TBT: Confessions: Prescriptive or Descriptive?
Note: This piece was from the old Gottesdienst Online from its first year, 2008 (December 30). The original blogpost has inexplicably vanished. However, thankfully, it was reproduced here:
In the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, we live in a liturgical climate of “anything goes.” One can indeed find traditional liturgy in our churches, but one can also find innovations that can hardly seem in any way congruent with our confessional writings, innovations such as: entertainment-based rock music, skits, comedy routines, free-form worship, odd movements and speaking in gibberish, lay “consecration” and “preaching,” infrequent and/or open communion, the setting aside of vestments, the use of props and gimmicks for preaching, polka services, dancing girls, and even services led by clowns in face make-up.
When the confessions are taken seriously, one is hard-pressed to find that any of these innovations are in any way compatible with Lutheranism. Indeed, it deems that by their very definition, such willful expressions of worship effectively remove these churches and pastors from our very fellowship.
In fact, in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, pastors (and lay members of the synod, such as school teachers and other lay offices created to assist the Office of the Holy Ministry) subscribe to the Lutheran confessions (i.e. the Book of Concord) in a “quia” manner, which is to say, in their entirety “because” they are in accordance with Holy Scripture. This is in opposition to the less stringent “quatenus” manner of subscription, which is to say that each statement in the confessions is accepted or rejected individually “insofar” as each is in accordance with Scripture, thus allowing for individual interpretation based on one’s opinion as to whether or not parts of the confessions pass Scriptural muster. Practically speaking, the latter is a clever way of not subscribing to the Book of Concord at all, as C.F.W. Walther pointed out, a Christian could even subscribe to the Koran in a “quatenus” manner.
Here are a few quotations from the Lutheran confessions concerning liturgical practice in “our churches” (that is to say, Lutheran churches, or churches “of the Augsburg Confession”):
“Our churches teach that those rites should be observed which can be observed without sin and which contribute to peace and good order in the church.” (AC XV)
“In our churches, Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc.”(Ap XXIV:1)
“Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. Actually, the Mass is retained among us and is celebrated with the greatest reverence. Almost all the customary ceremonies are also retained, except that German hymns are interspersed here and there among the parts sung in Latin…. The people are accustomed to receive the sacrament together… this likewise increases reverence and devotion of public worship, for none are admitted unless they are first heard and examined…. Such worship pleases God, and such use of the sacrament nourishes devotion to God. Accordingly, it does not appear that the Mass is observed with more devotion among our adversaries than among us.” (AC XXIV:1-9)
“After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ.” (AC XXIV:3)
“The holy Fathers… instituted traditions for the sake of good order and tranquility in the church.” (Ap XV:13)
“No one will create disorder by unnecessary innovation.” (LC I:85)
“It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call.” (AC XIV:1)
“Those ancient customs should be kept which can be kept without sin or without great disadvantage. This is what we teach.” (Ap XV:52)
“We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion which holds that they justify…. We can truthfully claim that in our churches, the public liturgy is more decent than in theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are. In our circles…the children chant the Psalms in order to learn.” (Ap XV:38-40)
“Nothing has been received among us, in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or to the church catholic.” (AC Conclusion 5)
“Many traditions are kept among us (such as the order of lessons in the Mass, holy days, etc.) which are profitable for maintaining good order in the church.” (AC XXVI:40)
“Of the same sort is the observance of Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, and similar festivals and rites.” (AC XXVIII:57)
“In our churches, on the other hand, all sermons deal with topics like these: penitence, the fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, comfort for the conscience through faith, the exercise of faith, prayer and our assurance that it is efficacious and is heard, the cross, respect for rulers and for all civil ordinances, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ (or the spiritual kingdom) and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love. From this description of the state of our churches it is evident that we diligently maintain church discipline, pious ceremonies, and the good customs of the church.” (Ap XV:43-44)
“In the morning, when you rise, make the sign of the cross” (SC VIII:1) and “In the evening, when you retire, make the sign of the cross.” (SC VIII:4)
“Thus has originated and continued among us the custom of saying grace and returning thanks at meals and saying other prayers for both morning and evening. From the same source came the custom of children who cross themselves when they see or hear something monstrous or fearful.” (LC I:73-74)
Regarding the change of ceremonies, “all frivolity and offenses are to be avoided.” (FC Ep X:5)
“We should not consider as matters of indifference … useless and foolish spectacles which serve neither good order, Christian discipline, nor evangelical decorum in the church.” (FC SD X:5-7)
“This is about the sum of our teaching. As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church or the Church of Rome, in so far as the ancient church is known to us from its writers…. It can readily be judged that nothing contributes so much to the maintenance of dignity in public worship and the cultivation of reverence and devotion among the people as the proper observance of ceremonies in the churches.” (AC XXI Epilogue: 1-6)
It can be seen from these quotations that Lutheran worship services and piety are traditional by definition. Deviations from traditional, liturgical worship and ceremony are deviations from the Lutheran confessions themselves.
Those who wish to deviate from traditionalism must either: 1) Renounce their “quia” subscriptions (often by an appeal to “show me where that is in the Bible”), 2) Claim the confessions are no longer relevant, usually by way of a form of “gospel reductionism” and the emergency situation that people are dying without Jesus, 3) Argue that Christian liberty exempts them from such passages (usually by playing Formula of Concord X over and against these other passages instead of harmonizing it with them), or 4) Put forth the proposition that the Lutheran confessions are “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.”
The latter approach implies that “prescriptive” confessions would be binding, whereas “descriptive” confessions are not binding, but are rather only a historic snapshot of what the church looked like in a specific time or place, but here and now, we are free to accept or reject parts of the Book of Concord we don’t find relevant today. Of course, if that is the case, one’s ordination vows are even weaker than a “quatenus” subscription.
So, are the confessions descriptive or prescriptive? I agree those who argue that they are descriptive, not prescriptive.
For these are confessions, statements of belief. And belief, that is, faith, cannot be prescribed. Prescription is a matter of coercion, it is of the realm of the law instead of the gospel. One can no more “prescribe” belief in the Lutheran confessions than one can “prescribe” belief in the Apostles’ Creed or the Koran. Rather, either one believes them or not. We Lutherans have no punitive legal recourse, no court of coercion. We simply draw a line around what “we believe, teach, and confess” with the understanding that this describes what “we” uphold and practice. People who disagree are simply not part of the “we.”
Christians can (and do) worship God apart from traditional liturgy. They just aren’t “Augsburg Confession” Christians, which is to say, they aren’t Lutherans. We Lutherans—especially in Lutheran communions which pledge a “quia” subscription—yield to the veracity of the Lutheran confessions as expositions of Holy Scripture. When we say: “In our churches…” or “We believe, teach, and confess…”, we are saying that these are true statements. In short, we are saying these Lutheran confessions are “descriptive.” They “describe” what you will see “in our churches,” both in beliefs confessed and ceremonies and rites practiced.
Unfortunately, among the “contemporary worship” set who have scandalously laid aside ceremonies which taught the people about Christ and established evangelical decorum; among the pastors who have traded in their traditional vestments for trendy golf shirts; in those congregations that make use of skits, clowns, dancing girls, and other undignified and frivolous gimmicks which make a mockery of the above-cited passages; as well as in those congregations in which the Mass is willfully not celebrated every Sunday, these statements are not descriptive at all.
If our “descriptive” confessions do not “describe” what our churches believe, teach, confess—and indeed practice in ceremonies—then it is time for those congregations and pastors to reconsider their commitments to these confessions. The fact that we have evangelical liberty and the fact that our Book of Concord is descriptive and not prescriptive should not be interpreted as license to overlook it, or even regarding some matters, adopt an opposite confession, at least not while maintaining a subscription to these symbolical and confessional writings. With descriptive confessions, there can be no separation of style and substance. Either “what you see is what you get”, or the Book of Concord is a lie.
If the Book of Concord has ceased being an accurate description of doctrine and practice in a given congregation, either the pastor of that congregation should preach and teach in order to bring the congregation back into communion with those confessions, or pastor and parish should both openly renounce the Lutheran confessions and leave our fellowship. Integrity demands it. It is openly hypocritical to stand before the holy altar and pledge fealty to confessions that one feels he is free to ignore.
Note: as a bonus throwback, here is a similar piece from 2013.