There are *at least* two groups of claimants to “Confessional Lutheranism”: 1) the adherents of Lutheran Orthodoxy, sometimes referred to as Lutheran Scholasticism; and 2) the adherents of the pietistic/rationalist strain of Lutheranism originating in the Lutheran theological faculty of the University of Erlangen, beginning with J.C.K. von Hofmann. The “original position,” to borrow a phrase from John Rawls, of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (the LCMS) and the old Synodical Conference, was 1), not 2).
This is easily proven through a study of historical doctrinal textbooks and teaching materials for Lutheran pastors and educators (many of which have been translated into English, as as well as other writings that have yet to be translated from German and Latin) originating from the era in which the LCMS and the Synodical Conference were formed. A thorough study would also include doctrinal textbooks, and so on, published outside of these institutions. (We will set aside a discussion of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod [WELS] and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod [ELS], German and Norwegian Lutheran church bodies, respectively, with which the LCMS formed the Synodical Conference.)
What makes paragraph one above so challenging today, in my opinion, is that a) many readers, including most Lutheran pastors and many professional theologians, no longer read German and Latin, and b), advocates of position 2), at least in the history and context of the LCMS, have appealed to the writings of the first president of that church body, C.F.W. Walther, as “proof” that Walther agreed with their beliefs. So, along these lines, an implicit conclusion running since about the middle of the twentieth century goes like this: Given that one resource written in the nineteenth century, Walther’s The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, now Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, received the imprimatur of twentieth-century Erlangen theologian Werner Elert, therefore, Walther would have agreed with Elert. Logicians will have a field day with that one.
Back to position 2). Beginning with von Hofmann, who taught that the religious experience of rebirth is the starting point of theological discussion, Erlangenists and their theological progeny (as well as other, chiefly first-rank European Lutheran thinkers, to be sure, as well as their second-rank American Lutheran cousins) have operated with I call a “constellation of denials.” What these Lutherans deny, in fact, are key teachings of Luther and his legitimate theological heirs including Martin Chemnitz, Johan Gerhard, et al. (This isn’t to suggest, however, that all of the teachings of Orthodox Lutherans aligned with Luther [that is to say, with Scripture], but that, in the main, their doctrine is indeed biblical and confessional.) The constellation of denials is maintained by these folks even while claiming legitimacy as being the true theological heirs of Martin Luther.
To make matters even more confusing, consider this: Adherence to the constellation of denials does not mean that one may not actually accept an Orthodox Lutheran teaching! For example, a person may identify with the teachings of Werner Elert, yet admit Elert’s position on the inerrancy of Scripture is just. plain. wrong. Such a person may deny (publicly or privately; not everyone is honest!) the third use of the Law as laid out in the Formula of Concord, but justify such a denial by claiming that the third use is really only the first or second use for the Christian.
Yet such a position is quite dangerous, Will Robinson: it possibly entails a number of other denials, such as, for example, a) denying that the Formula of Concord equates true good works with works done in accordance with God’s Law; or b) denying that the Law is not the “immutable will of God”. Further, in addition to denying the Law’s third use, such a person may indeed c) deny that there is no positive relation whatsoever between the believer, insofar as he or she is reborn, and the Law, God’s immutable will. So, rejecting one aspect of the constellation of denials, that is to say, merely affirming one teaching of Lutheran Orthodoxy, is insufficient to guard against further error.
But don’t take my word on the “constellation of denials” hypothesis. Take the word of Francis Pieper, who wrote that “there is necessarily a causal connection between the denial of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction and the rejection of Scripture as the Word of God. And, conversely, the knowledge of Christ as the sinner’s Savior and the recognition of Scripture as the Word of God hand in hand.” (Christian Dogmatics, [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950], 6). Or take the word of Gerhard O. Forde, who suggested that the rejection of the eternal law (lex aeterna) and the third use of the Law go “hand-in-hand.” (The Law-Gospel Debate, [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969], 180.)
So, there you go. Pieper, a representative of position 1), and Forde, a representative (although certainly unique in his own right!) of position 2), agree: Doctrines go hand-in-hand. Adherents to both positions, 1) and 2), agree that teachings are found in constellations of doctrines, not as single, isolated units disconnected to other teachings. And for my purposes, I refer to adherents of Erlangenist-derived theological systems (defenders of position 2)) to be operating with a “constellation of denials,” specifically the denials of key teachings of Lutheran Orthodoxy, which is the “original position” of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the old Synodical Conference.
Again: All of the following teachings, which are adhered to by Orthodox Lutherans, hang together; they cannot be separated. And if one denies any one of them, it is possible that one denies even more of them. And, if this is the case, it is further possible that one adheres a different theological system, an example of which is position 2), even if one doesn’t recognize or admit such.
These key teachings are, but are not limited to:
- the inerrancy of Scripture;
- the inspiration of Scripture;
- the vicarious satisfaction of Jesus Christ;
- as a subset of 3., that a. Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law on our behalf, and that b. Christ’s sufferings and death on our behalf, were essential for our salvation;
- as a subset of 4b., that Christ’s blood shed upon the cross was the necessary payment to God for the forgiveness of our sins;
- continuing as a subset of 4b., that Christ willingly suffered not only the Law’s condemnation for our sins upon the cross for us, but also that God fully poured out His wrath against His Son on the cross, who endured such wrath willingly for us;
- the natural law;
- the eternal law;
- the third use of the Law;
- that insofar as one is reborn, one enjoys a positive relation to the Law;
- and enabled by the Spirit working through Gospel, the reborn believer seeks a. to crucify the flesh, and b. to freely and joyfully obey God’s Law in love.
Now, it is quite possible that an adherent to position 2) mentioned in the first paragraph may claim to believe in the above key teachings, while defining them differently. So, for example, one could say that one believes in the “inerrancy of Scripture,” but thereby mean that Scripture is inerrant only insofar as it presents the Gospel. Or, to take another example, one could say that Scripture is “inspired,” but only those parts of Scripture (of which one approves, like the Gospel), are inspired. Still further, one could say that one affirms the “natural law,” but by that mean something along the lines of prudence or perhaps the positive law as humans order their creaturely existence. But the inerrancy of Scripture, the inspiration of Scripture, and natural law traditionally defined and adhered to by Orthodoxy Lutherans, mean something different. So, caveat lector! Let the reader beware!
*I wish to thank reader “Carl” 10/7/17 for this correction. There indeed may be more than two camps claiming legitimacy as “Confessional Lutherans.”