Thursday Theology: On the Lively Use of the Gospel: A Plea for Renewed Discussion

Co-missioners,

“That’s the discussion I’m hoping to incite.”

So writes Amandus (Mandy) Derr about the piece we invite you to read today. It’s another in this year’s irregular series of Thursday Theology reflections on the emergence of Concordia Seminary in Exile—Seminex for short—in 1974. Crossings is one of the many shoots that Seminex would produce.

This is the second time you’re hearing from Mandy this year. We shared some of his Seminex recollections in our post of February 15. (See there for a brief introduction to him.) Some weeks later he sent us this. It combines some further recollection of the Seminex experience with an urgent plea directed chiefly toward his schoolmates who function within the ELCA orbit these days. This would include most Seminex graduates, though by no means all of them—a matter we hope to think about some more before the year is out.

As for the discussion Mandy aims to incite, see the title of his essay. As it happens, we’d be hard-pressed at Crossings to find a better ten-word description of what we’re about. No wonder we’re glad for the chance to pass Mandy’s thoughts along for others to chew on too.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

 

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Enlivening Christ’s Church through the Lively Use of the Gospel
by Amandus Derr

 

Pastor Amandus J. Derr

So far this year we have witnessed several celebrations and commemorations of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the birth and legacy of Seminex. These have included joyous reunions (online and in person) and shared recollections. We’ve heard reflections on “things that mattered” to us in 1974 and beyond—the statements of faith; our liturgy, hymnody, community, and public actions. We’ve talked too about “people who mattered”—professors, student leaders, district presidents, and mission executives, to name but a few.

Amid all this, one major matter central to the Seminex legacy has, in my opinion, been neglected. It’s the deeply rooted commitment that Seminex students and faculty shared with mission executives, “moderate” pastors and lay leaders, and many others in the LC-MS of that day to “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” This was Article IV of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology on Justification by Faith, and its core hermeneutic principle of “rightly dividing Law and Gospel”. Those of us who were privileged to study with the faculty through the 1960s and 1970s at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and with the same members of the faculty majority at Seminex were so steeped in this hermeneutic principle that it effected our entire lives and remains the primary reason why we were willing to walk faithfully and fearlessly off the Concordia Seminary campus in 1974, to continue our studies and graduate from Seminex, and to serve just as faithfully and fearlessly as leaders in several different expressions of American Lutheranism. We rendered this service for significantly longer than Seminex existed as an institution.

Because American Lutheranism in general and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in particular are, by all accounts, deep into a season of disarray, decline, and diminished energy, I had hoped that the energy this fundamental Lutheran hermeneutic brought to us at Seminex might be recognized and joyfully released into the whole Lutheran communion during this anniversary year, beginning at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where the primary commemoration of the 50th anniversary occurred last month. I dared to dream that it might spread from there into the rest of the ELCA’s seminaries and ministries. Sadly, as far as I can discern, nothing close to this is unfolded there, nor was it hoped for.

Hence this article. Hence too, for me, this renewed connection to the Crossings Community which has continued to promote what Ed Schroeder called “The Promising Tradition,” doing so outside, yet alongside, our established Lutheran institutions, most of which are diminishing and all of which are focused primarily on institutional survival.

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Something happened to us in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s! Something that so enlivened, energized, and encouraged us that we were willing to risk everything because we believed in, envisioned, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit to offer ourselves in service to God’s “yet more glorious day.” There is, in my opinion, no good reason that this same enlivening, energizing, encouraging and mission-focused (rather than survival-focused) Spirit-filled energy can’t happen among us today.

That “Something,” is the Gospel, or to be more precise and inclusive, God making and keeping God’s Promise to all; God embodying God’s Promise in the human being Jesus Christ; and God planting, cultivating, and nourishing God’s Promise in human hearts. To be sure, every expression of Christian faith believes, teaches, and confesses this in some form or another, and “the Gospel” remains at the center of all Lutheran theology and every Lutheran expression and institution. We will hear “the Gospel” repeatedly at every Seminex-related celebration. But when we repeat this, what do we mean?

“The Gospel,” and how to discern it through the Lutheran hermeneutical principle of “Law and Gospel,” was the obvious passion of those systematic theology professors who became the exiled professors of systematic theology at Seminex. Robert Bertram and Edward Schroeder were the most influential. Walter Bouman and a considerable number of other systematic theologians at Valparaiso University, Concordia Senior College, and the LC-MS “system” of junior colleges were lesser known but equally important. At Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (until January 1974) and through the institutional life of Seminex, students were required to take two courses in the Lutheran Confessions (not even one full course is required of ELCA seminarians today – see below) and those of us who studied with Schroeder or Bertram had “Law-Gospel Reductionism” imbedded into us. We got it!

Yet these courses and these passionate professors weren’t the only reasons we grew into faithful and fearless servants in Christ’s Church. We didn’t merely become systematic academicians nor were we regressive 16th Century Lutheran apologists. We were given something more, and that made all the difference.

We were shown how to use the Gospel, or, as Bertram put it best in the title of the 1966 Festschrift he edited in honor of that the most revered teacher of the Gospel’s use, Richard R. Caemmerer, Sr., we learned that there is a lively function of the Gospel.

From whence did this “lively use” come? First, it was taught and used in our homiletics courses, no matter the teacher. Caemmerer, of course, was primary! His Preaching for the Church (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1959) was revolutionary and remained the required textbook for over thirty years at Concordia Seminary and then Seminex. Much of Caemmerer’s older language is not inclusive, and therefore is often dismissed today. But his homiletic formula, Goal-Malady-Means, remains a perfectly useful process for exegeting Scripture and life and then using the Gospel to address the hearers’ needs. (Lest we forget the process: Goal: I want to get my hearers to have faith or act faithfully. Malady: What keeps them from believing, doing this? Means: The Gospel! Always, the Gospel! This process is critical to exegeting both the text and the times! Inevitably, this process drives the preacher to proclaim and the hearers to hear in such a way that both make “lively use” of the Gospel.

Caemmerer came first. George W. Hoyer followed with his “Point-Problem-Power” variation. Bertram and Schroeder would expand these into the six-step process of Diagnosis and Prognosis that characterizes the text studies produced by the Crossings Community.

But wait, there’s more!

Because we were studying primarily to be pastoral preachers, that is proclaimers of the Gospel, and because the majority of our professors in every discipline had themselves been steeped in this classic Lutheran hermeneutical practice, virtually all our courses, especially exegetic and practical courses, were infused with this useful theology. Finally, on the rare possibility that we somehow missed the “usefulness” of the Gospel in class, we experienced it in practice each time we attended daily chapel and heard our teachers or administrators preach. Furthermore, we also observed this being practiced in the conflict in which we were engaged with the powers that controlled the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Through our course work and through the faculty’s example, we learned to make use of the Gospel ourselves; and many of us thrilled to use the Gospel to address everything in Church and society. In the 60s and 70s, that meant, among other issues, the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s rights. In the 80s and 90s, the AIDS crisis and LGBTQ rights were added to our societal concerns. In the 90s and onward, we’ve made lively use of the Gospel to address economic inequality, LGBTQIA+ rights, war, nationalism, gun violence, immigration, and drugs, in addition to the ongoing issues of racism, sexism, antisemitism, anti-Islamism, and more. The arc of our lives clearly shows that most of us who drank deeply of this “Promising Tradition” also became fearless, principled, and vocal activists for justice, equity, and inclusion, and simultaneously became active, trusted, and trustworthy ecumenical and interfaith partners.

Confessio Augustana
From Wikimedia Commons

I include that last paragraph because of a continued criticism that dismisses our insistence on the study of the Lutheran Confessions (specifically Augustana and the Apology), and our passion for the use of Law/Gospel hermeneutics. These, it is said, are merely the expression of white, cisgender, male, thinkers with European roots.. To be sure, after fifty-plus years, most of us in the Seminex community are old, white, cisgender males. Some of us have indeed been chauvinistic asserters of the damaging privilege that once accompanied these traits. But I would argue this has happened among some of us, not because of our study of and commitment to the Lutheran Confessions, but despite that. Most of us, as a result of our commitment to “Law/Gospel Reductionism,” have had no difficulty recognizing our own sins, diagnosing our notions of privilege or superiority, naming these, and seeing ourselves under judgment and in need of transformation by the power of the Gospel. Most of us enthusiastically embrace the inclusion of non-European, non-white, non-cisgender, non-male theologies along with wider global perspectives. Most of us have been and remain actively committed to the inclusion, study, and active participation of all persons and perspectives. What we are not committed to is the exclusion or deliberate diminution of Lutheran theology’s most useful tool!

That deliberate diminution is what I see in the current curricula of our ELCA seminaries particularly as they prepare students for rostered ministry. That this diminution has happened is clear in the following description from a seminary catalogue of the five “competencies” expected of candidates for rostered ministry in the ELCA. I call specific attention to the competency labeled “Religious Heritage” which I’ve quoted and highlighted in its entirety. Please note the minimal attention given to the Lutheran Confessions.

“The five main areas of competencies around which the curriculum is organized are:

    • Spiritual Formation: an ample sense of human personhood in community that evidences the spirit’s grounding and guidance.
    • Religious Heritage I and II: drawing the wisdom of our forebears in the faith (in scripture and in the fields of history and theology) into active engagement with emerging challenges. – Competency in religious heritage in scripture and in history and theology means that students are able to foster a communal ethos of learning and teaching, preaching, and of facilitating conversations that discuss, analyzes and applies the Biblical and foundational theological texts, traditions, and practices of the Christian faith to exigent questions and issues in contemporary contexts. Students are able to create interpretations of the Christian tradition and heritage and its Lutheran expressions for today. Note: Religious Heritage includes two competency areas: Religious Heritage I: Religious Heritage II: History and Theology.
    • Ministerial Leadership: oversight in and stewardship of communities that discerns and develops the gifts of all disciples.
    • Cultural Context: within and around each of these other competencies, the ability to know, interpret, and affect particular situations, values, and meanings.”

In the early planning for the LSTC Seminex anniversary event, I, with several others, pushed for a strong emphasis on these matters. I was told “we have to give our students what they want.” To which I replied, “but what about what the Church needs?”

I continue to believe that what Christ’s Church needs now, as much as if not more than it did at the time of the birthing of Seminex, is a return to “the lively use of the Gospel.” That’s the discussion I’m hoping to incite. That’s the heart and soul of the Seminex legacy. And so, as we once sang so lustily, I continue now to pray:

O Spirit who did once restore,
The Church, that it might yet recall
The bringer of Good News to all:
Breathe on your cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days,
There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life, a high doxology
Unto the Holy Trinity. (LBW 396, stanza 4)

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Editor’s post-script: to explore these issues directly with Mandy, drop him a note at  amandus.derr@gmail.com. For more general discussion, send your note to info@crossings.org.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community