The central doctrinal question in the ELS flap

Some appropriate questions have been asked by a reader of Norman’s Demesne about the controversy in the ELS. I’ll try to address the first one here, as briefly as I can.

What is the doctrinal point at issue? The 2005 doctrinal statement says much that is good, but some of its assertions are supported by their “proof texts” in a way that we haven’t seen or used before, to my knowledge.

Consider Martin Luther’s famous speech at Worms. He stated (from Wikipedia), “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” For Luther, the only norm of doctrine was Scripture and “plain reason.”

Sometimes our doctrine is not explicitly written out in scripture, just the way we state it in our dogmatics textbooks or catechism classes. How do we know that these statements are true? By what Luther called “plain reason.” He was speaking of deductive logic. Simply put, it allows us to make conclusions about things that scripture does not say explicitly, based upon what it does say explicitly. For example, Deuteronomy 6:4 says that there is only one God. Other places, such as Matthew 28:19, attribute divine character to three persons, while maintaining unity between them. “Plain reason” leads us to deduce that God is “trinity:” three persons in one essence.

The ELS doctrinal statement, based upon texts like Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:5 & 28, Philippians 1:1, and 1 Timothy 3:8, asserts, according to the ELS President’s explanation, that God has instituted every office that the Church may use for teaching His Word or administering His sacraments. Some ELS pastors have disagreed with this conclusion, especially when it is made on the basis of these passages. The passages do not explicitly support the conclusion of the ELS doctrinal statement.

The question at issue is this: does the doctrinal statement’s support of this assertion (and others) qualify as “plain reason?” If the assertions are supported by scripture and “plain reason,” then we must accept them. If they are not, then we must not say that they are part of God’s doctrine.

The problem with the assertions in controversy is that they do not use deductive logic. Instead, they infer what they say from the cited scripture verses using inductive logic. If the logic is in fact deductive, then those who defend the assertions will have to state their premises, defend them if necessary, and show how they inevitably lead to the controversial assertions in the doctrinal statement. Lutherans do not use inductive logic as the primary support for their doctrinal assertions. (Perhaps that statement is at the center of the controversy.)

As I understand it, the logic of the doctrinal statement (according to the explanation of the synod president) runs as follows:

  • Several titles are given in scripture for those who publicly teach God’s Word and/or administer the sacraments.
  • None of the titles are called “divinely instituted” in preference to others.
  • It appears that the various titles refer to different aspects of the work.
  • It appears that a distinction is made between some who work with God’s Word and some who do not.
  • It appears that a distinction is made between two groups of titles which work with God’s Word.

There may be other observations someone might make in defense of the conclusion. The conclusion is then:

This divinely instituted Public Ministry of the Word includes both a narrower and a wider sense.

… meaning that all of the offices the Church uses to administer the Word are divinely instituted, whether they fall under the narrower or wider sense, and

The extent to which one is authorized by the call of the church to exercise the keys publicly is the extent to which one is in the Public Ministry of the Word.

… meaning that some of these offices are not entirely “in” the Public Ministry of the Word. Some are further “in” than others.

The controversy is that some people accept this doctrine and others do not. Of those who do not accept it, quite a few read the ELS doctrinal statement differently, so that the context of these assertions determines that they do not mean what the the ELS President’s explanation says they mean.

In addition to this central doctrinal question, there has also arisen a more pressing situation. The ELS president has been called upon to admit that he erred in judgment when he suspended one pastor among many who strongly opposed these assertions in the doctrinal statement. Some pastors have demonstrated that they still recognize fellowship with the suspended pastor. Others, with their churches, have entered a “state of confession” which insists that the president should not be communed as long as he does not repent of this error, which they consider to be sin. It appears that the ELS could even split, but not over the doctrinal statement itself. Rather, the split could come because of the treatment that doctrinal concerns have received since the adoption of the doctrinal statement. Instead of addressing the concerns with “Scripture and plain reason”, the prospect (and use) of synodical discipline has altered the controversy and made a breach of fellowship not only possible, but likely for many and already a reality for some.

5 thoughts on “The central doctrinal question in the ELS flap

  1. Thank you for keeping a calm, clear, well-reasoned, Scriptural, and pastoral (in the sense of soul-care) head in your postings on this issue.

    There are a couple of issues which come to bear on this controversy. One you have discussed, that is, the distinction between an administrative definition of fellowship based on the actions of the ELS president and the Appeals Committee (the reasoning of which we still wait to see) vs. a doctrinal definition of fellowship drawn from Scripture–which demands not only breaking of fellowship with those who genuinely do teach differently than Scripture, and also demands recongizing fellowship with those who do teach according to Scripture.

    The second issue, which is somewhat confusing to me, is that there are some who define the term “office”-or more particularly, the term “amt” with “function” or “task”. While the term “amt” has had some fluidity between meaning “a position to carry out certain defined tasks” and “a task itself” during the period of the Reformers, Confessors and up to the Silver Age of Lutheranism; it appears that sometime during the 20th century that the term “amt” became most closely associated with “task” or “duty.”

    I haven’t been able to discern what socio-linguistic events caused this shift in focus on the meaning. But I think that the WELS teachers A. Pieper, and J. Schaller were two of the progenetors of this focus in meaning. From reviewing the LQ and WLQ through the years it seems that the 1980 articles on the ministry were seminal in that they basically dismissed the WELS writings on ministry of previous years and placed all their eggs in the basket where “amt” equals “task” to the exclusion of any “position to carry out a task.”

    When the definition of “office” or “amt” is so narrowly, arbitrarily made-and that, contrary to the usage in the previous 4 centuries we come upon a language difficulty. This difficulty prevents people from communicating.

    To me it seems obvious from reading Scripture that the “office” of the ministry of the New Testament is not merely a “task” or set of tasks. It is a position to carry out those tasks to which a male is authorized by God through the assembly or calling body. The tasks are explicit and specific: preaching the Word of God to the assembly and administering the Sacraments to them. There is no legitimate “office” without the “tasks” and there are no legitimate exercises of the “tasks” without being placed in a position to carry them out-the situation of need being the only exeption.

    I’m confident that my paper on the Endings of the Gospels and the Institution of the Office of the Ministry demonstrated from Scripture that tasks were to be done until Christ returns and that the office or position of administering them should be filled until Christ returns.

    But in the meanwhile I am faced with a false dilemma. The dilemma placed before me is that I should bow to the administrative definition of fellowship when it is clearly out of line with our Synod’s correct understanding of Biblical doctrine of fellowship.

    For readers who may not know better, I am the pastor who installed Pr. Preus at the ELS congregation in Mayville, ND.

    It has been a rather morbidly interesting thing to watch the president of the ELS change his reasonings as to why Pr. Preus was suspended. Even more so at the General Pastoral Conference in Oct. 2006 it was interesting to hear his “chronological” presentation of the events begin with the verdict of the Appeals Committe as if that event had taken place prior to my installing of Pr. Preus.

    You wrote of the possibility that a breach of fellowship might take place over either the synod’s newly and controversially adopted statement on the Public Ministry of the Word or over the way in which doctrinal concerns have been managed by the current administration of the ELS. At a doctrinal level, drawing from the teaching of Scripture there is not a great breach in fellowship. From discussions with many different pastors in the ELS I believe that both I, the others who participated in Pr. Preus’ installation, Pr. Preus, and the vast majority of ELS pastors are in doctrinal fellowship not only on the breadth of Scriptural doctrine but especially as we focus on the teachings of Scripture regarding the Ministry of the Church.

    I see the problem facing the ELS as whether it prefers to accept an administrative definition of fellowship over the definition given by Scripture. I sincerely pray that our brethren can be brought quickly to see the difference between these two types of authority. I pray further that they submit to the Word of God rather than the word of men.

  2. Thanks Pastor Jacobsen. This is a helpful post, and I appreciate your willingness to engage the Synod’s doctrinal statement.
    I’m not sure I see how the uses of logic sort this one out for us. Let me offer you a syllogism backed up by Scripture:
    The ministry is the work of God the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:8, 4:1, 5:18; Gal. 2:8).
    Humans cannot understand the work of Holy Spirit (John 3:8).
    Therefore, humans cannot understand the ministry.
    If this syllogism is correct, then we can’t say much about the ministry by means of deductive logic. Now, that’s not to say that we must say NOTHING about it, but I would say that it does preclude the use of logic to deduce what the ministry is or to predict what it will be in the future.
    It seems to me that the logic of faith is often inductive. We recognize that we have a limited set of facts and a limited ability to interpret them. So, we should speak about doctrine by following the pattern that Scripture uses. Isn’t that inductive logic?


    ### Response from J.

    Your syllogism, at first glance, demonstrates that logic has a weakness. It’s true that logic has a weakness, namely that it can’t find or comprehend our gracious God without outside help.

    Yet upon further inspection, I think your syllogism shows the strength of logic. Your conclusion, that humans cannot understand the ministry, is not so far off the mark. The ministry is God’s work through the Means of Grace. It involves the turning of enemies to repentance and faith, and the repeated strengthening of that faith. Do humans understand that? I think not. Your syllogism summed it up nicely. Thankfully, our lack of understanding doesn’t preclude our usefulness as God’s instruments.

    Yet I don’t see why (deductive) logic should be useless when we try to describe the ministry. We often confess what we do not understand, like the *genus maiestaticum.* Logic was not useless in confessing other articles of faith. You seem to think that faith and logic are at odds with one another. If logic is used properly (i.e. ministerially vs. magisterially), then it is a great blessing to faith. We can ensure that logic is not used magisterially by including as a premise that holy scripture is the inerrant Word of God.

    About inductive logic, I have a sincere, ordinary question for you. Can you think of any examples where Lutherans have confessed an article of faith based primarily on holy scripture and inductive logic? I tend to think that any you might think of would turn out not to use inductive logic upon closer examination. Then again, I’ve been wrong before.

  3. I’ll also say that I thought your example of the Trinity proved the opposite point of what you said.
    In defining that doctrine, the Church uses premises she can’t confirm except by faith in Scripture (i.e. “God speaks of Himself as being One,” “God speaks of Himself as being Three”) to prove a conclusion we can’t understand (God is Three in One). While this is an example of faithfully using Scripture and clear reason, it seems to me that it is an example of inductive and not deductive logic.


    ### Response from J.

    You have answered yourself here by saying “the Church uses premises she can’t confirm except by faith in Scripture.” So, the first premise concerning the Trinity is that Holy Scripture is God’s inerrant, infallible Word. Maybe I should have included that in the original article. An abbreviated expression of the reasoning would be:

    1. Holy Scripture is God’s infallible, inerrant Word.
    2. Holy Scripture says there is exactly one God.
    3. Holy Scripture describes three divine persons.

    Ergo, God is trinity: three persons in one essence.

  4. Right, I did answer my own question. But the answer is that doctrine based on Scripture relies on inductive logic. That is, when we see that Scripture speaks of certain things in certain ways in certain instances and we then draw conclusions based on such incidental evidence, we are using inductive reasoning.


    ### Reply from J.J.

    An example would really help me understand what you mean here. What things, ways, instances, and conclusions?

    Also, I wonder if you’re making the proper distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning. Do you mean to say that incidental evidence leads to inductive reasoning? If so, it would help to look at the Wikipedia link on inductive reasoning that I put in the article.

    Please excuse me if you already realize this. What makes reasoning inductive or deductive is not the kind of evidence used in the premises, but rather the relationship between the premises and the conclusion. Deductive reasoning demands that the conclusion be inevitable for the reasoning to be valid. (It may still be based on false premises.) Inductive reasoning is most usefully applied to probabilities and population samples, where there is an acceptable margin of error. Which is appropriate in theology? Luther’s observation to Erasmus applies here: “The Holy Ghost is no skeptic.”

    Back to your comment (for which I thank you most heartily) …


    I don’t know, I don’t want to strain out gnats here, but I don’t see the chasm between the kinds of logic being used by the different sides that your post attempted to point out.
    …of course, since there is no one doctrine competing with the PMW, I’m not sure I’d accept the very idea of “sides” in the first place, but that’s a different story.

  5. Alright, I read Wikipedia again, and I think we’re both right. The entry says that inductive logic is “the process of reasoning in which the premises of an argument are believed to support the conclusion but do not ensure it.” So, that’s what you’re talking about. However, it goes on, “It is used to ascribe properties or relations to types based on tokens (i.e., on one or a small number of observations or experiences).” Examples are provided: “this ice is cold, therefore all ice is cold” and “billiard balls move when struck with a cue, therefore everything moves when struck with a cue.” So, that’s what I’m talking about. It seems to me that the two points are flipsides of the same coin, although I’m not logician enough to say exactly why. Hopefully we can agree to agree that we’re talking about the same logical issue.
    You asked for an example of what I mean when I say that Biblical logic is different from logic anywhere else. I don’t enjoy giving an example here, since it necessarily means finding a logical flaw in Christian doctrine, but, since you asked, we’ll stick with the Trinity.
    Earlier you gave this as how you logically deduce the Trinity:
    “1. Holy Scripture is God’s infallible, inerrant Word.
    “2. Holy Scripture says there is exactly one God.
    “3. Holy Scripture describes three divine persons.
    “Ergo, God is trinity: three persons in one essence.”
    I could go a number of ways here, but I think I’ll challenge the logic of the conclusion as it is drawn from premise #3. Couldn’t it be that there are more than three, and God just didn’t reveal His other persons to us? Heresy? Certainly. Fallacy? not necessarily.
    We can assert that God as a Quadrany is unlikely (since it’s an argument from silence), but the same could be said of the orthodox opinion. The finite number of “God’s Words” that we have is actually rather small (no matter what your average catechism student would say), and there’s no way to seek out more examples. There’s no way to be sure that, if God were to say more things about His nature, then our conclusion would be proved false.
    So, to bring this to bear on the PMW, I think it does a good job of mining Scripture for relevant ministry loci, drawing faithful conclusions based on the Scriptural information, and then explaining the importance of those conclusions.
    For one who chooses to nay-say it, finding fault with it’s logic is one way to go. …although I don’t see that there’s a shortage of things to disagree about such that one would seek out such a fine hermaneutical point as this one.
    So, anyway, my counter-point to yours is, again, that Scriptural doctrine uses logic but does not rise and fall with it. So, does the PMW contain fallacy? Perhaps. Heresy? Not necessarily.

Leave a Reply