Monday, June 21, 2004

What was Going on When they Wrote "What's Going on Among the Lutherans?"

Consider the following text from a textbook used in some seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Christian Dogmatics, Braaten & Jenson, Vol. 1, p. 549ff.


Three days after his death Jesus appeared again to a small circle of friends. The crucified Jesus revealed himself as the living, risen, exalted Lord who had triumphed over death and the devil. The raising of Jesus was an act by which God put an end to his humiliation and exalted him above all the enemies of humankind, and without it our faith is in vain (1Cor 15:14). Mythological symbolism contributed to the interpretation of the event of the resurrection. The question has become acute in modern theology whether in the resurrection we are dealing only with a myth or with a truly historical event.

Some theologians dismiss the resurrection as of little importance. Consider.. 'Christian faith (as I understand it) is possible apart from belief in Jesus' resurrection in particular and life beyond bodily death in general, and because of widespread skepticism regarding these traditional beliefs, they should be presented as optional.' Other theologians are doubtful about the possibility of verifying the resurrection as a specific, historically definable event, but would still wish to speak about it as a way of interpreting the real significance of the cross... [Somebody] writes: 'There is no justification for affirming Jesus' resurrection as an event that really happened, if it is not to be affirmed as a historical event as such....'

All the modern scholarly differences on the historical problem of the resurrection should not overshadow the prevailing exegetical consensus that from the oint of view of the whole New Testament the resurrection of Jesus was an event that really happened in time and space, that eyewitnesses were prepared to vouch for it, and that the earliest Christians believed it to be a firmly established truth. ...

An historian's presuppositions may determine for him or her that the resurrection did not really happened because such a thing could not happen. But who knows beforehand the limits of what is historically possible? If what is 'humanly possible' is the measure of what is historically possible, the resurrection of Jesus must be regarded as impossible. In the biblical view, what is historically possible is always weighed within the horizon of a world that is ever open to the activity of the living God... In the face of a priori denials of the resurrection of Jesus, it is necessary for theology to become critical of criticism, to free the mind and prepare the way for an unprejudiced
hearing of the witnesses.

The report that a dead man has been raised... is sui generis-- to far the only event of its kind. There is therefore no conflict with natural science, as is often presumed. ...

We can call the resurrection an historical event because it happened in a particular place, in Palestine, and at a definite time, a few days after his death and prior to Pentecost. ...

Christianity is based on the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, becuase in this event God vindicated the claim of Jesus to be the prime representative of his coming kingdom. Christianity could not have had a beginning if the crucifixion had been the absolute end of Jesus. ...

In raising Jesus from the dead, God raised the cause for which he lived and died to the highest power in the history of salvation. ...


Christian art has depicted the ascension as a visible movement of Jesus' body through the clouds, with the disciples standing by, looking up, watching him disappear. In some realistic paintings all one can see is the feet, the rest of the body having been enveloped by clouds....
Not only Rudolf Bultmann but before him Martin Luther ridiculed the literalistic images of the ascension common in popular piety as childish ideas. If we ask, 'Where did Jesus go?' we can only answer, 'He went to the Father.' Even the scholastic theologians did not interpret the ascension in a purely spatial way. To be sure, they took the myth literally, visualizing Jesus going up to the coulds of heaven. But this was only an outer sign of the invisible ascension to the throne of God which is not located in a particular place but represents the omnipresent rule of God. ...

The ascension marked the beginning of something new in history. John quotes Jesus as saying, 'It is to your advantage that I go away" (john 16:7). The absence of Christ according to the flesh (kata sarka) opened the possibility of a new form of presence according to the Spirit (kata pneuma). .... [A]ctually the ascension was an advance, not a return to the status quo ante, to the previous place of the Son with the Father. It was an advance to a new epoch of history, to the sending of the Spirit and the mission of the church in world history.
[end of quote]

You may note two things about the above excerpts:

i) It seems pretty reasonable, don't you think? A pretty orthodox read, and it even sums up some of the wrong beliefs before making its own affirmation of an orthodox position.

ii) Some of the text is in red. It wasn't in red in the original book, but consider if you were only to hear the red material as evidence of what is being taught in ELCA seminaries. Wouldn't you get a very different opinion?

The book, What's Going on Among the Lutherans? A Comparison of Beliefs did just that. It was written by Patsy A Leppien and J. Kincaid Smith as a warning to Lutherans about the heretical and unLutheran beliefs supposedly ramapant in various Lutheran denominations, especially the ELCA. In a chapter on the resurrection, on pp. 114-5, it cites the red material above as evidence of heresy. When I saw such an egregiously unorthodox statement supposedly from an ELCA sem, I bought the textbook. If it were true, I'd probably have quit the ELCA that week. Since it's a misrepresentation, I quit reading the book and became even more disillusioned with fundamentalism within some of the more conservative factions of Lutheranism.

Two things are clear to me:

i) There are folks whose views are heretical within the ELCA. I suspect that there are more than a handful that do not believe in the Apostle's Creed.

ii) Upon finding a single gross misquote, I set this book aside. I wonder how much hardship and disunity has been caused by this book among those who take it hook, line, and sinker.

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