Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mark's thoughts: Lutheran beliefs in the years to come?

A 2018 survey of evangelicals by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay research found that 97% of respondents indicated agreement with this statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”  However, it found that 78% indicated they agreed with this statement as well: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”  In addition, 59% agreed with the statement: “The Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being” (16% were unsure, and only 25% disagreed).


Survey results always invite questions about methodology, and the results can only be seen as one indicator of the situation. Yet once this caveat has been expressed, it is shocking to see evidence for commonly held opinions that directly contradict the orthodox Christian faith as confessed in the Nicene Creed.  Faith in Jesus Christ saves, but there are very serious problems if the Jesus of that faith is in fact an Arian one.


It fair to say that non-denominational evangelical churches place a relatively low emphasis on the doctrinal content of the faith, and a high emphasis on the personal meaning and value for the individual. The description provided by one very popular evangelical church in my area summarizes well what most are attempting to provide:  “Our worship services are truly energetic and are primarily made up of engaging worship music and dynamic teaching. God’s Word is presented in a way that applies directly to your life.”  This is a “lowest common denominator” Christianity that seeks to be “practical.”  Catechesis that teaches the individual about the confession of the church in order to join the congregation is not part of this model.  The true engine of evangelical churches, the small group ministry, does not emphasize doctrinal content because it too seeks be practical for life and is led most often by laity who have little theological training.


Evangelical churches of this kind are living off of the theological capital of earlier Christians.  The intent of their leaders is to be orthodox Christians.  Yet their very character as non-denominational churches works against the preservation of this orthodoxy.  By rejecting creeds and liturgy they have cast the worship of their people into a vacuum that is filled only with emotionally charged “worship experiences” and practical teaching. There is little to guide and form belief about the Trinity and the person of Christ, and at the same time this is not a focus in other areas of church life.


The contrast is marked when one considers just two pieces found in the liturgy.  The Introit contains the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”  Explicitly anti-Arian in phrasing, through weekly repetition it drives home the point: God has always been this way.  There can be no consideration of “there was when He was not.”


Likewise the Nicene Creed confesses in unmistakable terms the orthodox faith.  A Christian who says every Sunday that he or she believes in one Lord Jesus Christ who was “begotten, not made” is going to find it very hard to agree with the statement that, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”  


I make these observations not in relation to evangelicalism.  After all, they are being what they claim to be (even if it is perilous for the long term spiritual health of their congregations).  Instead, I direct them at Lutheran churches who are seeking to imitate them. The trend is very clear.  Lutheran churches seek to minimize catechesis because this seems like a barrier to people joining the congregation.  Catechesis in little more than a Saturday is not unheard of today.  Worship is the evangelical model: an energetic experience of “engaging worship music and dynamic teaching.”  Creeds may not be eliminated, but in the bulletins that members bring back I have noticed a trend toward the use of the Apostles’ Creed.  I suspect that this is because it is shorter and seems more accessible to outsiders. Yet the language of the Apostles’ Creed was unable to fend off Arianism, and the Nicene Creed was created because it was necessary for the Church in order to do so.


If you want to know what a church really believes, don’t look at their confessions and doctrinal books.  Instead, look at how they worship.  This is what will be forming the belief of the people who gather week in and week out.  The trends that affect the spiritual health of a church cannot be evaluated in years or decades.  Instead they must be considered over centuries. Yet our moment in time is not unimportant in this evaluation.  The biblical understanding of tradition is that each generation passes on to the next what they have received (1 Corinthians 15:3).  Each generation has a responsibility to see that the same faith is passed on to the next.  The creeds and liturgy have always been the key tool in doing this for the laity of the Church.  Decisions made to abandon these or adjust their use will ripple on in unexpected ways.  Trends in some Lutheran churches today offer the potential that one hundred years from now members may in an unreflective way agree with this statement: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”





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