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 reasonâ€”I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each otherâ€”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.