Almost everyone knows Martin Luther's famous defense before the Diet of Worms: "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Not as many people can quote what he said just before that. "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I cannot and will not retract."
That quotation sums up the way the Lutheran movement began: as a demand for the church to operate under Scriptural authority.
When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed its social statement on sexuality last summer, approving of gay unions and gay clergy, it made no effort appeal to Scripture at all. This frustrated and angered conservative Lutherans, who would have disagreed with the statement's teaching even if the document had appealed to scriptural authority. But to ignore Scripture entirely? How un-Lutheran.
In late August, I joined more than 800 conservative Lutherans in Columbus, Ohio, for Lutheran CORE's free theological conference. We listened to seven theologians (augmented by theologically oriented preachers and a banquet speaker) focus on the crisis in authority in their church.
The Tuesday-through-Thursday event was designed to frame a Thursday-through-Friday convocation which in turn gave birth to a new Lutheran denomination—a safe haven for congregations that find the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America too liberal and the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church too "fundamentalist" for their comfort.
The Gnostic Flight from Authority
Braaten described the ELCA approach to authority as deficient in three "Gnostic" ways, deficiencies that played a big role in the passage of last summer's ELCA social statement on sexuality.
Deficiency 1: Like the ancient Gnostics, the ELCA is antinomian—it rejects the law of God.
Deficiency 2: Like the ancient Gnostics, the ELCA claims a higher knowledge—higher than anything available from an external Word of God. Gnostics trusted instead in enlightenment from within, which is where they locate God. So do those guiding ELCA's decisions, said Braaten.
Deficiency 3: Like the ancient Gnostics, ELCA leaders sneer at the idea that we can look to a book as our authority—especially a book written by Jews. Antinomianism and anti-Semitism are always found together, said Braaten.
Irenaeus and other patristic writers opposed such trends with a three-fold structure of authority: biblical authority within the limits of the canon, a rule of faith (embodied later in the creeds) to guide the interpretation of the Bible, and the conciliar consensus of the apostles' authorized successors (which in turn defines what it means to be "little-c" catholic).
Braaten commended Irenaeus's response as a guide for contemporary Christians facing neo-Gnostic challenges. We must renew our understanding of the proper use of the Law, of the proper source of the knowledge of God, and of the nature of authority.
Lutherans are feisty. Their founder was feisty. So it was not surprising to hear Braaten label certain proposals advanced by the ELCA as "cockamamie," and to commend the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone as a "Lutheran crap detector." And when he was asked from the floor whether ELCA headquarters has any idea that Gnosticism is a problem today, Braaten quipped: "It's a polysyllabic word."
Testing the Spirits
Paul Hinlickey of Roanoke College took the lectern next. He framed his appeal for authority as "a plea for critical dogmatics"—a combination of boldly, confidently asserting Christian belief and testing the spirits in the present hour to see whether they are of God.