What Is the ELCA Problem About?
Part of a 7 week course called "Sense and Sensuality" by Rev. Gary Blobaum
It’s not about sexuality. Or rather, sexuality became a problem in the ELCA because its theology was already a problem. The theology of the ELCA has been called “Christianity Lite.” It purports to hold fast the full-bodied theology of the Christian creeds. In reality, it waters them down.
The ELCA constitution promises: “This church accepts the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.” But does the ELCA actually believe that the declarations of the creeds are true? Look at two essays on the ELCA website. Type Virgin Birth or Resurrection in the search space. (The ELCA removed the articles but you can still see them here and here and see that they were on the ELCA official website.)
The first essay acknowledges that the Augsburg Confession “supports the Western Church’s traditional understanding of the doctrine referred to as The Virgin Birth.” But the essay goes on: “While it remains official and normative for the Evangelical Lutheran Church today, [this teaching of the Augsburg Confession] has not closed the doctrinal debate over Jesus’ conception for many Lutherans…” In other words, although this is the official position of the ELCA, many Lutherans doubt it.
Many Lutherans? Has anyone noticed the volume dropping on the phrase “born of the Virgin Mary” during the confession of the creed? Who are these Lutherans who debate the truth of the virginal conception of Jesus? And why is the ELCA contradicting its own constitution to champion their doubt?
Doubt over the virginal conception of Jesus seems the primary theme of the essay. For example, the essay contends that “not all early theologians espoused the doctrine…” But it names only one such theologian: Marcion, who was a heretic.
In a series of three paragraphs, the essay marshals the following arguments against belief in the virginal conception: 1. the Greek word “virgin” in Matthew 1:23 translates from Isaiah 4:7 the Hebrew word “young woman;” 2. some pagan mythological figures were said to have been born of virgin mothers; and 3. some Old Testament “heroes such as Ishmael, Isaac, Samson, and Samuel” were born in unusual circumstances and the early Christians supposedly wanted to portray Jesus’ birth as having surpassed theirs.
The essay concludes: “When we confess in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus was ‘conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary…’ we are not making a gynecological assertion.” Oh? The ELCA may not be confessing a gynecological fact, but the rest of the Church is. The vast majority of Christians believe in the virginal conception of Jesus as a physical and historical fact.
But what, in place of this bold creedal confession, does the ELCA believe? Back to the essay: “…we are not making a gynecological assertion. We are saying that God entered into Christ…” God entered into Christ? That is either heresy or very close to it. According to orthodox faith, the divine nature of Christ cannot be the result of God entering into Christ. There was no point at which God entered into Christ because from the moment of his conception Christ was God. There was never a time when Jesus was not divine. There was never a time when Jesus, even as an embryo, awaited God’s entering into him.
For the ELCA, the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus seems an embarrassment, as if educated people can no longer believe such things. Perhaps the ELCA wants to appeal to the culture, to make it easier for modern people to believe. In doing so, however, the ELCA is becoming indistinguishable from the culture itself.
Doubt is the prevailing mood as well in the essay on resurrection. It argues that the “accounts of Jesus’ resurrection emphasize the doubt and uncertainty of the disciples.” Well, let’s see. The first New Testament account of the resurrection (A.D. 51) is found in First Corinthians 15:1-7. It says nothing at all about doubt and uncertainty as it recounts the appearances of the risen Jesus to more than 500 sisters and brothers. Mark’s account says nothing about doubt and uncertainty either. It reports “terror and amazement.” Matthew tells of “fear and great joy” among the women, and he reports that the disciples worshiped the Lord “but some doubted.” In Luke, Peter is “amazed,” the hearts of the Emmaus disciples burn with excitement, and the other disciples are startled and terrified and assume Jesus is a ghost until he quells their doubts by eating a fish in front of them. Later the disciples “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God.” In John, everyone who sees Jesus believes, including Thomas whose doubt prior to seeing Jesus culminates in the most profound confession of faith in the New Testament: “My Lord and my God.” To claim, as the essay does, that these narratives emphasize doubt and uncertainty is to seriously distort them. “Some doubted.” But the emphasis is on fear, joy, worship, and burning hearts.
Still more seriously, the essay skirts the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. His Easter appearances it calls “apparitions” as if the disciples did not really see their Lord standing bodily before them. In terms more Buddhist than Biblical, the essay defines resurrection as “the ultimate life passage.” After death, it claims, Christians can expect to enter “a life of the spirit, a new and permanent form of life.” The creeds, by contrast, boldly declare: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” We do not become wispy spirits in a nondescript heaven; we feast, we drink wine, we dine at the table of the Lord and see the love in his real and human face.
If at some point in his earthly life, God merely “entered into” Christ; and if Christ and those who believe in Christ merely enter the life of the spirit – we can remain pretty much as we are. In that case, God wants not so much to change us as to guide us through life and through life’s “ultimate passage.” But if our salvation required of God something as drastic as becoming human flesh, and if human bodies will one day be exalted, then we know: we will be radically changed. No life passage will do – only a miracle. In repentance and service to the lowly, we will be humbled as Jesus was humbled; in forgiveness and bodily resurrection, we will be exalted as Jesus is exalted.
The vivid faith of the Christian creeds is fading in the ELCA.
Go to Why Are We Even Talking about Leaving the ELCA?