A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?

“The Trinity,” Jusepe de Ribera; 1635; Naples, Italy

Besides all this and before all, keep I pray you the good deposit, by which I live and work, and which I desire to have as the companion of my departure; with which I endure all that is so distressful, and despise all delights; the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost… No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.

~ St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations, Oration 40, Section 41

I imagine that the foregoing selection from the fortieth of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Theological Orations resonates rather strongly with Lutherans, at least with the sort of Lutherans who aren’t “triggered” by references to the Church Fathers (God bless the patriarchy). Indeed, at their best Lutherans are obsessively, sometimes almost comically, trinitarian. Among those who have been taught to know and love the catholic faith from the Small Catechism, an equilateral triangle is apt to bring to mind the Holy Trinity rather than any geometric theorem.

While none of its parts is in the least bit dispensable, nonetheless it’s fair to say that the heart of the Small Catechism is the Apostles’ Creed. From ancient times this baptismal creed has been used by the Church as an epitome of the Christian faith, to be recited, prayed, and commended to oneself and one’s children (be they natural or spiritual) as a touchstone of orthodoxy, which means, ultimately, “right worship.” Lex orandi, lex credendi.

The creed and the attendant explanations of its three articles teach not just the doctrine of God, but the doctrine of God “for you”, as Lutherans are wont to say—not just the “immanent Trinity”, but the “economic Trinity” to put it in the somewhat wonky terms of classical theism. In other words, it does not so much present God the Holy Trinity in His infinite, unknowable, and unapproachable majesty as commend to our piety the three Divine Persons, known through their gracious and condescending work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. The Catechism profoundly teaches—howbeit somewhat subtly—the true meaning of what it is to live and move and have one’s being in God (Acts 17:28).

Being so trinitarian, there’s a certain ordinate sequential cue that all Lutherans naturally pick up on. “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and […]”; “Through Jesus Christ, Your Son, Our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and […]”; “Holy Father, Holy Son, […], Three we name Thee.” You don’t have to be Gregory of Nazianzus, or Martin Luther, or really a theological heavyweight in any way, to just sort of know that when the sequence of the Divine Name begins, it shouldn’t stop until all three persons have been given their due. That’s not just logic—it’s Theo-logic. After all, it is the Name, singular, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which we invoke, into which we have been baptized, which we praise, &c., the Name signifying the One True God whom Christians alone confess and worship (cf. Nicene Creed; Large Catechism II, 66).

Remember, the Holy Spirit is “The Lord”— full stop. There are few places in which an Oxford comma is more audibly needed than before “and giver of life” in the weekly confession of the Nicene Creed during Divine Service. We’re not saying that the Holy Spirit is the Lord of Life and the Giver of Life at that point in the Creed, as true as it may be to say so. No, we’re saying that the Holy Spirit is YHWH, and as such He is the Giver of Life coequally with the Father and the Son.

Right. So, given that the Holy Spirit is YHWH, given that “in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another”, given that “the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things…the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped” (cf. Athanasian Creed)— given all this, one wonders why Higher Things, when advertising one of its upcoming catechetical conferences, would start up the sequence of the Divine Name only to let it drop with nary a mention of God the Holy Spirit:

Let’s parse this:

God not only made you, but He also instituted husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, etc. This is not an accident. That’s the First Article of the Creed, Creation and its orders— the Person and Work of the Father. Check.

“There’s even more!” it says. Here’s what’s more: many-hyphened-verbing Jesus redemptionates you, or some suchlike. This is also not an accident. So far so good, even if the grammar is needlessly convoluted— no doubt so that we can get the tiresomely harped-upon point that JESUS DOES VERBS FOR YOU EXTRA NOS!!! Anyway, that’s the Second Article, Redemption— the Person and Work of the Son. Check.

The End.

Wait— what? We’re two thirds of the way there, living on a prayer. That had the makings of a nice Creed-structured announcement! Weren’t we talking about all the things that God does that aren’t accidents? If we’re going to mention the Father and the Son, creation and redemption, why aren’t we going to mention the Holy Spirit and sanctification? Is sanctification an accident? (Uh-oh. Not this again…)

Frankly, if the organizer of this particular conference, the Higher Things web editor, or whoever, was running up against a word-limit for the advert, they should have redacted a swath of the convoluted hyphenated verbity-verbiage so as to at least give the Paraclete an honorable mention. It would have been a good trade-off.

Needless to say, I’m not truly worried that the folks who run Higher Things are Pneumatomachians. However, it really would behoove them all to be more intentional in confessing the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, lest they give the appearance of having common cause with that other group of Luther-ites who infamously neglected the Third Article. Pardon the length of the following excerpt from Martin Luther, but I think the whole of it merits careful consideration:

That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today, who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of the new life in Christ…. They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach de sanctificatione et vivificatione Spiritus Sancti, “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extoll so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men—we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, beginning and growing here on earth and perfecting it beyond, as St. Paul teaches. Christ did not earn only gratia, “grace,” for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin…. [O]ur Antinomians fail to see that they are preaching Christ without and against the Holy Spirit because they propose to let the people continue in their old ways and still pronounce them saved. And yet logic, too, implies that a Christian should either have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ. (Martin Luther, On The Councils And The Church; AE 41:114-116)

This is, or should be, uncomfortably specific. As in, it is highly specific, totally apropos, and should make Higher Things uncomfortable, and not just for the small snafu in the foregoing recent advert. If Higher Things doesn’t want to get murdered by an ill association with antinomianism and Gospel reductionism, they should do their mostest not to give any reason for such an association to come readily to mind.

Let me rephrase: Higher Things needs to stop giving a bunch of reasons for such an association to come readily to mind, because right now a very ready association between Higher Things and antinomianism has indeed been solidifying in the minds of many who, at least at one point, were ardent supporters of the organization.

There are several rather indicting data points I have in mind, all along the same line: the astounding lack of discernment displayed by Higher Things principals—Rev. Mark Buetow chief among them—in allowing erstwhile LCMS clergyman Greg Eilers’s piece on his gender dysphoria to be published in the Summer 2015 Higher Things magazine (see Eilers’s very revealing take on the matter here); the weak and self-serving retraction, in which no real wrongdoing was admitted (and which totally gave the lie to the Lutheran doctrine of original sin); the self-absorbed, prurient, and downright disturbing blogs of Rev. Donavon Riley (Jesus wants you to “beat the shit” out of Him with your sins; were your kids wondering if Pastor Riley had sex and watched porn with his teenage girlfriend?); the participation of the same in the “ministry” of a sexual predator (see this “Afterword”), snapping selfies with profane women who pretend to be pastors, &c., &c. I could go on, but there’s no reason to be gratuitous, unless you’re Rev. Riley.

None of these things inspires confidence. Higher Things needs to realize that when parents like me read their adverts— such as the one above which has so rustled my jimmies— many of us are reading it skeptically and in a rather dim light. And before you even start, that is our best construction. The principals of Higher Things are asking us to trust them to assist us with forming our children in the faith. I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty high bar when it comes to entrusting my children’s souls to people. Many of us aren’t into being fooled twice and are just not going to chance it with Higher Things anymore. (Indeed, all conscientious Lutheran parents might do well to rethink the merits of big hooplah “youth-events” in general— see this fine piece by Rev. Philip Hoppe for a good explanation of some of the reasons why. The Walther League they ain’t.)

Still, the decision to be grumpier, more parochial, and more hide-in-the-woodsy than the median is a prudential, not a moral one (at least for the present moment). There’s some Christian freedom in these matters. I long ago gave up hoping everyone would agree with me and my little platoon vis-á-vis all liturgical and existential adiaphora. So I’ll close with this: as an old service buddy of mine was fond of saying, always with a grave and sober look, “Trust is gained over time and lost in an instant.” It’s possible for Higher Things to gain some trust back, but first they need to admit that they’ve lost it. Big time. They need to own their failure and actually repent, which— if I may be somewhat topically tendentious— would entail not only expressing sorrow for their errors but also forsaking their errors and doing otherwise (like when Rev. Todd Wilken of Issues, Misc., laudably confessed to having espoused an erroneous doctrine of the Law). It may be that some of Higher Things’ directors need to recuse themselves. It may be that the RSO-status of Higher Things needs to suspended pending a synodical examination and reapplication. I would not be the first to suggest that such measures might be in order. The real gravamen of all this, though, is that trust, real trust, and not “brand” or “status”, must be pains-takingly reestablished by Higher Things— that is to say, re-earned.

With that caveat made, though, we might put it thusly:

If Higher Things wants to regain status as a salutary confessional alternative to the annual LCMS Laser-Guided SMP Show, they might make a small and earnest beginning by leaving a little room for the Holy Spirit— in their adverts, yes, but much more so in the content of what they put out.

[UPDATE 8/9/16: I wrote a followup post here: “Episode 2: Higher Things—TOYOTA”]

8 Replies to “A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?”

  1. Bravo. I, for one, could not agree more. In fact I’ve already had one person suggest that I’m bound to be suspected as the author. I appreciate you drawing attention the Riley’s inappropriate association with Daniel Emery Price, Christ Hold Fast, etc. However, you may or may not be aware that Riley is not the only Higher Things operator involved in that mess– Chris Rosebrough is also neck deep in it. Last I knew, he was on the HT board of directors. FWIW.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I understand your concerns and will not comment on stuff I really don’t know anything about, I can comment on what I just saw and experience for a week at the HT conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. I saw the liturgy of the church done reverently. I heard outstanding sermons that preached Christ crucified in a straightforward, Law/Gospel fashion. I heard Catechesis done in an engaging way that taught the Small Catechism. I also saw about a thousand youth, chaperones and pastors having a good time without becoming Schwaermeri.

    Did I like everything? Nope.
    Did I agree with every decision? Nope.
    Are there things that could be done better? Yup.

    There was no false doctrine.

    Everyone of the critiques that I see in this article and subsequent are things that, while they may be important topics in their own right, they have nothing to do with the conferences that I can see or discern. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important. I honestly don’t know with most of them.

    But to this pastor who also has two daughters attending and more on the way, what I see is an organization that is doing a lot of great things for Lutheranism. I hope that the rest of these matters can be addressed faithfully and carefully.

    In the meantime, we’ll keep going. And when or if I see things that give me pause, I’ll talk to them about it. If it is a bigger deal, I’ll also talk to my group about it, including my children. But it is going to have to go a long, long way before I’m going to write off the whole organization because of some possible lapses in judgment.

    Anyway, my $.02.

    -Todd Peperkorn

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I truly hope that everything that happened at HT Colorado was true doctrine. However, one has to wonder why there were things you didn’t like, and whether there was under currents of false doctrine that contributed to it.

      I know that this doesn’t apply to you, Pr Peperkorn, but every person I know who noticed what was missing from the Purpose Driven Life, or Ablaze, or Five Two, who raised the issue was duly assured that there is no false doctrine in those materials. However, often the false doctrine is in what is missing and therefore determined to be ‘not that important.’

      As an interested onlooker to the LCMS because we had been considering it for some time, I have been watching for the last ten years. We didn’t join back then when looking for a church because of Kieschnick. We had just fled a Purpose Driven church and didn’t want to plunge right back into it. I can see the same problems there in the LCMS even though Kieschnick is thankfully out of the presidency. There is the fascination with the church growth movement techniques. There is a pretty rabid antinomian, hyper grace flavored faction trying to vy for some influence and not being put down very decidedly. The infatuation with Tullian T (whose message closely mimics Nadia Bolz Weber and who considered Nadia, at least in early 2015 before his marriage fell apart, to be his ‘sis’ and she referred to him as ‘brother’) The subsequent minimizing of his sin (“I sinned because the woman I was married to sinned first” etc). The same kind of brushing away grave sin among the Christ Hold Fast guys by not considering them disqualified as pastors and teachers. By considering half apologies and false repentance to stand, allowing and condoning their continuing to publicly teach and speak at conferences. By attacking those with real concerns. Plus the morbid fascination with and knee jerk defense of heretic Nadia Bolz Weber I’ve seen from some in positions of decision making and teaching at HT, particularly Sandra O if she is still there.

      I really think that what you saw was not the same thing that John P or I have seen.


  3. I don’t suppose you saved the Riley posts, they seem to have vanished. And now the ‘archive.org’ version says for both that “the machine that serves this file is down. we’re working on it.”


      1. the 2nd link there doesn’t work.

        BTW Chris Rosebrough (who rebuked you for this post, invoking the 8th commandment yada yada) on fb just now: “Believing and Holding to Sound Doctrine and Rebuking Those Who Teach False Doctrine ≠ Being a Pharisee
        See Titus 1:9–16”

        So it’s good to know he doesn’t consider you a pharisee. ;-) (yes I know, he was defending himself, not you, but for some reason these things only apply when it’s him that is being criticized for being off in left field.)



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