Two Senses

From the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, article III:

3] Now, when we consider this dissent aright, it has been caused chiefly by this, that the term Gospel is not always employed and understood in one and the same sense, but in two ways, in the Holy Scriptures, as also by ancient and modern church teachers. 4] For sometimes it is employed so that there is understood by it the entire doctrine of Christ, our Lord, which He proclaimed in His ministry upon earth, and commanded to be proclaimed in the New Testament, and hence comprised in it the explanation of the Law and the proclamation of the favor and grace of God, His heavenly Father, as it is written, Mark 1, 1: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And shortly afterwards the chief heads are stated: Repentance and forgiveness of sins. Thus, when Christ after His resurrection commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel in all the world, Mark 16, 15, He compressed the sum of this doctrine into a few words, when He said, Luke 24, 46. 47: Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations. So Paul, too, calls his entire doctrine the Gospel, Acts 20, 21; but he embraces the sum of this doctrine under the two heads: Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 5] And in this sense the generalis definitio, that is, the description of the word Gospel, when employed in a wide sense and without the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is correct, when it is said that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins. For John, Christ, and the apostles began their preaching with repentance and explained and urged not only the gracious promise of the forgiveness of sins, but also the Law of God. 6] Furthermore the term Gospel is employed in another, namely, in its proper sense, by which it comprises not the preaching of repentance, but only the preaching of the grace of God, as follows directly afterwards, Mark 1, 15, where Christ says: Repent, and believe the Gospel.

This distinction between two senses can also be used to end the ELS controversy about the ministry. This is what the PMW attempts to do. It has failed, but not because this basic approach is flawed. It did not express itself clearly and simply enough, nor did it show how much of our traditional vocabulary relating to ministry has also acquired multiple senses, so that we have two frameworks of meaning built upon the same vocabulary, and nearly identical expressions. The difference between the ministry terms and the term “gospel” as it is defined in FCSD III is that most of our ministry terms are not used in scripture as they are being used today. That means it is quite unfair to expect that someone should find a Bible passage that defends a particular, contemporary definition or usage of a ministry-related term. Unfortunately, these expectations have been voiced in the form of challenges from both sides of this controversy. The challenges sound impressive, but don’t amount to very much that is God-pleasing.

This also highlights a major weakness of the PMW document. Much of it is descriptive of our current vocabulary usage and corresponding practice, rather than remaining only with the clear teaching of the Bible and the practice it requires. While it is not hard to see that this attribute arises from the desire to placate factions which are interested in perpetuating their pet practices, it is not a mark of a useful, God-pleasing doctrinal statement. It prevents us from pointing to the PMW and saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” Rather, we must say, “Thus practiceth the ELS, for the Lord doth say something like that.” This could have been avoided with painstaking exegesis and hermeneutical study open to public criticism before the PMW was formulated.

Nevertheless, the PMW has attempted an approach that holds some promise toward the resolution of this controversy: a clear distinction between senses in our usage of terms. Such a distinction may not be prescribed by God’s Word, as in the case of the term “gospel,” but could provide a commonly-acceptable language for describing what the Bible says. Instead of insisting that the terms we hear spoken by our brother must mean what we think they mean, we can expect and request the sense in which those terms were intended.

I have sometimes wondered what it was like for the Norwegian Lutheran immigrants to hash out their understanding of doctrine with the Saxon immigrants and others, when they all spoke different languages. We may all think we speak English, but it is not such a theologically precise language as we would like, particularly in an area where there have been parallel and contrasting understandings of doctrine for decades. So let us not assume that we all speak the same dialect of English.

If it can be shown conclusively how our Confessions and the other writings of the confessors understand terms like Predigtamt and Pfarramt, perhaps they may serve as technical terms. Yet I have not seen sufficient consistency of such usage demonstrated in the confessional witness to make an adoption of that usage advisable. Another option would be to create new technical terms somewhat arbitrarily, with the recognition that we are speaking in a new way. This is also something that the PMW has attempted to do.

In any case, here are a few terms in the PMW that I would identify as having more than one sense in the ELS:

Term Generalis definitio (e.g. “gospel” includes law) Proper sense (e.g. “gospel” as in Mark 1:15)
Public ministry Any conveyance of the Gospel on behalf of the Church The administration of the Means of Grace on behalf of Christ
Divine institution Anything that God wants to be done (i.e. telling the Gospel) Something that God specifically commanded, to which He attached His promise
Office A function, or collection of functions A job or position defined by specific vocation and filled by a person
Keys The Law and Gospel God’s application of the Law and Gospel to sinners, through His chosen instruments

Anyway, you can see that these distinctions between senses take some time to digest. They are worth discussing. More are waiting to be discovered.

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