Friday, November 17, 2006

Getting Personal

[When I began this blog I set out several goals. First, it would not be simply personal and subjective. Second, I would attempt to address concerns beyond the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheranism in general while maintaining a Lutheran voice. Third, I would update the blog weekly, giving readers a reason to return. There were other goals, but it seems pointless to mention them because this article begins on a personal note, will probably be of little interest to anyone outside the LCMS (if even there), and is late. I will reform. The goals remain. For now, dear readers, you have the following.]

The Reverend John Fenton has been a good friend of mine for almost two decades. When I hit some deeply dark times Pastor Fenton helped my family and me. Despite our differences in age (he is the younger) and many differences in outlook (he actually admires Richard Nixon), he was generous with his help and effective. The differences between us cannot be over-emphasized. With many others, I learned a great deal from Fr. Fenton about the liturgy. However, even on this we had our differences. Nevertheless, the differences did not matter when I was down for the count. He was there for me and for my family. I will breathe my last breath in his debt.

So it was with great sadness that I received the news that the Reverend John Fenton has renounced the Confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, resigned from the roster of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and would be joining the communion of the Eastern Orthodox. We will no longer share the same faith.

John’s progress to the East has been evident for some time. He has been honest with us. He has published and circulated his sermons via the Internet. He has written extensively concerning the liturgy and its importance for the confession of the Faith. He has engaged his friends and those who are a whole lot less than friends in his struggle with what it means to be a faithful Christian.

I know several of his friends who have warned him and rebuked him when he went beyond what the Evangelical-Lutheran Confessions teach. I have also been concerned and have communicated with him on this matter. I must confess I did not do this as frequently as I should have or as thoroughly. To my shame, I must admit that I did not come to my friend’s aid as he had done for me. I have my excuses, which may prevail before men. God will not be impressed. May the Lord forgive me.

John has made his decision. He is in error. I do not doubt that he made his decision after great spiritual turmoil. He has participated in the Missouri Synod to the fullest, never shy on sharing his views with his district supervisors and even serving on a committee for the new hymnal. There were several instances of great trial for him in the Synod. Only the Lord can distinguish when he suffered as the consequence of his own sin from when he suffered because of the sin of others.

In the end, however, based on his own statements, it must be concluded that John’s renunciation of the faith confessed in the Confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church comes from his own weakness of faith. He seeks a visible Church that does not exist. Neither Scripture nor the Confessions support his ecclesiology. Many, including myself, can sympathize with much of his criticism of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Unlike St. Paul, however, his great learning has led him to a solution that is indeed mad.

I have every reason to hold that the Lord will be merciful to my friend John, even as He forgives as great a sinner as me. Still, I am saddened, personally, that he has made this choice, and grieved for what this portends for the liturgical and pastoral practice for which he was a strong advocate.


John Fenton was not a politician in the politically driven Missouri Synod. That was both his great strength and great weakness. It was a strength because in the Synod of bureaucrats and politicians there is a pronounced need for theologians. It was a weakness because in this political environment of the Synod he could brook little compromise. As the publication of the new hymnal demonstrates, compromise is the order of the day in the Synod.

So it comes as no surprise that we have a vitriolic and uncharitable denunciation of John’s resignation from a Synod bureaucrat.

The Reverend Paul T. McCain has published his “An Act of Treason, Dishonesty, and Sin” in the blogosphere. It is an all too typical Missouri Synod screed. McCain demonstrates that he does not have the slightest understanding of Fr. Fenton’s complaint against the Missouri Synod.

“Fenton’s renunciation of his ordination vows, and confirmation vows, is nothing less than an act of treason against our Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel, purely taught and preached,” McCain writes.

Please note, John has not become a Buddhist. As for the Gospel purely taught and preached, that is what John fails to find in the Missouri Synod and (wrongly) seeks among the Orthodox. What we have here is an example of a Pharisee who fails to understand he has a plank in his own eye even as he seeks to scrape the splinter out of the eye of his opponent.

“Smells and bells, chalices and chausables, chanting and prancing, rubrics and genuflections all have their proper place,” McCain continues. Note “smells and bells” is derogatory and “prancing” never has a proper place in the reverent conduct of the Liturgy. By his dismissive word choice McCain demonstrates that he has little understanding of the importance of sound liturgics for the benefit of God’s people. It is what can be expected from someone who has spent the vast majority of his Synod career behind a bureaucrat’s desk rather than before a parish altar.

“Beautiful liturgy is no replacement for beautiful doctrine.” To which we respond, “show us beautiful doctrine and we will show you beautiful liturgy.” Liturgy and doctrine are not the same, but what McCain is oblivious of is that liturgy and doctrine cannot be divorced.

Many years ago, Fr. Fenton and I visited an historic Missouri Synod church together. The long sermon was centered on the importance of the divine inspiration of Scripture. When it came time for the Sacrament, the pastor seemingly had decided that the service was going too long. He rushed through the Verba, contrary to the expressed teaching of the Confessions. (In 1998 Fr. Fenton published an article pointing out that the Formula of Concord, Article VII, line 79, is a rubric. The Formula there states that the Words of Institution “should be spoken or sung distinctly and clearly.”)

It was hard not to conclude from this pastor’s conduct that Missouri Synod Lutherans were not saved by grace through faith in our risen Lord and Savior, but because they were smarter than others about the right doctrine of Scripture. His lack of reverence at the altar did not reflect well upon the doctrine of the real presence. Examples like this can be multiplied and are a source of offence to anyone who, like John Fenton, think that doctrine should be reflected in practice.

McCain does not have to bother himself about “beautiful doctrine.” He accuses Fr. Fenton of dishonesty and fiscal malfeasance. And, again, typical in the Missouri Synod, he has an anonymous source as the basis of a personal attack.

This is too much. Paul McCain’s dishonesty is a matter of public record, no anonymous source needed. He is the editor of the most dishonest edition of the Book of Concord ever published in the English language. He was forced to stop publication of the first edition because of his duplicitous editorial tampering and issue a fifteen-page booklet of corrections. The unfortunate thing is that the booklet only proves that the handsome volume is completely unreliable for any serious study. I would also argue that the provided corrections are incomplete. And, of course, there is fiscal impropriety in accepting money for a deficient product.


John Fenton has decided that Lutheran doctrine is deficient. He is wrong in this. However, he is on moral high ground to follow his conscience rather than continue in the LCMS. He certainly deserves more respect than those who remain in the Synod and explicitly teach that Lutheranism is deficient and needs to be supplemented by American Protestantism’s Church Growth theology. Paul McCain is no advocate of Church Growth, but he happily promotes the new LCMS hymnal that owes much to this theology.

John Fenton bears full responsibility for his decision. He has failed to understand that the Church is hidden. Nevertheless, there are those in the Synod who use the “hiddenness” of the Church to hide from their responsibility to confess the Faith and suffer under the cross.

Temptations must come, but it is a matter for repentance when temptations are surrendered to, causing one of the Lord’s little ones to fall.

Lord have mercy on us all.

Weariness of the Flesh

The second edition of Ancient Facts and Fictions Concerning Churches and Tithes, by Roundell, Earl of Selborne (author of A Defence of the Church of England Against Disestablishment), with a supplement containing remarks of a recent history of tithes, was published in London by Macmillan and Company in 1892. I know this because I own a copy. The one-hundred-and fourteen-year-old copy that I own has never been read. Not by anyone. Ever. In one hundred and fourteen years.

I know this book has never been read because the pages have not been cut apart. Consult an antiquarian book collector for the facts, but I believe the practice was to print at least eight pages on one large sheet, fold the sheet and bind it with other sheets so printed and folded. The reader would take his penknife and cut them apart as his reading progressed.

No one has made any progress through my copy of the Earl of Selborne’s Ancient Facts and Fictions etc. in one hundred and fourteen years. My copy is the old maid of my library, an ancient virginal icon of the words of Ecclesiastes, “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

I own over a thousand books and do not understand the Preacher to be an anti-intellectual. Rather, the Preacher and the Earl together give a prudent admonition, the former explicitly and the latter inadvertently. The love of hardbound knowledge can go too far. There are books that one simply does not need. There have been many times when I have been tempted to buy a book and have conquered temptation by remembering Ancient Facts and Fictions Concerning Churches and Tithes. Even so, I have not thought of the Earl of Selborne’s volume as often as my long-suffering wife would like, but more often than she knows.

Which brings us to Worship, Gottesdienst, Cultus Dei, What the Lutheran Confessions Say about Worship, edited by James L. Brauer (Concordia Publishing House, 2005), a book I will not be buying.

Professor Brauer informs us in the preface that “this collection of quotations from The Book of Concord seeks to present significant portions of the confessors’ documents under a few central topics” (p. 6). Nine chapters follow the introduction. Each chapter contains questions. After each question are a series of quotations from the confessions, which the editor deems answer the questions he has posed. Following each quotation are notations quoting the German and Latin text from the 12th edition of Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirke. “The English text used is that of the Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord, except when the Tappert edition is used to reflect the Latin of the quarto edition of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, which one finds in the Triglotta and Die Bekenntnisschriften”(p. 7).

In other words, when it comes to the quoted text, what we have here is a pretty kettle of fish. Any one who wishes to check the original context of a quotation will have to have at the very least a copy of Kolb/Wengert and Tappert. Of course, serious students of the confessions will have both of these editions. Serious students, however, will have their own questions about doctrine and practice that are best answered by simply reading the confessions and using the indexes.

Worship, Gottesdienst, Cultus Dei, What the Lutheran Confessions Say about Worship is the fool’s gold of reference books.

The first volume of the American Edition of Luther’s Works was published in 1955. The general introduction to that volume and each subsequent volume carried this statement: “Although the edition as planned will include fifty-five volumes, Luther’s writings are not being translated in their entirety. Nor should they be. As he was first to insist, much of what he wrote and said was not that important.”

Not only are some of the works under Luther’s name unimportant, but as specific introductions to the America Edition make clear, not all of the works are entirely Luther’s. The problem of editorial redaction is addressed frequently in the American Edition. Even in a work as important as the Lectures on Genesis there are indications of Melanchthonian interpolations. And let’s not even get started on the Table Talks.

The Reverend Joel Baseley did not get the memo. He has self-published Festival Sermons of Martin Luther (Mark V Publications). He admits the dubious origin of the books he is translating, and that significant passages come from Bugenhagen and Melanchthon and not from Luther at all. Then audaciously he proceeds with a foreword from another book found in the Weimar Aufgabe (that is to say, not from the books he is translating), wherein Luther states that what follows “is published completely under our supervision and direction.”

If the reader skips Baseley’s notes on the text he will never realize that this statement simply is not true by Baseley’s own admission. He will not know that the foreword from Luther does not belong to the book that Baseley has translated. On the other hand, no one who reads Baseley’s notes can help but be offended by such a duplicitous cut-and-paste job.

As for the quality of Baseley’s translation of Luther-Bugenhagen-Melanchthon sermon notes, this much is certain – the good reverend is a poor writer of English. His prose is purple. This he demonstrates beyond any doubt in his Christ Beyond Reason: Luther’s Treatment of Faith and Reason in the Festival Portions of the Church Postils (Mark V Pulications).

Yes, this means that the self-published sermon translations have a self-published companion volume. There we read, “Yet in an age of seemingly limitless discoveries and technological miracles, we are at the brink, perhaps, the dusk of the Enlightenment.” The use of “brink” with “dusk” here is just one example of over-writing. It should also be noted that the Enlightenment lasted through the 18th century. There is more out of date in this monograph than the prose style.

Christ Beyond Reason is full of examples that Baseley does not understand Luther’s late medieval use of the word “reason,” with its Scholastic, non-Enlightenment background. In addition, Baseley does not employ any other source, primary or secondary, for this commentary other than the sermons he has translated. This circle is too tight; the basis for this work to attribute anything to Luther is far too slight. More importantly, while Luther personifies “reason” as a trope, Baseley does so as a shortcut to thinking. The result is that what in Luther is a vivid statement becomes in Baseley an indefensible generalization.

So, we have here three books you need not weary the flesh reading.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Peace, Peace

[This article was written for Gottesdienst, A Quarterly Journal of the Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgy. It will not be published there, so it is published here.]

Undoubtedly, most readers of this journal would regard me as a liturgical liberal. I do not believe that The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH), published in 1941, is above criticism. I do not hold that Lutheran Worship (LW) is unusable by confessional Lutherans. There is a fine Methodist hymnal in TLH, and LW has made liturgical chant possible even in the humblest of congregations.

My contrarian leanings go even further. I do not believe that simply because the three-year lectionary has its origin in reforms in the Roman Catholic Church it is therefore inferior to the so-called historic one-year lectionary. Such criticism employs the fallacy of guilt by association. There are many reasons to criticize the three-year lectionary. The most obvious one is that the readings from the Gospel According to St. Mark cannot sustain the second year. Nevertheless, the three-year lectionary in itself is not an impediment to evangelical preaching, as some would imply.

The edifying use of either TLH or LW depends on the confessional stance of the pastor. Give TLH to a pastor who uncritically leans towards American Protestantism and you can be sure that hymns by Wesley and Cowper are going to be used. In the hands of a confessional pastor it will be obvious that there are at least as many hymns by Luther in LW as in its predecessor. The Lutheran Hymnal has been praised beyond its virtues and Lutheran Worship denigrated despite its strengths.

A confessional pastor who is concerned with the edifying use of what has been given him can positively use either hymnal. He knows that the heart of Sunday worship is the liturgy of the Mass and acts accordingly.

The liturgy of the Mass is divided into two parts, the ordinary and the propers. The ordinary is there every Lord’s Day. It is the framework, let us say, into which the propers are placed. Since they are repeated every Sunday, even children can learn by heart the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. When to stand, sit, say “amen” or even make the sign of the cross are not secrets in a congregation where the ordinary is properly used.

The propers change from week to week, and include the Introit, Collect, Readings, and hymns. Regardless of the lectionary, one hopes to discern a common theme for each Sunday in these propers. No lectionary has descended from heaven and even Luther had complaints regarding the Epistle lesson of the historic lectionary (AE 53:23). Nevertheless, the Gospel reading governs the day and the hymns should be chosen accordingly.

The ordinary provides continuity, while the propers change from Sunday to Sunday. There is little need for a pastor to be liturgically creative and therefore little chance of confusing the congregation. Like a good shepherd, he leads the people to the still waters of the ordinary and the green grass of the propers.

The design of LW offers one advantage with respect to the Mass’s rhythm of continuity and change. Many congregations for the first time found the propers as they chanted the Introit from LW. The forepart of the hymnal was no longer relinquished to the pastor. In many instances where TLH was used, the pastor would simply speak the Introit before the congregation chanted the Gloria Patri. With LW, the congregation that chanted the Introit could now see where the pastor was getting the Collect and Readings for the day.

Lutheran Worship unfortunately produced one innovation in the liturgy that was not beneficial. It was the two-letter word “or.” For example, in the ordinary one could sing the “Gloria in Excelsis” “or” the tedious “This Is the Feast.” This innovation, more than any thing else, is what is liturgically detrimental about LW. By providing a number of alternatives within the Mass LW effectively banished the ordinary.

Soon pastors and congregations hankered for the fleshpots of innovation. Lutheran Worship fed the craving. Divine Service I could be used one Sunday and Divine Service II the next. For those congregations that desired to get closer to their Lutheran roots, there was Divine Service III, which allegedly “follows the tradition of Luther’s German Mass (1526)” (LW p. 197).

The banishment of the ordinary created a dependence on the worship bulletins. Even salutations could no longer be said or chanted from memory, but had to be printed. I visited one old congregation that no longer knew when to say “amen” at the end of the Collect. There the ordinary changed every Sunday, which is to say, there was no ordinary.

These innovations were practiced many times not by Church Growth enthusiast but by conservative pastors. Many pastors who are undoubtedly confessional in their preaching and teaching are far beyond liberal in their liturgics. One could even argue that among confessionals, liturgics has become a big tent that includes just about anything Church Growth enthusiasts desire.

After nearly eight years of committee meetings, polls, field testing, and retesting, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a new hymnal. Lutheran Service Book (LSB) is a handsomely bound hymnal with easy-to-read cream color pages. Decisions have been made, reconsidered, and revised. Old hymns have been restored, new hymns have been published. It is doubtful that the LCMS has ever had a hymnal that received as much pre-publication scrutiny as LSB.

The error of LW, however, has not only been repeated in LSB, but augmented. The use of “or” remains. In addition, there are not just four Divine Services, as in LW, but five. Congregations need not use any of these services. Another LSB resource called Lutheran Service Builder gives the busy pastor even more reason to spend time at his computer, mixing and matching parts of the service and generally being liturgically creative.

Again a service “based upon” Luther’s German Mass is included. Again, it bears only a slight resemblance to what Luther wrote. The German Mass, for example, did not begin with Confession and Absolution, as Divine Service Setting Five does in LSB. It did include instructions for chanting the Epistle Reading and the Gospel, something the producers of neither LW nor LSB were bold enough to suggest. It must be admitted that Luther was not given to any kind of repristination of the liturgy. His liturgical writings are not popular among many of our contemporary high churchmen. However, his German Mass is not as informal as either LW or LSB suggests.

Not only does LSB encourage the continued banishment of the ordinary, but unlike either TLH or LW, it does not contain the propers.

It was stated at one workshop for LSB that the decision was made to produce propers for each Sunday in each year of the three-year lectionary, as well as provide the propers for the one-year lectionary. There is much to commend about this decision, particularly if the one-year lectionary is used. It is impossible to select one Introit, for example, that fits with the Readings of both the three-year and one-year lectionaries, as LW demonstrated.

The one serious drawback is that the propers alone now take up nearly 400 pages, space no hymnal can afford. Rather than have something for everyone, it would have been preferable to make the difficult and courageous decision to return to the one-year lectionary, and thereby keep the propers before the people.

As this article has indicated, the first concern of a pastor with a new hymnal is the liturgy of the Mass. The first concern of the laity is the hymns. Of course any new hymnal will receive criticism concerning the selection of hymns. A selection must be made and it is impossible not to displease someone. Nevertheless, LSB tries to please everyone and is the poorer for it.

The first thing one notices about the new hymns of LSB is that thirty-two of them, 5 percent of the whole hymn section, are penned by the chairman of the hymn committee. Only time will tell if the Reverend Stephen P. Starke is the greatest hymn writer of our age. However, his “Lift Up Your Heads, You Everlasting Doors” (LSB 339) does not sit very well opposite the venerable “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” (LSB 340). One fears that this is just one more example that in the gated community of the LCMS, the phrase “conflict of interest” is meaningless.

Pastor Starke’s work is popular in some circles and one can almost hear the howls of indignation at the above paragraph. The cacophony will be matched by any objection rightly raised regarding Jaroslav Vajda’s “Now the Silence.”

“Now the Silence” was published in the Lutheran Book of Worship, excluded from its successor, Lutheran Worship and strangely reintroduced in LSB’s predecessor, Hymnal Supplement 98. Objections to this hymn were raised in these pages by our honorable editor-in-chief (Gottesdienst, Michaelmas 1999, “A Winsome Hymnal”).

Mr. Vadja has been an unflinching critic of some venerable Lutheran hymns. There is no poetry in them, he has claimed. They are merely “sung doctrine.”

Judging from “Now the Silence,” Mr. Vadja learned his poetics from the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams. Williams’ dictum was “No ideas but in things.” “Things” abound in Williams’s poetry. It is, however, difficult to say anything definite about nouns without verbs. For that reason, what makes an interesting, suggestive, and perhaps even arresting poem does not necessarily make a good hymn.

There is a paucity of verbs in “Now the Silence.” It says nothing definite. It proclaims nothing. It teaches nothing. The editors of LSB themselves inadvertently supply the evidence that “Now the Silence” fails as a hymn. It is the only song in LSB with a footnote to explain what it means. The classic “sung doctrine” hymns of Lutheran orthodoxy need no footnotes.

The depth of shameless pandering is achieved by LSB’s inclusion of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Mr. Johnson, who declared himself an agnostic in 1891, wrote this song in 1900 for a ceremony celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It soon became very popular throughout the South as the Negro National Anthem, an appellation Johnson himself approved and by which it is known to this day.

Mr Johnson was a diplomat, civil rights champion, novelist, poet, and lyricist for Broadway. It in no way denigrates Mr. Johnson or his work to state that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” does not belong in a Christian hymnal. It is not a hymn. It was not written for worship. It does not proclaim Christ.

Let us pass over in stubborn silence the shallow, and boring contemporary “praise songs” that have been included in LSB by simply noting that there is something for everyone in this hymnal. It is meant to be a hymnal for the whole, liturgically diverse Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. After all the years of reviewing, testing, and polling, the LCMS now has a hymnal that allows everything and denies nothing. Every congregation is free to do what is right in its own eyes – and then change it next week.

Of course, confessional pastors can use LSB even as they used LW. They can use Divine Service, Setting Three, which is based on TLH page 15, and ignore the rest. They can pick the sound hymns and ignore the “praise songs.” There is a Lutheran hymnal in LSB. Unfortunately, there is also a hymnal in it that is a whole lot less than Lutheran. Lutheran Service Book is a picture of what the LCMS is, not what it should be

The shepherd of Psalm 23 goes in front of his sheep and leads them. That shepherd knows what his sheep need. The LCMS follows the sheep. The sheep are allowed to go in all different directions. It does not take much prescience to see that this bodes ill for both the sheep and the shepherds.

With the publication of Lutheran Service Book it is evident that the worship wars are over in the LCMS. Confessional Lutheranism lost.