Review of “Changing Churches: an Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation” and “Essential Lutheranism: Theological Perspectives on Christian Faith and Doctrine”

Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber; with an afterword by Paul R. Hinlicky. Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). 326 pp, $36.00.

Carl E. Braaten. Essential Lutheranism: Theological Perspectives on Christian Faith and Doctrine Delhi, NY: ALPB). 205 pp, $17.00.

These two books landed on my desk at the same time. It was fortuitous: the two (one with three authors) are closely related. Mattox and Roeber document their departure from Lutheranism; Hinlicky and Braaten document their determination to remain with Lutheranism in spite of its serious failures. It is no coincidence that the two appear at this time. We are at a time of discernment as Lutherans and our identity is being tested.

Mickey Mattox was originally Southern Baptist, “who spent a good deal of time in nondenominational American evangelicalism before becoming a Lutheran while still a college student.” At one time he taught at Concordia University, Chicago and later was Research Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg. He now teaches theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. He is now Roman Catholic.

A. G. Roeber “grew up in the Roman Catholic Church with a paternal legacy of Missouri Synod Lutheranism.” He became Lutheran at some point in his life. He teaches early modern history and religious studies at Penn State University. He is now Orthodox and is also ordained.

Paul Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College, Salem, VA. He was born Lutheran and remains so.

Mattox and Roeber have joined many other theologians in abandoning Wittenberg for Rome or Constantinople. Anyone curious about those who are leaving Lutheranism will find Changing Churches interesting and informative. Those tempted to leave might find Roeber or Mattox convincing. That is if they are not dissuaded by Hinlicky who makes an argument for the survival of Lutheranism, at least for the time being. This collection frames the theological issue(s) quite thoroughly. The authors represent Lutheran theology most fairly and thus make themselves useful to any Orthodox or Catholic wishing to better understand Lutherans.

The book is neatly organized. First Mattox and Roeber each justify leaving the confessional body teaching that justification is doctrine on which the church stands or falls. Mattox points to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Roeber relies upon the Finnish research on Luther and theosis.

It is quite a different story when moving beyond justification to attitudes about and doctrines of eccesiology. What is “taught and practiced in Lutheran churches in comparison to the Orthodox or Catholic churches will draw attention to a crucial ecclesiological rift that [Roeber and Mattox] believe will continue for the foreseeable future to divide [the churches].” It is clear that Mattox and Roeber are happy to have escaped the institutional failures of American Lutheranism. While they were Lutheran they seemed to have tried hard to live a full churchly life.“…the Lutheran tradition includes a robust and underappreciated ecclesiology, indeed, one that sees church, sacraments, and the ministry of the Word of God very much at the center of the Christian life.” Sadly, many Lutherans are delighted at commonplace “underappreciation” of the church and deliberate ignorance of Lutheran tradition.

In the final two chapters Roeber and Mattox each presents an apologia for those “special areas of difficulty that continue to divide Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran communities of faith.” At times the difficulty is between East and West (e.g., Augustinian understanding of sin and grace). Papal authority is as big a problem for the Orthodox as well us Lutherans. Any Marian devotion is difficult for Lutherans. Of course, the ordination of women gets its requisite attention and two bids for the convincing case against it.

In his afterword, Hinlicky makes clear that he is not convinced that it is time for Lutheran confessional theology to blend into the sands of history as theologians abandon it. He makes a very sophisticated case that the Lutheran theological witness is still necessary today. Lutheran theology remains a corrective also to current Lutheran fashions. As usual, Hinlicky is sharply critical of Lutheranism as “church” even as he successfully makes the case for keeping our identity.

As I read Changing Churches I could not help but wonder if the phenomenon of individuals changing churches fosters Christian unity. Or do individuals changing churches actually hinder Christian unity? Many believe the various Uniate churches (those Orthodox in communion with Rome) impede actual unity between East and West. Aren’t these individual “conversions” similar in discounting any need for reunion?

I tried to imagine a reunified Christianity. By following the shuttle back and forth between East and West with Roeber and Mattox I became more convinced that the reuniting of Orthodoxy and Rome will have to come prior to any Western restoration of unity. A reformed papacy will be required for reunion with the Orthodox. Such a reform might just suit us as well.

When the Second Vatican Council opened fifty years ago no one imagined then that there would be a stream of Lutheran theologians going to Rome. That was considered “treason!” Carl Braaten was accused of treason when he proposed that reunion with Rome was a legitimate pursuit back in 1965. The accusation didn’t stick; he is still Lutheran. Now he gives us a brief accounting of what he considers Essential Lutheranism.

Every pastor could benefit from reading Essential Lutheranism; it can serve as a “tune-up” for the pastoral-theological task. With Braaten’s unique flair for colorful expression the tune-up is not only painless; it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Essential Lutheranism would be a great text for an adult Bible class with college educated laity.

Throughout this little primer, he shares bits of autobiographical experiences and frequently spices the transmitting of what is normally dry dogmatics with wry humor. In defending Lutheranism, Braaten is no parochial security guard. He is ecumenical and fully aware of the whole world of theology; he makes use of some and rejects what is required for a good conscience. As often as not his rejected theology is from a Lutheran (revisionist) source. He is not shy about his disappointment with today’s Lutherans.

With so much to criticize, is Braaten likely to change churches as so many of his colleagues (Mattox and Roeber) have? No. He tells us why. In finely nuanced reasoning, without ambiguity and in very readable prose.

John Hannah is the associate pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church and School in the Bronx, New York, and the President of the ALPB.


Posted by Fr. Stephen Lourie at September 12, 2012 19:13 As I read Changing Churches I could not help but wonder if the phenomenon of individuals changing churches fosters Christian unity. Or do individuals changing churches actually hinder Christian unity? Many believe the various Uniate churches (those Orthodox in communion with Rome) impede actual unity between East and West. Aren’t these individual “conversions” similar in discounting any need for reunion?

A familiar refrain for those who try justify staying on a sinking ship.

Reformed Pa[acy

Posted by Rev Dr Arthur Turfa at October 08, 2012 00:36 My dissertation covered the Council of Florence and the Tübingen-Constantinople Correspondence. As a result, I sadly suggest that there is no current hope for a reformed papacy that will be acceptable to most Orthodox. I would love to be wrong, and hope someone out there sees a glimmer of hope. If enough individuals convert, then the need for a change from above is not as urgent. A cogent analysis of what appear to be interesting books.

Message Deleted

Posted by Paul Sauer at September 21, 2012 20:06 Please keep comments related to the posted article. If you wish to discuss other topics you are welcome to do so on the ALPB’s general message board:

Thank you.

Paul Sauer
Associate Editor, Lutheran Forum

2 good ones

Posted by Padre Dave Poedel, STS at January 07, 2013 15:00 These two books are on the top of my book stack for reading. Now that the Advent/Christmas season’s frenetic pace had quieted to the Epiphany Season will allow me to get back to reading Changing Churches. I have been glued to sections of this book thus far and found other sections so familiar to the “why I left” books and articles making the rounds in the past 20 years or so.

Braaten’s new book, dedicated to his friends in the Society of the Holy Trinity (and I count myself as one of those friends). Dr. Braaten delivered a signed copy to me late last year as I presented him with a Certificate of Appreciation from the STS. Even with that, I have yet to read his book. Pastor Hannah’s review makes me want to put “Changing Churches” aside for a bit and start reading Braaten’s book. Thanks John.

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