Christians living today are fortunate to have received such a treasury of theology from our ancestors in the faith. They may have departed this Earth to be with Christ centuries or even millennia ago, but they still have the opportunity to teach us through what they’ve left behind. Like Scripture itself, one of the advantages of these texts, creeds, and confessions is that they offer us a word of wisdom from outside the contemporary assumptions, struggles, and circumstances in which we are naturally buried. They can provide insights which could be all too easy for us to blithely overlook due to our own culture.
The challenge in receiving such words from outside is that it’s not always immediately clear how they apply to contemporary assumptions, struggles, and circumstances. God has not given us a flowchart determining how we each should live. And so, every age of Christians will also have to use the wisdom God has given them to discern how best to follow His Word. Those who do this well will apply Scripture and sound doctrine to their lives and their culture. Those who do this poorly will instead apply their own lives and culture to Scripture and sound doctrine, baptizing that which should be under judgment.
Though I have only begun reading CPH’s new publication, “Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications,” it is sadly clear that it contains a great deal of the latter.
This new volume quickly became the subject of controversy, and it has already been temporarily removed from CPH’s store. Upon its release, quite a few Lutherans took notice and started to catalogue some of its very questionable topics and quotations. So I began reading the included essays myself to see how representative those quotes truly are. Naturally, beginning with the ones which raised so many red flags doesn’t lend itself to a balanced review of the volume as a whole. Nevertheless, to borrow Luther’s analogy, the right amount of falsehood in your doctrine is like the right amount of rat droppings in your bread. The Large Catechism is one of the Lutheran Confessions; one cannot simply package it with doctrines of the Spirit of the Age and expect that to be overlooked. So let’s take a look at a pair of examples.
First up is “Encouragement for Christians with Gender Dysphoria and Homosexual Attraction,” Stephen Lee’s attempt to apply the 6th Commandment to the LGBTP issues that plague our society. And if ever there were a need to apply Biblical wisdom to a contemporary issue, transgenderism is certainly the right occasion. As far as perversion goes, it’s extraordinary even when taking a long view of history. And to be fair to Lee, the author does attempt to maintain Biblical conclusions on sexuality while still offering compassion to Christians who are entangled with these perversions.
The big problem with the piece, however, is that Lee takes many of the concepts of transgenderism and uses them as the tools of his analysis rather than the subject of his analysis. For example, the essay runs with the false concept of “gender identity” and consistently treats gender as something genuinely distinct from sex rather than recognizing that unbiblical distinction for the deception it is. He also describes the recognition of male and female as something that happens by Christian faith rather than by simple observations that even the pagans figured out. He perpetuates the idea that these perversions are inborn by describing natural sexual desire and self-recognition as gifts which God just doesn’t give to everyone. He repeatedly describes the transgender experience in terms of “sensing” themselves as the opposite sex, which I suspect is an attempt to affirm the experience–the genuine confusion, pain, and alienation–rather than dismissing it. However, that choice of words very much crosses the line into interpretation of that experience. “Sense” is what one immediately perceives–what we see, hear, etc– rather than what one, for example, falsely concludes based on shifting feelings of alienation.
But the worst example comes when he writes, “Christians with gender dysphoria generally continue to experience it, no matter how much they grow in faith and love toward God.” But from what do we dare to derive such certainty regarding permanence? From the “born this way” refrain of LGBT activists? From the despair of a teenager who thinks he’ll always feel that way because experience has not yet taught him the transience of emotion? Lee attributes this to a CTCR document from 2014, but that document only describes the condition (without evidence, I might add) as “what may well be a permanent, difficult reality.” It seems that Lee is the one establishing permanence as a norm rather than a mere possibility.
Yes, there are Christians who suffer illness, injury, or deformity until the very end of their lives here on Earth. Yes, they need pastoral care regarding these thorns in the flesh. But why should that be preached as the expectation or the default on this issue when we pray that God would heal everyone else? Why would we teach hopelessness as a doctrine? Why would we presume that even God Himself cannot stand before the might of sexual confusion or perverse desire? Has the Devil truly discipled us so thoroughly that we just take his word for it on the matter? Considering the rapid explosion of transgenderism which bears all the marks of a social contagion, it is foolish in the extreme to simply assume that there’s anything permanent about it–other than the damage they inflict on themselves because fools keep telling them there’s no other hope.
My first impression is that these problems aren’t malicious on the author’s part–merely naïve. As I said, the author works hard to maintain the Biblical conclusions about sexuality–that male & female are real creations of God and that homosexual sex cannot be legitimated. However, by adopting so much of the framework of LGBTP ideology and setting it alongside our Confessions, he does more to undermine those conclusions than I suspect he realizes. Even mere naiveté has no place included alongside our Confessions as an explanation of how to apply it to contemporary issues.
Another of the more problematic essays is “Justice For All, Exemptions For None” by John Arthur Nunes. But before I start listing the problems, I do want to give him credit for one of his good points. He writes:
Luther stingingly indicts those merchants who “defraud, steal, and rob us” through market practices and markups. I would include pawn shops laundering stolen goods, usurious credit industries, and the rent-to-own furniture sector in which low-income lessees resort to paying up to three times the sticker to furnish their home. There are attempts to legislate against or limit these predatorial corporate activities—for example, in the cases of “price gouging” and “payday loans.” After reading the Large Catechism, however, no Christian could defend these deeds as not rising to the Seventh Commandment’s prohibition against stealing, irrespective of the deeds’ permissibility.
While I think most of us would naturally look down on these industries, I want to highlight this part simply because so few contemporary Lutherans even remember that usury is a sin. It’s a shame that the indictment seems restricted to excessive interest rather than interest in general, but we have to start somewhere.
The big problem with Nunes’ piece, however, is not so much in the specific details, but in the fact that the entire thing is framed in the concepts of Marxism and Critical Race Theory. He begins his introductory paragraph with class warfare: “For middle- or upper-class Christians it is not uncommon to think that many commandments are most acutely relevant to the crimes found in poorer communities.” He then adds, “A transformative insight of [Luther] consists in applying God’s Law prohibiting theft to less-than-obvious perpetrators—the virtuous who possess economic and societal privilege.” Whereas covetousness is one of those sins which applies to virtually everyone, Nunes’ purpose is to single out the villains in the Marxist paradigm of oppressor/oppressed–a choice that can hardly be considered coincidental, couched as it is in the modern social justice terminology of “privilege.”
The further you go into the piece, the harder it becomes to plausibly chalk up this language to coincidence. Nunes continually interweaves Luther’s words with Marxist concepts. When Luther talks about those who steal with honor in the eyes of the world, Nunes connects it to “systemic deprivation of others.” Likewise, in his “Sins Within Structures” section, Luther’s statement that “God does not want you to deprive your neighbor of anything that belongs to him” is immediately recast as a matter of providing “access to goods and services” (access, of course, being fundamentally different than ownership.) One could make a case for such provision under the 5th Commandment, but to inject it here is to replace the Biblical view of property with an alien one.
Nunes then proceeds to follow this substituted concept of access to decry additional sins of “privilege” such as… networking. He explains, “For example, in our context, ‘minority’ business owners or newcomers to the United States might be excluded because of an inequity of connectedness.” But neither networking nor inequity are examples of covetousness. They could be leveraged as such, of course, but so could literally any facet of society. Nunes, however has a laser focus on the primary paradigm of Critical Race Theory: white (non-minority) oppressors versus oppressed people of color. He then attempts to project that paradigm back onto Luther’s words, associating the well-networked as Luther’s “great noblemen, gentlemen, and princes” who he, of course, labels as possessors of unconscious “nepotistic” bias. He then proceeds to work his complaints about “gentrification” into the mix as well. He always stops just short of outright saying “white privilege” and the like, but his purpose is clear.
In the end, what Nunes has produced wears the clothes of Luther’s analysis of the 9th and 10th Commandments. Wrongful gain with worldly approval is indeed precisely where Luther places covetousness and where Christians must be most on guard against it. But throughout the piece, these fine garments are placed onto the deceitful frameworks of Marxism and Critical Race Theory. These are poisonous, anti-Christian, and anti-truth philosophies–ironically rooted in covetousness–which Nunes is quite blatantly turning into stowaways onboard the Large Catechism. And unlike Lee’s piece, I can find no plausible reason to chalk it up to naiveté–especially considering the man’s history.
I could keep pointing out the problems with this tome. These two essays by no means account for all the red flags that have been raised. I’ve also read “Hatred as Murder” and “The Commandments and Social Justice”, which both include some obvious use of Critical Race Theory. “Lawful Lethal Force” attempts to delegitimize private self-defense and relegate the sword exclusively to the state–as though God had given fathers neither responsibility nor authority for their families’ safety. The book establishes even more women as authoritative teachers of men in our church body, which I’ve already written more than enough about. The inclusion of radical “Lutheran” Stephen “Christ sinned” Paulson in any capacity is indefensible. Perhaps I will continue later and critique some of the other entries. For now, however, these two examples should suffice to demonstrate that the red flags were not raised irresponsibly, and Synod was right to pull it down and review it. This volume contains some very serious problems–problems which faithful Lutherans cannot ignore when they come down to us from Synod and from CPH as an exposition of Lutheran doctrine.
Naturally, all this controversy has brought out our 8th Commandment Police who are determined to cast all public criticism of public error as a sin. I’ve seen a number of people claim that the critics are simply reading these essays in the worst possible light instead of putting the best construction on them. They try very hard to invent ways of interpreting them as orthodox and salutary. Then they claim that if such a way exists, the 8th Commandment demands that it must be read that way by any critic.
But as with all of God’s Commandments, we need to practice the 8th in the real world rather than an imaginary one. Could a world exist where these essays would be read innocently because the errors they promote don’t exist? Sure. But in the face of the widespread and well-defined errors with which our society is saddled, it is far more appropriate to ask whether these essays conform to those errors. Writers who were both faithful and competent at applying our Confessions to present circumstances would be aware of those errors and explicitly place them under the judgment of God’s Word. “Best construction” does not give anyone a pass on that responsibility–particularly if one accepts the task of explaining the Lutheran Confessions to God’s people.