Sacramentology Gone Awry

the incoherent editorial ramblings of John W. Berg

(This op-ed piece was originally published in July of 2005)


For Lutherans, second only to “law and Gospel” is the cliché “Word and Sacrament.” Spouting clichés, however, doesn’t always guarantee delivery. I recently read an ultra conservative Lutheran seminary president’s sermon preached to incumbents of the pastoral office with the repeated injunction to “preach the Gospel” in which the preacher did precious little. Now, that the venerable “Word and Sacrament” is used universally by Lutherans (and Luther) and that it has come to be the standard bearer in the face of all sorts of other nonsense being put forth as that which should draw people to Christ notwithstanding, what one means by it requires further examination. Despite the fact that this cliché still falls from my lips (old habits die hard) what I have learned is that this one suffers not only from the malady most clichés do - formulaic simplification without the substance - but it also has led to, or perhaps has exposed, a rather odd view of the Sacraments and of the nature of faith, at least in parts of the synodical circles in which I occasionally used to run, the aforementioned Wisconsin Synod.


Now, the complete phrase, of course, can be found in Augustana V which tells us that God has instituted “a preaching office of giving the Gospel and Sacraments” (German) or a “ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments” (Latin), which article defines the Holy Ministry - as AC VII does the Church - liturgically! Note, that the first of the twin peaks of the ministerial obligation, the erstwhile “Word,” is actually here Evangelium gegeben and docendi evangelii not Wort and verbum.


So what? Doesn’t “Word” mean that? Well, one would assume so, but you know what they say about making assumptions. Now, it seems that in the old rugged WELS the use of the expression “Word and Sacrament,” indicates (or has spawned) a rather odd dichotomy between the Word and the Sacraments, as if the “Word” were something distinct from the Sacraments. Perhaps this is the natural malady which accompanies low churchism which invariably suffers from acute ritualphobia, where Sacraments as rites must know their place and those who make too much of them come under suspicion. For example, note this from the web page of a church of the fiercely low church Lutheran Brethren


Of these three (the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper) we accept the Word as the primary and the two sacraments as the secondary means of grace. 


Secondary? This is as baldly as I have seen the “Word” trumps “Sacraments” assertion and the false dichotomy between “Word” and “Sacrament.” Considering that there is no by-passing Baptism as entrance into the kingdom even in the presence of the Incarnate Word (John 3), this mindset belies a misunderstanding of the Sacraments and the Word. This is a rather odd way of speaking of those rites about which the blessed Dr. Luther speaks


[Baptism] is far more glorious than anything else God has commanded and ordained; in short, it is so full of comfort and grace that heaven and earth cannot comprehend it (LC IV, 39)



“the whole gospel and the article of the Creed, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church… the forgiveness of sins,’ are embodied in this sacrament [of the altar] and offered to us through the Word” (LC V 32).


Yes, since when are the blessed Sacraments something distinct from the “Word?” And, who would relegate the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to junior varsity status?


Additionally, if one is crippled in one’s understanding of the purpose of the Hauptgottestdienst or the liturgy, defining the later as “the work of the people” and the former as pep rally (as one WELS mission describes their efforts, “fun”) he will become sacramentally indifferent, if not antagonistic, for these rites are somewhat weighted on the God-side. Now whether this is a peculiar low church trait or not, I don’t know, but it is often seen in the “self consciously low church” WELS.  Undoubtedly this is a byproduct of its pietistic past, which infection Fr. Paul Alliet naughtily, but aptly, describes as “Lutheran herpes,” a malady which cannot be cured, but occasionally flares up, most often in moments of passion, the passion in this affair in no small part enflamed by the great troubler of the WELS, that #%&@! Magpie.  That the temperature in the body WELS is rising on these sacramental issues because of the injection (with the Magpie being one of the pricks) of a Sacramental awareness indicates internal defenses are reacting, not surprising as we are all congenitally infected. And so healthy doses of sacramental antibodies are needed lest one slips further into an anthropocentric induced dementia.


One source of this odd distinction seems to be, of all places the WELS Seminary, at least among some who man the WELS website’s official Q/A whose theological questions we are told are answered largely by their seminary professors. Past efforts to dialogue with them have failed, as these interlocutors are afforded not only anonymity but also immunity from debate along with the dispensation that “they do not speak officially.” However, those outside of the sect should know one thing, the WELS walks lock step.  There are no rogue theologians (a few dirty birds aside) within its midst, and those who attempt to explore uncharted theological space or critique the status quo quickly have their life lines snipped so they may drift off into that black hole of “other Lutherans.” The point being, regardless of what is in calls and constitutions, the WELS web site’s Q/A’s A’s fairly represent official WELS thinking and theology.


These Q/A Seminary professors, it seems, have taken note of this growing Sacramental awareness within the WELS and, in some respects it seems, are alarmed. Again, this cheeky rag, shamelessly takes some of the credit (and too much glee). In their answers to sacramental questions, a number of rather unusual, if not, quirky answers have been given, several indicating what I previously noted.


Holy Water! Hocus Pocus! Holy Moley!


In answer to a question about the spiritual fate of “mentally retarded (sic) people who cannot process any information” from someone grossly ignorant about the capabilities of these special needs people, the WELS Seminary professor writes generally about faith, which a child such as this, he grants, may have, 


Such a simple trust is worked through the means of grace, that is, the gospel in the Word of God and in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.


Lest you accuse me of nit picking by noting this distinction between the gospel in “the Word of God” and “in the sacraments,” note next how he defines the “Word of God” and its deficiency to move the heart of the developmentally challenged or the infant, 


Such people would be similar to infants in that it is not possible to communicate with them through a verbal language. However, like infants, such people can receive the sacrament of baptism, and with this sacrament, the blessings that God promises.


Note, since the Word (“verbal language”) doesn’t work, we have the back-up Sacrament of Baptism! In another Q/A on the issue of the faith of the unborn a WELS Seminary professor further illustrates this bizarre bifurcation of Word from Sacraments when he writes,


Baptism is for those who are born. The Lord’s Supper is for those who can examine themselves. And the Word of God is preached to those who can comprehend a language. We want to be careful that we don’t turn God’s Word into a magical means that can work faith in those who do not comprehend a language.


So, in the opinion of the WELS Seminary professor, “God’s Word” cannot work faith in the unborn, the infant, the developmentally challenged because the Word of God is only for those who can comprehend a language, for to say otherwise makes the Word magic.  Ironically, this professor in refuting the tiresome Baptist charge that our view of baptism is akin to “magic” he falls into that very error! Since, according to him, the “Word of God” doesn’t work in those who can’t “comprehend a language,” we have a splash of supercharged holy water with a dash of incomprehensible magical words, “Abra-cadabra!” a believer! (Oh, in case you are wondering, John the Baptizer’s giant leap for mankind is elsewhere shunted aside by the Q/A without any Scriptural warrant whatsoever as a special case because of his special calling.)


In a related Q/A about the condition of the not yet baptized and whether faith could be wrought prior to baptism by hearing the Word, the questioner noted that when he was in a WELS day school they were taught that “we were first brought to faith either by baptism or by hearing the word at church.” The Seminary professor commented,


Also a part of this discussion is the fact that God reveals that his word works along psychological norms (that is, it appeals to and influences the human mind, will, and emotions). But at what age or at what level of psychological advancement or maturity the word works best or ideally – that is the question we cannot answer definitely. We want to avoid thinking that God’s Word works magically (by external contact only) but we do not want to limit the Holy Spirit’s power and ability to work in any human heart.


So much for extra nos! What he is arguing is that “[God’s] word” may not work all that well in those who apparently have not reached some sort of age of psychological receptability. According to this WELS Seminary professor there must be something in man – maturity, will, ability to reason, psychological advancement - to make him an able receptor for the Word.  Quod in se, indeed!  In arguing, one assumes, against those who would say that the Word of God works externally (opere operata) this Seminary professor casts doubt on its ability to work at all in the heart of an infant and to suggest it works in those who have not yet reached a certain psychological level garners one the charge of “magic.” 1


If God’s Word is not that by which the Spirit works faith in the heart, mind, will and emotion of an infant, those developmentally challenged, yes, the unborn, then what does? Water? Magic? The Spirit, feathers and all, unfettered from the external word? Of course, we confess that


It must be firmly maintained that God gives no one his Spirit or grace apart from the external Word (ausserlichen Wort/Verbo externo) which goes before. We say this to protect ourselves from the enthusiasts, that is, the “spirits,” who boast that they have the Spirit apart from and before contact with the Word (SA III, Article VIII 3).


And later


For both those who believe prior to baptism and those who become believers in baptism have everything through the external Word that comes first (SA III, Article VIII 7).


Faith comes by hearing, hearing the Word, hearing the Word preached from the font, the pulpit or from the front seat of dad’s Buick, whether one is safely cradled within ivy covered seminary walls, the loving confines of Bethesda Lutheran Home, or a mother’s arms or womb.


I was exposed to this particular view of the deficiency of infant faith in some of the unpublished letters and comments reacting to Fr. James Frey’s article “Infant Communion” (Vol. II, 3) in which the arguments against communing infants (and children up to those not yet bar mitzvahed) bore a striking resemblance to those against infant faith, where faith as ability to reason edged out faith as trust. The infant whose faith our Lord sets as the gold standard is unable, apparently, to believe as well as an adult!


Prior to Christian Worship (the new WELS hymnal), however, most in the WELS confessed differently when they used The Lutheran Agenda’s exorcism-exorcised version of Luther’s 1526 revision of the Order of Holy Baptism. Once upon a time, long, long ago the candidate for baptism was asked the three-fold renunciations (Do you renounce…) and affirmations (Do you believe…), and, “do you desire Baptism,” regardless of whether the candidate for Baptism was in Depends or Pampers. Perhaps it is not surprising in view of the above that these questions are not used in the Christian Worship rite “for the baptism of children,” and only a shortened version of the affirmation questions “for the baptism of adults” is. (Chalk one up for lex orandi, lex credendi.)


Dr. David Scaer in his invaluable contribution to the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series, Volume XI Baptism (Luther Academy, Cresbard, SD, 1999) notes that


The Anabaptists’ arguments for the denial of infant faith were adopted by the eighteenth-century Rationalists and then by Schleiermacher, who held that children had not come to the first level of “self consciousness” and so were incapable of a higher level of “God consciousness.” Their arguments against infant faith were characteristically those of the Baptists, who denied infant Baptism because of the absence of a conscious decision (p. 149).


Or we might add “because of the lack of “psychological advancement or maturity” or “ability to comprehend a language.” Dr. Luther speaks of the “ravings of the Anabaptists” who held that only adults should be baptized “because, as they maintain, infants have no understanding (AE 3, p. 103).”  Dr. Scaer rightly says that “faith in all cases is beyond psychological explanation (ibid, p. 153)” and reminds us that “infant faith is the norm for adult faith.” Of course, he is parroting Dr. Luther who ironically writes in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church


The Word of God is powerful enough, when uttered, to change even a godless heart, which is no less unresponsive and helpless than any infant (AE 36, p. 73).


And Luther only parrots Christ. Dr. Scaer also quotes Dr. Luther who apparently would run afoul of these WELS Seminary professors


Infants hear the Word of God when they are brought to Baptism; therefore they receive faith. This is proven in the case of John the Baptist who rejoiced in the womb when he heard the Word of God (ibid, Scaer’s translation from WATr 3:2904a).


As Lutherans we confess that water is water, but baptismal water is powerful because as St. Augustine, who has “scarcely said anything better,” says “the Word is joined to the element [and] it becomes a Sacrament (LC V 10).”  Yes, “for the kernel in the water is God’s Word” (LC IV 16). Luther tells us what this means,


Clearly the water does not do it, but the Word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without the Word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the Word of God it is baptism (SC, Baptism, Third part).


In speaking about the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution and the Lord’s Supper, Melanchthon confesses for us that the external contact with the Word is an effective contact when the Spirit wills,


For just as the Word enters through the ear in order to strike the heart, so also the rite enters through the eye in order to move the heart. The word and the rite have the same effect. Augustine put it well when he said that the sacrament is a “visible word,” because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word (AP XIII 5).


These anonymous Q/A WELS seminary professors should know that the water of Holy Baptism does not make an incomprehensible and psychologically unattainable Word able to work, but the Word, which the infant hears and whose heart grasps, makes the water for him Baptism. 


Whether this “Word of God and (as opposed to) the Sacraments” raving and the oft heard charge We Magpies Three hear - “You’re elevating the Sacrament over the Word” - has spawned or revealed this stuff I don’t know. However, we would hope that what this Seminary teaches embryonic preachers to offer infants with one hand (faith) they do not take away with the other (the ability of the infant to believe the Word of God with human mind, will, and emotions.


Of the Number and Use of the Sacraments


How many sacraments are there? Two, three, or, as the Bride of Christ editor Fr. John Fenton coyly liked to say, 4 ½?  Or more? Well, our natural inclinations (stupidity and irascibility) must take pause when encountered by this confessional caution,


No intelligent person will argue much about the number or terminology, as long as those things are retained that have the mandate and promises of God (AP XIII 17).2


Now one could avoid being the target of the old saw about leaving people in doubt about your intelligence by remaining silent or speaking and removing all doubt (hey, we forfeited our 5th amendment rights long ago) if the answer to the question did not reveal something of a person’s theology and agenda, if not, temperament. The hysteria recently shown by Pastor Jack Cascione on the pages of the Christian News in response to the reasoned and confessional arguments of Fr. David Petersen is a case in point. For rightly, ritely and not Romanly defining Ordination and for maintaining the Confessor’s view that the “laying on of hands” may be counted among the Sacraments, Father Dave has been tagged a “closest sacerdotalist” by smiling Jack. One can only wonder what the, I assume, mitered Petersen, reeking of incense, cradling a crosier in the crook of his surpliced arm does when vestibuled in his confessional closet.  Of course, as part of the smells and bells crowd I’ll gladly share this ad hominem (sure beats what else I have been accused of harboring in my closet, sheesh, wear one dress in college and you’re marked for a lifetime). Aspersions are also regularly cast on aspersion casting Lutherans who maintain that Penance (Private Confession and Absolution) be counted among the Sacraments. Now the Lutheran confession is clear in the matter,


If we define the Sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking… Therefore, the sacraments are actually baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (the sacrament of repentance). For these rites have the command of God and the promise of grace, which is the essence of the New Testament (AP XIII 3 –p 4).


That’s three, but we liberal Lutherans don’t stop there


But if ordination is understood with reference to the ministry of the Word, we have no objection to calling ordination a sacrament. For the ministry of the Word has the command of God and has magnificent promises… If ordination is understood in this way, we will not object to calling the laying on of hands a sacrament for the church has the mandate to appoint ministers which ought to please us greatly because we know that God approves this ministry and is present in it (AP XIII 11f).


That’s four…. and


[Marriage] has the command of God as well as certain promises that pertain not properly speaking to the New Testament but rather to the bodily life (AP XIII 14).


… a half. Command, promise, but not of grace. But even that is too few for us freedom loving and prodigal Lutherans, for prayer, alms giving, afflictions and vocations may all claim the sacramental badge of honor, properly taught and defined. One only needs to read Luther’s Genesis lectures to see that he finds the Old Testament littered with sacraments as well as sacramental allusions (as someone once bravely observed about Dr. David Scaer whom he tweaked as “finding baptism in every puddle in the Old Testament.” Hey, take a look.) But as was said, you can have your two, but don’t deny me my 4 ½. For example, indeed, Dr. Luther spoke of “two” sacraments (but not ONLY two) and also of the signs of water and bread and wine and noted that Penance lacked this, but noted that Penance is included in Baptism and is “nothing but a way and return to Baptism.” 


Enter the WELS Q/A. A petitioner asked “What is WELS thinking on this matter?’” “Two? Three? Four?” In answer the WELS seminary professor offered lengthy quotes from Martin C’s Examen and Martin L’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which the Martins ripped the indelibly flawed Roman Ordination. Neither of these scathing evaluations was addressing, of course, evangelical or Lutheran ordination, which the uninitiated wouldn’t know. The Seminary prof allowed that “for a time during the Reformation some Lutherans called absolution” a sacrament but he ominously warned that “to speak of other things as sacraments [other than the official two] would only cause confusion and could ultimately lead to false doctrine.” He then offered the “earthly element” sine qua non and so artfully left his readers to raise an eyebrow at those who speak promiscuously of sacraments, well, like the signers of the Apology and their ilk.


Now you’d think that an answer from these self billed “professional theologians” to a question on the number of Sacraments might include a quote from what I would think is a rather helpfully titled article “Of the Number and Use of the Sacraments” from the Apology. As this is one of the confessions that mark one as a Lutheran, ALL, not just some, Lutherans call absolution a Sacrament, properly defined. Now was this just simple ignorance of the Confessions? The ignorance exemption which we would be happy to grant (as we are frequent recipients), however, cannot be granted in this case as a follow up question was asked in which the relevant confessional citations were noted and, in response, the same “no earthly element, no Sacrament” answer was given and one can only marvel at the deft skill with which the Confessional citations were handled, the only way they could be, they were ignored.  (Reminds one of the Jesuits who were accused of killing three men and a dog and, in defense, proudly produced the dog alive.) Confusion? Yes, but only that caused if the readers of this Q/A would actually pick up a copy of the Confessions and wonder why this particular anonymous Lutheran theologian answers differently and makes such nasty implications about those who not only speak as do the Confessions but who are also desiring to restore the, in effect, wickedly removed practice of private confession and absolution to the church.


Now, no “closet sacerdotalist” that I know confers upon Penance or Ordination that which Scripture does not, nor believes that Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper are not the queen of Sacraments and that each Sacrament should be spoken of in itself. If there are such, they should be spanked. Even then, as Augustine said, “abusus non tollit usum.” Now, of course, the trump card which the WELS Seminary prof played to paint those who wish to speak as our Confessions do as heretics in waiting is the “earthly element” clause of what constitutes as Sacrament which, only on the surface we shall see, seems to exclude the “easy to determine” Confessional inclusion.


“Earthly” Element? External Element


Now often a helpful catechumen who for some reason was instructed that there are three or more Sacraments, will try to get Holy Absolution to pass muster under the “earthly element” clause by offering forward Father Confessor as the “earthly element.” What I once thought a brave attempt at qualifying the Beichtvater as an earthly (not earthy, which most I know are) element, I have now discovered is quite Lutheresque and Confessional. Note what Luther includes under the “visible signs” and masks behind which God hides and reveals Himself


Nevertheless, at the same time the dear God is so concerned for us that we do not go astray and grope for him in vain, that he has given us outward, visible signs upon which we are to fix our eyes and ears. Otherwise we might object that we did not know how or where to find him, or go wandering and fluttering hither and yon after our own thoughts, as was done in time past in the papacy, some running to St. James, others to Rome, and so on.


Therefore he well provides us with such signs, so that we do not need to search hither and yon. He says: Look to the Word, baptism, the sacrament, the keys [absolution]. True enough, he says, all this is external, but it is necessary and helpful to you, in order that you may have a definite image by which you can take hold of me, for you will never reach me in naked majesty; therefore I must present myself to you in these external images, in order that you may grasp me (AE 51 p. 327).


In this sermon on the baptism of Bernhard Von Anhalt Luther says that the tongue of a preacher or a Christian is


The aspergillum. He dips it into the rosy-red blood of Christ and sprinkles the people with it, that is, he preaches to them the gospel, which declares that Christ has purchased the forgiveness of sins with his precious blood (AE 51 p. 326).


In his Genesis lectures Dr. Luther notes


Accordingly, just as Abraham had circumcision and the glorious words “I shall be God to you and your descendants after you” added to circumcision, so we have several visible signs. In the first place, we have Baptism itself, which is adorned with the most important and pleasing promise that we shall be saved if we believe. But because in this weakness of ours it is very easy for us to fall, there have been added to Baptism the Keys or the ministry of the Word—for these must not be separated—which in itself is also a visible sign of grace bound to the Word of the Gospel in accordance with Christ’s institution (AE 3, p. 124).


Luther gushes in his commentary on the angel of the Lord speaking to Abraham


Baptism is a sufficiently manifest and clear appearance. So are the Eucharist, the Keys, the ministry of the Word. They are equal to – yes, they even surpass - all the appearances of all angels, in comparison with which Abraham had only droplets and crumbs (AE 4, p. 126).


Interestingly, the Confessions only use the word “earthly” five times, four to describe people in non-sacramental contexts and only once in reference a Sacrament, the Eucharist, which was said to include “two things” a heavenly and an earthly” (FC TD VII 14) and that in a quote from Martin Bucer!


The word or concept, however, with which Luther and the Confessions most often refer to what is interpreted as the so called “earthly element” of a Sacrament is the “visible” or “external” element. This was to confront the Schwaermers’ diet of Holy Spirit, feathers and all whom they find untethered to the spoken Word. God locates himself and his grace FOR US very specifically, he doesn’t bubble up from within (enthusiasm, from en theos, God in me) but he comes from without, through the external Word, visibly located, audibly heard. The Apology in referring to all three Sacraments notes that


Augustine put it well when he said that the sacrament is a “visible word,” because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the word (AC XIII 5).


God attaches his grace to “signs”3 which are visible and external for which we don’t have to grope or flutter about to find but can lay hold of through his episcopally consecrated grace armed with the keys, in Holy Baptism, in the Holy Eucharist, in preaching, from a mate in a boat, and yes from our earthly father or mother. So finally, if you insist on an “earthly” element you’ve got it, just a hundred pounds of clay (or two or even three as the case may be).


So, to our comrades in the Wisconsin Synod, I offer this reminder, from each Sacrament according to its own ability, to each believer according to his needs.


Such Freedom!


A common view of many an average member of a WELS member church and the misinformed teaching that can be found at the WELS Seminary on the Sacrament of the Altar were both summarized in this Q/A


I am a lifetime WELS member as were my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Recently some of the WELS churches are having communion every Sunday. This is not the Lutheran principle I was taught nor that has been the practice of the church for hundreds of years. [In the March 2002 Forward in Christ] Wayne Mueller, first VP of the WELS stated, “Luther replaced man’s ritual with the power of God’s Word. Because the spoken word conveys the same forgiveness as the sacraments, Luther ended Rome’s practice of making every worship a celebration of the Lord’s Supper…”


So why communion every Sunday? It makes it a common ritual and seems to be the beginning of backsliding to Roman times. What happened to the Lutheran principles?


Yikes, where to begin? As is often the case on this Q/A, the answer given was to a question not asked “Do we have to celebrate the Sacrament every Sunday?” However, the question that the Q/A seems unable to answer was not answered, that is, “why communion every Sunday?” Nowhere in his answer does the seminary professor defend the practice of my fellow “backsliding” Lutherans other than the left handed defense of noting that “offering Communion every Sunday is not necessarily a return to Rome” indicating that if it were made a law it would be. Nor does the WELS answer man speak of the benefit of receiving the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the very New Testament, for the forgiveness of sins. The professor simply offers this


Our dominant feeling in such matters is that expressed by Martin Luther in his Preface to the Small Catechism: “We are to force no one to believe, or to receive the Sacrament, nor fix any law, nor time, nor place for it, but are to preach in such a manner that of their own accord, without our law, they will urge themselves and, as it were, compel us pastors to administer the Sacrament.” (Unfortunately this preface is not included in the WELS Small Catechism “Digest.” Editor.)


Of course, nowhere does the WELS seminary prof include the relevant quotes from the Augustana and the Apology about the practice of the confessor churches - every Lord’s Day, festivals, when people ask for it. The biggest error he makes is to confuse celebrating the Sacrament with receiving it, as if celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday is “forcing” one to receive it.


In response to this answer given in this first Q/A another questioner, after speaking of the blessings of the every Sunday offer of the blessed Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, made this fatal error


It seems if anyone is backsliding it is the WELS who cannot give an answer to WHY NOT take his Body and Blood as often as we can and encourage every WELS church to take up the practice of every Sunday Communion.4


Perturbed, this WELS Seminary professor, after claiming ignorance about the first Q/A, also offered the quote from the Preface. One wonders whether this professor even read what she said, saw “every Sunday communion” and knee jerked, “don’t have to.” He then very deliberately “reframed” her question to the one he could answer and tarred her


I do not agree with you, however, when you suggest that the WELS is “backsliding” by not offering the Lord’s Supper at every assembly of believers. To speak this way is to go beyond Scripture and limit the freedom that the New Testament Church enjoys.


Now, of course, she did not say what he said she said. She asked why this learned man cannot answer the question of “why not” other than to say “Don’t have to.”  He continued to berate her by charging her with the very legalism he defended,


To burden another’s conscience in such matters of Christian freedom exhibits a spirit that we find contrary to that of the New Testament.


Now the “New Testament freedom” of which he speaks is the “freedom” of the majority of a voter’s assembly to withhold the New Testament in his blood from those who desire it.  Indeed we are free to receive the Sacrament. We force no one, as that would be a “new murdering of souls.” Again, offering the Sacrament is not forcing someone to receive it. This is Gospel, this is gift. Nor is our Confession that we have to celebrate the Sacrament, but that when people desire it, we offer it to them. In his “Concerning the Ordering of Divine Service (Gottesdienst) in the Congregation” Dr. Luther wrote


But should some desire the Sacrament on a day other than a Sunday, Mass is to be held, as devotion and time permit; for in this connection one cannot lay down either a law or a limit.5


Yes, it is a simple truth, people are free to receive it when it is offered, but not free to when it is not. Again, note that our Confession is that on every Lord’s Day and on festivals “the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it” and not that the “sacrament is made available when the Voter’s Assembly has determined in advance whether you need it and shall receive it or not.” (Of course I could be wrong, as a WELS Seminary professor once scolded me that this statement was only a “preliminary” statement, a rough draft of sorts until things got sorted out.  He got this from the Triglotta’s translation of praefandum of “preliminary”).


This journal and this writer have already written that this WELS seminary professor is crashing through open doors and again misses the point, or in the words of a Q/A prof as he belittled yet another questioner who cited the relevant confessions and asked if the minority of people in a church wanted the sacrament could they ask that it be offered them


If one is going to use the confessions in an attempt to rarity his own opinions, he should at least cite what the confessions actually say.


Finally, I agree. One should not use the confessions, as this seminary prof does, to ratify his own opinions, that is, to defend withholding the Sacrament by citing the passage that “we force no one to receive” when people are asking that it be offered them. Offering the Sacrament is not forcing someone to receive and is not legalism. Not offering the Sacrament, however, when people desire it, is indeed legalism of the worst sort. This wonderful quote from the Catechism’s preface is not addressing the issue of our celebration of the Sacrament but our reception of the Sacrament (a distinction that a WELS seminary professor once told me was “strange.” Strange indeed.)


What I suspect is that an odd form of legalism is at work here - if you have the Sacrament, you have to go, therefore if you have the Sacrament every Sunday you are forcing people to go every Sunday (I suppose as opposed to forcing them once a month.)  If there is ever a reason to abolish a voter’s assembly it would be for one who by majority vote imposed their will, their restriction on the minority who desire to regularly receive this Viaticum from their ritely called pastor. The “solution” often offered - that if they want it, after the service he will have a “private” communion - ignores, among other issues, that this is the possession of the church and all in the Communion are to be offered this Communion and share in this Communion’s blessings (1 Corinthians 10:17), something a fellow editor (a WELS one) was denied at a wedding service at a WELS member church in which the wedding couple, alone, were communicated (how precious) and the others were left ex-communicated.  Private communion is a bit of an oxymoron.


I can identify, however, with this first letter writer in one respect, like him, I was fourth generation WELS too, but I don’t brag about it, that would be unseemly.


Say What?


As to the quote from the Forward in Christ article by Reverend Mueller, former Seminary professor and current vice president of the WELS, check out the entire article on the web and from Mueller you will read among other interesting facts that


[Luther] eliminated the elevation of the host, an idolatrous practice in which Romans believed they were praising the actual body and blood of Christ.


Hmm. We invite Reverend Mueller to read Luther’s “Adoration of the Sacrament” and also to assess this comment of Luther in his “Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament, 1544


Now when I saw such a mad spirit (Karlstadt) raving against us without cause and saw that he wanted to make it a sin for us – and such an abominable sin – even though it was no sin nor could it be, I decided that in opposition to, in defiance of, and to the chagrin of this same devil I would retain the elevation which I was nevertheless inclined to drop in opposition to the papists (AE 38 p. 315. Dr. Sasse notes that the elevation was eliminated at St. Mary’s in Luther’s absence in 1542).


Luther went on to state his resolve in view of this incursion on the evangelical mass (that is, the denial of the real presence of which the Verba assure us, in view of the charge of artolatria [bread worship] against the elevation and its non-idolatrous and permitted “praising” which confesses that reality that he would assist “In introducing three, seven, or ten elevations (AE 38, p. 316).” It has been argued elsewhere, and I agree, that the time has come for the reintroduction of the elevation as a common practice in our midst, as it has in my parish which has the beneficial alienum of weeding out crypto-Calvinists.6


As regards the statement from the Forward in Christ article by the WELS first vice president that…


Because the spoken word conveys the same forgiveness as the sacraments, Luther ended Rome’s practice of making every worship a celebration of the Lord’s Supper


…where does one begin? Luther did not end Rome’s practice as they had no such practice, they celebrated the office without the Sacrament, let’s not overreach here. Luther did not “end Rome’s practice of making every worship a celebration of the Lord’s Supper because the spoken word conveys the same forgiveness as the sacraments” but he and the Confessors railed against the abomination of the mass, that the “unbloody sacrifice” must be offered every day, and showed from history that a daily “sacrifice” was not offered (neither a sacrifice, nor always daily). Luther did not oppose the Roman Mass (with its errors) and did not always have the evangelical Sacrament in every service, because “the spoken word conveys the same forgiveness as the sacraments.” That’s ridiculous. I’ll let Luther speak for himself, who, when asked “why receive the Sacrament when one has just been absolved” shot back


So what! I want to add the sign of God (he Sacrament) to his Word. To receive God’s word in many ways is so much better (AE 53 p. 118).


And if the author meant “every Sunday” by “every worship,” then, of course not, for Luther confessed along with this author, I assumed, and myself,


At the outset it is again necessary, by way of preface, to point out that we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. Among us the Mass (lit. masses) is celebrated every Lord’s Day and on other festivals when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms (ceremoniae), such as the order of readings, vestments, and other similar things (AP XXIV 1).


As I, the Wisconsin Synod has a long way to go when it comes to its understanding of and teaching on the Viaticum, a path many are on and have traveled much farther than I, a journey only stultified by the poor catechesis of the uninformed catechists of future catechists.


God’s Word* is our Great Heritage


(Well *most of it anyway.) One of the blessings granted the Wisconsin Synod is how it has been led by the Spirit to understand the Holy Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God. However, cracks are beginning to appear in that bulwark of WELS conservatism and one must ask “What does this mean?” A new mantra (yet another beloved principle) has been developed in the wake of the not-going-away “women’s” issue in the WELS and has been making appearances across the formerly tranquil synod. The rule is now being applied across the board. It appeared in a recent Q/A in regards to a question about who is to be baptized, “to establish doctrine we must look at prescriptive rather than descriptive passages.”  


Like most rules created for a specific reason (just because Deborah was a judge doesn’t mean you can have women pastors) they begin to take on a life of their own. (See, for example, my “’Is’ Redividus”” of Volume II 3, p. 5 on the misuse of the Nihil Rule.) Unfortunately like most rules imposed on Scripture this one does not take into account that the Holy Spirit does not waste his breath, for indeed, the blessed apostle Paul tells us that “ALL Scripture is profitable for doctrine” and not just the prescriptive passages as the WELS is now teaching.


Now, let the obvious be said, we do not hang ourselves because Judas did, yet we can dogmatically say he did. Additionally, can we learn something about putting new wine in old wineskins thus causing them to burst open, as happened to Judas when the new wine of the New Testament was put in that old wineskin? We don’t have to use a single cup in the Holy Communion, but can we learn something from the Scriptures’ “cup” theology? Can we learn nothing of Paul’s intertwined appeals to the order of creation, the ontological nature of God and of man and woman, the mystery of Christ and the Church in speaking of the relationship between husbands and wives and of men and women in the Holy Ministry? Of course you can, if you believe that ALL Scripture is useful for doctrine. Finally this “rule” places the exegete over Scripture, indeed, it contradicts God’s Word.  If “doctrine” can only be drawn from prescriptive rather than descriptive passage” then what of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, the genus maiestaticum etc., etc., etc.?  This rule will also further extend the veil that has been put on the Christological exegesis of the Old Testament in my old synodical affiliation where one is forbidden to find Christ in the Old Testament unless one finds a direct quote with citation in the New. Loudly proclaiming the inerrancy of Scripture is sometimes a necessary task for Lutherans, however, the Baptists can shout as loudly as any conservative Lutheran on this issue, but without a Christological focus and hermeneutic you end up with, what the children of my parochial school once sang to my chagrin, “a rule book, a golden rule book that keeps me downright sanctified.” As Dr. David Scaer once wrote, “Inspiration without Christology turns gracious invitations into rules and principles” (CTQ Jan-April 1995 p. 52).


I am Woman, Hear me Roar


Finally, and as long as we are on the subject of ontology, which one of our readers (we know it had to be one of you, wise guy) submitted this actual question to the WELS Q/A (which was answered non-comittedly)?


If a woman has a sex change operation and becomes a male can she then qualify to become an elder and vote in a wels church?


The Reverend Fr. John W. Berg is pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Fremont, California and (a Cat 3) road bicycle racer and shaves his legs for competitive reasons only, no, really.



1 Unintentionally this WELS Seminary professor offers the argumentation of the pro-death squads who argue that only those are “full and complete human beings with intellect, will, and emotion” should be granted human status (Scaer p. 152).”

First of all, Dr. Herman Sasse rightly cautions against developing a “universal idea or category” of what constitutes a Sacrament, reminding us that the Confessors first spoke of those things which are considered Sacraments individually and even and offering a definition (AP XIII 4), leaves the matter open. (See Preaching and the Lord’s Supper, We Confess Series, CPH). 

Note that the sign spoken of is not of an absent sign but a sign of a present reality as Luther notes, “Here St. Augustine explains in his own words what he means by the terms, sacrament, sign, invisible, intelligible—something altogether different from the way Oecolampadius interprets them. St. Augustine does not say that a sacrament is a figure or sign of something future or absent, like the stories of the Old Testament, but a form of something present and yet invisible. AE Vol. 37: p. 104 f.

4 This Q/A was not put on the web site, but, unbeknownst to me it was written by a member of my parish, a convert from Roman Catholicism.

5 Works of Martin Luther Vol. VI Muhlenberg, Phila, 1932 p. 63

6 This writer wrote the FIC when this article first appeared, which is still available on the FIC website, and in response to my corrections, the author indicated that in regard to the elevation elimination and other mattes he had “compressed” history.





Letter to the Editor







(The above article inspired this letter to the editor)


Reverend Wayne Mueller (1st vice president of the Wisconsin Synod), among other things, writes:


My lack of precision in the original FIC article was harmful (see MM Vol. III, 3 p. 15, editor). I used “elevation” in the sense of “elevation for adoration.” I certainly have no objection to elevation by itself. I trust that in many circumstances, both the officiant and the worshipers may understand that the elevation is calling attention to Christ and what he offers in the sacrament, and is not calling for a meritorious adoration. I seem to recall elevating the host myself on several occasions. The local pastor asked me to elevate the host when I performed the liturgy in his church in line with the custom and usage of his congregation.  


I have reviewed what Luther says in LW, Vol. 54. Luther’s concern is certainly not a liturgical posture but rather the idolatrous adoration which substitutes the praise of the worshiper for the completed work of Christ.


Whatever Luther's position on the elevation of the host was, however, it does not impact the reality that the Scriptures do not identify a moment of consecration.  I am convinced of this personally, and this is the official position of WELS. Some among us believe that the moment occurs at consecration; others that it occurs with reception--and this has always been so in our circles.  Some believe that the elements do not remain the body and blood of Christ after the Sacrament has ended; others believe they may be carried to the sick without needing to be reconsecrated. We may have differing private opinions on these issues as long as we do not make doctrinal points of them and obligate others to accept our private judgments. I have no problems with either a consecrationist or a receptionist as long as both acknowledge the Scripture's position. Nor do I have a problem if a man elevates or does not elevate (this assumes he is not doing it for the sake of adoration) as long as he does not insist that his practice must be the practice of others. What we do know is what the Scriptures clearly teach: In, with, and under the bread and wine Christ gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins.  For that you and I join in praising God.


8MM  Thank you for your response and I am happy to pass along your correction. To the matter of the elevation…


Most certainly there were grave errors attached to the elevation among the Papists. Not among them though was the idea too often attributed to this action that this meant a sacrifice was being offered to God. Luther himself writes


The papists themselves have never been so foolhardy nor of the opinion that they offered the sacrament by elevating it, although they other-wise regard it as a sacrifice. But they elevate it in order to show it to the people, to remind them of the passion of Christ, etc. (AE 40, p. 137).


To be fair, though, Luther did once suggest that the practice of the elevation may have “influenced” the Papists in their view but was not the reason for it (AE 38, p. 184).


The adoration of the faithful, the flip side of the practice, indeed, could also be tainted by this Tridentine spirit, that is, that an adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ worked ex opere operata without faith, also that Augen (eye) communion was sufficient, and safer! No possible desecration with crumbs or spills. Indeed, because of these abuses the elevation was phased out of many, but not all, Evangelical Lutheran churches despite Dr. Luther’s later reservations about the wisdom of that in the face of the far more insidious teaching of the Schwärmer. Undoubtedly the very brief and passing reference to this in Table Talk (AE 54, p. 462) is that to which you are referring and which is the only one in that volume to the point and it is in reference to the Papist’s sometimes, but not always, tainted adoration.


However, I still commend to you Luther’s full scholarly treatment of the subject which was not interrupted with pints of dear Katie’s famous brew and slabs of venison, his “Adoration of the Sacrament” (AE 36) as well as his treatment of the subject in his “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525” (AE 40) where the fat doctor again allows the elevation for adoration of the present Body and Blood of Christ under bread and wine. But, most of all, I direct you to his comments in his self proclaimed last will and “Testimony,” as his death approached, against that “damned slanderer,” the stinker Schwenkfeld, (Stenckfeld, as Dr. Luther dubbed him, - such a nasty tone Martin!), his ”Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament” in which Luther said that he would “assist in introducing three, seven, or ten elevations” against those deniers of the real presence (AE 38 p. 316).  For Luther this “liturgical posture” had great and grave confessional implications. Maintaining that it was a matter of Christian liberty whether one adored the Body and Blood of Christ or not was essential, but for Luther and his true heirs, the elevation of the Body and Blood of Christ loudly proclaimed the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the elevated hands of the celebrant. Without attributing that belief to Luther and the other reformers then the charge of artolatria (bread worship) leveled by the Philippists and crypto-Calvinists against latter Lutherans would have been correct and posthumously declares Luther an idolater, and in the process, oneself a poor scholar. Now, you note that


Whatever Luther's position on the elevation of the host was, however, it does not impact the reality that the Scriptures do not identify a moment of consecration.


I certainly agree with you that what Luther believed does not “impact” the Scriptures’ teaching and he would agree with you on that point. However, his belief in the Word of God spoken over the bread and wine and what that says about that spoken-about bread and wine is the teaching of Scripture as Lutherans confess in FC TD VII and on that point both he and I disagree with you and the Wisconsin Synod. For “Luther’s view” if you will, is the Confession’s view, which is Scripture’s view, which, of course, Luther drew out of Scripture. What God calls, is.


Your language is new to me here; you refer to a “moment of consecration.” Trying not to be too facetious, it just took me more than a “moment” to recite the Verba, about 30 seconds, even longer when I chant it and longer yet when I, as I do, include pauses for the elevation and the free adoration amid the sound of bells. But Lutherans do identify the “moment of consecration”- the consecration!


Third [the speaking or singing of the Words of Institution] is done so that the elements of bread and wine are sanctified and consecrated in this holy practice, whereby Christ’s body and blood are offered to us to eat and to drink, as Paul says [1 Cor. 10:16], “The cup of blessing that we bless…” This of course takes place in no other way than through the repetition and recitation of the Words of Institution (FC TD VII 82).


Note, this is not a mere “setting aside for a holy use” as the consecration is often characterized in the Wisconsin Synod, but an evangelical proclamation of what is pre-sent for us to eat and to drink. So, regardless of what the Wisconsin Synod’s ambiguous position may or may not be, the Confessions clearly teach that the Verba/Words of Institution/Consecration assure us that the bread and cup spoken of are the body and blood of Christ, not “because of our eating and drinking” (receptionism) or because of any indelibility empowered speaking but


Because of his command in which he has told us to speak and to do and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking (FC TD VII 78).


I suspect that when you write “moment of consecration” you meant to refer to the red herring issue of the “moment of presence” which no so-called “consecrationist” this side of the Tiber would identify. But to say that the Verba assure us that the bread and cup before us are the Body and Blood of Christ and that we can say with absolute certainty that they are is not pin pointing a moment but affirming the truth of the words of Christ spoken in the name and in the stead of Christ by the celebrant. To say that these words of Christ are uncertain (or as it has been alleged, spoken only proleptically) is indeed as a friend dubs It, “WELS agnosticism.”


You allow what you call the “consecrationist” belief that one can believe about the bread and cup, which the celebrant in the name and stead of Christ calls “Body and Blood,” that it is the Body and Blood of Christ, but that one cannot say that with certainty. This leads to dangerous ground. Whatever is not of faith is sin. If we cannot be certain that this spoken about bread and cup is the Body and Blood of Christ, then how can you allow one to say it is? I suspect that the reason why the otherwise doctrinaire Wisconsin Synod “allows” this view-point to be held is that this is the viewpoint of Dr. Luther, Dr. Chemnitz, many within the ELS, as well as the clearly stated position of the Formula, and it would be bad form to condemn so great a cloud of witnesses. I suspect the conspicuous absence of FC TD VII 78 in Wisconsin Synod discussions on the point and Wisconsin’s insistence on what “the Bible” teaches as opposed to what the Confessions teach, verifies this. Lest I be accused again, the Scriptures are the only pure fount of doctrine, but the Confessions are a correct exposition of them. When challenged with the Confessions on this point the Wauwatosa theologians read their views into them and are quite pleased to find them there. But on this point the Confessions clearly tell us what the Scriptures teach. If you don’t wish to believe that, fine, but then you might want to follow the lead of many churches inside and out of the Wisconsin Synod, drop the name “Lutheran.” (I also find it a bit interesting that what you allow, receptionism, is actually outlawed by Wisconsin, if I as a former Wisconsin Synod member, now an outlaw and Unding, may kindly remind you.)


That one can confidently say that Christ’s true body and blood rest on the altar or in the hands of the celebrant or that which remains in the cup after the first communicant receives is the very Blood of Christ, which you allow some to deny, is to deny the very words of Christ spoken over those elements, “This is my body.” It seems that this crass realism is too much for some to handle, as it was for Friar Luther, whose solution was not to equivocate about what he handled in his trembling hands, but to evangelically believe what was in his still trembling hands, the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins to be eaten and drunk. And when those still trembling hands, now additionally trembling from old age failed him, we know what Luther’s pious response was, the only one, he dropped to his knees to lap up the sacred blood to the tears of the assembled faithful, a pious deed for which modern day receptionists label Luther “superstitious.” In that regard, that is, to the issue of the reliquiae the unofficial/official Wisconsin position was neatly noted in this from your synod’s Q/A


“left-over consecrated wine” that remains in used vessels and to be discarded is thus wine that is beyond the sacramental practice.


Compare “discarded” with “on your knees lapping.” Refer also to your copy of Luther’s Table Talk where the well fed doctor wrote in regards to issues of the matter of the reservation and the so-called “reconsecration” (a real Unding, akin to “rebaptism”),


I put up with it on account of several heretics who must be opposed, for there are some who allow that it’s a sacrament only while it’s in use; what is left over and remains they throw away. That isn’t right. We let somebody consume it (AE 54 p. 408).


Finally, I do most heartily agree with you when you write


What we do know is what the Scriptures clearly teach: In, with, and under the bread and wine Christ gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins. For that you and I join in praising God.


And I am sure that you most heartily agree with me that that which gives us that assurance are the Words of the Institutor himself, spoken at the Supper which is our Supper, and so that when we speak the words of the testator “This is my body,” then it is his body and we can say it is his body, not because we said so, but because He told us to say and do (and if you don’t agree, then you might want to check out FC TD VII 78 which I just paraphrased). It is hard to believe that in the Wisconsin Synod, the words of Christ, “This is my Body” are believed to be uncertain, but then again…  (JWB)