Thursday Theology #493
November 22, 2007
Topic: Arthur Carl Piepkorn
Today another book review. Before I could stop, it got a bit long. Too much
for a single ThTh post, I think.
So part 2 comes next week.
Peace and joy!
THE SACRED SCRIPTURES AND THE LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS.
SELECTED WRITINGS OF ARTHUR CARL PIEPKORN,
Ed. Philip J. Secker. Mansfield, Connecticut: CTC Press. 2007. Paper. $21.95
[Order online from web address below]
Arthur Carl Piepkorn [ACP] (1907-73) was my teacher at Concordia Seminary
(St. Louis, Missouri) in the early 1950s. Two decades later--but only for two
brief years before his tragic death at age 66--I was his colleague in the
department of systematic theology at the same place. The subject matter in both
eras was the same: the theology of the Lutheran Confessions.
I say "tragic death" because though he had survived World War II as military
chaplain, he died on the battlefield of the wars of Missouri. Some attending
his funeral were even more crass: "The Missouri Synod killed him." And that
is not simply partisan hyperbole. Here's how it's plausible.
ACP was one of the superstars "given" to the LCMS in the 20th century.
Others of similar stellar status from that era were Richard Caemmerer, Jaroslav
Pelikan, Frederick Danker, Robert Bertram, Richard Luecke. ACP's gifts shone
through the many facets that had been polished on the gemstone that he was.
Ph.D. at age 24--in Assyriology! Commandant at the U.S.Army Chaplain School.
Pioneer in Lutheran liturgical renewal. Member of the group that organized the
US Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue--and participant therein until his
death--where even the Roman superstars admitted that ACP could out-quote them (from
memory, in Latin) when RC documents from antiquity were needed for discussion.
Closer to home in Missouri, ACP was THE expert in the Lutheran Confessions
(in their original languages, of course)--expert also in the subsequent
generations of theologians, now designated Lutheran Orthodoxy (all of that in Latin or
German too). At the seminary (and from other venues in the LCMS) when you
needed to know whether something was "kosher" according to the Confessions, it
was automatic, "Ask Arthur Carl." [A mythology grew up, of course, about his
omni-competence. Verified as true is this one. One of the four Piepkorn
daughters comes home from parochial school and asks her mother (Miriam) to clarify
something her teacher had said in class that day. Miriam: "I don't know. Why
don't you ask your father when he comes home?" Daughter:"Mama, I don't want
to know that much!"]
ACP knew the Lutheran Confessions better than anybody in USA Lutheranism,
chapter and verse--and lived their "doctrinal content" (his favored phrase) in
palpable and conscious commitment. And therefrom comes the death-blow. The
LCMS national convention in New Orleans in 1973 passed a resolution condemning
Piepkorn as a false teacher. Others of us also fell under that verdict. This
was the same LCMS whose constant drumbeat was to be the most orthodox Lutheran
denomination in America, most faithful to the Lutheran Confessions. And the
convention spoke its "damnamus" (the Latin word in the Luth. Conf. for "we
condemn") to their God-given expert in, and practitioner of, Lutheran
The text of that fateful resolution uses the very words of the Formula of
Concord (the last major Lutheran confessional document of the 16th century) to
speak its damnamus: "cannot be tolerated in the church of God, much less be
excused and defended." For ACP these words were salt in the wounds, for they were
using ACP's own prose (literally) to condemn him. He had translated the
Formula for the English-language edition of the Lutheran Confessions.
In the weeks that followed New Orleans, LCMS officials, carrying out the
convention mandate, imposed "retirement" on ACP. He sought to challenge the
action on constitutional grounds, but he died of a heart attack before he could
argue his case--5 months and one day after the convention's "damnamus" action.
His funeral at Concordia Seminary was itself a piece of our post-New Orleans
"time for confessing." Besides the fifth-commandment verdict spoken at his
funeral ("Missouri-killed-him"), I remember Walt Bouman's comment (he too now of
blessed memory) "We are also burying the Missouri Synod today." Poignant and
memorable were the words of his widow, Miriam: "They thought they could retire
him. God took care of that."
Did Shakespeare or Euripides ever compose a tragedy more grim? And Missouri
today is afire with an "Ablaze!" campaign for world evangelism. Playing with
fire--especially God's fire-- is always dangerous. All the more so after
you've immolated one of God's prophets.
Back to the book.
Editor Philip Secker was the last doctoral candidate to
complete his degree under ACP before the Meister died. Phil has taken his
last-of-the-line status as a calling, an Elijah's mantle, and has fashioned an
impressive website, "The Arthur Carl Piepkorn Center for Evangelical Catholicity."
<www.lutheransonline.com/piepkorn> [That's where you can buy the book.] It's
the supermarket for Piepkorniana--manifest already in the center's very
title, for "evangelical catholicity" was ACP's favored term for what the Lutheran
Reformation was really all about. More about this below.
THE SACRED SCRIPTURES AND THE LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS. SELECTED WRITINGS OF
ARTHUR CARL PIEPKORN is the first volume in Phil's efforts to make ACP's theology
available to a wider public. But not the first one ever. An earlier volume
of ACP's essays--THE CHURCH (1993)--appeared from the hands of other ACP
fans, but efforts to continue that series failed--until Phil came along. So Phil
calls this book volume 2 in the series and is currently working on two more:
Vol. 3. MINISTRY, CHURCH AND SACRAMENTS and Vol. 4: WORSHIP AND THE CHRISTIAN
In this volume we have seven of ACP's essays on scriptural issues (from
1954-73) and nineteen on the Lutheran Confesisons (1951-1972). Missouri Synod's
turmoil during these decades moves like a spectre through many of the
essays--both those about the Bible and those about the Lutheran Confessions.
ACP seeks to come to terms with Missouri's shibboleths about the "Sacred
Scriptures" [he seldom used the word Bible]. Veterans of the Wars of Missouri
know these terms well: inerrancy, infallablity, verbal inspiration, scriptural
authority. The modus operandi is classic Piepkorn. It goes like this: "Terms
x or y or z have no basis in the Sacred Scriptures themselves, nor in the
Lutheran Confessions. [And then will come line-after-line of documentation from
every imaginable source--and sometimes even un-imaginable ones.] The same is
true of such terms in the best of the 'orthodox' Lutheran authorities. They are
unknown. So they have come into our evangelical catholicity from alien
regions. Ergo . . . ."
Seasoned enough to know that such scholarly demolition would not convince
every critic, ACP recites over and over again in these seven essays his positive
counsel--and personal faith-conviction:
"We should first refuse to reply to
loaded questions with 'yes' or 'no.' Next we should point out the inadequacy of
[shibboleth term "x"]. Then we should patiently affirm everything that the
Sacred Scriptures say about themselves and that the Lutheran symbols [=Lutheran
confessions] say about them. Finally we should assert our conviction that
the Sacred Scriptures have the Holy Spirit as their principal Author, that they
are the Word of God in the language of historical human beings, and that they
are true and dependable. In the meantime, we need to continue to explore
reverently and prayerfully together the isagogical and hermeneutical problems and
possibilities that these convictions about the Sacred Scriptures imply." (p45)
One tour-de-force essay in the first grouping is ACP's review of Robert
Preus's major work on THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE. A STUDY OF THE THEOLOGY OF THE
SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY LUTHERAN DOGMATICIANS. Since the theologians of that era
were his own bailiwick, ACP can commend Preus chapter-and-verse for
highlighting "the soteriological purpose of the Sacred Scriptures" in these theologians,
their non-Biblicist mode of articulating Biblical authority, along with "many
other significant insights." But he also cannot refrain from noting
the--ahem!--"excessive number of typographical errors, particularly in the footnote
quotations of the Latin sources." Nevertheless, generous to a fault, ACP
trusts that "these are all things that a second edition can set to right."
[Veterans of the Wars of Missouri will note the irony of ACP's positive review of
this major work of one who later helped engineer Missouri's "not to be tolerated"
decree on ACP.]
ACP and the Lutheran Confessions. His Third Way
The second set of essays in this volume--19 of them--are about the Lutheran
Confessions. As mentioned above, ACP was my Confessions teacher during my
seminary years and from 1971 to his death in 1973 we were colleagues in the
systematic theology department at Concordia Seminaty, St. Louis.
During my student days I wasn't clever enough to divine ACP's distinctive
"take" on the Lutheran "Symbols" (his favored term for these confessional
documents) and thus I didn't appropriate it. Not until we were teaching colleagues
in those brief last two years of his life did I come to clarity on this. By
then my "angle" on the Lutheran Confessions had been shaped by other Lutheran
teachers: Pelikan, Elert and Bertram. Bob Bertram was dept. chair of systematic
theology when I arrived to teach at Concordia Seminary in 1971, and it was
Bob who once in casual conversation used the term "canonical" for ACP's own
approach to the confessions.
No one dared to say that ACP was "wrong" about the Lutheran Confessions. He
was the one to whom you ran to ask "What do the Confessions say?" So what was
ACP's "canonical" confessionalism? I'll try to explain that.
Back on September 6 (ThTh 482) I told you this:
There were actually 3 different positions within the Concordia Seminary
systematics dept. (in the early 1970s), three different readings of the Lutheran
Confessions. One way of describing them is to say "three different sets of
lenses" for reading the Lutheran Confessions.
One. Four of our colleagues used . . . the lenses of Lutheran orthodoxy
(17th/18th century theologians--Missouri's self-claimed heritage) to read the
confessions. In simple terms: Biblical authority is the linchpin for Lutheran
theology. Everything centers around what the Bible says.
Two. Four other colleagues used Luther's own theology as the lenses for the
confessions. In simple terms: running all theology through the law-and-gospel
sieve is that linchpin. Everything centers on what the Gospel is.
Three. ACP practiced a third way--with a "pax (gentle, of course) on both
your houses" to the rest of us in the department. He knew Lutheran orthodoxy
inside out, but also knew its slippery slope away from the classic confessions.
So he couldn't go there. And, for giving Luther's own law/promise
hermeneutics any priority of place, ACP was always a little leery of Blessed Martin's
occasional rambunctiousness--also in theology. When in a department meeting
chairman Bob Bertram would refer to the law-gospel distinction as "the Lutheran
hermeneutic for Scripture," ACP would sometimes whisper over to me--emphasizing
the indefinite article--"A Lutheran hermeneutic."
Piepkorn's third option was to read the confessions "canonically," as the
doctrinal canon of what Lutheranism is. Whatever the confessions say, that is
what Lutherans "believe, teach and confess." What they leave untouched cannot
be "required" as Lutheran. Orthodox teaching on such untouched topics is to be
mined from the patristic heritage insofar as it doesn't contradict what the c
onfessions do indeed say. Thus the Mother of Jesus is "always virgin." The
Lutheran confessions say so. For the business of "verbal inspiration and
scriptural inerrancy," Missouri's banner on the ramparts, he said: "Not Lutheran.
It's not in the confessions."
ACP's 19 essays here--many of which I'd never seen before--document his
"canonical" hermeneutic on the LC. He even has a lenghy article (34 pp) on
"Principals for a Hermeneutics of the Lutheran Symbols." But in this essay he never
addresses the issue of the differing hermeneutics for reading the confessions.
Here are some pointers toward ACP's canonical reading:
His definition for "doctrine," itself a super-neuralgic item in the LCMS then
(and perhaps still now), was this:
"Doctrine is that which the Holy Spirit teaches through the Sacred Scriptures
in the church so that human beings might know how they are to think of God,
how God is minded toward them and what they need to believe and do for God's
saving purpose for humanity and for them to be realized in and through them."
What makes that sound "canonical" is first of all its implicit multiplicity
(you can expect many things "to believe and do"), not simplicity (one-ness)
AND, above all, its "you gotta" character--"How they are to think . . .what they
need to believe and do."
The Bertram-Bouman-Schroeder-Weyermann quartet [hereafter BBSW] in the
systematics department preferred to say--and I remember Pelikan teaching us this in
my first year as a seminary student--"according to the AC there is only one
doctrine--the Latin word is in the singular--'doctrina evangelii' (AC 7), the
one doctrine that IS the Gospel." So why then are there 28 patently different
articles (multiple doctrines?) in the AC? They are spokes coming from the
Gospel hub at the center of the wheel. If a spoke doesn't "fit" into that
center, it is rejected. It's not "gospel." If it does fit, it stays. That is the
rubric the AC follows from start to finish.
ACP didn't deny the Gospel's uniqueness, nor its centrality. In
quintessential ACP rhetoric he says:
"The gospel is not one doctrinal datum in the sacred
scriptures among many, but in the hierarchy of verities that the church has
always taught [is that not canonic?] it is the crucial, decisive, and unique
item: all the other items derive their ultimate significance from their
relationship to it." (293)
"As the central exegetical criterion in the Sacred Scriptures is
[now comes German] 'was Christum treibet' [=what promotes Christ]. . . so the
central exegetical criterion of the Symbols is the article 'that we can obtain
forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God not through our merit, works
or satisfaction, but that we obtain forgiveness of sins and become righteous
before God by grace for the sake of Christ through faith . . . .'" AC IV. (108)
"To be Lutheran means to see the church's teaching in terms of the Gospel."
The BBSW bunch wanted to go one step further: Yes, the Gospel is indeed the
central "doctrinal datum in the sacred scriptures." It is, in fact, so central
that in the Lutheran Confessions the Gospel itself becomes the "norm" for the
Bible. And the Gospel, when "properly distinguished" from God's law, its
polar opposite, becomes the criterion for how to read that entire Bible that
testifies to this one "doctrina evangelii." But to call that THE Lutheran
hermeneutic for reading the Bible? ACP didn't think so.
[To be continued "Deo volente et nemine contradicente" (God willing and no
one contradicting)--a favored ACP caution when he commiitted himself to some