These documents, carved out in the heat of battle, are clearly situational documents. One must know something of the context of their origination in order fully to understand them. Like all documents, these confessions are products of history. Written in the German and Latin of the day, the documents oftentimes argue subtle positions demanding that one have a scholar’s knowledge of the meaning of the technical terms, and a philosopher’s sense of what is ontologically possible.
But, it might be fairly asked, what have these documents to do with us today? Why would we slavishly praise documents emerging in the sixteenth century as somehow getting right scripture and giving us the truth for all time? After all, had not scripture been around for some 15 centuries already when these documents were written? Had it not already sustained countless interpretations, and had not Christendom broken into various traditions of its interpretation? How can we say that Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz et al got it right where all others failed? Is it not a major cultural imperialistic move to claim that one’s take on things is right and everyone else is wrong? Do we really want to be so unmitigatedly ethnocentric?
The result of fixing the interpretation of the text was predictable: others objected and controversy ensued. The Formula of Agreement, the last and longest confessional document, is itself the result of controversy. In steering between warring camps the Formula set the standard for Lutheran subtlety. Calvinists, Catholics, and Anabaptists all clearly disagreed that the Lutherans had the proper interpretation of scripture and the proper view of God and God’s relationship with human beings - - especially as God deals with man and woman in the Church and with the sacraments.
Lutherans did not back down, of course. Armed with the classic distinction between quatenus and quia, Lutherans held that their documents were not simply true in so far as the rightly explicated the Bible, but were true because they so explicated it. On the quatenus reading some parts of the Confessions elucidate biblical truth, but it is possible others do not. However, on the quia interpretation, all of the Confessions are true, for all elucidate biblical truth. So Lutherans were pretty certain they had the right read on scripture. All of their confessional documents were true because they unpacked what was taught in scripture.
So the seventeenth century basically closed with a conflict of interpretations among the reforming traditions and the Catholic Church from which they had emerged. Each thought they were right; each believed that their disagreements with each other were serious, factual, and so important as to threaten salvation itself.
But this honeymoon was short-lived. It is but a small step from openness of others’ views on the basis of the underdetermination of the theological theory by the evidence, to a claim that the dispute between rival religious groups really does not constitute a real dispute at all. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion seemed to undermine any religious claim to knowledge, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason placed religious objects, events, properties, and states of affairs outside of the domain of existing things entirely. Kant famously argued that God could not be a substance that could be in principle causally related to other substances, that is, that God could not exist as a being existing apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. God was rather “a regulative ideal of human reason.”
After Kant, theologians struggled to find ways of understanding the claims of theology antimetaphysically. Whatever was going on with theological and doctrinal claims, it is not like the traditions assumed. God was not a special supreme being among other beings that had supernatural powers to affect the distribution of natural properties. Religious and theological language more and more pointed to the depth of human existence itself. In the heady 19th century academic theology environment of the German university, it was natural to think that something profound was being found, or at least pointed to, by theological language. In this environment, the specificity of contrary confessions began even to lose their ability to conflict. Various confessional traditions were thought to talk in different ways about an ultimate dimension at the depth of human existence.
This was, of course, the ultimate triumph in Enlightenment tolerance. Two confessional traditions did not make conflicting claims, but rather gave different interpretations, interpretations that were not in the business of making truth-claims about God at all. Such tolerance spread into the 20th century, where theological claims were put safely on the side of values and thus inoculated from the whole question of truth.
The Lutheran tradition in North America struggled in its “pre-Enlightenment” and “post-Enlightenment” interpretations of theological claims. For those committed to the “old way” the claims of theology were still in principle true of an extra-linguistic domain in which God was a member. Many of those emigrants from 19th century Europe carried the old ways with them.
Others, however, were committed to the “new way” of thinking, a way that understood that theological language was not making the kinds of claims people assumed it did. These “new ways” of thinking did not establish themselves academically in North America as early as did their counterparts in the other Protestant traditions. While practitioners of the old found conflict between their confessional documents, those assuming the new realized that their confessional documents no longer were true - - at least not in the sense that their traditions had always understood. To be a Lutheran was no longer to be a Lutheran because Lutheran theology was true, but rather being Lutheran was simply something given, where one found oneself. Given this, the only option available for those wanting to retain confessional allegiance was simply to adopt the confessional theology as decorative of that Lutheran identity.
I think this picture of things is one that resonates with vast numbers of people within ELCA and ELCIC churches. Most attending services are clearly not concerned with the truth-claims of the confessions and whether or not these claims exclude other truth-claims. (Of course, logically to claim that something obtains is to claim simultaneously that many other things do not obtain.) The lamentable thing about this picture is this: It suggests that Lutheran theology only mostly engages people that already just happen to self-identify as Lutheran. The theology thus for them is decorative of their identity as Lutherans. To learn the tradition is simply to learn more about being a Lutheran, it is to learn how one can decorate herself with a Lutheran ethos. Being Lutheran becomes then a possible role that one adopts in the world, a role adopted in the effort of finding meaning and purpose and identity in the universe. The confessions thus become all about “belongingness” to a group; they are important only for diachronic community.
It is this picture of things, friends, that we Lutherans must now reject. We must reject this picture because ultimately it is incoherent, in other words, “this horse don’t run.” Theological language that does not make truth claims, a language that is merely descriptive and ornamental is not a language that the churches can or will long speak. We don’t know how to speak this language for the long term, for we don’t know what difference is made ultimately by speaking it or not speaking it.
I believe the time has come for we Lutherans again to embrace their confessions, not as decorative to our being-as-Lutherans, but as truth-claims about the world in which we find ourselves. Our postmodern situation gives us opportunity directly again to claim that there is a loving God, and that this loving God has justified the lost - - all of us - - even though there is no merit or goodness within us. We can and must go even further. We must assert again that our confessions make truth claims on the basis of a biblical text that is perspicuous. Scripture is clear, and our confessions clearly declare its clarity.
Now some will say that this is repristination; they will say that we just want to bring back the good old days. My response is, “yes, we do want to bring back the good old days when theology was taken as having a subject matter, making truth claims, and being in principle relatable to other kinds of discourse.” It is true that we do want to treat theological claims again in ways more like the “old ways” of the pre-Enlightenment. But while we wish to do this, we want to use all of the tools at our disposal today to recover the old.
Luther and many of the Reformers were university professors trained deeply in logic and semantics. They were acutely aware of the meaning of terms, and the importance of specificity and clarity in their theological utterances. They were men aware that theological language was a language that made truth claims and that one had to understand both the significance and the supposition of terms before one understood what the claims were. They were men who believed that there was a divine realm and that it was connected to the earthly order in various ways.
They believed that if God had not acted certain things would not have been, and if God were to act certain things would come to be. The horizon of the confessions is a horizon of the old way.
However, all must realize that the days of the Kantian hegemony are over within philosophy. All must realize that the days of the verificationist criterion of meaning lie behind us. In many ways philosophers at work now, because of their deep sensitivity to logical and semantic issues, are much closer to the horizon of the confessions than philosophers have been for centuries. Analytic methods of philosophy are useful for studying the confessions because they emphasize truth conditions: a statement’s meaning is to be found in how the world would have to be if the statement were true. Accordingly, “God established the office of preaching” is true if and only if God established the office of preaching.
So how are the confessions normative today? If “God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” is true if and only if God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then the claims of the confessions come alive again. After all, what difference would it make to give quia subscription to the confessions if we no longer believed that they said what the Reformers clearly meant them to say? Perhaps the new way was no way at all.