Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Book Review of The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel by Dr. Holger Sonntag

The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel: A Response to Eight Theses on Worship, written by Dr. Holger Sonntag, is the first volume in a new series published by Lutheran Press titled "Questions in Lutheran Theology and Church." This series is designed to “initiate, or at least, participate in the academic discourse which should arise when theological questions of serious and far-reaching consequence become common fodder among the Church’s pastors and laymen,” and are not intended to be limited to issues which confront only the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

I’d have to say that this first volume of the series certainly has started the "Questions in Lutheran Theology and Church" series on a strong note. There are a number of positive things that this volume has going for it that fill a need within Lutheranism, including
  • a thorough-going analysis of the topic, done with an even-handedness and documented with thorough Scriptural and confessional support;
  • a writing style that is insightful and comprehensive without using theological terms and concepts that are outside the grasp of a layman;
  • a subject matter that is very timely, this volume having been published within months after the Worship Theses were published;
  • and a frequent use of quotes from the Confessions, which will be helpful for those who aren’t well acquainted with the Book of Concord.
The Theses on Worship were released by the Council of Presidents (composed of the District Presidents of each of the 35 LCMS Districts) in 2009. When I first read them, I wondered what would keep anyone from using them to justify their alteration of the historic liturgy of the Church in whatever way they saw fit, which is just what has happened. Rev. David S. Luecke mischaracterized the Theses on the Jesus First website, claiming that they indicated that the worship wars were over, and saying:

Given the declaration of the newly released theses that uniformity in forms of worship is not necessary and that imposing one specific form militates against the Gospel, Lutherans should not have had a problem adjusting their worship to changes in the culture.

Whether you agree with what Rev. Luecke posted or not, it’s readily apparent that the pastor who wrote the Theses for the Council of Presidents, District President Terry Forke, did not agree, since he asked Rev. Luecke to retract the article (ref. Brothers of John the Steadfast post “Another response to President Forke, by Klemet Preus,” comment #32.)

In light of the Theses’ ability to evoke different responses, Dr. Sonntag’s book is a helpful voice. In the introduction to the book, Pastor Paul Strawn mentions the influence that the Theses could have within the synod:

…While such statements such as the Eight Theses are rare, and have no constitutional weight within the synod on the whole, or the individual districts, being in no way binding upon its pastors and congregations, such statements can be influential in that they simply exist. How? By being referenced in continuing discussions and conversations about worship on whatever level within the synod as the status quo of the situation, as in, “All of the district presidents agree…” (p. 9-10).

He continues on page 11:

…I began to think that some sort of response to the Eight Theses should be written. But not simply because there is such a wide variety of worship formats present in one particular circuit, or numerous circuits across the country within the LC-MS. For if in the monthly meeting of the pastors of a circuit, theological agreement is obvious, the differences in worship forms, rights and ceremonies present in the congregations represented there would not be much of an issue at all. After all, what would be happening but what the Eight Theses implies is happening throughout the synod, and that is, that the same theology is being expressed contextually in different communities through a variety of forms, rites and ceremonies? Unfortunately, after ten years of observation and reflection within this one particular group of pastors and congregations, it would seem that something else is actually happening: The forms, rights and ceremonies employed by its pastors and congregations seem to be simply the public expression not of a unity in theology, or even a unified approach to theology, but of the presence of a variety of theologies within the circuit. And this variety of theologies is not a result of seasoned pastors making pastoral decisions within a specific cultural context on the basis of a life-long and careful study of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, but a result of various interactions of the pastors of the circuit with the theologies of different Christian traditions such as Pentecostalism, the Assemblies of God, the United Church of Christ, Baptist, etc. Such interactions on the part of the pastors specifically in these traditions takes the form of books promoted, programs fostered and conferences attended which disseminate the ideas of popular spokesman for those traditions such as Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Luis Palau, and Nicky Gumbel. The end result, of course, is that monthly circuit meetings, intended to foster unity by means of the study of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions are poorly attended and discussion focuses chiefly upon non-theological matters such as families, vacations, church staffing challenges, etc. The elephant in the room is the theological gulf that has gradually developed between the pastors and congregations of the circuit, all of which theoretically, officially and even publically swear allegiance to the theology of the Lutheran Confessions.
     Sadly, that theological gulf does not exist solely at the circuit level, but even more deeply at the congregational level, especially in the congregations of the circuit that weekly schedule more than one type of style of worship service. As was noted by other denominations already fifteen years ago, when services of different types are present in one congregation, what so often occurs over time is the formation of different congregations which share the same pastor and building….

And beginning on page 13, Pastor Strawn comments:

In reality, it must simply be admitted that a difference in the forms, rites and ceremonies of worship has always been understood by Christians—and even non-Christians!—to be indicating a difference in theology. With uniformity in theology, with uniformity in confession, comes uniformity in worship.
     …Unfortunately, the impression of the Eight Theses overall is that they were not written to encourage the usage of common forms, rites and ceremonies, as the ecumenical movement had done, or to address the question of theological disunity, which the variety of worship forms present in the LC-MS implies, or even engender a synod-wide discussion of the same (in spite of the assertions to the contrary in Thesis VII). Instead, what seems to be hoped for by the publication of the Eight Theses is that congregations and pastors who are members of the synod can continue somehow peaceably to coexist, in spite of the myriad of theological questions raised by the various worship forms found in the congregations, and thus the super structure of the Missouri Synod (i.e. district and synodical offices, colleges, seminaries, a publishing house, health benefits and retirement plans, banking services, and recognized service organizations) can continue. But in that the synod itself exists to express publically not simply a bureaucratic, corporate, economic, ethnic, cultural, or historic unity, but a theological concordia, a “walking together” on the basis of a specific theological confession, the Lutheran confessions, it is hard to see how the Eight Theses further the existence of the synod and may even, in a Treaty of Versailles-like fashion, simply be seen eventually to have greatly increased the tensions which led to the synod’s demise.

To refresh your memory, here are the Worship Theses (p. 10). (For the sub-theses and supporting references, go here.)
I. Worship is not an adiaphoron.
II. The Scriptures and Confessions give the people of God considerable freedom in choosing those forms, rites, and ceremonies that aid the worship of God.
III. The liturgy of the Church builds a framework for the worshiper to live the life of faith.
IV.Imposing a certain form, rite or ceremony on the Church burdens men's consciences, thereby militating against the Gospel.
V. Great care is necessary in choosing forms, rites and ceremonies because they either support or hinder true worship. There are no “neutral” forms.
VI. Uniformity in forms, rites and ceremonies while desirable, is not essential to the unity of the Church.
VII. The polarization that is affecting the Church concerning the issue of forms, rites and ceremonies is sinful and hinders the proclamation of the Gospel.
VIII. The people of God are commanded by God to keep talking with each other, under His Word, so that divisions are healed and the Church is united in doctrine and practice.
Dr. Sonntag, begins on page 20 with an overview of his main points:

The main shortcomings of the Eight Theses are these:

The Eight Theses imply that the means of grace, the Word of God and the sacraments, do not have specific unchangeable forms, rites, or ceremonies instituted by Christ himself, but simply ought to be present in worship in changeable humanly established form, rites, and ceremonies.

  1. Without specific, recognizable, and invariable divinely established forms, rites or ceremonies, the gospel in word and sacraments can neither function as the public mark of identification of the Church nor shape the humanly instituted rites of the worship service.
  2. Without such specific forms of Word and sacrament, there also can be no distinction between necessary, essential, mandated ceremonies that are already given with the institution of the means of grace (and thus instituted by God), and unnecessary, non-essential, free ceremonies (instituted my men and, accordingly, called “traditions of men” etc.) that can nonetheless be useful for a number of reasons if they are designed in conformity with the essential ceremonies.
  3. So without the distinction of necessary and unnecessary forms, rites and ceremonies, all forms, rites and ceremonies, whether they be necessary, essential and mandated or unnecessary, non-essential, and free are therefore,
    according to the Eight Theses, subject to “considerable freedom”, which can only foster the already existing misunderstandings in these matters.
  4. While the Eight Theses attribute two main purposes to ceremonies, the additional positive purpose of uniform ceremonies among pastors and congregations attributed to them by the Lutheran Confessions, namely, the preservation of the essential unity of faith in the Church, is not recognized.
  5. Therefore, the positive temporal and spiritual benefits of humble love restraining the Christian congregation’s freedom when it comes to non-essential ceremonies are not carefully considered.

Four additional flaws:

  1. The Eight Theses, unlike the Lutheran Confessions, fail to give a general definition of the essence of worship. They also fail to give a distinction between true worship and false worship, that is, idolatry.
  2. The Eight Theses also fail to locate the Christian worship service at this point in time in the historical continuum of genuine Christian worship that has been ongoing ever since the enunciation of the promise of the proto-evangel in Gen. 3:15.
  3. The Eight Theses lack even a hint of the full extent of the Christian’s worship in this world, giving the impression that his worship is limited to the corporate worship service and other religious activities of the First Table of the Ten Commandments, while the Lutheran Confessions, faithful to Scripture, include the entire vocational life of the justified believer according to both
  4. While the Eight Theses rightly speak of the teaching function of godly ceremonies in the corporate service of the church, they fail to mention the insistence of the Lutheran Confessions on thorough instruction in the chief articles of the faith also outside of corporate worship for the service to become meaningful to the worshipers and for their proper participation in the service.

The last two of the Eight Theses are not without problems:

  1. The concluding analysis of the problem offered by the Eight Theses addresses the symptom, but not the real underlying cause of strife, division, and polarization in the church, which is an increasing disunity in doctrine that – according to the prediction of the Lutheran Confessions and the reformers – has resulted from a decreasing uniformity in the external rites of the corporate
    worship service, both in those essential ceremonies established by Christ himself and in those non-essential ceremonies established by the church.
  2. If the problem is not rightly diagnosed, the solution offered cannot be satisfying: If there truly is theological division in our church body, if there are thus several warring confessions of the faith in one body, then this should be duly considered in the Church’s worship, e.g., when it comes to holding joint communion services at synodical, district, or circuit events. Constant talking will remain fruitless if there is no cost for a failure to reach an agreement within a realistic timeframe.
Throughout the remainder of the book, Dr. Sonntag proceeds to thoroughly back up his statements with quotes from the Book of Concord and Holy Scripture. Here are several quotes to give you a flavor for what he has to say in the remainder of the book:

11.1 The good thing about theses VII and VIII is that they acknowledge that there are problems, even divisions, in the Church. A unity in doctrine and practice is not an actual reality at the present time. Yet since the Eight Theses have unequivocally cast their lot with those who expand diversity of “forms, rites and ceremonies” in the Church today, it is not difficult to guess who is found at fault for these problems: Those who resist this (supposedly) confessionally sound expansion of the exercise of Christian freedom – seeking to “impose” a uniformity in worship for which there is no theological justification, according to the Eight Theses – are, in fact, schismatics, that is, those who because of an actually non-divisive issue such as ceremonies cause “polarization” and “divisions” (120).

11.9 The problem is thus not really “sinful polarization.” This is only the result and symptom of something far profounder. The problem is liturgical change that is not theologically warranted and that alters the faith of congregations. The opposition to this change is due to the fact that the advocates of change teach falsely on the ceremonies: First, they do not distinguish between essential, divinely established ceremonies (means of grace) and humanly established ceremonies. All is subsumed under the head “indifferent ceremonies.” Second, all ceremonies are at least potentially subjected to change because all are evidently assigned the status of adiaphora, indifferent things, merely instituted by men, neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, neither associated with nor rejected by other church bodies – theologically neutral “style” that can be shaped according to the preferences of the target audience (124).

12.1 What may the solution for this problem [of theological division] be? The Eight Theses recommend, in fact, they command us to “keep talking.” From the concluding
confessional reference (Ap. XXVIII, 7) one may deduce where those talks are supposed to be headed: To agreeing finally that all ceremonies are, in fact, adiaphora that may be changed at will by any local congregation in view of their local community and not in view of those of the household of faith and the concrete forms of the means of grace.

Those adhering to the Lutheran Confessions will not be able to “keep talking” in that direction. In frank but patient conversations and trusting the power of God’s Word to change hearts and minds, they will, rather, bring to bear the full extent of the Confessions’ scriptural teaching on all articles, including the one on ceremonies, in order to reverse the dangerous trend that undermines and obscures the very life of the Church and the only hope for the lost, the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ. And there may in fact come a time when even this kind of talk must end, according to the command of the apostle Paul in Tit. 3:10 (128).

This book is an important contribution to the forms of worship dialogue, and helps put the Eight Theses into perspective. Its ease of availability and economical price make it a must read for anyone interested in the continued debate on the various “worship styles,” and the theological assumptions which undergird them.

The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel: A Response to Eight Theses on Worship may be purchased from Lutheran Press for $6.00.


Brian Yamabe said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I just ordered it.

Norman Teigen said...

Thanks for posting this. This is worthy of very serious consideration.