Saturday, October 12, 2013


Among Evangelicals of the Lutheran persuasion, there is a ratty old saying which regularly makes the rounds: Nihil est adiaphoron in casu confessionis et scandali.  That's the long form, attributed to Matthias Flacius Ilyricus.  More commonly, we are prone to look daggers at one another and mutter "In statu confessionis," letting the rest trail off ominously.

What we mean when we say this is, "No," to whatever has been proposed, with the implication that "If you try to make me do anything, then I am required by my faith to disagree with you about everything."   It is an incredibly stubborn position, one which virtually shuts down conversation.  And yes, it is written into our confessions of faith (e.g., SD 10).

Properly, this principle only applies in times of genuine persecution, when violence is used or threatened as a tool to suppress the Gospel.  In practice, it is thrown around somewhat more freely.  Episcopalians make the historic succession of bishops a condition of full communion?  Status confessionis!  The ELCA recognizes same-sex unions?  Status confessionis!  It is an easy knee-jerk reaction, just one of the many that earn us our reputation for stubbornness.

In statu confessionis.  These are fighting words among our tribe.  They go back to the 1540s, when -- in a somewhat quixotic effort to reunite the broken Church -- Melanchthon and some other Lutherans agreed to permit any number of ceremonies which had been cast aside by the Reformation.  They argued that, so long as the central teaching of salvation by grace was allowed to stand, ceremonies instituted by human beings ought not be allowed to divide the Church.

This seemingly reasonable position aroused immense resistance from other Evangelicals.  The resistance was, we suspect, largely emotional.  Every pastor has at some point attempted to introduce a widespread ecumenical practice into the congregation's worship, only to be told "That's too Catholic."  That's what it boils down to.

Melanchthon was abused mercilessly, as were his followers.  To this day, Lutheran folk history accuses him of "weakness" or "indecision."  In fact, he was among the finest Patristic scholars of his age, and also among the most passionate ecumenists.  Her struggled mightily to do something that Protestantism still struggles with:  articulate the role of the redeemed person's will in living a godly life.  Had he been given the respect and support he deserved, it is entirely possible that the main Reformation schisms -- not only German, but Swiss and English -- might have been healed.  But he was not.

Melanchthon's vitriolic opponents, called the Gnesio-Lutherans, may have been driven by emotion, but they also had a point.  The tentative agreements of the 1540s, called the Interims, were made under threat of violence.  If the Evangelicals did not capitulate, the result was likely to be war.  So although the Evangelical party had professed (from the preface of the Augsburg Confession forward) its deep desire to keep Western Christianity united, as well as its desire to retain the ancient polity and practices so far as they were consonant with the Gospel, it is easy to argue that the negotiations which resulted in the Interims were not made in good faith.  They were the result of coercion.

So one part of the Gnesio-Lutheran argument was that you can't negotiate with a sword pointed at you. Sound familiar?  Of course it does; this is just what President Obama said at the beginning of the present political crisis.  And it's the truth.

In that specific sense, Obama's position does echo Flacius.  And conservative critics are doing their best to argue that, like the Gnesio-Lutherans at their worst, it is the Democrats who are being needlessly stubborn.  After all, they aren't "negotiating."  Never mind that "negotiation" here means capitulation under coercion -- to an electoral minority, at that.

The ACA is a reasonably popular law -- nobody's first choice of solutions, either on the left or the right, but at least a viable compromise.  Shutting down the government is wildly unreasonable, an act of wanton destruction growing from a refusal to compromise.  Insisting that a good law be put into abeyance is bad government; shutting down the government if you don't get your way is somewhere between childish and insane.

So in fact, it is the Republicans who are acting like the dumbed-down modern version of Gnesio-Lutherans:  stubborn asses who want things their way, and will not be moved by any amount of reason.  Their fight, especially as they scale back their demands, is about preserving their image, both among themselves and among the voters.  They're like a congregation saying, "Well, chasubles are okay, but if you light incense, we'll burn the church down."

And the Democrats are like Philippists:  smarter, milder, more pragmatic.  Only this time, the Philippists are not caving.

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