All regularly constituted Lutheran Synods, not now in connection with the General Synod, receiving and holding with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of our fathers, the Word of God, as contained in the Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and the Augsburg Confession, as a correct exposition of the fundamental doctrines of the Divine word and of the faith of our Church founded upon that word, may at any time become associated with the General Synod, by adopting this Constitution, and sending delegates to its convention along the ratio specified in section first of this article.8
The name "Lutheran" or a Lutheran heritage is no longer sufficient for membership in the General Synod; an explicit confessional standard for what it means to be Lutheran has been introduced.
II. The Present
 What of our North American Lutheran churches today? The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has explicit confessional standards in its governing documents, as does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Both churches acknowledge the authority of the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God and both acknowledge the authority of the Lutheran Confessions as "true," "valid," or "correct" "witnesses," "interpretations," and "explanations" of the Gospel and the faith of the church. (The Confession of Faith from the ELCA Constitution and the ELCiC Constitution are appended to the end of this article.) There does not appear to be a hint of reservation in this language.
 While I can't speak to the Canadian context, I can say that the ELCA, like the General Synod, also receives criticism from different sides, both from those who see the Confessions as dated and somewhat limiting, especially in an ecumenical and interfaith environment, and from those who see our confessional subscription as inadequate. One need do no more than a quick Google search of the word "quatenus" to discover a wealth of articles and blogs from conservative Lutherans claiming that the ELCA's confessional subscription is not quia (because) but quatenus (insofar as) the Confessions are true and valid witnesses to the faith. It must be said that this critique is found not only in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) but is also made by some within our own midst (or until recently within our midst), who seem convinced that the ELCA says it is a confessional church but doesn't really mean it.
 The constitutional statements of confessional subscription — the written words — do not resolve the questions and tensions of Lutheran identity as they are lived out in our churches from day to day. To use a somewhat oversimplified illustration, the mere fact that I subscribe to Time magazine does not tell you anything about whether or how often or how thoroughly I read it. (Indeed, it does not even tell you that I value it enough to spend money on it, since in this case my subscription results from about-to-expire airline miles.) What does subscription mean, beyond putting my name on a list?
 Those of us who are ordained have made explicit promises to preach and teach (or serve, for those on lay rosters) in accordance with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions (a promise I have not made with respect to Time magazine). Let me insist that this is not a naïve acceptance, a mere submission to the authority of the church that requires this language in the rites of ordination, consecration, and commissioning. Such a commitment to the authority of the Confessions as true witnesses of the faith, whether on the part of a candidate for ministry or of the church body itself, presumes prior study. It is irresponsible to make such a promise without studying the Confessions sufficiently to agree that they are true witnesses and valid interpretations of the faith.
 But, again, what does this mean? For example, does subscribing to the Lutheran Confessions as true witnesses and valid interpretations of the faith require us — require me — to believe that the pope is the antichrist?
 The question of how we understand and use the Confessions as part of a living tradition is precisely the case in point in the recent media attention given to Michele Bachmann's former membership in the WELS. The Smalcald Articles explicitly identify the pope as the Antichrist (Part II, Article IV), but many of us would read that passage not as dogma but as a reflection of the historical circumstances of the papacy in the early sixteenth century without thinking that we were thereby rejecting the Confessions or their authority. The Wisconsin Synod, however, has developed a nine-page doctrinal statement on the Antichrist, with this conclusion: "We reject the idea that the teaching that the Papacy is the Antichrist rests on a merely human interpretation of history or is an open question. We hold rather that this teaching rests on the revelation of God in Scripture which finds its fulfillment in history."9
III. Back to the Future
 But there is another way of interpreting — and applying — the Lutheran Confessions, a way that, in my opinion, accords even greater authority than what we might call a fundamentalist confessionalism.
 I teach at Wartburg College, whose Lutheran heritage is deeply shaped by the vision and thought of Bavarian Lutheran pastor Wilhelm Loehe. The missionary pastors and teachers sent to the U.S. by Loehe had significant influence in the formation of both the Missouri Synod and the Iowa Synod, the latter prompted by disagreements with Missouri concerning the doctrine of ministry. In articulating his own theology and negotiating Lutheran identity with his fellow Lutherans, Loehe insisted that the Lutheran Confessions be read within their historical context. He expressed an understanding of the Unfertigkeit (the unfinishedness) of the Confessions, by which he did not intend to minimize their authority but rather to emphasize the living nature of their authority.10
 This view is the confessional position adopted by the Iowa Synod at its formation in 1853, just two years prior to the somewhat different confessional position proposed in the Definite Synodical Platform of 1855. While the Definite Synodical Platform claimed to offer an alternative to the confessionalism of the "German churches," not all German Lutheran synods were alike. E Clifford Nelson summarizes the differences between the Iowa and Missouri Synods this way:
Both Iowa and Missouri required subscription to the Lutheran confessions. Yet the former maintained that the confessions could be properly understood and interpreted only in their historical context. This meant that the confessions were not the final word in all the theological matters. In fact, a distinction must be made between essential and nonessential items. Certain matters must be considered "open questions," thus allowing for growth and development in the apprehension of Christian truth.11
So understood, the Lutheran Confessions are authoritative for Lutherans (the
norma normata normed only by the Scriptures), but our understanding and application of the Confessions is neither exhaustive nor as yet exhausted.
 Wartburg Seminary professor Sigmund Fritschel, writing in 1893, gives this clear description of the Iowa Synod's position:
Its first synodical declaration was an unreserved acknowledgement of the Confessions of the Lutheran Church.... It discountenances every acceptance of the Lutheran Symbols by which they are accepted with the reservation as far as they are in harmony with the "Word of God," because by this their conformity with the Scriptures would be put in question; on the contrary, it accepts them as its own Confession, because it is convinced of their conformity with the Scriptures.... The synod...does not derive the normative authority of the teachings of the Confessions from the fact that they are the decisions of the Church, but from the fact that they are the pure and genuine exposition and interpretation of the Divine Word....12
This latter claim is important to note in light of the point made in Maria Erling's and Susan McArver's papers [to be published October 2011] about the mid-twentieth-century shift from the authority of the teaching office to the authority of church councils and conventions.
 Fritschel continues:
The Symbols are not considered, like the Scriptures, as judges, but as a witness and declaration of the faith, as to how at any time the Holy Scriptures have been understood and explained in the articles in controversy in the Church of God by those who then lived, and how the opposite dogma was rejected and condemned. On account of this historical view of the Symbols, the Iowa Synod does not see in them a code of law of atomistic dogmas of equal value and equal weight, but an organic expression of the living connection of the faith of the Church.13
Fritschel goes on to distinguish between confessional doctrines as such and "the frequent exegetical, historical and other deductions, illustrations and demonstrations"14 contained in the confessional writings, much as modern biblical scholars distinguish between the theological content of the Scriptures and their historical, geographical, and scientific content.
 The image I have frequently used with students to convey this systemic understanding of Lutheran theology is the image of software. Inputting different data into a computer program yields different results, and yet these results are no less authentically an expression of the program than the earlier results. What Lutherans need to say today will not always be the same as what Luther and his fellow confessors said in the sixteenth century. Nor should it be. But that need not make it any less authentically and confessionally Lutheran.
 Similarly, in a 2009 address at a Lutheran World Federation theological conference in Augsburg, Germany, Guillermo Hansen, who teaches at Luther Seminary, made a similar argument with respect to what he called "the Lutheran code."15 I find the language of "code" helpful because it calls our attention to the fact that the software is itself constructed. Computer codes allow programs to perform certain processes and produce certain results. Even a linguistic code that is constructed in order to conceal a message for transmission must be part of a shared system of understanding so that the message can be successfully decoded by its intended recipients; and if a code can be decoded by its recipients, it can also, through critical effort, be decoded, deconstructed, by those whom the original code was intended to confuse and exclude. Hansen claims that "the attractiveness of Lutheran theology is not grounded in the 'authority' given to its Confessions, or those who presume to be custodians of it, but in the compelling and flexible quality of the web of belief that is formed by the codes that were once unraveled by Luther."16 (Note the similarity between Hansen's "compelling and flexible quality of the web of belief" and Fritschel's "organic expression of the living connection of the faith of the Church.")
 Hansen identifies the theology of the cross, justification by faith, and the doctrine of God's twofold governances as core elements of the Lutheran code. He further argues that the system "operate[s] through the law/gospel meta-code with an energy that is simultaneously decentering (law) and re-centering (gospel)."17 As this dynamic language suggests, the Lutheran theological code is not static, nor does it function primarily as a litmus test of orthodoxy. It is a system for processing data — life — theologically. Hansen makes a helpful distinction between the grammar and the vocabulary of the Lutheran code, arguing that a sound grammar (the code) is capable of accepting new lexicons and thus of allowing new things to be said. Within the global Lutheran network, Hansen concludes, the core elements of the Lutheran theological code function to shape and sustain a shared religious identity in which "a plurality of [authentic and contextually-appropriate] interpretations"18 is possible.
 It is precisely in the process of interpreting and applying our Lutheran confessional heritage in new contexts that reason and experience play a role, not as external sources sitting in judgment over the Scriptures and the Confessions but as important resources for us as we wrestle with the Scriptures and the Confessions in order to bring forth new blessings in our day.19
 Luther himself did not exclude the legitimate use of reason and experience in interpreting the Scriptures. Luther's appeal, at the Diet of Worms in 1521, to "scripture or clear reason" is not an isolated instance but a recurring reference (ironically, one that Luther attributes to a letter of Augustine to Jerome). Luther does not acknowledge reason as an independent authority equal to the Scriptures. Rather, his point is that Christian teaching need not be found verbatim in the Scriptures but can be arrived at by rational deduction from the Scriptures (homoousios being a case in point). I think this is appropriate for the Confessions as well. Reason, while never in and of itself a warrant for doctrine, is useful — even essential — in the interpretation and application of the Scriptures and Confessions in new contexts.
 Similarly, human experience, while not an independent authority for Christian teaching, is nonetheless indispensable for the task of scriptural interpretation. Scott Hendrix argues persuasively that Luther "joined the interpretation of scripture to the experience and theological orientation of the interpreter."20 Luther's recollection of his "breakthrough" discovery of the evangelical meaning of Romans 1:17 illustrates well how the context and personal experience of the interpreter can be factors in finding new insight in a familiar text.21 Elsewhere Hendrix describes this as "tuning oneself to the text" and concludes that "there was for Luther a sense in which Scripture was not fully interpreted until it encountered and illumined the life of the addressee."22
 Just as we continue to grow in our understanding of the Scriptures and their relevance for our life as church today, so too we grow in our understanding of the Confessions and their relevance for our life as church today. As the case study on women's ordination demonstrated, fidelity to the Confessions is not merely repristination of what was said in the sixteenth century; fidelity requires interpretation and application of what the Confessions mean for our own time and place.
 Lutherans will not always agree with each other. Thus one of the core points of the Confessions to keep in mind is the satis est of AC VII. Except for those times when an issue rises to the level of status confessionis, different interpretations and applications need not be church dividing. A plurality of interpretations need not signify a loss of our heritage or a rejection or diminution of our commitment to the Confessions. Rather, new interpretations and applications can be profound embodiments of the Lutheran heritage in new and changing contexts.
 But as Susan McArver writes in one of her concluding points [to be published October 2011], the fact that there should have been room within the Lutheran Council in the United States of America (LCUSA) for Lutherans to hold varying positions and practices within a common confession didn't fly. Alas, this was not a unique occurrence.
 One of my favorite books is a relatively unknown title, Little Journeys with Martin Luther, published in 1916.23 Martin Luther is brought back to life in the United States and goes about the task of trying to find a Lutheran church with which to affiliate. Note that this is just before the significant, ground-changing mergers resulting in the formation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America (one of the predecessors of The ALC) in 1917 and of the United Lutheran Church in America (one of the predecessors of the LCA) in 1918. Luther travels throughout the country, placed in scenes that are, of course, constructed, but speaking dialogue taken directly from his writings. To make a long story short, every Lutheran denomination existing at the time is either found unacceptable by Luther or finds Luther himself acceptable. While I find the book quite enjoyable, it is also a sad indictment of the reified Lutheranisms of its time. The book demonstrates the empirical existence of multiple American Lutheranisms in the early twentieth century, but it also demonstrates the modern perspective that one and only one of these observable Lutheranisms can be the most accurate instance of the real thing.
 Several years ago, a group of Lutheran theologians met at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion to discuss forming a new program unit. One of the names suggested for the unit was "Martin Luther and Global Lutheranisms" — in response to which one of the theologians present insisted, "There is only one Lutheranism!"24 But if there were only one Lutheranism, how would we know which one? In the novel Little Journeys, not even Luther himself is recognized as an authority on the matter of authentic Lutheran identity.
 Even an unreservedly confessional Lutheranism must cast its lot somewhere along the spectrum between the focused position articulated in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession and the comprehensive position articulated in Article X of the Formula of Concord. According to the Augsburg Confession, "it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word."25 According to the Formula, "We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because it has fewer or more external ceremonies not commanded by God, as long as there is mutual agreement in doctrine and in all its articles as well as in the right use of the holy sacraments.26
 "In doctrine and in all its articles." In the Missouri Synod of my youth, there was — and still is — this constitutional provision: "All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the Word of God. All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote."27 This once again begs the question: who gets to decide — and on what basis — which are the "matters of doctrine and conscience" and which are the "other matters"?
 In the twenty-first century, "Who gets to decide?" must be a matter of communal discernment, testing theological claims against the core criteria (the code and meta-code) of the Lutheran Confessions. Let me propose, then, as one of the important practices of authority in the church today (akin to the democratizing trends mentioned yesterday but offering something even richer) what the Smalcald Articles refer to as the fifth form of the Gospel, "the mutual conversation and consolation" of brothers and sisters. (The language of "mutual conversation" resonates with the emphasis in David Frederickson's presentation on the importance of welcoming language play and not having the last word.) Along these lines, in wrestling with the question of Lutheran identity, Lagerquist notes that Christa Ressmeyer Klein "has persuasively suggested that Lutheranism might even be understood as a continuity of argument" and thus "a Lutheran is one who debates about the Confessions."29
 Let me now return to the definition of confession as both theological and liturgical. In the mutual conversation and consolation of fellow Christians, we need to confess not only our theology but our Unfertigkeit, our unfinishedness; and we need to come together particularly in common confession — both of sin and of faith — in worship. And in lifting up this vision of common Lutheran confession, I must also confess the painful knowledge that this very vision of a committed but unfinished Lutheranism means that some of our fellow Lutherans will not join us at the table.
From the Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America30
CONFESSION OF FAITH
2.01. This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2.02. This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
a. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
b. The proclamation of God's message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
c. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God's Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God's revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God's Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
2.03. This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
2.04. This church accepts the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.
2.05. This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
2.06. This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.
2.07. This church confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scripture and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God's mission in the world.
From the Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada31
Confession of Faith
Section 1. This church confesses the Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as the one true God. It proclaims the Father as Creator and Preserver; His Son, Jesus Christ, as Redeemer and Lord; and the Holy Spirit as Regenerator and Sanctifier.
Section 2. This church confesses that the gospel is the revelation of God's saving will and grace in Jesus Christ, which he imparts through Word and Sacrament. Through these means of grace the Holy Spirit creates believers and unites them with their Lord and with one another in the fellowship of the Holy Christian Church.
Section 3. This church confesses the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God, through which God still speaks, and as the only source of the church's doctrine and the authoritative standard for the faith and life of the church.
Section 4. This church subscribes to the documents of the Book of Concord of 1580 as witnesses to the way in which the Holy Scriptures have been correctly understood, explained and confessed for the sake of the gospel, namely:
a. The Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds as the chief confessions of the Christian faith;
b. The unaltered Augsburg Confession as its basic formulation of Christian doctrine;
c. Luther's Small Catechism as a clear summary of Christian doctrine;
d. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Luther's Large Catechism, the Smalcald Articles with the Treatise, and the Formula of Concord as further witnesses to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
Kathryn A. Kleinhans is an Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
1. L. DeAne Lagerquist,
The Lutherans: Student Edition (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1999), 2.
2. "Formula for the Government and Discipline of the Evangelical Lutheran Church," Chapter I, Article VII, in Hymns, Original and Selected, for Public and Private Worship in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Lutheran Board of Publication, 1850), Appendix, 4.
3. "Formula," Chapter XII, Article III; Appendix, 26.
4. "Formula," Chapter XVII, Article V; Appendix, 31.
5. Richard C. Wolf, Documents of Lutheran Unity in America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 74.
6. E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutherans in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 221.
7. "Formula for the Government and Discipline of the Evangelical Lutheran Church," Chapter I, Sec. 7, Book of Worship, Published by the General Synod of the Lutheran Church in the United States (Philadelphia: Lutheran Board of Publication and Baltimore: T. Newton Kurtz, 1874), 461 (emphasis added).
8. "Constitution of the General Synod," Article II, Sec. 3, in Book of Worship, 499.
9. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, "Statement on the antichrist," http://www.wels.org/about-wels/doctrinal-statements/antichrist?page=0,8 (accessed August 5, 2011)
10. I am grateful to Wolfhart Schlichting for calling my attention to this theme in his unpublished paper, "Loehe's Correspondence with Wedemann 1849–1850 on Theory and Practice in Church and Ministry," presented at the International Löhe Theological Conference III, Fort Wayne, Indiana, July 27, 2011.
11. Nelson, 228.
12. S. Fritschel, "The German Iowa Synod," pp. 62–86 in The Distinctive Doctrines and Usages of the General Bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1893), 64.
13. Fritschel, 65–66.
14. Fritschel, 66.
15.Guillermo Hansen, "Resistance, Adaptation and Challenge: The Versatility of the Lutheran Code," in Transformative Theological Perspectives, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2010), 23–38.
16. Ibid., 25.
17. Ibid., 29–30.
18. Ibid., 26.
19. The two following paragraphs are adapted from a previously published article, Kathryn A. Kleinhans, "The Word Made Words: A Lutheran Perspective on the Authority and Use of the Scriptures." Word & World 26:4 (Fall 2006), 402–411.
20. Scott Hendrix, "The Interpretation of the Bible according to Luther and the Confessions, or Did Luther Have a (Lutheran) Hermeneutic," in David C. Ratke, ed., Hearing the Word. Lutheran Hermeneutics: A Vision of Life Under the Gospel (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2006), 15.
21. Martin Luther, "Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther's Latin Writings" (1545), in LW 34:336–337.
22. Scott Hendrix, "Luther Against the Background of the History of Biblical Interpretation," in Interpretation XXXVII:3 (July 1983), 235, 236.
23. William N. Harley. Little journeys with Martin Luther; a real book wherein are printed divers sayings and doings of Dr. Luther in these latter days when he applied for synodical membership in the United States. Carefully set down in writing at that time by Brother John, of the order of poor brethren commonly known as Lutheran pastors (Columbus, Ohio, 1916).
24. The title eventually adopted was "Martin Luther and Global Lutheran Traditions."
25. Augburg Confession, VII, 2–3, in Theodore G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 32, emphasis added.
26. Formula of Concord, Epitome, X, 7 in Tappert, 493, emphasis added.
27. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, "Constitution of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod," Article VIII Synodical Meetings, C. Resolutions at Synodical Meetings, in 2010 Handbook http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=400 (accessed August 5, 2011).
28. Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article IV, in Tappert, 310.
29. Lagerquist, 2, 4.
30. www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Secretary/ELCA-Governance/Constitutions-of-the-Evangelical-Lutheran-Church-in-America.aspx (accessed August 5, 2011).
31. www.elcic.ca/In-Convention/2011-Saskatoon/documents/SectionD-Governance.pdf (accessed August 5, 2011).
© September 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 5