Over the past week or so there has been some quite lively debate on the Lutheran interweb. While I didn’t put my paddle in the water, nor is this an attempt to do so, I was quite moved and actually disheartened by most of the rhetoric that I saw. What moved me the most was the fact that I have many friends and acquaintances that are on the varying sides of the issue.
Several weeks ago my friend, Jon, wrote a blog post outlining what I’m sure most of us experience when we undertake the theological task, namely, we try and beat people with our theology, with our theological acumen, with our skill as an arguer, or what-have-you. We cease to engage theology for what it really is, that is, what God speaks concerning Himself and His redeeming, justifying action in the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. We make theology into our own tool to beat our neighbor, our theology becomes about us.
When we see the rhetoric in politics and our culture, the pervasive tool is demonizing. We demonize our opponents. We label them. We fit them in a box. We build that box, write that label, and place our neighbor in it, whether he actually fits there or not. When this labeling is done, it is so very easy to dismiss our neighbor. We don’t have to listen to them, engage their argument, or even really think about our own position in relation to theirs. We are disingenuous. We label, dismiss, “rebut”, and move on. We then claim victory, and how stupid, uninformed, or irrational our opponent has been, whether they’re actually an opponent or not.
This culture, this type of rhetoric and argumentation has entered our theological rhetoric. This is not good, though, in some sense, unavoidable. Why? Because theology is inherently reactionary. Before the days of Facebook, blogs, text messages, and email, reactions took a long time to come to light. They were thought out. They had to be. Now our reactions are faster than ever. If you have FIOS internet, even faster! We’re passionate about our positions. Who wouldn’t be? But in the blazing speed of our era we must still think, reflect, and diagnose with care lest we fall off the horse on the other side.
Surely there is a desire to follow Luther’s thesis: “A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is,” i.e., to call a spade a spade. This is not license to be a jerk. Nor should we be so quick to add such men to our “cause” since what Luther says is not doctrine, nor is what Chemnitz says, nor Gerhard, Walther, or any other theologian we can think of. Doctrine is confessed in the Confessions. The former are the Doctors of the Church and we are thankful for they’re instruction, but they do not supersede the Confessions or Scripture; they do not trump them. They can help us understand what is confessed in the Confessions, but doctrine is truly and only confessed in the Confessions, which themselves are only the exposition of Scripture.
What can we do? I do all the same things I’m talking about. In some sense, I’m doing it now, but I’m willing to engage and ask the question, “Do you really fit in that box that I’ve put you in?” (Well, most of the time I do….maybe….on a really good day.) What we need to do is repent. We need to repent of our own pride, our wanting to win the argument, our flexing our own theological muscle. Christ has already won. Christ has redeemed you, me, and, yes, even our “opponents”.
When it came to the whole “[s/S]anctification” debacle online, there was lots of the above going on. I was even doing it in my own mind as I was reading. We need to remember that our opponents are Christians, our own brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, whom Christ has baptized, with whom we are united in His body and blood, with whom we are united in the Confession of faith, and even united in a Synod.
The issue isn’t as cut and dry as we like to think it is. Which is why in a lot of ways our argumentation—mine included—is very unfruitful, unhelpful, unevangelical, and, in many ways, absolutely ridiculous. How can you claim to have a straight flush when you only have 2 cards? How well does a wagon wheel work with only one or two spokes? The whole discussion of “[s/S]anctification]” revolves around many different articles of faith, i.e., around the varying ways that Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions speak.
If you see someone who wants to talk about “[s/S]anctification,” how helpful is it to claim that they are a legalist, wanting to save/justify themselves? Could it be true? Maybe. But to a priori label them as such, is not helpful. Likewise, if you see someone who is wary of talking about “[s/S]anctification]” out of fear of producing pharisees, running things in the way of the Law, or making the Law the final word of God, is it helpful to say they are an “antinomian?” What does that accomplish? Here are only two factions! When the various sides only argue one point out of many, it is indeed difficult to have a discussion.
Definitions and distinctions are important, but just because you talk about one facet doesn’t mean you’ve got the whole thing: you may grab the tail, but lose the salamander. The whole “[s/S]anctification]” debate revolves around: the distinction between Sanctification (Christ is ours) and sanctification (works that follow justification, flowing from faith not the Law); maintaining the simul (not only the peccator but also the justus, cf. Rom. 7–8); the proper distinction between Law and Gospel (SD V); the Third Use of the Law (SD VI); original sin (before and after baptism); whence good works flow (AC VI); that we are justified gratis propter Christum (AC IV); and I’m sure I’m missing a few others.
When we engage in our theological discussions, we ought to remember that theology revolves properly around confessing “man the sinner, and the God who justifies” (homo peccator, Deus iustificans). It’s easy to understand what error our opponents are attempting to protect against, and instead of demonizing and dismissing the concern we, explaining everything in the kindest way and bearing with one another in love, should bring our concerns.
Theology is not about who wins and loses. It is about confessing Christ and Him crucified for sinners. It’s about proclaiming the Gospel, preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Theology is about confessing what God speaks and what God does for you, in you, and through you. We receive Theology in the Word of Holy Scripture. We receive it in the Lutheran Confessions. Theology is not the best, pithiest, or wittiest status update or comment you can come up with. Theology is a gift given to us by Christ Himself. Let us not abuse it for our own power grab, our own prideful wants, nor use it as the club to beat our neighbor with.
In spite of all our selfish endeavors Christ’s still speaks His Word. It still does what it is meant to do. His Word does not return void, but His proper Word, His theology, given to His Church to proclaim, forgives sinners—you and I included!