23 June 2007

Lutherans to Juxtapose Lutheranism & Orthodoxy

The Augustana Ministerium announces that, at its Second Annual Theological Conference and Plenary Session, it "will address two important areas that need discussion and clarification in our midst. The first is to put Eastern Orthodoxy into focus vis-à-vis Confessional Lutheranism." The second area will be a discussion on Sanctification.

This society includes many good friends who were "comrades in arms" during my years as a Lutheran pastor. Most would identify themselves as either "confessional Lutherans" or "evangelical catholics"--or both. Their desire, simply put, is to maintain within their own local communities or parishes the historic understanding of Lutheran theology and practice, and to strive for extending their influence into larger Lutheranism. For most, this includes embracing the patristic and liturgical roots of Lutheranism. However, from this side, I would say that these friends often embrace these roots with a view toward interpreting the texts within a peculiar Lutheran tradition (peculiar because it is both peculiar to the context of the patristic and liturgical texts, and embraces a hermeneutic peculiar to modern Lutheranism).

What interests me about the Ministerium's upcoming Theological Conference is that they propose to juxtapose Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran teachings. (The language suggests a legal proceeding: "EO vs. confessional Lutheranism on Original Sin; on Justification; on Sanctification/Theosis.")

Now I firmly contend that it is within the purview of any denomination or theological society to describe and distinguish their teachings "vis-à-vis" or in juxtaposition to another that they determine to be in error. And sometimes this can be done for no other end than bolstering the faithful. (Preaching to the choir can be salutary, especially when the choir needs to improve!)

However, it is my hope and prayer that those who facilitate and those who comment do the hard work of understanding and fairly presenting the Orthodox ("other") perspective. This hard work begins with eschewing straw men, caricatures and rumors; and continues by comparing apples with apples (i.e., not some local Orthodox priest with a Lutheran dogmatic text; or an Orthodox theologian with a confessional standard). But most of all, understanding and fairly presenting the Orthodox perspective means (a) understanding the true context from which Orthodoxy speaks; and (b) understanding that the Orthodox confessional standard is of a different sort than the Lutheran standard.

In short, these two shibboleths ought to be avoided:

(1) seeing the Orthodox liturgical texts as no different for Orthodox clergy and laity as Lutheran liturgical texts are for Lutheran clergy and laity (i.e., man-made compositions open, under certain conditions, to wholesale change)

(2) refusing to acknowledge that Lutheranism, as much as Orthodoxy, admits to reading the Scriptures through the lens of a particular tradition (i.e., no "we oppose Tradition trumping Scripture" while waving the 1580 Book of Concord)

Above all, I shall pray for my former comrades in arms, whom I still upright and godly friends. I shall pray that they discuss, compare and contrast Lutheran and Orthodox teachings with a fair, honest and good heart.


Rev. Benjamin Harju said...

Fr. John,

The subject of your post immediately made me shudder. It's not that I don't want to compare Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. It's just that usually when someone organizes a conference around comparative religion, you end up with too many ignorant caricatures and hasty conclusions.

Eastern Orthodoxy just doesn't operate the same way Lutheranism does. I'm instinctively flinching, as if I can see a train-wreck coming, but can't do anything to stop it.

I'm wondering who among the Ministerium is going to be so bold as to claim they understand Eastern Orthodoxy well enough to juxtapose it with Lutheranism.

From watching your departure from Lutheranism over the past three years, and the hullabaloo over your conversion, I personally don't expect Lutherans in this country to be able to carry on a meaningful juxtaposition. I'm not trying to be nasty, but I just don't think most of us Lutherans have done the necessary work.

I can only hope that if they intend to juxtapose Lutheranism and Orthodoxy, that they'll at least have the courtesy of inviting an informed Orthodox spokesperson to help the Lutherans in their endeavor.

But perhaps they're worried that if they bring an Orthodox person in to talk, he or she might effect a mass-conversion, and then the Augustana Ministerium will turn into a cruise ship sailing eastward over the Bosporus (just kidding).

Schütz said...

Top post, Father. What you say goes for dialogue with anyone. You've got to wonder when a discussion between two points of view is advertised with a "vs." in between. Sort of sets up the discussion right away as being one of opposition rather than a question of entering into understanding one another.

And what you say about the "peculiar" Lutheran tradition and hermeneutic is also true. One does not realise just how peculiar it is until one sees it at work from the outside. The 16th Century paradigms are presumed from the outset and then the Fathers are read through these paradigms. The results are definitely (and infuriatingly) intriguing.

I'm going to blog on my own page about the relationship between "confessional" and "evangelical catholic" Lutherans, because I think that raises some very interesting questions. Incidentally, were you "evangelical catholic", or did you invent a new category of "evangelical orthodox" while you were a Lutheran? :-)

Fr BFE said...

This Augustana Ministerium, of which I admit to being a member--indeed some of my own ideas went into its formation--remains something of an oddity, even to me; by which I mean in part that I am not at all convinced that it will ever measure up to the high standards it has set for itself. At the same time, it has already accomplished, in a small way, the end of being supportive to clergymen who are assailed for all the wrong reasons. I had not heard of its planned conference topic, but I am not really surprised. For many among us you remain the elephant in the room. But I believe you may consider this a back-handed compliment. The respect you garnered among Lutherans while you were Lutheran is now comparable to the angst you seem to have generated by your departure.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Pr Harju,

Thanks for your comments; please forgive my tardy reply.

For the record, I'm sure there are Lutherans who understand Orthodoxy well enough to juxtapose it with Lutheranism. For that reason, I do not think it requisite that an Orthodox person be present to present Orthodoxy fairly.

However, a "vs" mentality suggests that (a) they won't be presenting at the conference and (b) the goal won't be presenting Orthodoxy fairly but according to some misconception.

Fr John W Fenton said...


Thanks for your comment; please forgive my delayed reply.

In former times, I categorized myself variously as evangelical-catholic and confessional Lutheran. At times I even attempted to stack up as many adjectives as possible! Near the end, I saw the folly of this and eschewed such things.

As for new categories, I'll leave that to others to judge. :)

Fr John W Fenton said...

Fr Eckardt,

I know I've gained weight--but elephant! :)

Seriously, I am pleased to hear that the Ministerium "has already accomplished, in a small way, the end of being supportive to clergymen who are assailed for all the wrong reasons." Mercy requires aiding those who are unjustly maligned or mistreated.

Rev. Benjamin Harju said...

Fr. John,

(Pardon my own tardy reply)

I remember an adjective or two that trailed on your long list. FWIW, you'll always be Father CODfish to me.

(if anyone is dying to ask out there, don't; it's not worth it)

In Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Harju