The Story of Certus Sermo:

Celebrating Christian Norms Through Independent, Public Criticism

in the American Lutheran Church at the End of the 20th Century

 By the Rev. Ronald F. Marshall

(November 2007)

 

An Unlikely Story

This is the unlikely story of a small regional church newsletter with the odd name of certus sermo that kicked up quite a ruckus. It was published monthly between May 1990 and August 2001, with a total of 136 issues being printed – the last three never being mailed out due to being finished three years behind schedule.

 

Authors

This publication was dreamed up by Ronald F. Marshall, Pastor of First Lutheran Church of West Seattle and Jon Richard Nelson, Pastor of Maple Leaf Lutheran Church at a pastors conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on April 24, 1990. Later they asked Robert G. Baker, Pastor of Lakeridge Lutheran Church in Renton to join up with them. They became the three writers of certus sermo (or editors, as they called themselves, since they all edited each other’s work). 

Nelson worked on the first 60 issues with Marshall and Baker and then resigned. In the announcement of Nelson’s retirement in issue 61 (May 1995), Marshall and Baker said, “We give thanks to God for his theological fidelity and continued friendship.” The remaining 76 issues were written by Marshall and Baker, without Nelson’s help.

All three of these ELCA pastors graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul , Minnesota – Marshall and Nelson in 1975 and Baker in 1977. Marshall studied process theology with Prof. John B. Cobb, Jr. at the Claremont Graduate School and worked at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont , CA , from 1975 to 1978. He then was ordained in 1979. Nelson was ordained in 1975 and Baker in 1978. Baker was driven out of the ministry, against his will and for no fault of his own, in October 1990 – in part, no doubt, because he was working on certus sermo. In 1993 Marshall also was similarly attacked, but that coup d’état failed.

The over ten years of publishing certus sermo came to an end when Marshall and Baker decided on August 24, 2004 to quit writing it. The reason was that Baker no longer had enough time to devote to its publication.

 

 

Guest Writers

In celebration of the fifth and tenth anniversaries of certus sermo, ELCA notables were invited to write for issues 47-49 and 119-121. The Rev. Dr. Martin J. Heinecken (1902-1998) wrote on “Criticism in the Church” for the fifth anniversary. He was Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania , where he retired from in 1972 after teaching there since 1945. In 1984 he received the Joseph A. Sittler Award for Theological Leadership from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus , OH . He is also the author of the 1956 classic, The Moment Before God: An Interpretation of Kierkegaard, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Nebraska which he wrote under the direction of the fabled philosophy professor, O. K. Bouwsma (1898-1978).

For our tenth anniversary we invited the Rev. Dr. Carl E. Braaten and the Rev. Dr. Walter Sundberg to debate the concordat between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church (numbers 119-121). Dr. Braaten was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago from 1961 to 1992. He was a former assistant to the prestigious Professor of Systematic Theology at Harvard, Paul Tillich, and edited his classic, A History of Christian Thought (1967, 1968). Braaten is also the author of many books of his own, including Principles of Lutheran Theology (1983, 2007).

Dr. Sundberg has been Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul , Minnesota , since 1984. He is the author of many academic articles and co-authored with the Rev. Dr. Roy A. Harrisville II, The Bible in Modern Culture (1995, 2002).

The fact that Heinecken, Braaten and Sundberg would write for certus sermo considerably increased the credibility of certus sermo among its critics.

 

 

 

Name

Pastor Marshall came up with the name of certus sermo and Nelson and Baker quickly agreed to it (with the subtitle being An Independent Monthly Review of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). In the first issue, the meaning of this name was explained: “This review’s name, certus sermo, is Latin for “sure word,” and comes from Martin Luther’s 1527 commentary on Titus: ‘Two things are particularly necessary… in the office of teaching…. First let him have a sure word (certus sermo) and be sure that he has the Word of God…. Once he has this Word, then he will not only teach, but is able to teach and to denounce or to convince…. Therefore the faithful shepherd is one who not only feeds his flock but also protects it…. The truth is a sure word (certus sermo), while the word of empty talkers is a seduction’ (Luther’s Works 29:32, 33, 35).”

            This name drew much scorn. The fact it was in Latin made some think it was pompous. The fact it denoted certainty made others think it was arrogant. Even though we traded on Luther’s distinction between rank arrogance and that which is born of the Spirit (Luther’s Works 24:118) (number 27), our critics didn’t care. Their minds were made up and they didn’t want to be confused with the facts. Dialogue, for them, was a waste of time. Their only interest was in ridiculing and silencing certus sermo.

 

Purpose

In the first issue, on the back page, and reprinted in ever subsequent issue, we stated our fourfold purpose in writing certus sermo: “We write this monthly review to stimulate vigorous conversation in our parishes, to focus and spread unofficial views on our synod’s ministry, to nurture a deliberate and detailed vantage from the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions, and to overcome the isolation of the synod’s pastors.”

The key to this rationale was the third part regarding the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. This point is no surprise since for many years the Church has been drifting away from the historical norms of Christianity. One therefore would expect to see it also happening in our synod – which we did and therefore sought to remedy. So as the church historian extraordinaire, Jaroslav Pelikan argued, emphasizing “affective sentiments” over the obligation to confess the truth of church dogmas, effectively “buried” Christian norms and church doctrine in the modern era [The Christian Tradition, 5 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1971-1989) 5:122-123]. Certus sermo was about resurrecting those buried norms. But as the writers soon found out, those who had buried the norms didn’t take kindly to certus sermo popping open coffins in the ecclesiastical graveyard. They quickly pounced upon the scene, slapping down the broken-up ground with their shovel blades in hopes of killing certus sermo and keeping the Christian norms buried underground where they belong – according to the wishes of the modern world.

 

Format

Each issue of certus sermo had four 8½ by 11 inch pages, with two columns on each page, spread out over one 11 x 17 inch sheet of paper, folded in half.

On the front page were two columns devoted to a section called the “Bishop’s Crook.” The bishop’s crook or staff or crozier is an ancient symbol for the office of the bishop (see number 66). Some thought this title was actually a veiled attack on our bishops – calling them crooks! But this allegation was baseless. John 10.11-13 was the preface of this section: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” Sometimes this section was longer than one page but never less than that. By issue 15 (July 1991) the one page limit was set. This front page section was the most controversial part of certus sermo. This was because in it we often examined the public statements and writings of our local bishop. This usually included constructive criticisms, but also, at times, unqualified praise – something which always went unnoticed by our critics in their complaints about us. Other times this page was devoted to an exposition of an exemplary bishop from church history – like St. Augustine (354-430) (numbers 28, 40) or St. Anselm (1033-1109) (number 12). But it was those critical words on the bishops that sent many of our readers right up the wall. But, true to form, it was those same exact criticisms that others found to be the best part of certus sermo.

We always agreed with our supporters on this matter. We always found our criticisms of the bishops to be timely, germane and constructive. To show what we mean, here are a dozen examples from the “Bishop’s Crook” column to show what we mean:

 

[1] When Bishop Knutson wrote in August 1990 that we should take the movie Jesus of Montreal as a good example of effectively communicating the Christian faith, we disagreed, since this movie makes Jesus say “I am not Christ” and you must “save yourselves.” Both of these statements conflict with Biblical and Lutheran Confessional teachings (see number 5). [2] And when Bishop Knutson reported in August 1991 on the church assembly in Orlando, FL, saying we should rejoice in our diverse opinions within the church knowing that our unity “rest on Jesus Christ” and not on our common agreement in other matters, we protested because of the importance in also agreeing on our doctrines regarding who Christ is, what he says and what he does (see number 18). [3] And when he invited Juanita Batzibal to offer a Mayan prayer at the pastors conference in Seattle on May 28, 1992, in which she implored the Earth to forgive us for polluting it, we balked, since only God can forgive sins by way of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (see number 26). [4] And when Bishop Knutson in June 1992 advised us to follow guidelines which say we should avoid addressing God as “Father, Son or Lord,” we again protested since Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions clearly address God in this way (see number 33). [5] And when he in August 1993 commended Luther’s statement that Christians are to witness in their “ordinary lives as representatives of Jesus in the world,” we criticized him for leaving out that we are first of all to “offer our grateful worship to God in church,” and only them move out into the world (see number 41). [6] And when Bishop Maier, at a pastors conference in Marysville, WA, on October 19, 1995, said that Lutherans are free to “shape” their own conscience on matters of homosexuality, we disagreed, since honoring ones own conscience never implied for Luther making up your own sexual morality (see number 66). [7] And again when Bishop Maier wrote in November 1995 that we are to invite new people to church “to delight for themselves in the open embrace offered them by Jesus Christ,” we criticized him for excluding from this invitation to these new folks any call from Christ Jesus to repent as well (see number 67). [8] And when in his Easter sermon on April 7, 1996, he said “Christ is risen!.... But Jesus is not here,… he has ascended,…. but we are here to say Jesus is here,” we protested this reduction of Christianity to depending on the kindness of strangers (see number 72). [9] And when Bishop Maier in September 1996 challenged the synod to greater “effectiveness,” we protested asking why this wasn’t linked to a call for greater faithfulness as well (see number 77). [10] And when he in December 1996 favorably quoted a scholar for telling us to “listen” to unbelievers in order to welcome them into the church on their own terms, we criticized him for intentionally cutting from this quote the additional need to assess the rebellion and cynicism of these same unbelievers – and not just let them come into church with no scrutiny at all (see number 80). [11] And when Bishop Maier in September 1997 said that “nobody” won in the defeat of the concordat with the Episcopal Church since it was by a slim .6% margin, we disagreed, since when he was elected bishop by a slim .7% margin he didn’t say there had been no bishop elected – denying thereby that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander (see number 89). [12] And finally when he on June 17, 2000, said we needed more delegates to our synod assemble “under the age of 30,” we balked since the church’s future doesn’t depend on any one age group but rather on the single foundation which is Christ Jesus our Lord (see number 125).

 

Then on the second and third pages was a section called “Working the Vineyard.” This section had 2½ columns by issue 15. The preface for this section was Matthew 9.37-38 until issue 101 when it was changed to Luke 10.2-3: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest…. Behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” This was also a controversial section of certus sermo. This was because in it we would periodically criticize publicly announced events in the congregations of our synod – like, for instance, the blessing of a same-sex union at Central Lutheran Church in Seattle (numbers 92, 93, 95, 98), or public proposals, like closing down our smaller congregations against their will (number 115) and changing the call system (number 37), or a funeral service for an ELCA dignitary (numbers 59, 60), or boy scouts in the church (numbers 22-24), or flags in the church (number 3). But this section would also cover public lectures and other religious activities in our region – like the opening of the new Buddhist temple in Federal Way (number 112) or a Greek Orthodox lecture in Seattle (numbers 65, 80, 85, 127).

On the third page, half a column was devoted to an icon, drawing or picture of a saint or notable church leader, with a caption beneath it regarding his or her witness. This coupling of a graphic with caption was introduced in issue 3. This section was designed to enrich our understanding of the normative sources of Christianity.

The fourth section, added by issue 7, was one column on page three called “Feeding the Sheep.” It was usually a Bible study. It too was for instruction in the norms of the faith. Its preface was Isaiah 30.9-11, a favorite of Luther’s: “For they are a rebellious people, lying sons, sons who will not hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘See not’; and to the prophets, ‘Prophesy not to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel.” In these studies we tried to avoid illusions and smooth things.

On the back page was the last section called “Isaac’s Well.” Its preface was Genesis 26.18, “And Isaac dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father.” By issue 15 this section was solely devoted to an exposition of the Lutheran Confessions, as printed in The Book of Concord (1580). This section was also designed for instruction and enrichment – and as such, it was a clear stepping into the breach, since our appointed leaders had been neglecting the confessions for years.

 

Production

The writers and their families took care of getting certus sermo out. It was printed up in Renton and mailed out in downtown Seattle , under a bulk mail permit. The typing, formatting of the text, design and layout were all done by the writers. The costs were also largely covered by the writers – with never more than 25% of the costs being covered by other donations. On average, each issue cost around $150.00 – which included expenses for paper, printing, envelopes and mailing. Only our guest writers received honorariums – never the three editors. We often sent out three months of issues together – the cost then being right around $500.00 for that combined mailing.

            The first 9 issues were mailed out under bulk mail permit No. 5194, provided by Pastor Nelson’s church, Maple Leaf Lutheran Church . By issue 10, certus sermo had its own bulk mail permit, No. 5361. In 1996, First Lutheran Church of West Seattle set up a savings account for donations to certus sermo so that these donations could for the first time receive tax benefits.

            A complete archive of certus sermo is stored at First Lutheran Church of West Seattle. Anyone is welcome to purchase from the church copies of any or all of the 136 issues of this now classic church newsletter.

 

 

 

Distribution

Each issue was sent out free of charge to every pastor, retired and active, in the NW WA Synod, as well as to each of the congregational presidents of our synod. Copies were also sent to the church seminaries, ELCA headquarters, and interested people throughout the USA and abroad. About 500 copies were mailed out in each printing.

            Sometimes we were asked to take people off our mailing list – which we always did. That number never exceeded 10% of those planned to be sent to in any given mailing. Most simply read it or tossed it in the trash – never asking to be removed from the mailing list.

 

Supporters

We were supported financially and with personal encouragements from pastors, laity, church scholars and other church leaders. This support was often emphatic albeit fairly small.

It was most interesting to us that pastors who supported us financially often did so with cash donations rather than by check so as to avoid a paper trail which could later be used to tie them to certus sermo. We assured them we had no plans of turning over our records to ELCA authorities, but this wasn’t reassuring enough. For what they actually feared was a Watergate style ransacking of our files by ELCA operatives. Be that as it may, reprisals by the powerful from within the ELCA for those supporting certus sermo were clearly disconcerting. We found this to be both shocking and disgusting – but totally understandable. So we fully understood why most of our supporters didn’t write us checks. From this our belief was confirmed that vengeance is alive and well in the church today. Pastor simply feared never getting another Call if it became known somehow that they supported certus sermo. After writing certus sermo, any doubts we may have had about such hatred and cruelty were completely silenced. Certus sermo proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that our church leaders will do whatever they can to stop all independent, public criticism of church leaders (see number 47 and Dr. G. W. Forell’s lamentation that “in the church organized criticism is forbidden”).

So from the beginning to the end, accolades rolled in regarding the necessity and excellence of certus sermo. We were told it was “first class… and a model for… other synods” (Richard John Neuhaus); and that it was “heartening to read a critical review of ministry… from the often neglected perspective of theology” (Byron Hanson); and that it was “precisely the sort of provocative invitation to theological reflection… that we now so desperately need” (Virgil Thompson). Some of our praise was veiled. Bishop Knutson, an open opponent of certus sermo (see number 35), was asked in a public session at our synod assembly, on June 16, 1990, whether the writers of certus sermo had the right to mail out this newsletter. He responded saying that even though he didn’t like it and that it lacked credibility, certus sermo could not be prohibited because Lutherans have a long history of allowing independent critical voices to be heard. [One can’t help but wonder how he would have tried to stop its publication if he had deemed it necessary?! Would he have actually taken on the cherished first amendment to the US Constitution which protects a free press against all challengers? Would he have become even more of a fascists for the sake of his bruised ego?]

We were also told that reading certus sermo was “at times amusing and terrifying, inspirational and depressing, [but] in the service of law and gospel,…. this is as it should be” (Stephen Verkouw). Another wrote: “I cannot help but delight in reading that which is so steeped in the confessions and Luther, which in turn are so filled with Christ” (Joel Brandos). We were also told to “keep up the fine work” (O. B. Fjellstad) and that “these are grim times in the church [and you are] to be commended for recognizing and addressing that truth” (Martin Taylor). Another wrote to say: “Certus sermo arrived again yesterday and I read it this morning with my usual appreciation. I don’t always understand it completely, and I usually feel a little depressed when I’ve finished, but I find it a voice which sounds notes seldom heard in the church these days, notes which need to be heard” (Charles Smith). Finally there were these words: “Thanks for your unequivocal proclamation…. My chief concern in all my teaching was to make unequivocally clear what that sure and certain word is, never in a vacuum but always ‘against the stream’” (Martin J. Heinecken).

 

Critics

From the very beginning, complaints were also raised against certus sermo – many of which were scathing and anonymous. On May 30, 1990, John J. Keiter, Jr., now pastor of

 

 

 

Trinity Lutheran Church , Lansford , PA (ELCA Yearbook 2007) wrote one of the first and more imaginative attacks we received. “As far as ecclesiastical pretentiousness and pompous self-righteousness go,” he wrote, “your new publication, certus sermo, ranks numero uno on my list…. Speaking personally, I take deep umbrage and particular pique at your ‘know-it-all’ attitude toward Scripture, our beloved Lutheran Confessions [and] Martin Luther himself…. Who made you guys the only arbiters of the truth? Is it difficult trying to sound extremely knowledgeable when what is generated seems to come from extreme ignorance? Perhaps you have actually mis-titled this cheery newsletter: instead of ‘sure word,’ you should have titled this opus ridiculosus ‘Das Reine Lehre” or pure teaching…. Unless I am reading with my eyes closed, I find the gist of your subject matter and the way you have gisted it to be divisive, hostile, black-booted right-wing, neo-orthodox conservative, scripturally inaccurate (or horrendously limited), anti-feminist, and theologically simplistic…. Gosh, it must be swell to know as many answers to as many unasked questions as you fellows do. The WORD is your oyster, and your slimy polemic is best devoured raw (so long as one doesn’t choke on it!)…. My wish for certus sermo is a swift and painless euthanasic demise, for if this is how you editors pretend to arouse dialog, you are clearly not servants of the Church, nor of Jesus Christ our Lord, but of good, old, clever El Diablo [the Devil].”

            Well, he didn’t get his wish – for ending certus sermo after more than a decade of publication was anything but a swift demise. And if one were to follow the principle of evaluation laid down by Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-39, which says that if an undertaking is contrary to God’s will, it will fail quickly on its own (as in the cases of Theudas and Judas the Galilean), then his attribution of demonic inspiration to certus sermo was also wrongheaded.

 

 

 

            Another notable complaint was sent in by R. Don Wright, now pastor of Lord of Love Lutheran Church, Omaha , NE (ELCA Yearbook 2007). In it, Wright, in part, imagined a new certus sermo – in order, as he wrote, to poke fun “at Ultra-Seriousness Within the NW WA Synod of the ELCA…. This irreverent diatribe,” he goes on to say in its new statement of purpose, “is written to stimulate vigorous guffaws in our parishes, to focus and spread (?) unofficial views of our synod’s ministry, to nurture a disciplinary and chastising vantage from the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions, and to overcome the constipation of the synod’s pastors. The opinions expressed herein are wholly out of line. This review’s name, Sealey Certa, is Latin for ‘sure foundation,’ and is a blatant play on the name of a certain bedding manufacturer, but mattresses are important when you are bouncing off the walls.”

            And Jack Hustad prefaced an otherwise straight Bible study, with the silly headline, “Ego Certus Sermo: An Impediment Review, The Bishop’s Crock.” And Llano G. Thelin wrote in: “Ever since receiving the unsolicited copy of certus sermo, I keep hoping the spirit and tenor of acrimony and back biting will terminate,…. but alas, such is not to be!!.... The same fractious and non-collegial spirit continues…. I strongly request my name be disassociated with any future mailing of this limited journalism. Surely the time, postage, and reflection needed to put out this myopic view of Christianity could be put to more salutary usage. Incidentally, is the producing of this paper done on your day off, or is the time generously granted and sanctioned by your church councils?”

            On July 2, 1990, Don Maier – later to be bishop – wrote in that “you guys weary me with an arrogant approach I thought I had left behind in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.” On March 24, 1993, Paul W. Sundberg wrote in a similar vein that “in the last 19 years only twice have I encountered such systematic and inept ‘proof texting’ from The Book of Concord. The first was in the 1970s’ dispute within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. You have picked up well where they left off…. Suffice it to say that I have had enough of your factious spirit, enough of the façade of wisdom, enough of your confessional fundamentalism. Please remove my name from your mailing list. Save the postage, save the paper, save your breath.”

            And Jon W. Magnuson wrote in on October 3, 1990, “good friends, I am embarrassed on behalf of the church by the personalizing so apparent in the Bishop’s Crook portion of certus sermo.” On October 23, 1990 David J. Lund wrote in that “one-way diatribe, with no reader response included, is pontification – a classic authoritarian strategy.” And Don Clinton wrote in on March 10, 1993, “What a bunch of garbage!” But the most aggressive complaint came from a letter dated February 1, 2000. In issue 118 (February 2000) of certus sermo we made the following response to that letter which is reprinted here in full:

 

Criticizing Certus Sermo. In a “pastoral” letter dated February 1, 2000, some 82 active and retired pastors and associates in ministry in our synod asked for certus sermo to change in three ways. The first was that it would “cease and desist [the] theological and personal crusade against the Bishop’s Office [of our synod].” Second that it would quit “damaging the unity” of our synod. Third that it would start explaining “the actions of others in the kindest and most loving way.” In a letter signed by Pastor Jim Lindus, dated February 2, 2000, and attached to the list of names, he wrote he would “seek further action if necessary.”

            In a letter dated January 25, 2000, which solicited the signatures, other criticisms were made of certus sermo. Its words are called “harsh barbs,… mean spirited, divisive, and destructive.” They are considered a “poison,” a “venom unleashed” that have “too much power over us.” They have “adversely affected” our synod’s “witness to the world” and the “ability to do God’s work.” They are even feared to have “frightened away” future candidates for bishop by the gloomy prospect of being subjected to “public ridicule” on the pages of certus sermo.

            Neither of these letters give examples of the alleged infractions. Nor do they assess any of the considerable explanations given in certus sermo for the necessity and propriety of our judgments. Our critics have instead settled for generalities and unsubstantiated allegations.

            Nevertheless we are grateful to all who took the time to make their criticisms known. “Vigorous conversation” is prized by certus sermo – even if it is a bit harsh and negative. We are impressed and shocked frankly that certus sermo means so much to our critics. They have not simply ignored it and tossed it into the garbage. Instead they have read it and researched its impact on our synod over the last nearly ten years and shared their findings with us. For this we are grateful.

            The Noble Office of Bishop. Regarding the first criticism we agree that the office of bishop should not be attacked. We pledge that we will never attack this office for we hold that it is “noble” (1 Timothy 3.1) and even established under “divine right” (AC, 28.21). We have held this from the beginning (certus sermo, number 1)! We have even offered elaborate and unqualified praise of the office of bishop (certus sermo, number 58).

            But we have regularly criticized the occupants of this noble office – even when they may only have “deviated one hairsbreadth” from the truth of Christianity (Luther’s Works, 44.93). Their office is important enough to demand such minute scrutiny!  We have done this because the Lutheran Confessions say we can (certus sermo, number 2). This authorization we have carefully summarized and endorsed (certus sermo, numbers 16 and 64). We have praised bishops as well – including famous historic ones (certus sermo, numbers 7, 12, 17, 20, 23, 25, 28, 30, 32, 34, 40, 45, 50, 53, 61, 62, 66, 67, 68, 72, 75, 77, 79, 80, 81, 84, 91, 98, 99, 107). Some think the office of bishop is attacked if the bishop is criticized. We do not agree. We instead stand with Martin Luther who agreed bishops could be criticized while “preserving” the office all the same (LW, 17.79). Again we have carefully explicated this distinction and use it (certus sermo, numbers 78, 83, 96). We have also shown how bishops err and have given classic cases that show it is right to criticize them for it (certus sermo, numbers 13, 25, 43, 51, 56, 61, 70, 81, 88).

            Promoting Unity. Regarding promoting the unity of our synod we are also in full agreement. Never have we set out to divide our synod. Our hope has always been to unite our synod around a Confessional understanding of Christ (certus sermo, numbers 5, 35, 74, 85, 109). Lamentably, however, the truth of Christ can divide us as well as unite us (John 7.43, 9.16, 10.19). So if “the Gospel could take its course without the rise of… discord, it would have done so… with… Christ who was a better preacher” than any of us. “Therefore resign yourself to the fact, and be prepared for discord and unrest as soon as the Gospel is preached” (LW, 23.290). Many reject this pessimism outright. We think it is utterly realistic as well as being faithful to the Holy Scriptures (certus sermo, number 12).

            On this we agree with Luther that the Biblical understanding of the truth of Christ Jesus is a “rough” one (LW, 11.58). As such it plays havoc with conciliation and agreement (certus sermo, numbers 27, 37, 70). It “bites” and offends and therefore hurts our feelings (LW, 31.355). We have studied this difficult teaching and abide by it (certus sermo, numbers 29 and 40). Jesus said it will “divide” us (Luke 12.51). When this happens we take no credit for it. All we want is to be faithful to Jesus and “witness to the truth” (John 18.37).

            Loving One Another. Regarding explaining the actions of others in the most loving way, there is a huge problem. It has to do with the definition of Christian love. Given our understanding of love (certus sermo, numbers 27, 37, 40, 50, 79, 85, 86, 101, 102, 103, 108), we have been trying to be as loving as possible. For those who do not share our definition, this assurance is unadulterated hogwash.

            Again we side with Luther on the definition of love. He warned against turning love into “stupid affection” (LW, 13.153). We have studied this warning and heeded it (certus sermo, numbers 28, 71, 77, 82, 106). Furthermore he thought Christian zeal required love to be “angry” at times (LW, 22.233-237). We have also adopted this understanding (certus sermo, number 7).

            Lutherans in Crisis. Because Lutherans in America suffer from a crisis of identity, we do not expect our critics to think much of our response. This crisis of identity involves a dispute over what Christianity itself is! So when they say certus sermo needs to change, it is because they do not share our standards for and definitions of such things as the office of bishop, unity and love.

            In our estimation the differences between our critics and us are the same as those between Samuel Simon Schmucker and William Julius Mann nearly 150 years ago (certus sermo, number 79). David A. Gustafson’s book, Lutherans in Crisis: The Question of Identity in the American Republic (1993) carefully explains this old American Lutheran problem. This makes our dispute both overwhelming and venerable. Consequently both sides still need to be heard – on their own terms.

            Pray therefore that Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas’ (1898-1980) words become those of our synod: “A function of free speech… is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger” [Terminiello v. Chicago 337 U. S. 4 (1948)].

 

Impact

So was it worth it publishing certus sermo for more than ten years? Did it make the church a better place? Was it worth all the money and time it took to print it and distribute it? Some say it blocked the re-election of Bishop Donald Maier in our synod. Others say it forced Bishop Knutson to retire six months early. And many felt this was wonderful since both of these bishops were deemed to be very disappointing.

Others said that our expositions of the Lutheran Confessions made it all worthwhile – especially our unfinished presentation of Luther’s Small Catechism (numbers 101-136). Others said outlining and elaborating the twenty Biblical traits for bishops was wonderful and since it could be found nowhere else in the ELCA today, made certus sermo necessary reading (numbers 13, 65). Others said the artwork alone made certus sermo memorable and important.

But for us it was in fulfilling Ezekiel 3.18 that certus sermo had its value. That verse says: “If I say to the wicked, says the Lord God, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand” (see numbers 31, 62, 111).

 

The Moral of the Story

What does the story of certus sermo tell us? What was its moral or point? Overall it tells us that the church doesn’t have many “apt teachers” (1 Timothy 3.2) – whether they be bishops, pastors, college and seminary professors or bureaucrats. We also learned from certus sermo that when teaching based on the norms of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions is disseminated, it will be attacked mercilessly (see John 10.12; Acts 20.29-31). And that brings us to our final point – the church needs tough, faithful leaders who can endure the attacks (2 Timothy 4.5) to make sure our normative teachings are preserved, promoted and presented well. And this will be harrowing because what we’ve been told for generations has now been confirmed in our time and place through the story of certus sermo, that in the church there is “an infinite number of ungodly… who oppress it” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 169].

            Since certus sermo stopped publication, the need for reviewing our synodical ministry has continued. All things haven’t yet been brought into compliance with our Christian norms. Even so, no one has yet picked up the ball. No new certus sermo has emerged. But the need still stands. For instance, on May 16, 2003, Bishop Boerger, preached on Acts 4.12 at the opening of the synod assembly in Lynnwood, WA. Acts 4.12 famously says that there isn’t salvation under any other name than that of Jesus Christ. But our bishop said that this verse doesn’t mean what it says – contrary to what the church has taught for generations regarding this verse (see The Book of Concord, p. 292)! Supposing that the Church alone has the words of eternal life (John 6.68), which can’t be found anywhere else, is an old imperial way of thinking that has been unjustifiably foisted upon this verse, according to Bishop Boerger, and must now be done away with. He said this verse isn’t actually about salvation at all, but only about the authorization to heal the broken in a needy world (see my critique, “Our Shameful Bishop,” The Messenger, June 2003). Such faithlessness cries out for public criticism. Pray that God would raise up a new certus sermo soon. The Church needs many publications like it. God did it once in our time and place, and he can surely do it again. Pray that he would have mercy on us and save us from false teaching (2 Peter 2.1-3). And in the meantime, may the example of certus sermo and its story shine brightly as a beacon in the Church, to the glory of God.

 

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