The Beginning of Words

(Part 11 in the multipart series “Where We Stand”)

The failure of the Lutheran churches in America, the failure of “Lutheranism,” is a failure of dogmatics. It’s not that the Reformers of the 16th century did not mine the Scriptures for the answers to the controversies that confronted them. Nor is it that the 17th century Age of Orthodoxy did not pass forward that which they received. It’s that somewhere between the codification of answers from the past and their translation into the English of the present, the Lutheran churches, while retaining something of a culture based upon the idea of Dr. Luther’s Small Catechism, failed to forward a worldview capable of retaining biblical nomenclature.

Yes, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is a particularly glorious light. But what we mean by that terminology when we teach it in our institutions, does not link up with those same words in the actual Bibles that we use. No matter how right we might be about the controversies of the past, we don’t talk like Bible-reading Christians. We talk like philosophical engineers trained to work with a geek-squad-tier knowledge of God.

Except that instead of knowledge of God, we have “theology,” and therein lies the rub.

The worst cast scenario is that Judgment Day shows we Lutherans to have been technically and absolutely right about darn near everything, yet absolutely wrong in what we birthed with it. Not a single person in the New Testament is saved by believing all the right theories about Jesus, but by trusting that Jesus is God. They are not awakened unto faith by systematic equations, but by the proclamation of the Old Testament texts with his name attached. The Holy Spirit did not fall on those who had all the right answers for the tests, but who hungered for a righteousness they could only find in name of the King himself.

Diagnosing problems over and over again is not a solution to anything. Teaching people how everyone else is wrong in order to teach them how you are right won’t get you anywhere good. Teaching in non-biblical words that only the college-educated can understand is a recipe for disaster.

I do not desire to cast aspersions. But neither can I deny that the majority of Lutheran churches today are social clubs rather than houses of prayer filled with Bible-hungry students of Jesus the Master. This does not mean that Lutheran dogmatics are wrong, if by “wrong” you mean “errant.” It means that by a combination of omission and loss-in-translation, our current ways of talking have become fraught with semi-soulless, over-attention to the wrong details, often at the expense of perfectly marvelous biblical language. I therefore do not advocate systematic abandonment, but rediscovery. Particularly, I believe we must engage in an intentional re-appropriation of Lutheran theology by means of biblical vernacular. We need to translate our “knowledge of God” back into the language with which the Bible teaches it.

Luther was not converted to Lutheranism by reading Luther. He was converted by reading the Psalms. If we would be his true offspring, it is high time we lauded him less, and chased the practice that inspired him more. If we hope to survive these gray and latter days as a tradition of Christianity, if we wish to reform the common men of our age and be a guiding light to those in darkness, then we must learn to speak “Bible” again. We must embrace the Reformation epicenter of “Scripture alone,” for it came before grace and faith, and their promises rest solely upon it.

“Let not mercy and truth forsake you…write them on the tablet of your heart…Trust in the Jesus Christ with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:3,5)

Till angel cry and trumpet sound,
The Mad Christian

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