Almost everyone knows Martin Luther's famous defense before the Diet of Worms: "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Not as many people can quote what he said just before that. "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I cannot and will not retract."

That quotation sums up the way the Lutheran movement began: as a demand for the church to operate under Scriptural authority.

When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed its social statement on sexuality last summer, approving of gay unions and gay clergy, it made no effort appeal to Scripture at all. This frustrated and angered conservative Lutherans, who would have disagreed with the statement's teaching even if the document had appealed to scriptural authority. But to ignore Scripture entirely? How un-Lutheran.

In late August, I joined more than 800 conservative Lutherans in Columbus, Ohio, for Lutheran CORE's free theological conference. We listened to seven theologians (augmented by theologically oriented preachers and a banquet speaker) focus on the crisis in authority in their church.

The Tuesday-through-Thursday event was designed to frame a Thursday-through-Friday convocation which in turn gave birth to a new Lutheran denomination—a safe haven for congregations that find the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America too liberal and the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church too "fundamentalist" for their comfort.

Senior statesman Carl Braaten, now 81 years old and cofounder with Robert Jenson of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology keynoted the event.

The Gnostic Flight from Authority

Braaten described the ELCA approach to authority as deficient in three "Gnostic" ways, deficiencies that played a big role in the passage of last summer's ELCA social statement on sexuality.

Deficiency 1: Like the ancient Gnostics, the ELCA is antinomian—it rejects the law of God.

Deficiency 2: Like the ancient Gnostics, the ELCA claims a higher knowledge—higher than anything available from an external Word of God. Gnostics trusted instead in enlightenment from within, which is where they locate God. So do those guiding ELCA's decisions, said Braaten.

Deficiency 3: Like the ancient Gnostics, ELCA leaders sneer at the idea that we can look to a book as our authority—especially a book written by Jews. Antinomianism and anti-Semitism are always found together, said Braaten.

Irenaeus and other patristic writers opposed such trends with a three-fold structure of authority: biblical authority within the limits of the canon, a rule of faith (embodied later in the creeds) to guide the interpretation of the Bible, and the conciliar consensus of the apostles' authorized successors (which in turn defines what it means to be "little-c" catholic).

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Braaten commended Irenaeus's response as a guide for contemporary Christians facing neo-Gnostic challenges. We must renew our understanding of the proper use of the Law, of the proper source of the knowledge of God, and of the nature of authority.

Lutherans are feisty. Their founder was feisty. So it was not surprising to hear Braaten label certain proposals advanced by the ELCA as "cockamamie," and to commend the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone as a "Lutheran crap detector." And when he was asked from the floor whether ELCA headquarters has any idea that Gnosticism is a problem today, Braaten quipped: "It's a polysyllabic word."

Testing the Spirits

Paul Hinlickey of Roanoke College took the lectern next. He framed his appeal for authority as "a plea for critical dogmatics"—a combination of boldly, confidently asserting Christian belief and testing the spirits in the present hour to see whether they are of God.

The authority of theology, he said, is the power of the keys as defined in article 28 of the Augsburg Confession. It is a "commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to remit and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments." This power "is exercised only by teaching or preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments," the confession continues. The retention of sin, said Hinlickey, involves naming sin so that sinners may come to their senses and others may not be harmed. This exercise of theological authority is in short supply in the ELCA and sorely needed in contemporary society. It leads to the healing of both individuals and society.

Instead of properly naming sin in connection with preaching the Gospel, said Hinlickey, we have "a new outbreak of cheap grace," Dietrich Bonhoeffer's phrase for antinomianism. The devil's purpose in antinomianism, Luther said, is not to remove the law. It is to remove Christ.

In Hinlickey's address more than in others, Luther's tendency to frame the Christian life as a struggle with the devil came to the fore. Thus he portrayed the exercise of authority he called "critical dogmatics" as "the Spirit wrestling with the devil."

Biblical authority

Stephen J. Hultgren of Fordham University maintained the theme in the third session by focusing tightly on the authority of Scripture itself.

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Hultgren was eager to avoid both the ELCA's loose notion of biblical authority (which invests too much in the constantly culturally shifting mind of the community) and the Lutheran traditionalism of the Missouri Synod (rooted in a Lutheran orthodoxy that developed after Luther). We must forge a new path, he said.

He advocated a return to Luther, but cautioned against misapplying Luther. For example, Luther rightly located the gospel primarily in the oral proclamation of the Word rather than in the written Word. But along with Luther's criticism of the canon, that has been used to play down Scripture's authority. That was something Luther never did. Luther consistently affirmed the authority of Scripture because it is rooted in the underlying Gospel of Christ. Its authority is not, however, limited to the Gospel. All Scripture points to Christ, and therefore all of it is authoritative.

Hultgren affirmed with Luther the binding nature of the New Testament's ethical teaching on Christians, as well as the binding nature of the Ten Commandments when understood in natural law terms.

Hultgren thinks that Lutheran traditionalism does not do justice to the human element in Scripture. Instead of discovering the organic unity that exists beneath the literal and spiritual meanings of the text, it tends to reduce the spiritual to the literal. This hampers its ability to give an adequate account of Scripture's variety and voices. But on the other hand, Lutheran traditionalism was right to resist the kind of critical method that destroyed Christians' confidence in the unity of Scripture.

The key is to recover Luther's view of the unity of letter and Spirit and Scripture's Christocentric focus. This would allow us to hold on to the Old Testament in all its relevance. It would also allow us to fight back when critical scholarship oversteps its bounds and tries to make its own claims normative instead of the church's truth claims.

Ultimately, said Hultgren, we must refuse to allow the claims of Scripture to be squeezed into an agenda borrowed from a secular age. Instead, allow Scripture to set an agenda and proclaim a vision that is wider than the human experience of our time.

Moral Vision

Roanoke College's Robert Benne spoke next, calling for a renewed moral vision for Lutheranism.

Benne bemoaned the ELCA's shift in focus from personal morality to public policy. Presumably, the church knows something about the former, he said, and is not likely to be competent in the latter.

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Benne said a renewed Lutheran morality would avoid misapplying the traditional Lutheran teaching that we are at the same time justified and sinners. Instead, it would be much more attentive to personal growth and more focused on the sanctification of disciples. We must, he said, learn draw on other traditions that combine justification and sanctification better than we Lutherans do.

A renewed Lutheran moral vision will also demand renewal of pastoral teaching and of confession and absolution. Lutherans must recover the instructional use of the Law. Such pastoral teaching will place more emphasis on biblical stories of obedience as it maintains its presentation of the stories of salvation.

The Authority of God's Name

Robert Jenson spoke about the Trinity, not as an abstract doctrine about the ontology of God, but as a way to norm our speech for and about God in the church. If we allow Scripture's language about God to be authoritative, and we can be sure we are speaking about the true God.

We know God, Jenson said, by the personal names that he has revealed and by the revealed narratives that pick him out from the crowd. Jealousy is one of his names. He will not share his glory with another. Faithless speech about God is not disciplined by Scripture's naming and narratives.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the revealed names) are the dramatis personae of the narratives. The Scriptural narratives are not just the account of God's acts for us, but also the narrative of God's Trinitarian life together.

Speaking Ill of Love

Steven D. Paulson of Luther Seminary addressed the role of love in Christian theology. Love doesn't save. Love is a work and if you add it to Christ, it will bury Christ. Thus, we must speak ill of love until it returns to its proper place. Love fulfills the law. It does not fulfill the Gospel. (For a classic Lutheran exposition of the relation of love to salvation see this section of the Defense (or Apology) of the Augsburg Confession.)

Love is, of course, the rubric under which contemporary religion wanders from its moral teachings. "Love yields all," said Paulson. "Faith yields nothing." The ELCA has refused to take up marriage and ordination under their proper category, which is Law, he said. It has created a false god, offering the Spirit as a kind of unfolding law.

Mission as Relationship

The final theologian to address the gathering was missiologist Paul Martinson. Mission, he said, is God's way of being God.

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Justification is the root of the Gospel. It is more than a teaching about how we are saved. It is a teaching about what kind of God, our God is. He is a God of relationship, who wants others to know his love and life. Thus God created us in his image, in relationship with him. Thus the Son became incarnate in order to enter into immediate relationship with us. Jesus then bore our sins in his body and became sin for us that in the "happy exchange" of justification we give Christ our worst and he gives us his best.

Mission is then relationship in action. Because it is about relationship with the Triune God, mission has to be explicit about Jesus. A God who seeks to be in relationship with his creatures "does not want to be incognito," said Martinson.

Mission in mainline Protestantism has devolved into service without the Word. But "service without the Word is ambiguous, just as the Word without service is misleading. In mission, service and Word are inseparable. Only then is relationship real and full."

In summary, the theologians who spoke at Lutheran CORE's free theological conference saw crisis of authority in the church. The crisis resulted from an abandonment of the combined authority of canon, creed, and church—or less alliteratively, Scripture, a normative set of teaching that guide scriptural interpretation, and authorized leaders charged with faithfully handing on the faith. By looking to the self, to love, to the world's agenda, to atomizing biblical scholarship, to any god but the jealous God of Scripture, the church is bound to collapse of its own pretentiousness. By submitting itself to canon, creed, and catholicity, it can renew its mission in the world, recover its passion for holiness, and speak faithfully about the true God.

David Neff is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.