Thursday Theology: “Witnessing Christ”: Fred Niedner on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Seminex (Part One)

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Fred Niedner earned an STM degree in 1973 at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, his theological alma mater. Two months later a majority of his teachers would find themselves condemned as intolerable by a convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Eight months after that those teachers would be leaving Concordia’s campus with a majority of their students to establish Concordia Seminary in Exile, eventually known as Christ Seminary—Seminex. This is the school that awarded Fred a ThD in 1979.

All of which is to say that Fred was there when the fireworks were going off. Little wonder, then, that he, being the Fred we’ve gotten to know at Crossings, was chosen to deliver the opening presentation this past April at the Chicago recognition of Seminex’s fiftieth anniversary. Later he was kind enough to send us a copy of what he said. Today we share the first half with you. The second half will follow next week. Both halves deserve your very close attention.

After all, as once “it was about the Gospel,” so it still is in our struggles today. Gospel is precisely what we heard from Fred in Chicago. You’ll find it here.

Peace and Joy,

The Crossings Community


Witnessing Christ: Preaching for the Church and the World

by Frederick Niedner

(Part One of Two)

It was about the gospel. As with all human affairs, it was about other things as well—egos, German and Norwegian stubbornness, culture-war anxieties, and money (lots and lots of money). But in the end, it was about the gospel. They said our gospel was no gospel at all, or at best an impaired, reduced gospel, and one that was “not to be tolerated in the church of God.”

True gospel, they said, can’t be believable gospel except it is supported by an inerrant and infallible Bible, and true gospel can’t be preached apart from patriarchy, or reading Genesis and Jonah as transcripts of historical events you could have caught on video had iPhones been available 6,000 years ago or so, and the certainty that Isaiah, son of Amoz, wrote all sixty-six chapters of the book that bears his name. Or as Walter Bartling, our beloved New Testament professor, summed up this argument in class one day, “If the axe didn’t float (2 Kings 6:6), then Christ is not raised and we are yet in our sins.”

As we learned from our teachers to do, we responded with the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, where we find Philip Melanchthon’s clear and concise criteria for recognizing true gospel as a message that both honors the death of Christ as necessary and fully sufficient for our salvation and at the same time comforts broken, contrite hearts. To us, that made their gospel look like “gospel-plus.” Jesus’ death wasn’t enough. Jonah had to have lived and breathed and written poetry for three days inside a great fish. The axe had to float, else we had no comfort at all.

From Canva

They had the votes, however, and they ruled that our simple gospel, and all who preach or teach it, were “not to be tolerated in the church of God.” There being no other church than God’s so far as we knew, they had effectively dispatched us to outer darkness, to the weeping and gnashing of teeth, to God-forsakenness. “Go to hell,” they said.

And so we did. We, the intolerable, the condemned, walked out; and yes, we sang “The Church’s One Foundation,” not Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?”), but they locked the door behind us. Our old lives were gone, along with homes, salaries, and assured calls for students nearing graduation. If it wasn’t hell just yet, it was surely the wilderness, that no-place place of uncertainty, scarcity, and murmuring that lies between any previous life we understood and some other life that exists for now only as a promise. Like every other wilderness wanderer ever, we asked, “Is God with us or not?” If that wasn’t hell and God-forsakenness, we could see it and smell it from there.

We survivors of those days could scarcely have known how familiar we would become over the years with the wilderness and hell, or “Gehenna” as Jesus called it—the smoldering landfill outside Jerusalem, the abyss of wasted lives. “Life under the law,” we had learned to call it. Urerlebnis. Nomological existence. Alienation from God and from each other. Oh, we had the vocabulary. Since then, however, we have lived it. We have watched far too many innocents suffer and die. We have lost spouses and buried children and seen parts of ourselves go missing. We have driven ourselves and those we love into ditches of deceit, addiction, and ambition. We have betrayed the church and the church has betrayed us. We have lain face-down in the dirt of our own Gethsemanes and begged, only to have our prayers, too, met with silence.

But then, each time we have landed in outer darkness or in the stench of Gehenna, there he is, the crucified one. Somehow he’s always gotten there first. He awaits us. We’re never alone, not even there, and he says, “Come with me.” Or as Luther loved to say about the teaching of Jesus’ descent to hell, “That Jesus went there means there is no place I could ever end up, no depth to which I might sink in life or in death, except even there he is Lord for me.” Many a time we have actually seen, heard, and felt the touch and breath of the crucified one, with those forever-ruined hands, in the flesh and blood of a baptized one, a member of Christ’s body, embracing us, forgiving us, simply sitting with us and getting wet with our tears. We have witnessed Christ un-helling hell. When Christ goes where God is not, that’s the end of that!

This is our great, good news. That is what we preach. Over and over and over. Christ crossed the yawning fault line and joined us on our side of all that’s broken, wrong, and deadly in the world. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self. Christ took on our death. We get his life. Profound as it is, it’s simple as that.

Nevertheless, “Go to hell,” they said. “It’s reductionist. It’s not enough.” And so we did—go to hell, that is. And still we do. Indeed, it’s what we do. As in, “What do you do? What’s your life’s work?” Answer: “We go to hell.” It turns out, this was not the first time we and our ilk had been dispatched there. On his way to Jerusalem and all that awaited him there, in a moment when his friend Peter finally “got it,” Jesus told that rough-hewn anchor of his church, “OK, here’s the deal. Take this gift and promise and go straight to hell. They can’t keep you out.”

From Canva

As latecomer Paul and all the gospels try to show us in one way or another, the risen Christ is on the loose in the world, and here in space and time, there’s plenty of hell to bust up. It works like this. In the waters of baptism, crucified with Christ, we become children of God, and each time a new person rises, Christ gets another new garment of skin, as Genesis called such things, a curious reminder of what those very first exiles got to wear out in the world of thorns and thistles and pain and sorrow. He dresses in us. “He puts us on,” as Luther said. We get his life, his sin-forgiving, death-undoing, hell-wrecking life.

Now, in his name, indeed, as his own body, we sit with or stand before people beaten down by life and their own cussedness and we say what Jesus said: “Let your old story go. Come with us, we’re dying to know you and love you and count you as kin.” But even before that homily, we say to the whole crowd that’s gathered, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Plenty in the assembly aren’t even listening most days, or they’re thinking about whatever comes later. But always, we know, some few there who hear those words are sunk in the mire of anguish over what they’ve done and can’t take back, or not done and now it’s too late. The only voices they can hear accuse them, including their own self talk. “Not to be tolerated in the church of God!” To them, we speak Christ’s word, “Your sins are forgiven. You belong here. You belong to us.”

And then we circle up to eat and drink, but always, as it was for Jesus that first time, we sit with traitors, deniers, and the uncomprehending at our table. Even as we ask, “Is it I, Lord?,” and it could and likely will be any and all of us, he gives us his body, his blood, his life, his breath, knowing that in the end, somehow, he’ll have us all back. He will forgive us, welcome us, and hold us, even if it takes forever.

to be continued

Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
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