Does Context Avert the Large Cataclysm?

Of all of the Lutheran Confessions, Luther’s Large Catechism is my favorite. Yes, the Augsburg Confession has more historical and theological significance, but as a layperson, the two catechisms were written specifically for the formation of my faith and as a tool for me to pass that faith on to my children. Having used the Large Catechism for both, it has a special significance in both my mind and my heart.

Considering how the Large Catechism was meant for the education of the laity, it’s quite fitting that faithful Lutheran laymen are the ones leading the outcry over the controversial edition of the Large Catechism recently released and then pulled by CPH–now being dubbed “the Large Cataclysm.”  We saw many short excerpts from it and were disgusted by what we read. But because we are laity, I’ve seen many defenders of the volume attempt to subject us to the cult of the expert. “Surely all these questionable quotations would be vindicated if they were read in context by the same experts who approved them in the first place!”

So are those quotes truly meet, right, and salutary once they have been read in context? Well, as a layman who has both studied at seminary and read the full essays from which those quotes were taken, it seems appropriate to examine two more of these essays with the context in mind.

First up is Joel Biermann’s “Lawful Lethal Force” on the vocational “exceptions” to the 5th Commandment. In it, he contends (correctly) that God and civil government are both allowed to use lethal force without necessarily breaking the Commandment. However, the essay concludes with this absolute stinker which has been repeatedly highlighted:

Finally, the recognition of a legitimate place for the use of the sword within God’s plan for His creation is not a license for any Christian to use the sword for any reason unilaterally deemed legitimate and necessary. And it certainly does not provide a scriptural foundation for a right to bear arms.4 Lethal force, Luther consistently taught, is rightly used only by the one placed into the Amt of authority in the state. It is never exercised for the sake of self, but always and only for the sake of the neighbor.

The plain reading of this paragraph is a repudiation of personal self-defense–condemning lethal force in defense of one’s own life as murder. After all, to defend oneself or one’s family against a violent attacker would be a unilateral decision in the moment borne out of necessity. Likewise, whatever else one may think of the 2nd Amendment, America’s right to bear arms undeniably gives ordinary citizens access to effective self-defense. And of course, most ordinary Christians confronted with a home invasion have not first been “placed into the Amt of authority in the state.” Taken together, there is no other reasonable way to read this paragraph as written.

So does the broader context of the essay help the matter? On the contrary, it only reinforces the normal understanding of the quotation. The essay as a whole is essentially about the distinction between murder and killing. God permits and even commands certain kinds of killing as part of certain vocations. But The last paragraph explicitly asserts that self-defense is not counted among what God permits or commands.

The greater context of the piece also explains quite well how Biermann came to his reprehensible error. In expositing government’s role in wielding the sword, he describes a progression from God to government to ordinary citizen, with the sword only being an allowance of the next higher authority. But this order is mixed up. According to Luther (in his explanation of the 4th Commandment in the Large Catechism ironically enough), the true progression of authority is God to parents to government. Luther recognizes the 4th Commandment as being the source of all temporal authority and civil government as proceeding from disparate fathers as they cooperate and delegate in the governance of their households. In other words, civil government’s sword is delegated from fathers specifically and God ultimately. And since the normal adult state of ordinary people is to be parents, the sword is by no means granted to us solely by a government that stands beneath us.

It is true that the sword should only be wielded on behalf of our neighbors rather than ourselves, but that’s entirely irrelevant in Biermann’s context. Love for neighbor is part of our explanation for why self-defense is appropriate. If someone tries to murder me while I’m walking down the street alone, my children would still lose their father, my wife her husband, my mother her son, and so forth. That’s to say nothing of being attacked while I’m with the people God has entrusted to my care. This is why violently defending myself would the appropriate course of action. When it comes to self-defense, “never exercised for the sake of self, but always and only for the sake of the neighbor” is a meaningless distinction because everyone is valuable to their neighbors, and even the hypothetical neighborless man is valued by God Himself. We are each likewise responsible for self-care, which is why suicide is counted as a violation of the 5th Commandment.

To reverse the matter as Biermann does and negate self-defense altogether is to teach Christians to count themselves as altogether worthless. The Bible does teach self-sacrifice, but it is always the sacrifice of something valuable–as any real sacrifice is. If a man chooses to relinquish the life God has given him, it is not done at the whim of a murderer, but for the sake of attaining something far more glorious in God’s sight. Without a God-given regard for self, Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” would be incoherent.

Likewise, we must remember the purpose of a catechism: to instruct ordinary Christians in the faith. The doctrine of vocation is all well and good. It must be taught to Christians. But when someone is breaking into your house, and you go to grab your gun, it’s not the time to be having an internal theological discussion about how vocation parses out or reflecting on whether your motives are truly selfless enough to be shooting the assailant. It is, instead, a time to do the job that God has given you. The appropriate way of approaching this in a catechetical context would be to first affirm that self-defense is valid, and then use vocation and love of neighbor to explain why. Biermann not only fails at this, but overtly denies the Lutheran Confessions and the Scriptures which they help exposit on this subject. Here, the context clearly condemns the essay rather than absolving it.

Next, let’s consider “Sexual Purity,” Andrea Schmeling’s essay on the Sixth Commandment, which contains this now-infamous line:

However, though some of us are burdened with homosexual lust, pornographic addiction, transgenderism, pedophilia, and polyamory, more often they are the speck in our neighbor’s eye rather than the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:3–5). For decades, if we didn’t wink at fornication we certainly turned our eyes from it, as long as the acts performed outside of marriage were heterosexual ones. We shudder in disgust when it suits us, forgetting that we, too, follow our hearts, that organ which produces every evil thought and sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22).

Now, before we start with the problems, there is actually a good point in here that the Church has been far too permissive about fornication. I’ve written about that at length already, so I won’t labor the point. Suffice to say that contemporary Lutherans absolutely deserve to be called on the carpet over it and need to repent. However, I will also note that in my experience, those who push this line are usually (not always) the first to object to any serious treatment of fornication. There are, for example, a number of specific Lutheran individuals I’ve seen defending this Large Catechism to the hilt who absolutely lost their minds even over the relatively mild “debt-free virgins without tattoos” observation from a few years ago.

So what are the problems that critics (including myself) have pointed out with this line?

First, why is this long list of sins–most of which are particularly grievous–being described as mere “burdens”? In a sense, these are burdens to anyone attempting to leave them for a chaste and decent life (with at least one exception, which I’ll get to in a bit), but is that really the most important category to put them in? It blithely adopts our culture’s ongoing destigmatization of sexual sin which has made these perversions so difficult to deal with.

Most Americans have a very stilted view of morality. The things we can control through immediate decisions and sheer force of will are counted within the realm of morality, but everything else is utterly beyond our responsibility and beyond any accusation of sin. This is why LGBT “born this way” rhetoric is so effective. We think there is no room between a conscious decision on one hand and meaningless circumstance–permanent and amoral quirks of psychology or biology–on the other. But this impoverished understanding ignores some of the most relevant parts of man’s moral nature–our characters, our virtues, our dispositions, our habits, and more. All of these aspects of a human being are ones which we build up over time. They are not a matter of immediate choice, but they are our direct responsibilities and proceed from a multitude of our past choices. All perversions and disorders found within them are our own personal sins. That’s why Christians have often used categories like concupiscence, besetting sins, and sins of weakness.

What’s more, this isn’t our first rodeo. Destigmatization of sin is a very well-worn path from “this is an unfortunate circumstance” to “don’t judge them for their orientation” to “acceptance would ease their heavy burdens” to “how dare you call it a disorder” to “we’ll be teaching it to your kids as a celebrated lifestyle.” With homosexuality and transgenderism having already travelled that road, why would we want to help pedophilia join them?

Anyone applying the 6th Commandment to contemporary circumstance should highlight and correct the shallow understanding which has lead so such debauchery rather than adopting and reinforcing it as Ms. Schmeling does. Yes, there can be aspects to homosexuality or pedophilia similar to addiction that can make the perverse desires a struggle to abandon in some cases. Yes, that’s burdensome. It requires time, hard work, patience, pain, and perseverance–all of which are hard to come by in our culture of instant gratification. But that is neither the whole story nor the most important part.

I also just have to point out: If all this “best construction” is really what the author meant by “burden,” then why is polyamory on this list at all? The desire to maintain a collection of willingly shared side-pieces instead of a spouse isn’t a besetting sin or a sin of weakness. It’s just an old fashioned matter of straightforward lust wrapped up in web of perverse rationalizations. I see no rationale to consider it a burden.

The second error the critics have highlighted is just as bad. All of these sins–including pedophilia, the most grievous one of the bunch–are quite explicitly described as mere specks in our neighbors eyes. Jesus tells us not to bother with such specks until we’ve removed the log in our own eye and that doing so is hypocrisy. But are homosexuality and pedophilia really sins which Christians should just ignore while we focus on fornication? Is it really hypocritical for us to address them?

Modern Lutherans may have shown ourselves inept at addressing fornication, but dismissing that sin has never been part of our doctrines. We have failed to live up to those doctrines, certainly, but that kind of failure is not what hypocrisy means. Hypocrisy is pretending to have a standard which you do not apply to yourself. We ought not wait upon perfection in lesser sins before we bother to place greater sins under the judgment of God’s Word. Rather, we confess our sins and continue to proclaim the whole counsel of God.

A statement like Schmeling’s implies an equivalency between all these sins and fornication. That is a heinous error. Different sins are by no means equal. Scripture makes it clear that some are worse than others in our eyes, in God’s eyes, in temporal punishment, and in eternal punishment. No reasonable Christian can compare the couple who fooled around in the back seat to that pair of gay activists who adopted, repeatedly raped, & pimped out two young boys and conclude, “It would be wrong of us to address the latter with any more ferocity than the former.” No morally sane individual should be referring to such as a speck in our neighbor’s eye.

Now, with the errors laid out, it’s time to ask: Does the greater context of the essay change our perception of the quote? Well, it actually does in one respect.

Although these sins are certainly not equal, they do share a few important characteristics. First, they are all paid for by the blood of Christ–even the worst of them. I communed alongside a convicted child molester for several years at one of my congregations. He knew the evil of what he had done; he continually repented of those sins; he did not return to those sins; and he willingly accommodated the fact that people needed to keep an eye on him to make sure of that. Based on what I knew of him, I expect to see him in heaven because even his pedophilia is forgiven.

The second shared characteristic of these sins is that they are all damnable apart from repentant faith in Christ. On Judgement Day, the couple who fornicated cannot save themselves by pointing to the gay men who raped and pimped out their adopted children. Yes, the latter will be punished far more severely in Hell in proportion to the sin, but that will not prevent the lesser eternal punishment of the fornicators.

And after reading the essay several times, I do think that this second shared characteristic is closer to what the author was trying to get across by lumping all these together. She  starts by discussing how Luther addressed the most frequent sins in his own society in contrast to those of ancient Israel. Then, immediately preceding the infamous line, she writes:

Like Luther, we also must address the most common unchastity among ourselves: that in the name of “sexual freedom” we feed our continual burning and honor neither virginity nor marriage. Our sin isn’t even secret: we speak of our lusts through crude joking and foolish talk, often naming ourselves by our sexual sin as no murderer or liar ever does.

So in the larger context of the essay, the point is that mundane fornication and divorce are more rampant than the sins in her list. Christians cannot allow the gross debauchery we see everywhere in our society to excuse us of those mundane sins rather than deliberately pursuing purity in our own lives. And both those things are true. So I’m pretty sure the author’s ultimate purpose was not to make pedophilia and homosexuality equivalent to mere fornication, to minimize them as mere “burdens,” or to destigmatize them. The context does indeed testify to that.

But all those errors are how she chose to make her larger point.

The context may clarify the author’s intentions about the infamous line, but that line is still there and it still says what it says. Context does not let the author, her editors, and her doctrinal reviewers off the hook. And it was an entirely unforced error because her point could have been made in any number of more appropriate ways. For example: “Homosexual lust, pornographic addiction, transgenderism, pedophilia, and polyamory may be more grievous sins that attract more attention. However, ordinary fornication and divorce are more common–so much so that many Christians turn a blind eye to them.” See how easy that was?

I’ve had editors warn me when its easy to take something I’ve written the wrong way. I also review my own writing with that in mind and frequently go back to fix it. How on earth did such bad phrasing make it to the final manuscript of a professional published volume? “It probably wasn’t the author’s intention to destigmatize pedophilia” is the platonic ideal of damning with faint praise. Is such a low bar really the best the LCMS can do for the Large Catechism? Because I’m pretty sure that a random nobody on the internet just explained her point better.

And so those who sounded the alarm on this quote were hardly in error or being uncharitable. Their understanding of this snippet was an accurate reflection of what the written words mean. The context does give us more insight into the author’s intention, but it doesn’t change the text. I’ll even go a step farther and say that the errors pointed out by critics are probably what a casual reader of this essay would walk away with. That kind of incompetence is inexcusable packaged alongside one of our Confessions as an attempt to explain it.

I’ve seen many critics defending the Large Cataclysm by treating errors like these as mere poor phrasing that doesn’t really detract from the volume as a whole. But this is like claiming that apart from the enemy soldiers inside, the Trojan Horse was a pretty amazing gift–or more famously, asking “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the opera?” Even if some of the problems did amount to (extremely) poor phrasing, they are still significant enough to overshadow the rest. If this were published as a collection of essays inspired by Luther’s Large Catechism, it would be a poor one because of problems like these that critics would be right to denounce. But publishing it as “Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications”–as one of our Confessions–is a travesty. The context does not change this.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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4 Responses to Does Context Avert the Large Cataclysm?

  1. Eric Phillips says:

    Re: the question of whether Luther “consistently taught” that one must be place in the _Amt_ of State Authority in order to wield the sword, here is an excerpt from Paul Althaus’s study _The Ethics of Martin Luther_ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972, p. 76):

    “This corresponds to Luther’s opinion of self-defense.(154) If the authorities persecute a Christian because of his faith (that is, in matters related to the First Table of the Law) he does not resist, but instead suffers everything, including death.(155) If a thief or robber uses violence against him, however, the Christian as a ‘citizen of this world’ ought to defend himself. The secular authorities require him to do so, and they themselves must resist the evil.(156) If a highway robber wants to take his life, he ought to meet violence with violence. In such a case he is protected by the secular authority, and he represents the authorities to whom he is subject. He acts as these authorities themselves would act and ought to act in fulfilling their responsibility to protect their citizens. Such violent self-defense is required of me, and therefore permitted, only when my life itself is threatened, and not in opposition to some other injustice. If my life is not threatened, any private exercise of force is forbidden, since in such cases we ought to wait for the authorities to act.(157) Luther thus establishes my right to defend myself when my life is under attack by asserting that it is no longer a private action for my own personal benefit but an official action of the authorities which I perform in an extraordinary way, that is, as a substitute for the official authority.”

    154 WA 18, 647; LW 46, 120.
    155 WA 39II, 41; WA TR 2, no. 1815.
    156 WA 39II, 41, 80; WA TR 2, no. 1815, 2666a, 2727a.
    157 WA 39II, 41.

    The main source here (from WA 39II) is the Circular-Disputation on the Right of Resistance against the Emperor (Matt. 19:21) held on May 9, 1539. Looks like there’s an English translation of it in the new volumes of Luther’s Works (vol. 56).

  2. Carl Vehse says:

    It is important to distinguish “just force” (which includes self-defense) from “violence” (which is unjust force).

    Self-defense is the use of just force against unjust force.

  3. Phillip Moyer says:

    I’m just curious why you believe that you seem to believe the sins mentioned in the Ten Commandments are *less* grievous than other sins. That seems… backwards.

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