James  Nestingen Retired professor of church history and storyteller James Nestingen speaks with a folksy country drawl befitting his North Dakota upbringing as a Norwegian Lutheran pastor’s kid.  I once heard him speak as a Bible study leader at an ELCA synod assembly, teaching the twenty first chapter of John.  When Peter and other disciples had empty nets on Lake Galilee, Jesus told them to try the other side of the boat: So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  “And they were big fish too,” Nestingen said with eyes sparkling, “fat walleyes, eight pounders every one.”  His Minnesota listeners laughingly approved.

“Church history” in Lutheran seminaries seems to assume that the church was born in 1517 on the day that Luther nailed his 95 theses onto the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, as if the first fifteen centuries after Christ are a mere footnote.  And so Nestingen, the professor emeritus of church history at Luther Seminary in St Paul, is an expert in the life of Luther and the confessional writings that encapsulated the insights and teachings of the Lutheran reformers.  As professor emeritus, he taught a course entitled Lutheran Confessional Writings.  His seminary students were required to memorize Luther’s small catechism. 

“This is the document that saved the Reformation,” he points out. “In the 16th Century, it was printed up for people to hang in their kitchens and to use in the instruction of their children.” Many older parishioners have memorized its wisdom, and Nestingen believes that young pastors must “have on their tongues the words that are in the people’s hearts.”

Quite apart from his storytelling and teaching, Nestingen has long been a critic of the ELCA and an irritant to its leadership.  Ten years ago, the hot button issue in the ELCA was the ecumenical agreement with the Episcopalians entitled “Called to Common Mission” (CCM).  The opponents of CCM formed the WordAlone Network, and Nestingen offered the keynote address at the first national gathering of WordAlone in 2000.  His speech is sprinkled with jibes at the ELCA and its leadership:

  • This is supposed to be a merged church; in fact, to many of us it looks much more like a hostile takeover.
  • The merger process that produced the ELCA was hijacked by special interest groups
  • It has gotten the feeling of betrayal.
  • our church developed and has been maintained on a paradigm of coercion.

Nestingen’s speech was especially critical of then presiding Bishop George Anderson and ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen and presumed back room political machinations that disenfranchised the worthy in favor of the uninformed but easily manipulated.  In the intervening years, Nestingen’s folksy but strident voice has continued to sound the alarm at his perception of the ELCA’s retreat from the 16th century Lutheran Confessions.  He has continued to provide the theology of WordAlone’s opposition, speaking at subsequent WordAlone national gatherings on several occasions.  Now, he has published a rambling rebuke of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly’s actions in approving gay clergy and perhaps gay marriage; his article, entitled “Joining the Unchurched”, appears on WordAlone’s website.

In its August assembly in Minneapolis … the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America effectively declared that it is no longer a church … The ELCA has redefined the Word of God … In a naked power play by the privileged—the few allowed some actual voice in the proceedings—this mighty consensus fell to a bogus, prefabricated ambiguity crafted to disallow it.  With the action taken in the Minneapolis assembly, the ELCA has made such power mongering official procedure and policy.

At least Nestingen is consistent.  In his initial address to the 2000 WordAlone gathering, he criticized the official ELCA policy mandating the inclusion of women and minorities as voting members of ELCA assemblies, and he harps on the same sour notes in his latest harangue.

From his 2000 keynote address:

The positive value of the quota system overall can be debated … There have always been people who would have traditionally been a part of the decision making processes of the church who had to eliminated to make room for others.

From his 2009 website article (emphasis added):

Positive aspects of quotas can still be argued. After 20 years, the ELCA remains 97 percent white. Some significant departures after the August assembly may make the church even whiter. Still the quotas may have brought some people forward who had been otherwise excluded. That would be a matter of thanks. Yet there’s another side to it.

Quotas include but in order to do so, they also eliminate. In fact, they do so arbitrarily, fastening on characteristics like race and gender but not necessarily putting an equal priority on characteristics, like wisdom, fidelity and zeal. In fact, while the evidence has been difficult to come by, extended experience with the system strongly suggests that those most likely to be included are the manageable, those eager to please, no matter what their race or gender, while those most likely to be eliminated are the gifted and challenging, those most likely to make waves.

Nestingen’s elitism is offensive when he suggests that the women and minorities who were voting members due to ELCA quotas were less likely to be infused with “wisdom, fidelity and zeal”, less “gifted and challenging”, and “eager to please” and “manageable”. Ugh. Unseemly name-calling is unnecessary and diminishes the debate.

Should white men be making the decisions for the ELCA?  Give Nestingen the benefit of the doubt and allow that he is neither racist nor sexist. But, his implication that voting members are hand-picked stooges of ELCA leadership is patently false and smacks of conspiratorial paranoia—a minority that believes it should be the majority imagines an ill-defined conspiracy as the explanation.  The reality is that voting members to the 2009 Churchwide Convention were themselves selected by the ballot at either the synod level or the conference level, elected by persons selected by local congregations.  I recently blogged about a gathering of synod clergy in which normally placid SE Minnesota Bishop Huck Usgaard railed at suggestions that voting members were hand picked or were incompetent.

Carl Braaten is Nestingen’s counterpart in Lutheran Core, a professor emeritus of church history with expertise in the life of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions.  Just as Nestingen is the theologian on call for the WordAlone Network, Braaten provides the theological underpinning of Lutheran Core’s resistance to the ELCA.  In earlier blog posts (here and here), I critiqued Braaten’s look back, not forward approach.

With feet planted squarely in the sixteenth century, octogenarian and retired theologian Carl Braaten has assumed the intellectual mantle as defender of Lutheran orthodoxy … Braaten argues that ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson is wrong, our ELCA unity is not in Christ, as Hanson suggests, but in our Reformation era Confessions.

So too, Nestingen:

And this is the importance of the confessions. We tell the story of Luther not because his experience is normative, but because as we have heard the promising word confessed, it has become definitive for our community. Some of the Lutheran confessions were written by Luther, the catechisms and the Smalcald Articles. Others were written by a colleague of his at the University of Wittenberg, Philip Melanchthon-the Augsburg Confession and its supporting documents. Still another was written by Luther and Melanchthon’s students. But whoever wrote them, each of the confessions became a public document, summing up Catholic faith in terms suitable to ongoing confession, witness.

As such, the confessions are like the Magna Charta or the Declaration of Independence. They are declarative.

With the symbolic gesture of nailing his theses to the door, Luther unloosed a torrent of reform that washed over northern Europe.  Luther and the reformers challenged the Roman Catholic church, challenged the institution of a celibate clergy (even the very notion of the evil of sexual expression), challenged the basic theological premises of the day, and even challenged scripture itself by offering the doctrine of a “canon within a canon” and disputing the authority of the books of James and Revelation.  The spirit of reform blew like the wind, sometimes uncontrollable as with the ill fated peasants war, and the reformers felt the need to write down boundaries and definitions, to domesticate the unruly spirit.  Thus, there were two parts to the reformation: the doing of it and the writing of it, known as the Confessions.

This brings to mind the saying of Rabbi Abraham Heschel: Concepts are second thoughts. All conceptualization is symbolization, an act of accommodation of reality to the human mind.  By taming the wind of reform, by defining in written word the meaning of it all, by penning the Lutheran Confessions, did the reformers lose something?  Did a reforming church become a reformed churchDid we lose the timelessness of a reforming spirit in favor of the time centered Confessions?

I find the attitudes of Nestingen and Braaten to be revealing.  While ignoring the spirit of reform—the flux doing of it—they focus on the Confessions—the static writing of it.  The radicalism of Luther, who flaunted convention, is lost in their resort to the sixteenth century written word, which has itself become a convention.  Should we not apply Luther’s own challenge, his own hermeneutic to the writings of the Confessions? “Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.”  Dare we say, even though Luther or Melanchthon does the teaching?  Hear me well, I am not suggesting the Confessions be abandoned or diminished, but should not the spirit of reform interpret these 16th century words?  A hermeneutic that allows us to hear the spirit and not merely the letter?

To the majority of voting members at the ELCA 2009 convention, the ELCA continues to be a reforming church.  To Nestingen and WordAlone, to Braaten and Lutheran Core, the ELCA has ceased to be a church of the Reformation era Confessions and thus no church at all.