The Age of Enlightenment and the
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
For over 1500 years the society of western culture knew what was true, what was right, what was moral or immoral, and what was wrong. To be sure, these ideals were frequently ignored or applied only to certain societal strata, but there was a general understanding and consensus in society as a whole as to how life was to be conducted. Ironically, a good portion of this rather significant slice of history was mislabeled "The Dark Ages". This label was, of course, applied by people of later times who felt themselves to be more morally and academically "advanced" than their predecessors.
Nothing happens in a political vacuum. The beginning of the Age of Enlightenment was no exception. The force of authority had, for centuries, rested in the hands of ecclesiastical authorities of the Roman Catholic Church and its puppet government, the Holy Roman Empire. Rome's word was final in nearly all matters of dispute whether political, moral or theological. It was not to last however. As is true of all human institutions, with time and power inevitably comes corruption. The fiasco of the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" of the Roman Church, the moral failure and corruption of the priesthood down to the grassroots level, coupled with the terrible ignorance of scholarship and the increasing nationalism of distant city-states, combined to force a showdown of major proportions. All of this culminated in the actions of an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther who brazenly challenged not only the authority of Rome, but also her theology. Had Luther foreseen how events were to spin out of control as a result of his brave but stubborn stand, he might well have had second thoughts about posting his convictions so publicly.
The murderous slaughter of the Thirty Years War finally ground to a bankrupt and indecisive halt with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). This treaty ended far more than military hostilities. It was the end of central authority for the western world. Now Europe was a place that was divided between Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinistic regions, whose allegiance to Rome was either non-existent or very limited. If the Pope and the Roman Church were no longer the final arbiter of the truth, then who was?
With the rise of French nationalism – partly inspired by the American Revolution – and the Ultramontaine Movement which determined that papal authority was only authoritative in France with the permission of the French crown, and with the increasing influence of philosophers like Descartes, Bacon, and Pascal, the foundations of the Age of Enlightenment were laid and a great deal of political anarchy was underway.
In England the consolidation of ecclesiastical power under the banner of the Act of Uniformity, which promoted and solidified the Anglican influence in that nation, worked together with intellectual foment throughout Europe to bring about a revolution that has affected us to this very day in ways so profound, that only from the vantage point of the passing of four centuries can we begin to see it. The impact of Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau, Locke and others combined to move the source of truth from sources external from us (Holy Scripture) to the not-so-new conclusion that people could decide for themselves what was true for them.
When truth shifts its source, the old sources have to give way. Voices of the Enlightenment not only spoke for the removal of the political authority of the Roman Church, it also needed to get rid of the constraints of all external forms of authority other than human reason. The Scriptures themselves had to go or at least be relegated to the status of quaint human antiquarian thought. If human reason was to be the final arbiter of the truth, then it was up to human reason to examine the Scriptures to determine which parts were true and which weren't or to reject them entirely.
What has been the legacy of the Age of Enlightenment? Proponents of Rationalism have virtually taken over every major college and university in this nation and in Europe. The teaching that truth must be found within one's self (simply intellectualized eastern mysticism), is the prevailing conviction of our public media, the public education establishment, the government of the United States of America and many mainstream Christian denominations.
And what has been the harvest of subjugating all wisdom to human reason? I would submit they are as follows:
The logic of finding truth within ourselves and excluding the notion that truth is revealed from outside of us found its logical conclusion with the rise of Secular Humanism. The cornerstone of Secular Humanism is atheism. God is simply the invention of man and not the other way around. Truth is determined by science and the scientific method, both of which rendered God obsolete. Matter is the only eternal thing and humanity is but a passing player in the on-going evolution of nature. Major proponents of Secular Humanism are John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Erich Fromm, and Julian Huxley.
Karl Marx was an atheist before he was a socialist. God is nothing more than an unnecessary "crutch" for people lacking the courage to face the reality that we are on our own and it is a hinderance keeping people from realizing their own human potential. Together with Frederick Engels and V.I. Lenin, they concluded that all religion had to be overthrown, by violent means if necessary, and that it was necessary. Not only was this violence extended to religion, but economic violence was also part and parcel of the Marxist-Leninist/Fascist philosophy. The proletariat (or poor and middle classes) were totally justified in violent action against people of means so that all could attain economic equality. Despite all the violence, neither the elimination of religion nor economic equality was ever achieved by the 70 year long experiment of the Soviet Socialist Republic.
If we are only the highest form of animal, and therefore the product of a random evolutionary process that will only eventually pass from the scene. Then the only real purpose in life will be to make one's self as comfortable as possible, and provide for our various appetites as completely as possible. This is selfishness in raw form. Materialism is reflected on many bumper stickers and t-shirts with materialistic sayings like, "He who dies with the most toys wins". For the Materialist, what is most critical in life is the accumulation of goods which are supposed to give satisfaction and a sense of success in life. A major problem with Materialism is the judgment on those who are not successful as being "losers" or worse, if you fail to accumulate goods in sufficient quantities for the provision of your comfort. Then you must view yourself as a failure in life. (It may be helpful to note that the vast majority of the world's population – including Jesus – would have to be classified as "losers" in a materialist's view.) Materialism, like Secular Humanism and Marxist-Leninist/Fascism is atheistic. If there is no God to serve, then we may serve ourselves.
Since all three of the above philosophies conclude that man is without a Creator who has made and cares for us, and since we have come from nothing by means of a random process of evolution – and will return to nothing when our time is completed on this earth – and since there is no external purpose for which we exist, but only those rationale which we invent for ourselves, then there is no reason to go on in life when life become unpleasant. This way of thinking is reflected in the well known saying, that "Life is Hard, Then You Die". What is surprising is that more people do not commit suicide than already do in our society, for despair is the logical outcome of the way of thinking which has been foisted on us by the Age of Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment and the LCMS
But you might be wondering what any of this has to do with our Synod and its current divisions? We in the ACELC believe that it's time to connect some rather obvious dots. Issues of authority outside of ourselves, subjective views of the authority of Holy Scripture, the idea that what I do as a pastor or as a congregation is up to the individual pastor or congregation without regard to the Synod as a whole, or to the Church at large, are woven of the fabric of the Age of Enlightenment. Notions like making sure that a congregation looks "successful" in order to appeal to our materialistic culture go hand-in-glove with the thought patterns of the Age of Enlightenment.
When our Synod was founded in 1847, it was done in the immediate shadow of the Age of Enlightenment. What we said together about truth and authority literally flew in the face of the prevailing philosophical norms. Our Synod was formed at a time when virtually all of the previously existing Lutheran bodies in America were awash in Pietism and its child, Rationalism. For nearly 100 years our Synod was a shining light of orthodoxy on the "hill" of religion in America and became known throughout the world for our clear Biblical stances and unwavering acceptance of and subscription to the Book of Concord of 1580.
It was Luther who said that all institutions of man that do not hold as paramount the Word of God will always become corrupt. Sadly, that has also become true of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.
A hallmark event occurred in 1945 when a number of highly regarded theologians and personalities in the LCMS issued what became known as "The Statement of the 44." The goal of this statement was to erode the necessity of achieving agreement in all articles of doctrine so that every previously held barrier to full altar and pulpit fellowship with other Lutheran church bodies (and other Christian denominations) could be done away with. Prior to that watershed event, our Synod (particularly under the leadership of C.F.W. Walther), had faced theological controversies which arose by having the President of the Synod prepare a position paper to address that particular controversy. The paper was next presented to the Synodical Convention, where – after careful study – it could then be accepted as the Synod's historic, Biblical, Confessional position. In this fashion our Synod confronted and resolved the Stephanite controversy (1839-1841), the Grabau controversy (1840-1866), the Chiliasm/Millennialism controversy (1856-1858), and the Predestinarian controversy (1870-1880).
Sadly, with the issuance of The Statement of the 44, we abandoned this method of resolving controversy under the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions, and instead made every error which was being promoted the object of endless study and discussion while never actually resolving anything. While The Statement of the 44 was ultimately withdrawn, still it was never condemned or rejected. The idea we need to make room for divergent views of Christian doctrine is most certainly a child of the Age of Enlightenment. Dogma is divisive and bad, while tolerance and acceptance is good.
When our Synod experienced the "Battle of the Bible" it was precisely the same goal which had been stated by the signatories of The Statement of the 44 that was at stake: that is, ecumenical latitude which found its roots not in the faith we believe, teach, and confess (fides quae);
but on the faith that God gives all Christians (fides qua
). Thus, troublesome biblical doctrines that got in the way of ecumenical endeavors had to be done away with. This required an entirely new way of looking at Holy Scripture – a way which dulled the sharp points of doctrine some viewed as impediments to formal fellowship with other Lutherans (and other Christian denominations). This new way of thinking was called "Higher Critical Biblical Interpretation," and at the time was embraced by most of the theologians of our St. Louis faculty. Again, truth was what was to be found inside one's own self rather than that which was externally revealed by God's Word., Once again the Age of Enlightenment appears to have been alive and well within the LCMS!
While this threat to the integrity of Holy Scripture and our Confessions was temporarily pushed away under the leadership of President J.A.O. Preus, many of those who held to the positions of the St. Louis Seminary majority were never dealt with and remained a part of the Synod. While about 110,000 supporters of the Seminex faculty left and eventually became part of the ELCA, the sad part was that many others remained while retaining their false teachings. Again, the Age of Enlightenment exonerates tolerance and diversity and disdains dogma as divisive. Unresolved doctrinal issues always fester in the Church and come back to bite the Synod at a later time.
Then came the Yankee Stadium "interfaith worship service" which was held in New York City following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the would be airliner attack that was short-circuited and crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. With the Atlantic District President, Rev. Dr. David Benke participating in worship with both Christians and non-Christians, our Synod entered a period of controversy that once again ended in a lack of resolution, and increased the uncertainty respecting what our Synod believed, taught and confessed – not to mention how that faith ought to be practiced among us.
As true children of the Age of Enlightenment, our Synodical leaders once again failed to speak the truth to error and correct it. The uncertainty of our Synod's position respecting joint worship with those with whom we are not in fellowship came to visit us again with the December 14, 2012, Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting. Once again the Synod sounded an uncertain trumpet when the President of the Synod, Matthew Harrison at first corrected the error and then apologized for "mishandling" the situation. Now, virtually no pastor in the Synod knows what our church body's position is respecting such situations and there is little if any need for any pastor of the Synod to fear correction for participating in such events. Dogma is divisive and bad while tolerance and acceptance is good - perfect Age of Enlightenment thinking.
It was philosopher Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, who rightly said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Unfortunately The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has been forgetting its past for the last 68 years since The Statement of the 44. In the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment we have exalted tolerance, acceptance, and diversity at the expense of pure doctrine. To be sure, voices of objection have been raised again and again but without significant result. Endless study and inconclusive discussion of the issues that divide us are not an end in themselves and resolve nothing.
Thus it was out of love for our Synod and frustration at the on-going lack of will to settle our differences of doctrine and practice that the Association of Confessing Evangelical Lutheran Congregations
formed in 2011 to serve as a voice of conscience for our Synod. The 23 congregations of the ACELC are speaking with one voice to simply ask our Synod to love pure doctrine and right practice more than they love a false "peace" in our church body. As a Synod we desperately need to recapture our original spirit of being unafraid to be counter-cultural, and to reject the principles of the Age of Enlightenment which have so blighted our culture and Synod.
Rev. Richard A. Bolland
Gloria Christi Lutheran Church
P.S. If you would like to assist the ACELC in this effort you may encourage your congregation to join as a full Member of the ACELC
. As an individual you may join as an Associate Membe
r. You may also support our work by making a donation online
. Or, if none of those options work for you, we would like to ask that you remember our efforts in your prayers – that all we do would be pleasing to God and beneficial for the building of up His kingdom of grace