I have a habit of not just reading one book at a time. Currently I am shuffling between three books, which is fairly average for me. Sometimes I find value in just plowing through one of them, but, more often than not, I find reading multiple books helps me think. There is something about putting different authors in discussion, even if they are writing about three very different things, that helps form me as a pastor, theologian, husband and friend. Today, as I sip my coffee, knowing that my afternoon will not be typical of my day off as I will be going to the hopsitial to visit someone, I am reminded of a rule I learned as a freshman in college, “Good theology is practical, and good practice has a theological foundation. The two work in concert often for the benefit of the pastor and the people.”
This, though, is not always the case. Sometimes there is an assumption that just because something has been said before, or discussed before, that the matter is settled and no more debate or thought is needed. As one who values those who walked before me I know that their work on any issue speaks to the present. But that does not mean it is the only word to be spoken on the matter, whatever the matter happens to be.
One of the books I am reading now was written by John W. Behnken. He was a pastor and President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the denomination I call home. Only, he wasnt born in the same century I was, he was born in the 19th century and had spent decades in service to the church long before I was even born. And yet, I find wisdom in his words because what he says seems to speak to the state of things today.
“I have never ceased to marvel at God’s grace in preserving purity of doctrine in our Synod. Nor have I ceased to urge our church’s members with all earnestness at my command to heart-and-soul, word-and-deed thankfulness for this great blessing. Beacuse the Holy Spirit keeps us in the one true faith through the Word of God, the value of the precedent set by our fathers of having regular pastoral conferences and discussing doctrinal essays at District and synodical conventions is beyond calculation. Recalling the deep impression those conferece essays and discussions made on me in my earlier experience—an impression which attendance at hundreds of conferences and conventions has certainly deepend—I am fully convinced that, under God’s blessing, they have been the most powerful factor in solidifying our Synod and preserving its doctrinal soundness.” — John W. Behnken, This I Recall (St. Louis: CPH, 1964), 38-39.
This man who spent decades as a pastor and decades as the president of the Synod understood the value not in lockstep adherence, but in mutual discussion, discussion that takes place over and over again, just as our fathers had done. It may not be the most expedient way to tackle an issue. It may not have the desired effect some participants wish it to have, but dialog around doctrinal essays seems to have sustained the Synod long before any of us drew breath.
Theology is never decided by a majority vote, but theologians are developed by frank and fraternal discussion. This matters, dialog matters, not because our theology could change, for Christ will never change, but because lives are impacted by the words and deeds we pastors and our people use day in and day out. Doctrinal soundness does not come as a result of swallowing a set of presuppositions, it is birthed in the crucible of discussion, where I become just as vulnerable as the idea I may have. According to one who walked before I did these hallowed halls this is precisely how the Syod worked, and how it worked things out. I look forward to the day when we will encourage such a frank and open dialog concerning issues that takes seriously the Sciptures and Confessions, but one that also takes seriously the notion of trusting the brother or sister across the table, trusting them enough to be vulnerable because the person across the table demonstrates the very thing the Scriptures and Confessions proclaim, Christ and Him cruicified.