Martin Luther's Death Day - Seminex Sermon February 18, 2009

by Edgar M. Krentz
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of New Testament

Galatians 5:1 Stand fast, therefore, in the freedom with which Christ has made you free.

Isaiah 11:1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

I. Luther's Death Day.

It began in Eisleben, Saxony on November 10, 1483. He was baptized the next day in the church of Saints Peter and Paul, a short walk away, and named Martin after the saint whose day it was.

It ended in Eisleben in February 18, 1546. Four days earlier he preached his last sermon from the pulpit of Saint Andreas Church, just off the Marktplatz, closer to the center of town. [Incidentally the relatively new pastors of that parish are a couple, both ordained clergy of the ELCA.] I

He died in a house facing the Marktplatz. He had gone there attempting to settle a dispute in the local gentry family.

In the 63 years between that beginning and ending in Eisleben, from 1517 to 1546 Luther lived a life filled with controversy, constant battles with the church of Rome, with Andres Bodenstein von Karlstadt his faculty colleague, with Henry VIII of England, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Zwingli in Marburg, with the peasants in the peasants' war, and the like. Read Heiko Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil to get the details. (New York, et al.: Doubleday Image Books, 1992: 207-324)

The Lutheran Church began in controversy between a small minority of German nobles and a powerful ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, between a single Augustinian monk and the leader of the universal western church.

Luther's theology was formed in the crucible of controversy. Controversy forces one back to central issues.

It was true of Luther; it was true of the controversy that led to Seminex.

It may sound a bit arrogant to compare the Missouri Synod controversy to Luther's struggles. But it is one way to identify some issues and resources in that struggle.

 And some of the blessings that came through that struggle.

I don't very often think about those days these days. I did last fall, when asked to describe the origins of Seminex in an adult forum at my home parish, Augustana across the street.

It made me recall a line from Virgil's Aeneid, when Queen Dido asks Aeneas to tell her about the fall of Troy. Aeneas says

Quamquam animus meminisse horret, incipiam. [One has to get one Latin line in to make one appear learned.]

"Though my spirit is horrified at the memory, I will begin." And to help me I am leaning on two tags from the Bible. They will become  clear as we go on.

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

II. Stand Fast in Liberty.

The worst of times. The attacks on John Tietjen began before August 1969, when he arrived on campus as our new seminary president. And they lasted till he was removed from office in 1976. And they broadened to attacks on the doctrine and teaching of 45 members of the faculty of 50.

The worst of times. Fear of an unknown future. Temptation to hatred of oppressors. Families split down the middle, like the LCMS pastor in Michigan who would not talk to his son on the phone because he graduated from Seminex.

The infamous 1973 resolution that "repudiated the attitude" of "the faculty majority" (without naming names) and declared their teaching "false doctrine" (in three generalities: "subversion of the authority of the Bible," "gospel reductionism," and "denial of the third use of the law") was adopted 574 to 451 (56% to 44%).

There you have the issues. But the three are really only one. What role does the gospel play in theology and in the life of the church? What gives the written word power and authority? What makes Christ necessary, i.e. how does the gospel play its central role in the life, proclamation and reflection of the church? And what moves Christians to produce the fruits of the Spirit, to use the language of Galatians?

But enough of that. A homily is not the place to rehearse past problems.

It was the best of times. On the day that the Lutheran Church recalls Martin Luther on his death we recall Luther's stress on Christian freedom. Seminex taught us the significance of Paul's words in Galatians 5:1: Stand fast, therefore, in the freedom with which Christ has made you free.

I am glad that I did not miss it, for the radical split in the LCMS changed me and both the students and faculty theologically-and all for the better.  Let me explain.

We were driven back to the basic issues and basic documents of the Reformation, to Luther and the Confessions. My copy of Tappert is heavily underscored and annotated, mostly in the light of the attacks on the faculty.

Take those three issues.. What is the authority of Scripture? Luther said in his De Servo Arbitrio "Take Christ from the Scriptures; what more will you find in them." Tolle Christum e Scripturis; quid amplius in illis invenies? In 1534 he set this thesis for  his doctoral candidate Nicolaus Medler to defend: "If our adversaries argue the scriptures against Christ, then we will argue Christ against the Scriptures." Si adversarii urgeunt Scripturas contra Christum, urgemus Christum contra Scripturas.

 Or take Gospel reductionism. Melanchthon argues in Apology IV that everything in our theology must give glory to God and magnify Christ. That is the theologia crucis in a nutshell. Think of what that does to preaching-or at least ought to do. It is the antidote to moralism, to self-sufficiency or self-confidence. It says "No!" to that old German saying, "Erst komm ich, dann komm ich noch einmal, nächst kommt mein kleines Hund, und dann kommst du zuerst." I come first, then I come again, next comes my little dog, and then you [finally] come."

Consider the third use of the law. The confessions say Lex semper accusat, while Luther, speaking of the Decalogue said, "It's not enough to say, 'It is written, it is written, it is written.' You must ask whom it is written for. The ten commandments were written for Jews, not Germans. So I do not obey the ten commandments unless I am persuaded by natural law or sound reason."

Put it briefly, Luther and the Confessions stood for Freedom.

Oppression creates unity in the oppressed.

"Whether one suffers, all suffer; whether one rejoices, all rejoice." We lived that-and that unity continues. To this day there is instant familial relationships with old Seminex colleagues and former students-even after years.

Earlier this week an LCMS pastor wrote me saying that he wished we, the faculty,  had stayed and not left. After all, he wrote me, the powers would have removed a few of you, the church would have tired of the constant dismissals, and the bulk of the faculty would have stayed. I wrote back that he had a very strange concept of justice.

We learned more about the doctrine of the church than can be learned in a classroom. And more about common humanity. Let me take the latter first. The outpouring of concern and care still amazes me. Regular services in the Episcopalian Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. A Jesuit university opening its doors to displaced Lutrherans.

We learned to live lean. Seminex lived in borrowed and rented quarters. Faculty and administration had second hand, recycled desks and furniture. The blessed Xerox machine made up for the lack of a library. [We had left behind a library of over 200,000 thousand books.]

But most of all I, better we, were liberated as we stood fast in the liberty Christ creates. Galatians 5:1 "Stand fast, therefore, in the freedom with which Christ has made you free." One only appreciates freedom when it is threatened.

III. Root and Branch

We may not have known it at the time, but Seminex led to a promising new future. We lived what Isaiah said (11:1):  "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." We saw and lived a new thing based on old root.

That's what the Seminex logo depicted visually. A few years ago a Seminex grad offered to sell a stained glass of that logo. I bought it from him; it hangs before your eyes in chapel today. It symbolizes the future into which the Seminex community moved. Martin Marty, sitting in the assembly at the first Seminex commencement in 1974 created it. My seminary classmate is not just a premier church historian and theologian; he was and is an artist. He drew that stump and the tendril rising out of it.

What was the new? Much in every way. But I will name only three items.

A new vision of the church, which led to a new little Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, a catalyst for Lutheran unity that led to the ELCA.

As Bishop Chilstrom said ten years ago at the 25th anniversary of Seminex, that little Association brought with it into the ELCA a renewed appreciation for worship. Daily chapel at Seminex was regularly filled with students and faculty. It was the positive unifying experience, along with humor and shared experiences. I remember the student produced musical "Fiddling with the Proof."

Luther is supposed to have said that the gospel was like a Platzregen, a local shower. It would not last longer than three generations.  We learned that the hard way.  Eternal vigilance is the price of victory.

 When the gospel becomes an unexpressed assumption-, when it ceases to be the central concern of proclamation and everyday life-, when magnifying Christ no longer is central, both Christian freedom and Christian life are at stake.

Let me illustrate by a final anecdote. In 1972 Lutherans celebrated the 450th anniversary of Luther's German translation of the New Testament. I wrote then General Manager of Concordia Publishing House suggesting that a wonderful way to observe this would be to publish an English Luther NT, that is, print his introduction to the NT and the prefaces to the separate books in an edition of the RSV. After all, good translations were available in the 35th volume of the American edition.

He replied that they had their New Testaments printed by outside printers and my suggestion would be prohibitively costly. So he proposed to print them separately, and asked me to write an introduction to them. I did and he did, sending a copy of this paperback as a gift to every pastor in the LCMS.

It came out in late June of 1973, just a few weeks before the New Orleans convention that condemned the faculty.

I was a faculty representative to that convention. Like almost all delegates I arrived in time for the "Open Hearings" on issues that were to come before the convention-and the major issues were John Tietjen, the seminary faculty, etc.

I was in a corridor when an LCMS pastor, red in the face, shaking this little paperback in my face, accused me of making Luther come out on the side of the faculty and in favor of historical criticism, a phrase that never occurred in the publication. I also have in this copy a brief note from Jerry Pelikan: "What a nice idea to reprint Luther's prefaces to the NT-and on the eve of the Synodical convention!

To stand for the gospel can be dangerous; it is also exhilarating, empowering, gladdening the heart. It is a challenge that calls for a YES from all of us.

Seminex is now almost a biblical generation away. But its history summons you and me  to a commitment to magnify Christ. Soli Christo, soli deo gloria!


Gal. 5:1, Isaiah 11:1

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