice is meanwhile treated as a matter of strategy and style, of personal taste and creativity, of no account or consequence to our present confession or posterity.

When everything is left to depend on a word that hasn't become flesh, no matter whether it is a long or short word, demanding or lax, then we have let go of Christ and lost Him.

What I long for is reverence and awe in the presence of the Word who has become flesh, and a confession of His Gospel with both mind and spirit, with hearts and souls and voices, and with bodies of flesh and blood.  So that the God-given freedom of adiaphora will be understood and exercised as a freedom to worship the Father in the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the one true faith of His Body, crucified and risen, given and received.  Then, whether we bend the knee, or stand, or sit, and whatever it is our neighbor does with his or her body, we will not condemn or cast aspersions, but neither will we naively suppose that it doesn't matter.

Let each of us possess his own vessel in purity and honor, and worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness, and the whole earth tremble before Him, who alone does wondrous things and saves us by the great glory of His grace.

7 comments:

  1. Wow! This. Is. Sublime!

    Thanks, Fr. Stuckwisch!

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  2. "Then, whether we bend the knee, or stand, or sit, and whatever it is our neighbor does with his or her body, we will not condemn or cast aspersions, but neither will we naively suppose that it doesn't matter."

    Fr, Stuckwisch, Thanks for your most insightful post. My family had a Pastor that on his first Sunday administered Holy Communion and thought is was very thoughtful of the congregation to let those among us to let those of weak knees go first and stand at the altar. After the second or third table he realized that no one in the congregation knelt.

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    1. Interesting. Thanks for your comments, Cecil.

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  3. "It is the body also that rests in the Sabbath of Christ, in order to hear and receive the Word and work of the Lord in the external preaching and administration of the Gospel."

    Fr, Stuckwisch, "the external preaching and administration of the Gospel." Ah, does the "external ... administration of the Gospel" ah, do you mean by this the Sacraments as well as preaching of the Gospel?

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    1. Yes, that was my intent. Both preaching and hearing necessarily involve the body, and I've always been struck by Luther's emphasis on the external, even tangible character of the Word. It goes to the fact that, from the beginning, and fully realized in the Incarnation and Resurrection of our Lord Himself, human life as God intended is bodily. So, also, the Gospel is given and received in bodily ways and means, always by and with the external Word.

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  4. "Real Wisdom belongs, not to the raw intellectual mastery of data, facts and information, but to the fear of the Lord."

    This is most certainly true. Those who simply tweak the vocal cords into pronouncing "Lord, Lord," have no guarantees of a recognition by the presumed target of the mouthings.

    Lutherans talk of a servant-God truly coming to converse and commune with them, but do they show it? Do they "mission" it, and witness such, in their behaviors? What exactly is meant by the fear (i.e., reverencing) of Lord Christ ... who swears NOT to be locked up tight in a Calvinist heavenly box, or to be on a distant vacation from us, like the cut-throat priests of Ba'al publicly maintained.

    But how does the pious and believing Christian react to Christ's Presence? The angels in heaven cover their faces and their forms, with humbling wings. Elijah of old took pains to cloak himself, as he went out to encounter the still, small Voice. Lepers collapsed at the feet of their saving Physician, as they importuned Him.

    But we, collectively as a thinking people, are offended by cloaking ourselves with the sign of our Redemption, and generally view genuflecting to God as medieval flimflam. We discount practice as being missional, as witnessing with our whole bodies to God's reality; while proudly pointing instead to our snare drums and our riffs as evidence of our faithful feelings, but not to things we come into this world with ... like our knees, for example. Let us recall that the publican in the Temple prayed not with words alone, but with downcast eyes and a hand which smote. The Pharisee, in contrast, was quite giddy.

    Both Calvinists and Ba'alists exhibit proclivities to be noisy (eventually but inevitably), in celebrating their noisome conceptualizations of gods that are distant (and, need it be mentioned, false). Why we Lutherans choose ... choose! ... to engage in the antics of these chuckleheads, so as to call upon the name of a deity for help or ego-endorsement, is evidence of madness.

    Yes, practice matters. It's not but an adiaphoron, given the blighted spirituality of America today. It's missional, through and through.

    I'd like to echo Fr. Messer's sentiments, Fr. Stuckwisch. Well done, indeed.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor S.S.P.

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  5. Wisdom, indeed. Thank you, Pr. Stuckwisch.

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