Category Archives: Diatribes

Chris Rosebrough’s “Aletheia Church”

Heyo! Welcome to Aletheia Outreach, Chris Rosebrough’s latest grand gesture of stroking his ego in private…yet somehow still in public, so as to be seen by men:

http://www.kongsvingerchurch.org/req-srv

I MEAN church. We’re a church. This isn’t weird.

First some pre-service music:

Wait a second—how did you get here? Have you been vetted by PASTOR? Ah. That’s right. You have the sacred GoToMeeting link. Just like Jesus did it. Well, don’t forget to set some matzos and Mogen David on the table and do a sound check, because when PASTOR speaks his all-powerful consecrating words, you’ll need to be sure that some of the sound-waves make contact.

Yes, this is what they do.

Those of us who have known Chris from the early days saw this coming a loooooong time ago. Saw what coming? Please, take another look at General Hamilton’s tweet. You either die draining the swamp, or you live long enough to see yourself become the swamp.

He didn’t want to take the time off to go apply to the seminary. No—the public needed him! How would they have dealt with life while he was cracking books? So he asked his pastor if he’d endorse him for the SMP program. Yeah, that’s right. Take it to the bank. This is well corroborated.

I wasn’t there, but this must have been the gist:

Chris’s pastor: “Uh…the SMP program? But that’s for…you know…liberals. It’s a weak-sauce fast track. We’re against that.”

Chris: “Yeah, well…I can’t go to seminary like ordinary people.”

Chris’s pastor: “How come not?”

Chris: “Uh, hello? I’m Chris Rosebrough. I’m special. Besides, if I stop breathing life into people via my internet radio station, the church will fall.”

Chris’s pastor: “It will?”

Chris: “Yes. Besides I’m already super smart and stuff. Smarter than a whole entire pastor and everything. I just need to get the badge.”

Chris’s pastor: “You mean ordination.”

Chris: “Whatever. I already know all the stuff.”

Chris’s pastor: “Well, be that as it may, the SMP program is shite and it’s for liberals. You of all people should be opposed to that. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend you.”

Chris: “OK, I’m peacin’ out. Gonna go somewhere where people will recognize that I’m a genius who’s too cool for regular school.” *Immediately orders clerical shirts, collarettes, and huge pectoral cross from Almy*

Now, I don’t know much of anything about the TAALC. I know that the LCMS is in fellowship with them, but I don’t know whether that speaks well of them or not. I know that some of their pastors went to an online seminary and seem to be none the worse for it, and I know that…there’s also Chris Rosebrough. They must be desperately trying to figure out how to put their toothpaste back into the tube right now. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but it doesn’t work.

Let’s be real. Rosebrough sought a fast track into the ministry for the optics. The TAALC provided that way, probably without knowing what they were doing. Fast-forward to today, past the part where Chris is whoring himself at a conference run by a pseudo-Lutheran sexual predator: now he’s doing an online invite-only “church” for people who’ve been “hurt by the institutional church.” (Oh, please. Let me guess— this is the “Gospel for those broken by the Church.”) His actual church is just a physical front to provide him with legitimacy, like a dry-cleaner run by the mob, except that, at least in the movies, mobsters are cool and sympathetic, and Chris is not. He’s there at Kongsvanger so that he can be “Pastor Chris Rosebrough” rather than some nerd who carps all day on an “internet radio station” about “muh false teachers.” Yeah, well, if you lie down with the dogs all day, don’t be surprised if you come up covered in fleas. Apparently he’s absorbed their ideas by osmosis or something. He’s doing parachurch just like all of the schmucks he rails on…but he’s doing it the right way, see?

No, I don’t see, and neither do you, because we’re not idiots. An online video-conventicle with a tele-consecrated Lord’s Supper is not church. And the supper that they eat is not the Lord’s Supper. Sorry, but it’s just not. (That’s the worst part, the whole sacraments part. I’m sensitive to this because I grew up in a cult.) No, it isn’t described in these terms on the website, but this is absolutely what they do. I know because I talked to someone who’s “attended” one of the Aletheia Outreach services. Just ask Chris. He’ll even defend it. He’ll say it’s no different than using a microphone to project the pastor’s voice, yadda yadda. Yeah. Come on. Because someone sitting at the back of a big church has their own little altar set up on a TV-tray with their own elements. No, of course they don’t. “Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread,” etc. He didn’t just think of all of the bread in various places in the world, say magic words, and turn it into His body. For that and a hundred other reasons, this doesn’t pass a basic smell test.

You don’t need hifalutin theology to recognize that this is bogus. This is a guy who wants you to want him. He’s somehow not busy enough ministering to actual 3D members at a church that has actually called him to be their pastor? Really? Do you believe that? Maybe you’re reading this, and you’re a pastor. If so then you know that this is total crap. This man is just an internet addict LARPing the holy ministry. Why can’t these people go to actual churches? Answer: because Chris Rosebrough is the indispensable man. Or so he thinks. Any old pastor simply will not do. He is the anointed leader.

If that sounds culty, it’s not a coincidence. It’s culty.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering if you can give your first seed to Aletheia Ministries so that later you can stand under the rainbow and claim the blessing or whatever, yes, there is a way to do that. Give money here! You have to just laugh. What a sheister. To be honest, though, I don’t think Chris is malicious. I think he truly just believes his own hype. He’s also never worked a day of real work in his life (Vintegrity does not count, for obvious reasons), so he probably does need the money. Still, don’t give him any.

Here are all of the links on Aletheia Outreach:

http://www.kongsvingerchurch.org/support-aletheia

http://www.kongsvingerchurch.org/req-srv

http://www.kongsvingerchurch.org/aletheia-home/

They’re all on archive.org, too, in case he scrubs them. Hell, I sure would.

Anyway, just wanted to get this out before Chris preaches at Higher Things tomorrow. I’m sure your kids will learn great stuff from him. Sorry, buddy. I know it hurts, but at this point you’re just doing it to yourself. You need to give it up and go work at Target or learn to cut hair or something.

 

 

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On Joel Hess’s Inability To Find His Donkey With Both Hands

I searched Google for “Joel Hess” and this is what came up. Seems about right.

[UPDATE: In response to a reader request, we have removed all references to anatomical asses from this post.]

Among the many blogs by Lutherans that you should never bother reading, the Jagged Word comes in near the top of the list. Staffed by a tank of insecure Gen-Xers, this blog has featured absolutely nothing worth reading in its entire history of existence. It has, however, served the useful purpose of adequately showcasing the Everymoron’s opinion in any number of Lutheran controversies every couple of months, ever since…whenever. How the jagged decide among themselves which LARPing manchild writes what, and when, is surely a process which no algorithm could approximate. Mysterious. Needless to say, it is a blog devoted to signaling. Not a single post is excepted from this generalization.

The Jagged Word

In any event, there’s this guy Joel Hess who writes terrible articles at the Jagged Word with a frequency of something like one to ten articles per year. I don’t know. His latest is awful. Just…pitifully stupid. Like, worse than the ones that Scott Keith’s son writes, if you can imagine that. A lot of this can be explained by the fact that Hess went to the St. Louis seminary (sorry, I know there are exceptions— he’s not one), although one gets the feeling that the guy is such a dunce that, had he gone to the Ft. Wayne seminary, he would have emerged in a state of similar puerility and written articles that sucked just as hard. Though he went to seminary, I don’t think he’s a pastor, but I haven’t checked, and this is the Missouri Synod, so I could be wrong. To quote a friend who just recently read Hess’s latest:

“Wow. This guy couldn’t find his donkey with both hands.”

And that is about exactly the size of it.

If you want to read Hess’s article for reference purposes, you can do so by visiting this link. In his article, Hess asserts that the desire for liturgical uniformity makes one a partisan of the Prussian Union/a Romanizer. There is no argument, only assertion and B-grade snark, the sort you’d expect from twerps who white-knight on Facebook all day and look like bearded guppies. Hess says it because, again, as stated above, he’s insecure, and he hasn’t read very much. It’s never occurred to him to listen to men who are wiser than he, because as far as he knows, this is an imaginary category. That’s why he blogs at the Jagged Word.

Anyway, all of this is an overlong intro to this, the meat of this piece, which is just a link to this article by Dr. Holger Sonntag, who, unlike Hess, is a scholar:

“Freedom Shall Be and Remain a Servant of Love”: Luther on Liturgical Diversity and Uniformity as an Exercise in Distinguishing Faith and Love

And if you don’t want to slog through that— at all or just yet— consider this:

[​W]e teach that in these matters​ (i.e., adiaphora)​ the use of liberty is to be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended, and, on account of the abuse of liberty, may not become more hostile to the true doctrine of the Gospel, or that without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience. And in this very assembly we have shown sufficiently that for love’s sake we do not refuse to observe adiaphora with others, even though they should have some disadvantage; but we have judged that such public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages [all other less important matters]. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XVI, 51-52)

QED. Joel Hess is an ignoramus.

Episode 2: Higher Things—TOYOTA

It appears I chose a rather ripe topic for my debut here at The Cellar Door. (“A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?”) I certainly did not realize that by laying a hand on the sacred rump of the Higher Things cow—not even tipping it, simply laying a hand on it!—I would elicit such spirited ire from some of its principals and organizational boosters. Given that I am but a lowly author who hath not the power of the sceptre on this blog, I didn’t immediately get the memo. Anyway, I’ve got it now: I am to put the new cover sheets on all TPS reports, mmkay?

No, but apparently I’ve rustled some feathers with what I wrote. Stanislas forwarded me some notification emails heralding comments from Greg Eilers (who writes under the pseudonym “Gina”), Rev. William Cwirla (who, I am told, bakes a lot of bread), and Rev. Christopher Rosebrough (who apparently owns a pirate ship—well, shiver me timbers!). Mr. Eilers’ comment was long, made no sense, and wasn’t funny. Rev. Cwirla’s comment was short, made sense, and was funny. Rev. Rosebrough’s comment was a duplication of a post on his blog. It was something else. But there are so many people who like to ride on his pirate ship (if you know what I mean) that we’ve been getting a lot of click-throughs to my post from his. Since I’m not sorry for having written what I wrote (not even a little bit), and since I cannot take anything that pompous muckraking fraud says with even an iota of seriousness, I’ll refrain from offering a sardonic “thanks, matey”, but will nonetheless express my approval of the fact that his website is directing so much traffic our way.

First of all, I thought that everyone thought Merovech was actually Trent Demerest, the Pseudepigraphus blogger. Now I’m told that I’m Trent Demerest. All this time, I’ve been living a lie, thinking I was someone else. The logic seems to be that if you indicate mild agreement with the Enfant Terrible of Lutheran bloggers, and you use a pseudonym, you become him. Rumor has it there’s even a betting pool. “Argh, mateys! Odds be five-to-one it’s me sworn enemy, Demerest! Argh!” I’d like to cash in for some of Captain Rosebrough’s seed-money booty that he pillaged from Creflo Dollar’s yacht.

If you’re betting on this, you’re just plain stupid. Go play internet poker. If you are unable to think of any good reasons someone might have for writing under a pseudonym, then you probably have spent too much time on the internet, specifically comment sections. Sort of a given for most of us these days, so don’t take it too hard.

Second…goodness gracious, I am getting absolutely smoked for having written “dinitarian” rather than “binitarian.” Check this out; here’s Cwirla:

First of all, the term is “binitarian” not “dinitarian.” If you’re going to charge someone with something, at least name it correctly.

The effect is better if you crane your neck way back, sneer, squint, and sort of speak through your nose as you read it aloud.

Here’s Rosebrough:

That’s hardly what one would expect from an organization that is drifting into Dinitarian [sic] Antinomianism (the correct theological word is Binitarian).

…and then he writes “Dinitarian [sic]” like eight times! This guy, with the signaling.

Alright, you two exceedingly sagacious men. You caught me. I’m not a theologian (then again, neither is Rosebrough). I’m an engineer. Give me a little credit for using “Pneumatomachians”, will you? I’ll go to sleep tonight rubbing my temples and chanting “Bi, not Di.” I sure hope my subconscious doesn’t do weird things with that; dreams will tell.

More distressing than my confusion over Latin prefixes, though, is the fact that neither of these men seems to know how to read. For Blackbeard, there’s some excuse—there’s little time for phonics on the high seas. But there is no excuse for Breadloaf, who I’m sure has at least read bread recipes.

I certainly did not accuse Higher Things of being binitarian, dynamite, or Pneumatomachian. And I quote myself:

Needless to say, I’m not truly worried that the folks who run Higher Things are Pneumatomachians.

I simply observed that Higher Things has become very sloppy. I also brought up the inconvenient truth that an increasing number of people have soured on the organization, and I gave examples of some reasons why. As a springboard for these observations, I made an intentionally overwrought observation of the fact that no mention was made of the Holy Spirit in an advert that seemed to start out with a creedal structure and sequence. The implication was that the things we do without thinking often are the most revealing of our habits and priorities.

Doesn’t matter. There be leaden plates lining yon pirate captain’s tri-cornered dunce-cap! Yargh!

In a recent blog post written by pseudonymous author John Philoponus which was posted at The Cellar-Door, Higher Things, an organization for which I sit on the Board of Directors, was charged with the very serious theological crime of being antinomian. The evidence that was put forth to substantiate the author’s charge was an advertising blurb for an upcoming Higher Things retreat. Below is my response to this slanderous and sinful blog post. (emphasis and high-dudgeon in original)

Theological crime! Somebody call Torquemada, and—just to be safe—Van Helsing.

Such keening is one reason why a rapidly diminishing number of people take this guy seriously.

Then this:

I strongly admonish the author of this post to repent, seek out their [sic] pastor to confess this sin and be absolved for it and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance by immediately publishing a retraction.

Make sure that your pronouns match their antecedents in number, Cap’n.

You’ll not be getting a retraction. The fact that Higher Things allows you to sit on its board should be sufficient to destroy any sane man’s confidence in the organization. Put that in your four-pounder and fire it, “matey.”

Then there’s Padre Breadloaf Headphones:

cwirly

Yes, well, I can call you a flaming arrogant (you carry your fair share of ignorance, too) jackass knowing exactly who you are. But I won’t. However, I will take your suggestion and waste no time, energy, or words addressing asininity. As such I won’t be responding to any more of your “feedback”, such as has made its way to me. As Jack Preus used to say, “Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk.”


I didn’t think that my little thinkpiece was going to cause such a firestorm. But if I’ve got the ear of “the public” or, more likely, “a handful of fellow Lutherans”, I suppose I’ll capitalize on my Joe the Plumber moment.

The thrust of my concern with Higher Things has less to do with the details of what they’re putting out, and more to do with the fact that big “Youth Gatherings” are root-and-branch the product of erroneous thinking regarding the Church, the Ministry, and the Christian home. Rev. Phillip Hoppe’s article was the buried lede of my whole piece. If all I did in my post was get more people to read and seriously consider what he wrote, then I will consider my first foray into Lutheran blogging a mild success.

Compare two admittedly caricatured genres of event:

  1. “Hey, you folks in the area, and others who may want to make the trip, come to our church for a thing. It’s for the whole family.”
  2. “Hey, youth everywhere! We, a group of Lutheran superstars, are going to travel the country and put on big things! The things we’ll be putting on will be so big that we might not be able to use church buildings for the services…but, boy-oh-boy will your heart just bleed at how beautiful (topically popular hymn/something besides the Common Service) sounds when we all sing it together! You’ll be overcome with togetherness and a feeling of transportive Lutheran solidarity! Hip and cool pastors whom you don’t know and who don’t know you will teach breakout sessions that will make your own pastor seem bland and forgettable! Afterwards you can friend them all on Facebook, watch their videos, listen to their podcasts…basically just hang onto every thought that surfaces in their craniums throughout the day. Anyway, be sure to find the big thing we’re doing nearest to you. It’ll be the experience of a lifetime the year, and you can mope and languish in come-down for months afterwards…UNTIL THE NEXT BIG THING! Be sure to stay in touch with us 24/7/365 via the internet, and buy some swag!”

^ High energy. Just a lot of energy there. Yuge.

It should be readily apparent that I’m doing more than summarizing Rev. Hoppe, who may not agree with my riffs on the points he made and should not be blamed for them.

I don’t think that genre #2—which includes both the National Youth Gathering and Higher Things—is a wise idea, or that it ever has been a wise idea. I will freely acknowledge, and applaud, the fact that Higher Things also sponsors events which fit under genre #1. Still, I wonder what the point is of branding them as “Higher Things” events.

Having an alternative to the National Youth Gathering was once a very attractive idea for us confessional types. From the late nineties through most of the aughts, we were very down. We felt like we were “losing the Synod.” Gerald Kieschnick and his church-growth hatchet-men were sauntering oily-shod over everything we loved and held dear. There was more finger-snapping going on than at a dress-rehearsal of West Side Story. All sorts of things were Ablaze that never even should have been exposed to sunlight. We were surly and we kicked the cat, sometimes twice a day.

Enter Higher Things, the organization that gave us hope. The organization that raged against the dying of the light, against the unionistic, mainline-wannabe, gutless LCMS of yesterdecade. Finally! A youth conference where Scripture, the Catechism, the Liturgy—in short, “Good Christ-Crucified For-You Lutheranism”—were front and center. Load up the conversion van!

We said it was for the kids, and it was. We do love our kids and we wanted what was best for them. But, really, it was also for us. We were so anxious about “The State of the Synod”, so tired of “losing”, etc., that we forgot that the real wellsprings of Christian faith and piety are the local church and the home altar, not youth gatherings. Our kids became pawns in that weirdly vicarious “battle for the institutions” that we in the Gen-X/young-boomer cohort can never seem to get free from.

The LCMS, Gerald Kieschnick, Ablaze!—these things actually had very little to do with our children. They were, all of them, tails wagging the dog. Or another part of the dog, right below the base of the tail. But they were not actually “the problem”, and our thinking that they were was a grand exercise in blame-displacement.

Bull-corn to English: Higher Things does not exist because “the LCMS” failed to produce a genuinely confessional Lutheran “youth gathering”, “youth organization”, “culture of youth ministry”, what have you. Higher Things exists because of failures at the level of the local church and the Christian home—failures which are more than catechetical, but which are largely and obviously catechetical. 

Even if all of Higher Things’s “content” were grade-A genuinely and confessionally Lutheran (it may have been at one point, but it sure isn’t anymore), that wouldn’t change the fact that the organization should be working to eliminate the need for its own existence (as President Reagan said of welfare). Instead it has become self-conscious, self-perpetuating, and expansionary. Like welfare.

Whatever will your youth do during those long periods of doldrums in between Higher Things conferences? Get them “plugged in” via the Higher Things blog, Higher Things online devotionals, Higher Things Facebook, Higher Things Twitter, Higher Things podcasts, and Higher Things Higher Things. Content! So much content! (Word on the street is that Higher Things will soon be available as an IV-drip.)

As with welfare, the very men whose dereliction has necessitated the rise of the alien institution (read: fathers) realize that Higher Things will continue to “do our job for us” if we let it (or so we think). So we begin to coast. Sure, our children don’t look up to us as their spiritual heads, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay for convenience. The local church and pastor get bypassed, too. Instead, children look at screens where Higher Things gurus (and gurinas) tell them all that they need to know (and, as it turns out, plenty of stuff that they don’t need to know and that you’d rather that they didn’t).

Fellow dads, don’t kid yourself: paying the Verizon bill does not amount to exercising spiritual headship.

“The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family,” George Gilder writes in Wealth & Poverty; “he feels dispensable, his wife knows he is dispensable, his children sense it.” True enough. Yet the other, more insidious reality is that some men are fine with, and even grow to like, feeling dispensable. Delegating the faith-formation of one’s children to a “youth organization” frees up a lot of time for important things like Facebook, fantasy football, and pursuing the American dream your vocation.

All of this has a detrimental effect on pastors, too. The virtuality, ubiquity, immediacy, and illocality of the internet all exacerbate the desire—latent in the heart of every pastor—to make himself into a para-minister, a celebrity, and a leader of men (or youth), someone who can be consulted for theological answers and even spiritual direction from a distance by a host of people who aren’t actually under his spiritual care. But parishioners are not the same as fans, and fans are not the same as parishioners. Being Lutheran doesn’t make one immune to this, and being “confessional” or “liturgical” is no inoculation. While this touches more than just Higher Things, they are still the prime example of Lutherans doing the para-ministry thing and pretending its something else.

When you get right down to it, Higher Things is a function of the same errant thinking which undergirds the “church growth” movement. “The youth” are treated like a clientele whose special spiritual needs are better met by some branded organizations that is neither the local church nor the family. Mercantile ministry. Same game, different team.


When I look back over the years, I really do think that we confessional refugees should have read the signs better back when Higher Things got started. We should have thought a little more deeply about how—indeed, whether—organizations of its kind actually help the confessional/ genuine/ historic Lutheran “cause.” More to the point, we should have realized that Lutheranism is not a cause at all.

We Lutherans claim that Lutheranism is the purest idiom of the catholic faith, thus Christianity, thus a religion. (No, it is not “just” a confession.) When it comes to religion there actually is quite a bit more to the thing than dumping GOOD-CHRIST-CRUCIFIED-FOR-YOU-LUTHERANISM!!! into the youth (or anyone) raw from the top at giant traveling filling stations.

There’s a radio advert that’s played on Issues Etc. periodically. I know you’ve heard it. This super enthusiastic voice (got to be Rev. George Borghardt—a genuinely nice guy) comes on over an organ motet: “If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth…put Good Christ-Crucified-For-You-Lutheranism IN YOUR YOUTH!!!” I don’t remember the wording exactly, and I’m not going to skip through an Issues, Etc. episode to find it right now. I know it’s not significantly different than that. But what is it even supposed to mean? Does anyone even know? We’re not talking about limes and coconuts here; we’re talking about human beings. Does anyone think this is actually how religion works, or how the human person works?

I have a better idea. If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth, you should get married, have kids, get them baptized, teach them to pray, teach them the Catechism, teach them the liturgy and our great hymns, get them educated, and have them learn a trade or profession from a young age that accords with their gifts so that they can serve their neighbor rather than melt their brains staring at an iPhone for eighteen hours a day. In fact, take away their iPhones, or their Galaxy Nexi, or their HTCs. Your child needs a smartphone like he needs a hole in the head. I should know—I build them. Smartphones, that is, not holes in the head.

If you want to be more serious about your family’s Lutheran piety, but you really get no support from your local church; if your pastor really is not doing his job; if Sunday morning really is a depressing stew of pathetically un-Lutheran garbage, &c… then you really should consider moving—either to another church or, if there is no better option, to another area, i.e., pack up the U-Haul and leave Ur of the Chaldees. Maybe it’s outside the realm of possibility for you for various reasons. But maybe it’s not. A truly reverent Lutheran liturgy should not be something you regard as a special event to be patronized on special occasions, like a theme park or some other diverting novelty. Quite the opposite—it should be one of the determining factors in where you choose to locate your family. I, for one, wish I had realized this much sooner.


At no point have I argued that Higher Things has never done any good. That would be a ridiculous claim. Maybe you were awakened from indifference at a Higher Things conference. Maybe you even came to faith because of the Word that was preached at one. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to God that people have come to real saving faith during the time of the Great Awakening, or at a Billy Graham crusade, or after hearing a sermon in a Catholic church. That doesn’t negate the fact that the “Great Awakening” was propelled by pernicious sectarianism, that “decision theology” is formally heretical, and that the Roman Catholic Church officially anathematized the Gospel itself in 1563. That good effects have followed dubious enterprises is no argument on behalf of the dubious enterprises themselves. I know that you or your teenage son might get the opposite impression from reading any one of Rev. Riley’s many self-aggrandizing posts about his edgy past, but…no, it’s simply a reminder that God is merciful, and that He works all things together for good for His elect children. If He didn’t, I don’t know how any of us would ever be saved.

One final note…

Perhaps it will seem strange, but I have not written any of this in an effort to convince people who disagree with me. That’s not why I’m writing. I have a very limited purpose. I’m simply writing to let you know—no, not you, but you—that you are not crazy. A lot of us see what you see. You’re not the only one. Your doubts are well-founded. You are not a pietist, a wet blanket, overly scrupulous, weird, disconnected from reality, &c. If you are, in fact, behind the times, count yourself blessed, because the times are about to steamroll everyone currently skipping gaily ahead of them.

A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?

the-trinity.jpg!Large
“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”]