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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Faith and Life of the Body vs. Missional "Lutheran" Gnosticism

Sound doctrine is fundamental and foundational to the Christian faith and life, and the right distinction of the Law and the Gospel is the particularly bright light by which the Holy Scriptures are correctly understood.

To have the mind of Christ, however, is not merely a matter of the intellect, but of humility in body and soul, of obedience unto death, and of living self-sacrifice to the glory of God and for the good of the neighbor.  To live by the Spirit of Christ is to live by faith in His Word, and so also to live in the body on earth, in love for God and man.  For the Spirit descends in bodily form, and rests and remains upon the Body of Christ.

Real Wisdom belongs, not to the raw intellectual mastery of data, facts and information, but to the fear of the Lord.  It is not academic, nor clinical, but is possessed by the solemn awe of the great Mystery of godliness.  This true Wisdom is known in her children, who bend their hearts and knees, along with their minds, before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and at the great and holy Name above all others, which has been given to Him, who alone was crucified for our transgressions and is raised for our justification.

When faith and life are reduced to the formulations and clichés of dogmatic propositions and jingled slogans — asserted and assented to, repeated ad nauseam, and given lip-service while "anything else goes," in the great free-for-all, the banner over which is "adiaphora" — it is no longer Christianity that we are dealing with, but the latest non-incarnation of gnosticism.  Whether the list of facts is long or short, intricate or simplistic, if that is all there is to it, then that is not the faith which is reckoned as righteousness for the sake of Christ; it is a farce and a fiction, which relies upon itself and on the self-righteousness of its own mental mastery.

Twenty years ago, when I was a seminary student, the powers that be and their clever speech-writers suggested that several of my favorite professors were guilty of a "confessional Lutheran gnosticism," because, it was claimed, those men insisted on right doctrine, supposedly to the detriment of missions and evangelism.  The politicos who made such claims knew not the good people they accused, nor the things concerning which they made such confident assertions, but I find it particularly ironic in retrospect.

In the decades that have followed, I have frequently heard the arguments that the actual practice of worship is utterly neutral and of no real significance to the heart and soul of what we are about.  The Lutheran Confessions are thumped as loudly as ever they were in defense of right doctrine, in promotion of the popular theory, that rites and ceremonies are adiaphora, and are therefore up for grabs.

Over and over, I hear tell that, so long as we all agree on the same "doctrine," the differences in practice don't matter.  And, on the surface of such words, what can I possibly do but agree?  I recognize and affirm, as boldly and confidently as anyone, that the unity of the Church does not depend on uniformity in man-made rites and ceremonies; and that differences in adiaphorous traditions are not divisive to the Body of Christ.

The premise I cannot accept, but which I fear will bring great harm upon the fellowship of the Church on earth, is that her doctrine can be hermetically self-contained, inviolate and vital, in well-worn sound bites and in the hallowed pages of CPH publications.  Such a great treasure the Small Catechism is, Christ be praised for His mercy in preserving it among us these many years, and for granting us a renaissance in its actual use!  But the Catechism, and all doctrine, is to be prayed and practiced, not simply memorized and repeated.  The practice won't look quite the same in every place, but the practice actually matters, and it can be externally measured and evaluated because it is practiced in and with the body.

It is the body, first of all, that receives Holy Baptism for the cleansing of the conscience by faith.  It is the body that eats and drinks the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  It is the body that kneels at the Altar, where the penitent asks, "Dear pastor, please hear my confession, and grant me forgiveness in order to fulfill God's will."  It is the body also that rests in the Sabbath of Christ, in order to hear and receive the Word and work of the Lord in the external preaching and administration of the Gospel.  So, too, it is the body that gives voice to the Name of the Lord in prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and intercession.  And it is the body that loves the neighbor in his body and life with genuinely good works.

What I long for is not a lock-step uniformity in every jot and tittle of practice.  I don't believe that such a thing is either possible or desirable.  But it is a dangerous gnostic cancer to suppose that our Christian faith and life and fellowship can be summed up in slogans and dogmatic affirmations, while practice is meanwhile treated as a matter of strategy and style, of personal taste and creativity, of no account or consequence to our present confession or posterity.

When everything is left to depend on a word that hasn't become flesh, no matter whether it is a long or short word, demanding or lax, then we have let go of Christ and lost Him.

What I long for is reverence and awe in the presence of the Word who has become flesh, and a confession of His Gospel with both mind and spirit, with hearts and souls and voices, and with bodies of flesh and blood.  So that the God-given freedom of adiaphora will be understood and exercised as a freedom to worship the Father in the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the one true faith of His Body, crucified and risen, given and received.  Then, whether we bend the knee, or stand, or sit, and whatever it is our neighbor does with his or her body, we will not condemn or cast aspersions, but neither will we naively suppose that it doesn't matter.

Let each of us possess his own vessel in purity and honor, and worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness, and the whole earth tremble before Him, who alone does wondrous things and saves us by the great glory of His grace.