My Baptist Friends Make Me A Better Lutheran
About this time last year I was looking for a seminary where I could pursue a Doctor of Ministry Degree. For the past couple years I've been more and more interested in apologetics. Being a pastor in New England and living in a shifting culture made this topic seem all the more urgent. However, I wasn't sure I could find a program that fit my interest. I looked around at a couple of schools, but each had its deal breaker. One was close, but its program tracks were scheduled so far out in advance that I'd have to wait a couple years. Another was on the other side of the country, but I was put off by some doctrinal positions that, despite the fact I knew I'd be out of place to some degree as a Lutheran at most non-Lutheran seminaries, were just too much to stomach (read - dispensationalism). However, after some prayer, discussion with our senior pastor, and a First Things Article I had read a few months before, I decided to enroll in the Applied Apologetics program at Southern Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville.
Another Lutheran Among Calvinists
Pastor Christopher Jackson, writing for First Things, comments that as a Lutheran doctoral student at SBTS, he has noticed that Luther and his writing are of no small interest for faculty and students. In fact, he remarks, "I would not be surprised if M.Div. students at SBTS read more of Luther’s writings than I did at a Lutheran seminary." In fact, he even mentions some very Lutheran sounding sermons on baptism and communion by Dr. Russel Moore, a leading thinker in the SBC and head of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC). None of these sermons use the exact language of Luther's Small Catechism, but as Jackson notes, Moore goes farther than the The Baptist Faith and Message - perhaps even farther than Calvin - by speaking about the ordinances as "a work and proclamation of God."
All of this makes sense. I was not aware of this until arriving on campus, but it's no secret on campus that the seminary leans Reformed, and although Calvinists and Lutherans certainly have their differences on the Sacraments, The Institutes is a whole lot closer to the Book of Concord than the Arminian revivalism that has held sway in American Evangelical circles for decades. If Southern Seminary is digging deep into the Ad Fontes bedrock of historic Reformation doctrines, confessions, and classics, it's likely Luther will become more and more of an interest. In fact, I've seen this in my own fellowship with some of my Baptist brothers during my on-campus seminar this past week. In a post-lunch theological discussion the other day, one of my fellow students brought up the question of the Lord's Supper - "What do we really receive when we take the Lord's Supper?" I was beyond interested to hear a few of the guys affirm a spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, which, while not the language of The Lutheran Confessions, was still a step beyond viewing the elements as simply a memorial meal.
Creeds, Confessions, Liturgies, Catechisms...
About three years ago I listened to the prominent Reformed Baptist pastor Voddie Baucham speak at a men's conference in Hartford. I was floored when I heard him tell a group of Evangelicals that they can only read the Bible responsibly with the guidance of the creeds, a catechism, and a confession. I felt like I was living in a alternate universe. I was converted in an Evangelical setting where those kinds of words were foreign, perhaps even taboo. And here I was, listening to a Baptist preacher tell these guys to study up and commit to a confession!
Fast forward to January of this past year. I was shocked again as the professor of my first class at Southern began our opening session by openly admitting his love for liturgies and catechisms. We began class each day that week by working through a portion of The Heidelberg Catechism. During my second trip to Southern, I've heard from the other guys in my class that catechisms are being used more and more in Baptist congregations. In fact, a friend of mine in the program assisted me in my research on catechisms by sending me an in-depth Bible study his senior pastor had led on the scriptural basis for catechisms and catechesis.
Overall, the movement of Southern Seminary toward a more historic Reformation confession of faith has made me feel more at home than I expected to at a non-Lutheran institution. Obviously my Baptist friends and I share disagreements - my blood pressure rises anytime the college kids at our church are told by Baptist friends that their first baptism didn't count! - but at least we have the ability to talk through these distinctions in doctrine from the perspective of historic catechisms and confessions of faith rather than the elusive doctrinal confusion that has so often characterized modern American Evangelicalism (and, sadly enough, the tendency for some Lutheran churches to live and teach as if their confession and catechism were simply technicalities).
Simply put, as a confessional Lutheran, I have felt at home among my Calvinist Baptist friends at Southern. In fact, I return from my ecumenical experience in no way less Lutheran in my convicitons, but rather more Lutheran. There's something about discussing theology outside of synodical echo chambers that encourages healthy reflection on one's own confession. For example, I've been reading Dr. Timothy Paul Jones and David Montgomery's book PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace. The book is a fresh presentation of the five points of Calvinism, with heavy emphasis on the liberating nature of God's unconditional grace in Christ. The book did not turn me into a Calvinist. However, I did appreciate the book as a needed corrective to the prevailing legalism in many Evangelical churches. And additionally, it sent me back into the the pages of the Formula of Concord - specifically the Solid Declaration about predestination and election. While not drawing some of the same conclusions that Calvinists do about election, I'm always refreshed and comforted by this doctrine that gives all the glory to Christ, my Savior, and all the comfort to me, the sinner.
A Smaller Family Reunion
Nominal Christianity in America is in its death throes. The Christendom family reunion is thinning out. More and more, it will be critical that those of us on other ends of the reunion are reintroduced - never in a way that compromises our theological distinctives - but rather in a way that seeks understanding, and shares the best we have to offer. The Southern Baptists - most notably those associated with Southern Seminary - have been taking the lead in timely issues, such as religious freedom, the value of human life, and racial reconciliation. During our doctoral student lunch this past week, a panel of two professors - one white and the other African American - spoke openly about the deep need for racial reconciliation in America, as well as how the Gospel must be at the center of all reconciliation. Not only was this spoken about - it was also modeled by faculty as strong friendships between these men were obvious. This is a clear example of where my own church body can learn by the example of their Baptist brothers. As far as I can tell, we're having these discussions, but not at the level I've seen at Southern.
As far as religious freedom and social issues go, we have ample opportunity to support one another. The Missouri Synod's Free to Be Faithful emphasis has much in common with the ERLC. I'm not an insider as far as either group is concerned, but I would certainly hope we're in good contact with one another. From what I've seen on Twitter, it seems like we are talking and encouraging one another.
Opportunities to share the best we have to offer abound at the academic level as well. Great scholarly work is being done at Southern - especially on issues related to apologetics and social issues (also in NT and Reformation studies, however, I'm more familiar with the former). Confessional Lutherans are doing excellent scholarly work, however, much of it lies undiscovered by Reformed circles, as recently noted by Dr. Paul Raabe of Concordia Seminary (although I was encouraged to see some of the doctoral students in the Boyce Library with big blue Concordia Commentaries among their stacks of books). Lutheran scholars such as Robert Kolb, Charles Arand, Joel Biermann, and many others have been producing excellent works - the kind that any Christian wanting to lean more into the Reformation would want to read.
Overall, I'm encouraged by the fraternity I've shared with my Baptist friends while sojourning at Southern (a LONG way from Connecticut). I'm encouraged by their love for the Gospel, the Word of God, and their missionary drive. And, now that they're more and more tuned into Reformation theology, that provides for some excellent coversations.
I suppose that some brothers in the LCMS would find fault with this post. That's unfortunate. It's possible to stand strong in our Lutheran Confessions without carving Hoc Est Corpus Meum into the table (the tables are really nice at Southern, I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate that). And likewise, in my conversations with Calvinist friends, I haven't heard any of the Calvinist slights mentioned in the Formula - duos pilos caudae equinae et commentum, cuius vel ipsum Satanam pudeat (I can't read Latin that well, but it doesn't seem like Theodore Beza was being super charitable either in his dialogue with Lutherans on the Lord's Supper).
All in all, as the church we're entering into a whole different kind of game in the future. As things thin out and Christianity requires more commitment and more liability, it's all the more imperative that we're able to gather from the various corners of biblical, conservative Christianity to pray, study, discuss, and work together. That needs to happen at the academic level as well as the local community level. And none of that requires compromise. In fact, we may find ourselves more clarified and committed to our own confessions.