The Proper Care and Feeding of Essential Theology

Blogger’s note: This is the prose version of a recent talk I gave at my church’s recent congregational retreat where we considered the subject of change in the Church.  It’s intended for a lay audience with varying levels of education.  The first half concerns what our essentials are as Lutherans, and the second half considers how we ought to think on our essentials in the midst of change.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” It’s a kind of motto for how Christians ought to interrelate to one another and navigate our differences while remaining peaceful and faithful. It’s also the theme for our next three presentations, and I’ve been asked to speak about the first of these three points: identifying our essentials.

What are Our Essentials?

One of the nice things about studying history is that there’s no question you’ll ask or situation you’ll find yourself in that other people haven’t already struggled with in one way or another. We’re certainly not the first Lutherans who have been confronted by a radically changing world and forced to take a hard look at what we dare not let go of in the midst of that change—or hat we need to do to adapt to it.

The decades that followed Luther’s death, for example, were an extremely difficult time for the Lutherans. On one side, you had the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor working together to destroy the Lutherans with military might. They handily defeated the German princes who had made Lutheranism legal in their territories, and for a time, they outlawed Lutheranism once again. In it’s place, they imposed Roman theology and practice by force, and Lutherans had to decide how much they were willing to comply with their emperor’s commands. Some did comply—even going so far as sacrifice even the Gospel—that we are saved by faith alone and not by our works—for the sake of peace and compliance with the world. Others held fast; they risked and gave their lives to hold true to what Scripture teaches.

At the same time, changes that the Lutherans made to church practice had opened the door to more radical changes from other Christians with very very different theology. Here too, many Lutherans were tempted to sacrifice what they believe for the sake of unity with those who would deny the very words of Christ Himself because they didn’t fit with their own philosophy. And here too, others stayed the course, knowing that sacrificing truth is far too high of a price for temporal unity. And as these Lutherans struggled, they asked themselves what is essential to us? What does it mean to be Lutheran? What unites us together and separates from others?

This is their answer, and it remains our answer today: It’s called the Book of Concord (meaning Agreement.) or “Concordia” in the latin (so if you’ve ever wondered why Lutherans call everything “Concordia” that’s why). It’s a collection of the ancient creeds of the Church along with documents written by Luther and others during the Reformation that explained the basic essentials of the Christian faith. These are what they found to be non-negotiable.

Now, most of you have probably never read most of the documents in this book. Some of you probably haven’t even heard of most of them. Unfortunately, it’s just not part of regular education for most Lutheran laity. But there is one document in here that you’ve all read: Luther’s Small Catechism. Regardless of whether we go on to study theology in greater depth, this is where we all learn it first. What are our essentials? The Book of Concord is the long answer to that question. The Small Catechism is the short answer.

Before writing the Small Catechism, Luther and other pastors did a survey of nearby parishes to discern how well their people knew Christianity. To say that the results weren’t good is something of an understatement. Here’s Luther’s comment from the preface:

The deplorable, miserable condition that I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Dear God, what great misery I beheld! The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach. This is so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it. Yet, everyone says that they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.

So Luther sought to correct the situation by writing this catechism—to provide the essentials of Christian doctrine in a plain, simple form that anyone can learn. And as we all learned during confirmation, it has 6 chief parts:

The 10 Commandments—because God’s law is essential for us, and these commandments are a great summary of it. This is what God requires of us and how we are to love one-another. A lot of people these days try to set up the law and love against one another—thinking that we should prefer to love rather than to follow the Law. But the law is precisely how we are to love one-another. After all, you can’t love your neighbor by stealing from him or lying about him.

What’s more, Luther’s explanations of these commandments urge us away from mere legalism, as each one shows us that it is truly is just a summary so that we may discern how deeply those commandments apply to every area of our lives. If life is so precious that we don’t murder, then it’s also precious enough to care for our neighbors bodily needs. If marriage is so precious that we don’t violate it by committing adultery, then neither do we sully it by fornication or sodomy.

The Apostles Creed—a simple and beloved summary of the Christian story that’s been in use in one form or another for almost 2000 years (though our precise wording is around 1200 years old). It tells us who God is—that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit It tells us what he’s done, and what he still does—creating us, sustaining us, redeeming us, and sanctifying us. When we confess the creed each week, we do so along with billions of Christians across the world, across different cultures & languages, and even across time itself—each of us proclaiming the same God and the same Gospel.

The Lord’s Prayer—because prayer is an essential part of the Christian life as well. Luther wrote that being a Christian without praying is like being alive without breathing. For the Christian, there are only pauses between prayers. This is how Jesus taught his own disciples how to pray, and we use it for that same purpose. Here, Christ teaches us the basics—the kinds of things to ask for, how we are to address God, and so forth.

The Sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As Christians, we all need to properly understand these institutions because they physically embody the most important promises that Christ has given to us—promises that create faith and salvation, just as surely as “let there be light” created light. It teaches us about Baptism, where Christ first makes his decision for us and makes us a part of his household. It teaches about the Lord’s Supper, where we can be certain that the forgiveness of sins that we hear proclaimed each week is for you. You are the one eating the bread and drinking the wine, and Christ has promised that he is bodily present within those elements. It’s where you can literally taste forgiveness.

Confession & Absolution—Because when Pastor says “I forgive you your sins in the same of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, he is announcing the very words of Christ himself on your behalf. Christ has promised that when we confess our sins—when we say about ourselves and our actions the same thing that God says about ourselves and our actions—he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

All of these fundamental basics of the Christian faith are presented in a form that is deliberately easy to memorize—so that we always have something in mind to which we can compare any new teaching about Jesus that we hear to evaluate whether or not it’s faithful and true. These are the essentials that we carry with us our whole lives.

But never forget that the Small Catechism is the introduction, not the entire thing. Never think you’ve learned it all or that you’ve graduated from church just because you’ve memorized the Small Catechism. These are the kinds of subjects that you can always learn more deeply than you have before—there’s always more to understand and further to grow.

All of us should be learning those subjects according to our ability. Everybody has different gifts and different capabilities when it comes to learning, but you should be able to articulate the details of your faith just as well as you can anything else. If you love football, and you can explain your pick on whose going to win the Super Bowl, and why one player or coach is more skilled than another, then you should be able to explain your religion with the same level of detail. If you love playing Fortnite and know the best strategies to use on the different maps and can explain the ways the game mechanics apply, then you should be able to explain the six chief parts of the catechism just as well.

But our essentials don’t end there, because in those 6 chief parts, you can find the two key messages of Christianity: Law & Gospel. The Law is what God requires from us in the way we speak, think, and behave—both a guide to how we ought to live, and that blaring warning siren letting us know that we have not lived the way God has instructed—that we are sinners. And as sinners, we run to that second message: the Gospel. That by his death, Jesus Christ has been punished in our stead and paid for the sins of the whole world—every last thing we’ve done wrong has been laid on Christ. Everyone who receives that salvation through faith in Jesus is forgiven.

These messages are essential to us. You cannot discard them without discarding Christ; You cannot make them relevant because they were never irrelevant; and you cannot fix either one because they were never broken. You cannot correct God’s Law by adjusting it until it’s more like what most people today believe about right and wrong. You cannot be holier than God is or be better than he has asked you to be. Neither can you correct the Gospel by sanding off the rough edges (like exclusivity–that salvation is found in Christ alone) so that it’s loved by everyone. You cannot make Jesus more welcoming than he already is, and you cannot be more loving than the One who gave his life for us. These messages never change. When we lose these, we lose the Faith.

The challenge is always how to explain that eternal law and eternal Gospel to those around us; how to proclaim it in the place we find ourselves. Some of the details of that work do change—how do we explain it; how do we defend it; how do we live it—but the message never does. If we lose the message or try to fix it, all we’re doing is proclaiming something other than Christianity.

The last essential that I’m going to bring up is the most important: God’s inerrant word as delivered by the Holy Spirit through His prophets and apostles: the Bible. It’s the essential that defines all of others. We speak about Law & Gospel because those are the two primary messages that Scripture has for us. Likewise, the only reason our Confessions are meaningful is because they explain what Scripture says.

It’s not as though the first Lutherans were just so smart that they intuited God’s teachings and figured them out through their supreme reason. What set the Lutherans apart was that they actually read the Bible—believe it or not, that wasn’t particularly common for the time, even among doctors of theology. They read it carefully, and they read it alongside 1500 years of Christian theologians who had come before them reading those same Scriptures.

We don’t have to speculate about God because the Bible is God’s self-revelation—what he has explained about himself to us; what he has done for us through Jesus Christ. Our Confessions are a summary and an explanation of that revelation. They are incredibly useful tools to have because they help us to understand Scripture well and avoid a legion of errors and mistakes that others have made in the past when they have disregarded or misunderstood God’s Word. Everybody talks about wanting to make their own mistakes, but the only way to seize that opportunity is to stop making everybody else’s mistakes.

What It Means to have Essentials

Knowing what our essentials are is only half the battle. The other half is understanding what it means to have essentials. We don’t think about this question too much—because our culture teaches us that nothing is essential. We’re told that everything is relative; to each his own; how dare you judge; do what works; etc. We prefer to have ideas rather than essential beliefs. The fact that we have essentials at all marks us as different then most Americans. That means we have to give serious thought to how we live with these essentials that make us Lutheran and that make us Christian.

The sad truth is that by and large, we treat our essentials as stop signs or barricades. We’re going along, doing whatever we want, and then encounter our essentials when someone points out a mistake: “Stop! That’s violates article 13 of a document you’ve probably never read! You can’t do that!” But essentials aren’t about getting in our way. Rather, they propel us forward and they make us who we are. If what we do as a church is important, it’s because THIS is important. So what does it mean to have essentials?

First, having essentials means we have a history, a culture, a liturgy—in short, an identity that isn’t shared by everyone else. It’s our confessions that make us Lutherans, but those confessions have been informing how we live as Christians—not just for 500 years, but for 2000 years. The way we worship on Sunday mornings is an outgrowth of what we believe. The way we govern our congregation is an outgrowth of what we believe. The way we teach God’s word is an outgrowth of what we believe.

Our traditions flow out of the way Lutherans think about tradition. We appreciate traditions for their own sake and try to maintain them when possible. We also change and adapt and adjust when we find those traditions to be in conflict with God’s Word, or when they’re no longer able to fulfill their original purpose. But this task doesn’t fall to us alone, because that’s exactly what those who have come before us have been doing every step of the way. This doesn’t mean we never change—we’ve been changing things for 2000 years. But it does alter the way we change.

Our identity is not a machine with replaceable parts—replacing each worn cog and gasket until nothing remains of the original engine. The way we change is much more like a tree that needs to be cultivated. Yes, we’re always pruning leaves. Sometimes you have to lop of branches. Occasionally, you even have to remove a limb that’s become too damaged or too diseased. Nevertheless, there are limits to that kind of action. There’s only so much you can lop of at once. Likewise, you can’t cut it down at the trunk or uproot it and plant a different tree in its place.

The way that we change requires us to understand and accept what’s come before us, and only then shape it with a mind to how what came before is now going to grow into what we leave to our own children. We need to be able to understand who we are and where we came from before we can figure out where we should be going—especially when it comes to change. G.K. Chesterton had a great parable to this effect. If you come across a fence in the middle of nowhere, and you have no idea why that fence is there, the last thing you should do is tear it down. You shouldn’t change it until you understand it. When you learn to treasure the past, that’s when you can effectively steward it for the future. It’s only then that you know why it has to change and how to change it without replacing it—without losing that identity.

Second, having essentials means having conflict. We have conflict as Christians because the Bible describes us as being at war with the world, the devil, and our own sinfulness. Jesus does not tell us that if we’re nice enough, we’ll get along with everybody. No, Jesus promises that people will hate us because of him. So shake the illusion that if only we behave in the best possible way, everybody will like us; because you’ll never behave better than Jesus did, and they crucified him.

We have conflict as Lutherans, because we have disagreements with other Christians. “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” doesn’t resolve our issues because we don’t always agree on what the essentials are. The Missouri Synod exists because the King of Prussia tried to force Lutherans and Reformed to teach and practice the same things about the Lord’s Supper. The Reformed were generally ok with that because it was just the Lord’s Supper. The Lutherans, on the other hand, were not ok with it because it was the Lords Supper! There’s a profound difference there. We have different essentials, which means we necessarily come into conflict.

We also have conflict as individual Lutherans because we have disagreements with each other. Even when we share the same essentials, we don’t always agree on how best to pursue those essentials. But we each have to diligently pursue them whether we agree or not, because they are essential to each one of us.

So any way you slice it, we’re going to have conflict—and that’s ok. It’s ok to argue with one another. It’s ok to disagree and explain why the other guy is wrong. This is what I always tell my classes on the first day: if you have a problem with something I said, stand up and tell me why I’m wrong. Then I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong. We’ll go back & forth, and whether or not we end in agreement, we’ll all come out of it with a better understanding than we started with. When we have good, respectful, loving arguments, we learn, we grow, and we shape the future of the Church.

If you want a good example of this, you can see it in the innovation of organs. Organs were introduced to the Church in the 800’s, but they weren’t really normal until the 1200’s—in other words, we spent 400 years arguing about having organs in church. Some people will look at that and say, “Oh, what a silly conflict. They even argued about organs, even though everything turned out fine. There was no need for any conflict about that—just a lot of wasted time and unnecessary grief!”

That analysis is incorrect. When organs were new, the conflict shaped the use of organs in a way that made them part of who we are and what we do in church. One of the reasons people resisted organs is because they were used almost exclusively at circuses, and they didn’t want their worship to look like a circus. But you go into a church today and hear the organ playing… I’ll wager not a single one of you has ever felt like you were in a circus. That’s because of the conflict. That’s because people argued about it. Organs became normal in a way that avoided the problem that people were worried about, and it happened because people hashed out how best to use this new thing instead of just blithely adopting whatever was normal at the time.

That’s what we need to remember as we take our essentials with us into liberty. Our essentials drive the way we live. There is no airtight separation between essentials and non-essentials because our essentials inform the way we approach all the non-essential things in our lives.

By way of analogy, it’s essential for us to breathe, and so that becomes a part of everything non-essential that we do. You don’t have to play an active sport, but if, in your freedom, you do, then you play it in a way that ensures you have enough oxygen. You don’t have to go swimming or scuba diving, but when you do, the whole endeavor revolves around making sure you can always breathe. You don’t have to sing, but when you do you always make sure you have enough breath for the next line. Sometimes you think about breathing, usually you don’t, but it’s always there, shaping and enabling the way we freely go about our lives.

“Adiaphora” is the 10 dollar theological word here—it means “things indifferent.” Adiaphora are things that God has neither commanded nor forbidden, and thus are up to us. That’s where we find Christian freedom. But Christian freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you want or whatever you feel like—it means doing what is wisest. It requires thought, reflection, and using your own good judgment and God-given wisdom to decide what is best. Our wisdom and therefore our freedom are both rooted in our essentials. People with different essentials have very different ideas about what is wise—even in freedom. The choices we make, the way we use our freedom, and even the things that we change, should always reflect those unchanging essentials that breathe life into everything that we do.

As Lutherans and as Christians, we are the inheritors of a great treasure—one fought for and paid for in blood and sweat and lives. And it’s not just for us—we want those who come after us to also be inheritors of that same treasure. So don’t treat our heritage as a prison—treat it as treasure; take care of it. Preserve, cultivate, and even prune the foliage when necessary. That’s part and parcel of taking care of something precious—it takes work. But never despise it, and never take your role as its stewards lightly.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Gospel, Law, Lutheranism, The Modern Church, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Proper Care and Feeding of Essential Theology

  1. I enjoyed reading your presentation. I noted that you shared: “Now, most of you have probably never read most of the documents in this book. Some of you probably haven’t even heard of most of them. Unfortunately, it’s just not part of regular education for most Lutheran laity.” Luther’s assessment was not for a onetime condition.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks! And you’re right. “Dumb brutes,” “irrational hogs,” “raw pagans.” Luther had quite a few choice phrases for the many Christians who didn’t know their own religion, for whom he wrote the Small Catechism. But that’s not just a Reformation thing. At best, Christians are always only a generation away from becoming such when we neglect our teaching. And unfortunately, it seems that most churches have more than a generation of that neglect under their belts.

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