Monday, December 15, 2008

Thoughts on an "Open Letter"?

Someone posted this as an "Open Letter" to "Blogging Pastors"

I read a lot of Lutheran blog sites. I particularly enjoy reading the blogs of Lutheran pastors, like yours. You teach me a lot and I learn a lot, from all of you. I always welcome your fraternal admonishment and correction where you believe I am in error or where I can improve what I'm saying.

It is in this spirit of mutual consolation and conversation of the brethren that I feel a need to offer this open letter and fraternal appeal.

It is of great concern to me that there are some of you who are using your blog sites to engage in what I would term "pious speculating."

Let me cite but one recent example: there is a conversation going on among a group of Lutheran pastors that are interested in preserving the historical liturgy, to the effect that because John the Baptist's birth is observed on the Christian calendar, this might allow a person to believe that John the Baptist was freed from original sin on this side of glory. Obviously, this is theological error, but the speculation is being indulged in on a Lutheran pastors' blog site and actually being encouraged. That's but one example.

Here then, dear colleagues, is the problem with all this "pious speculation", and I do wish and pray you would take this to heart. We are not in our seminary dorm rooms, or frat houses, but rather making comments on public blog sites. Therefore, it would be my fraternal and respectful advice that the "pious speculations" -- which, of course, in this case, are simply errors in doctrine, plainly and simply, be avoided.

Since the blogosphere is a public square and people actually form opinions about Lutherans from what they read, we who are pledged to Scripture and Confessions are not to be indulging in whims, fancies, and "pious speculations," enjoyable as it all may be when together with friends sharing a beer or two.

We are not liturgical or theological hobbyists, or theorists analyzing some body of assorted data. We should not be engaging in conversation that is more along the lines of interesting pastime, and unfounded musing for musing's sake. Rather, our blogging must conform itself to the pattern of sound words as it is provided for us in Scripture and as we confess it together in the Lutheran Confessions.

St. Paul admonishes us, in 2 Tim. 1:13: "Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus."

And our Lutheran Confessions, reflecting this Apostolic instruction, wisely note: "It is safe to hold fast both to “the pattern of the sound words” and to the pure doctrine itself. In this way, much unnecessary wrangling may be cut off and the Church preserved from many scandals." (FC SD IV.36).

Dear brothers, indulging in theorizing and speculating over matters about which Scripture and the Confessions are silent, or unclear, is unhelpful and potentially very harmful to the Church. What we might share in a private gathering of pastors, where we can be admonished, corrected, or counseled, privately among our peers, should not be put on public display on our blog sites. And we surely, none of us, would want to put ourselves in the position of speaking falsely and stirring up unnecessary wrangling and causing scandals.

Thank you for your efforts in the Lutheran blogosphere. And thank you for hearing me out as I express this word of concern and make this fraternal appeal to you. Verbum sapienti satis est.

Your fellow bond-servant of Christ,

I wanted to comment where it was posted (name and location withheld) but he turned off comments on this post, apparently. I won't address the troubling tone of his letter. But I will address what his understanding of Lutheranism--and the Christian faith--is.

He seems to think that the Book of Concord is the sole datum of Christian doctrine, as if it is the beginning and end of Lutheranism. He seems to think that speaking of other topics, speaking about the faith, wondering about the faith is useful only for passing the time in furtive, secret gatherings of pastors, which is troubling on too many levels. It drips with condescension and elitism. It implies that our doctrine is some kind of professionalism. It is alarming that he would be advocating a kind of mental compartmentalization among the clergy.

I'm curious what people think about this "open letter." Any takers?

8 comments :

  1. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    A valid point is made that given the office that a Pastor holds, there needs to be some caution about the promotion of personal and private theories. . . if I say something that is my private opinion, people may assume that it is official doctrine. Thus, some care should be taken in the airing of personal theories.

    However, that being said, pastors shouldn't be Concordo-bots either. We should be free to discuss - just let us be open with saying whether something is a matter of traditional Lutheran opinion or whether it goes beyond what Scripture is clear on.

    And example - Sunday morning in bible study we were talking about Melchizedek in Genesis. I brought forward the theory (held by Luther) that Melchizedek was actually Shem. And we discussed it. . . as a theory.

    People are smart - they know the difference between things we can say conclusively on the basis of Scripture and things that are just theories. . . and if they can't, then their pastors (confessional or not) have failed in instructing them.

  2. orrologion said...

    I am not Lutheran and I am not a clergyman, but I try to be mindful of what I post since I am ordained to minor orders in the Orthodox Church and my comments would reflect on the Rector and Dean of my parish - the Metropolitan of the OCA and my spiritual father, respectively. I'm sure I have failed them.

    So, I believe there is some aspect to blogging that is public and tied to one's calling or office.

    Where to draw the line is the question. A friend and I discussed some of the same questions as we thought through starting an online, Orthodox blog with multiple contributing authors. We through out the idea of every contributor posting pseudonymously to protect authorial and/or journalistic integrity in an Orthodoxy that can be rather authoritarian and obedience demanding - especially for clergy involved.

    Pr. McCain would seem to want to make blogging an extension of one's public ministry - an addendum to the sermon, an more informal electronic outreach, a reflection on the ministerium in a way similar to how one behaves or speaks in public, non-church settings. I'm not sure this is wrong and shouldn't be discounted.

    However, I think there are some dangers to such a stance.

    First, leaving theological discussion and speculation regarding 'tough' or disputed questions is left to private or Winkle conversations alone, is to invite accusations and gossip regarding 'those' pastors. All sorts of rumors will likely arise.

    Second, side-stepping or ignoring difficult questions in ministry is a dangerous precedent given the real moral and theological challenges to Christianity today. Such minimalism is what lead to the publishing of "The Fundamentals" in the 20th Century and to the minimalized 'altar call' religiosity of Evnagelicalism. This is especially true when agreeing to self-censor on topics that Luther and the Lutheran Fathers, and the Book of Concord raise or hint at.

    Third, such a call is not far from a call to 'tow the party line' and 'not rock the boat'. I'm not sure that such an argument worked on either Luther or Walter, it was definitely not something followed during the Seminex crisis, and I'm not sure it is in line with Christian witness and the responsibilities of the ministry. Of course, deference and the benefit of the doubt should always be given to those in authority, our elders and mentors, etc., but at some point a stand must be taken - and stands can't be taken if questions are never asked to begin with.

    Fourth, if one believes in a priesthood of all believers, such discussion of difficult questions should not be reserved for the 'perfect' or 'elect' ministerium - or theological faculty. If such had been the case in the 70s, the LCMS would look very different today - it likely would be a part of the ELCA.

    Fifth, restricting theological discussion to official organs, official officeholders, etc. helps to ghettoize Christianity, or one's corner of Christianity. It doesn't allow a cultural, lay outlet for religion to effect worldview. For instance, Pr. Alms posts on rock 'n roll help to promote a healthy, Lutheran perspective on popular musical forms - forms considered 'satanic' not all that long ago in Christian circles. Discussions regarding politics fall into a similar category - blogs allow ministers and laity to discuss their religious beliefs and how this effects their vote.

    All that being said, blogging is a new medium and care must be taken in how that medium is used. Not every blog or blogger is appropriate for every question. Such questions are in print and available to the public, but Gottesdiest, a theological journal and a parish newsletter are very different mileus to be airing questions and disagreements. Not all Christians are ready for solid food. This must be taken into account when blogging. Policies regarding Comments, post topics, who can view the blog, etc. may be a part of the answer. Each outlet must decide for itself what sort of a blog it wants to be - a forum, a public diary, an opinion column, a slice-of-life cloumn, a record of sermons, addendums to sermons, reflections on particular topics, etc. Pr. McCain seems to be arguing for a rather limited use of blogs, but his warning regarding the public nature of blogging is important - especially when non-Lutheran yahoos like me are allowed to post wherever I like thus negating the pure 'Lutheran-ness' of any blog conversation I join in, which is a kind of blog that may or may not be appropriate for a Lutheran pastor to host.

  3. Father Hollywood said...

    A agree with you, Christopher. We left the tyranny of the pope in the sixteenth century to avoid the pompousity and arrogance of church bureaucrats who want to tell us what to think about topics that are not clear-cut in Scripture - who thus led the church into false doctrine and away from the Gospel.

    The Lutheran "problem" with the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, for example, is not with the speculation that Mary may have been conceived in an exceptional way without original sin (which Luther believed his whole life, and which Lutherans are free to believe or not believe), the problem lies when churchmen overstep their authority and dogmatize that which is not dogmatized by the word of God.

    Thus the papal pronouncement of the Immaculate Conception as an ex cathedra non-discussable dogma, and the similar ex cathedra non-discussable (comments turned off) protests of Protestants against even discussing such speculative issues and the condemnation of such discussion as "false teaching" are both equally repugnant and arrogant.

    Both cases hold the office of the parish pastor and the office of the laity in contempt - believing us both to be stupid and incapable of thought. And it is a blessing that such people in the LCMS don't have any real power - for history teaches us what happens with you combine the desire to control others with the ability to enforce it.

    We are free to believe such "pious speculations" or not. We are not free to bind consciences where Scripture is silent.

    Inside many a church bureaucrat is a little pope struggling to get out.

    The pastoral art of dealing with church bureaucrats is deciding when to pound them down like the whack-a-mole game versus when to simply ignore them and rob them of the attention they thrive on.

  4. Chris Jones said...

    First of all, I agree with Reader Christopher's judicious and balanced comments -- far more balanced than I would have been had I commented before him. My only quibble with Chris is his claim not to be a clergyman. When I was tonsured a reader I was told in no uncertain terms that I was now a cleric (albeit a minor cleric) and should conduct myself in a manner befitting a cleric. I am sure that not all of my comments in the blogosphere meet that standard.

    ISTM that Pr McCain is making a rather facile identification between St Paul's "pattern of sound words" and the 1580 Book of Concord -- almost as if St Paul's phrase was a prophecy of which the Concordia is the fulfillment. But the υποτυπωσιν υγιαινοντων λογων that St Paul spoke of cannot be a stock formula incapable of extension or refinement, or else the Church would never have been able to deal with error by adopting new dogmatic definitions at Nicaea, Ephesus, or Chalcedon -- nor, not to put too fine a point on it, at Augsburg. Whatever particular υποτυπωσιν St Paul was referring to would have been set in stone, never to be touched even though it were incapable of excluding Arius, Nestorius, or Eutyches.

    So by all means let us (clergy and laity alike) be circumspect in our public comments, entirely loyal to the tradition that we have received and the confessions that we have made. But at the same time let us not treat those confessions as having put an end to all intellectual and spiritual engagement and struggle with our faith. Had our Lutheran fathers had such an attitude towards "settled" doctrine and practice, we should never have had Lutheran fathers at all.

  5. orrologion said...

    Chris's "quibble" is correct, of course. I meant only to point out the fact that my responsibility before God and my superiors is of a different sort than those 'professional' ministers who hold responsibility for a flock and more publicly represent their church.

    So, while I often forget that my ordination as a Reader blesses me to read, not to talk (or write), my ordination does not carry with it daily, direct responsibility for souls entrusted to my care. Pastors, bishops and priests cary that sort of responsibility, so their reflection on 'how' or 'whether' to blog is of a different sort - if they use their real names.

  6. revalkorn said...

    As one who has been burned by the content of his own weblog--though not for heresy--I can tell you that, no matter what you write, not everyone who reads what you write is going to agree with what you write.

    When pastors get together, they talk about a lot of things, and one of them is theology. When a pastor tells jokes, he tells jokes about a lot of things, and one of them is theology. When a pastor has a hobby, he has many to choose from, and one of them is theology. Not that theology is merely a hobby, but one can think about things in one's spare time that aren't necessarily . . . canonical.

    It's your blog. Write what you want. If you feel it's necessary, post a disclaimer. Unless your blog is an official document of the congregation you serve, use your blog as you would like, even if it includes pious speculation. Better to get it out in your blog rather than your Sunday sermon.

  7. masonbeecroft said...

    No synodical stability without pastoral stability.
    In the name of the Ford,
    The Controller

  8. Pastor Sharp said...

    "Physician, heal thyself" comes to mind for me.

    My personal rule is not to say anything I wouldn't say in the context of a church meeting or Bible study or something. If that's not good enough for the Self-Appointed Dean of Lutheran Bloggers, so be it.