Friday, August 30, 2013

The Brady Bunch, the Book of Concord, and a Paternal Postscript

By Larry Beane

As addressed definitively by Father Curtis in a previous post, our Lord's words in Matt 23:9-10 are often used by Protestants to decry the "Roman Catholic" custom of calling their pastors "Father."  Fr. Curtis addressed the biblical passages that conflict with that peculiar minority view found in modern American Protestant Christianity that vociferously attacks the "Father" custom.

I offer the following as a sort of PS, as the issue keeps popping up like the proverbial Whack-A-Mole carnival game.  The argument hinges on the question of our Lord's context.  Is this passage to be interpreted literally ("this is my body") or figuratively ("if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out")?  An episode of The Brady Bunch revolved around this kind of thing when Greg, seeking to work around being grounded, parsed his parents' decree by invoking "exact words" - knowing full well what the intent was.  Let's just say that Greg's hermeneutic did not get him closer to truth and the dishonesty rather complicated matters.

Regarding the assumption that the "father" custom is "Roman Catholic, there is a gap between perception and reality.  For the ancient custom is not only practiced by Roman Catholics, but also by Eastern Orthodox Christians, many Anglicans worldwide, and numerous Lutherans in diverse countries around the world, and to a lesser extent, in the United States.  Moreover, it is also practiced by Protestants and Lutherans when they refer to Roman Catholic clergymen by the title "Father."  If our Lord's words are intended to be taken literally, a Protestant Christian should never refer to a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Lutheran pastor as "Father" - for the Lord's "exact words" (thank you, Greg Brady!) are "call no man father."

The "calling" is contrary to our Lord's words as well as the "being called."

And the Lord says "call no man," which would include our earthly fathers, church fathers, founding fathers, step-fathers, city fathers, grandfathers, etc.  If the Lord is being literal here, we must come up with a different name for "Father's Day."  Or, to invoke Greg Brady yet again in another episode, maybe teenagers, in order to be consistent with the Lord's command, should amble to the breakfast table in their shades and address their parents as "Mike" and "Carol."  Let's just say the Brady parents did not approve of this innovative custom of protest, disrespectful of tradition and authority.

Some objectors to pastors being called "father" argue that the Lord's words "call no man father" does not apply to our bio-dads - only to our fathers in the spiritual sense, such as pastors.  In so doing, such people are arguing that the Lord's words are literal in some cases, but figurative in other cases; that "call" is literal while "no man" is figurative - at very least, in some cases, but not others.  They parse the metaphor to not include some fathers, but to include other fathers.  It's all very confusing.

Many pastors (as well as ordained men not serving as pastors) are also "instuctors" ("neither be called instructors" v. 10) - whether they are teachers at parochial schools, universities, or seminaries.  The title "instructor" (as the ESV renders καθηγητής) must include the many titles we have for instructors, such as "Professor" and "Doctor."  Yet I have yet to hear anyone offended by this common practice, refer to it as sinful, or interpret the Lord's words to be a literal prohibition against calling men, ordained or lay, "Doctor" or "Professor."

Thus the argument, hacked at haphazardly by Occam's razor, runs like this:
  • Calling your biological, well, um, father, by the names "Father," "Dad," Pop," "Papa," etc. is okay.  
  • Calling your doctor "Doctor" is okay.  
  • Calling your ordained professor "Reverend Doctor" is okay.  
  • Referring to the Bishop of Rome as "the Pope" (which is an Anglicized form of the Latin/Italian title "Papa") is okay.  
  • But calling your spiritual, um, father, "Father" is one of the few linguistic prohibitions ever given us by our blessed Lord.
Moreover, if it is sinful to apply the title "father" to religious leaders, then St. Stephen committed this sin against our Lord just before being stoned to death by the men he called "fathers" by means as spiritual address, not to mention the Holy Spirit's ill-conceived judgment in allowing this in the inspired Scriptures (Acts 7:2).

But what of our Lutheran confessions?  Surely, calling clergymen "Father," from the parish priest to the Pope (which again means "Father"), was a common practice at the time of the Reformation.  Lutherans based their doctrine and practice on scripture - which certainly includes Matt 23.  Luther did not shy away from making reforms in doctrine and practice that were contrary to our Lord's words.  In fact, he was himself referred to as "Father Martin" as an ordained priest in a monastic order.  One would expect that after the Reformation, his title suddenly became "Pastor Luther."  Even "Doctor" would have been discarded if Luther interpreted Matt 23:9-10 in such as way as to gainsay the use of the honorific "Reverend Father" among Christian clergy.

Well, let's see what the Lutheran Confessions say.

Matt 23:9-10 never appears in the Book of Concord.  Not once.

In fact, the Lutheran confessions do not accept this supposed dominical prohibition of the title "Father," but they actually make use of it.
  • In the subscriptions to the Smalcald Articles, one of the signatories, Brixius Northanus, refers to the Smalcald Articles as "the Articles of the Reverend Father Martin Luther" ("articulis reverendi Patris M. Lutheri") - SA 3:15:27.
  • In the subscriptions to the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the title of the treatise itself violates Matt 23:9-10 if our Lord is speaking literally), we find the signature of John Brentz, who makes a statement of assent to the articles with a reference to "Dr. John Bugenhgen, most revered Father in Christ" ("D. Iohannes Bugenhagi, Pater in Christo observandi") - Tr - Subscriptions.  In this case, the "offense" is doubled by using both "Father" and "Doctor" as titles of address.  "Doctor" as a title is spread liberally throughout the subscriptions.  If these were seen as inappropriate usages, one could not find a hint of support from the Book of Concord.
  • The Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration) includes this reference: "Therefore also our dear fathers and predecessors, as Lutheran and other pure teachers of the Augsburg Confession..." ("Derhalben auch unsere lieben Väter und Vorfahren, als Lutherus und andere reine Lehrer Augsburglicher Konfession..." / "Quare patres et pii maiores nostri, D. Lutherus et alii sinceri doctores Augustanae Confessionibus...") FC SD 7:58.  This passage uses both "fathers" and "teachers" in a way that those citing Matt 23:9-10 in a literal way ought to disapprove of.
  • Martin Luther is also referred to as "doctor" and "teacher" in the Solid Declaration: "Dr. Luther as the leading teacher of the Augsburg Confession..." ("D. Luthers, as die vornehmsten Lehrers der Augsburgischen Konfession" / "D. Lutheri ut primarii doctoris Augustanae Confessionis") FC SD 7:34.
  • And it goes without saying that the bishop of Rome is referred to as "the Pope" in the Book of Concord: more than 120 times!
So either the literal interpretation of Matt 23:9-10 is wrong or the Book of Concord is in error.

We are all - spiritual fathers and spiritual children alike - guilty of quite enough real sins that we really don't need to be condemned further, accused of sinning against made-made rules under the guise of innovative Protestant customs rooted in bad hermeneutics and in ignorance of what the Book of Concord contains and of what the Lutheran fathers confessed and practiced.

In the end, Greg Brady learned the foolishness of playing the "exact words" hermeneutical game when it suited his selfish ends to reinterpret an obvious meaning within an obvious context.  Some of our Lutheran brethren have not learned this lesson.  


  1. And let us not forget the passage in 1 Corinthians 4, where Paul speaks of having become "your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" -
    or the passage in the Large Catechism's explanation to the Fourth Commandment, where Luther writes about those who govern and guide by the Gospel as spiritual fathers, and about the need for this truth about spiritual fatherhood to be taught to the people.

  2. This intriguing excerpt, below, is lifted from the "Life of Luther (With Several Introductory and Concluding Chapters from General Church History)," authored by one Gustav Just, and published by one Concordia Publishing House of St. Louis, Mo. (1903), p. 94. It's an altogether splendid little book; it speaks to what many if not all little Missourian Lutherans knew once upon a time, including stuff about the persecutions under the hands of Nero, Decius and Diocletian (p. 8-10), and the lives of Ss. Ignatius (p.10,12), Polycarp (p.12-13), and Perpetua (p. 13-14). The emboldened emphasis is mine:

    Dr. Jonas called into [the dying Martin Luther's] ear, "Reverend father, are you firmly determined to die upon Christ and the doctrine you have preached?" Loud and distinctly Luther answered "Yes!" Having said this he turned upon his side and fell asleep, saved in the faith of his Redeemer, on the 18th of February, 1546, between two and three o'clock in the morning.

    Comment from 110 years after the publication of Just's "Life of Luther:" The blessed Dr. Luther appears to have certainly had his chance to join with the rascally, whacked-out moles amongst our community of Augustana ... the ranting rascals who mangle and distort Mt 23; but with his last dying breath, he chose not to do so.

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


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