Review: A Formula for Parish Practice

Title of Work:

A Formula for Parish Practice

Author of Work:

Timothy J. Wengert


Pastor Ben Tomczak

Page Number:

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Timothy J. Wengert.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s (Lutheran Quarterly Books), 2006. xii + 234 pages.

SS.3.A Formula for Parish Practice.LgTimothy Wengert is Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  With Robert Kolb, he co-edited the 2000 edition of the Book of Concord.  He also translated the Creeds and the Small Catechism in that edition. Other books authored by Wengert include Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today; Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith; and Philip Melanchthon: Speaker of the Reformation.

At the seminary, professors would, from time to time, say something like, “Here’s a book you should read at least once a year.” For those keeping track, that list seemed to preclude reading anything except a select group of books year after year, without much time to read anything else.  Of course, Luther would agree with such a plan. He advocated the superiority of reading a few good books many times over reading many books once, that is, as long as you’re picking the right books.

Does Wengert’s little volume merit inclusion in the “read it every year” category?  I don’t know that I can say that. I would still probably start with the Bible, the Book of Concord, Luther, Chemnitz, and Walther among others. Nevertheless, Wengert has written a book worthy of our consideration.  A professor at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) seminary, Wengert does something pleasant and surprising.  He gives us an eminently readable, helpful, and mostly orthodox book from the most liberal Lutheran church body in America, if not the world. To read plain affirmations of the orthodox faith from a professor in a church body which questions so many – what a treat!

Wengert sets as his goal to demonstrate how the Formula of Concord, the last of the Lutheran Confessions (and by many, the most neglected as some Lutherans do not even subscribe to it), doesn’t just belong in seminary classrooms and pastors’ studies, but in parishes being studied by all believers because, as he writes, “Christians never graduate to a higher plane beyond their forebears in the faith, but always build on the ancient confessions to form their own” (150).

Using congregational anecdotes from his time in the parish, brief and readable historical vignettes setting the scene for each controversy addressed in the Formula, and brief commentary on the text of the Formula itself, Wengert helps us understand why we have the Formula and why we confess the Formula.

Each article gets its own chapter with the exception of Article VII on the Lord’s Supper, which gets two. At the center of each chapter stands the article itself. The entire article from the Epitome gets quoted before commentary begins. One benefit already becomes perfectly clear:  anyone who reads this book has read the Epitome. For laymen, that may be for the first time.

The congregational anecdotes that begin each chapter are always apt and meet Wengert’s goal of demonstrating how “modern” the Formula is, that is, that the issues our fathers in the faith faced and confessed must be dealt with by us in the present day (2; he also calls them the “Lutheran questions” [3], with which our church must always wrestle and defend).  Later, Wengert says, “The Formula of Concord may seem to be a distant, obsolete book, until we use it to illumine our own situation with the authors’ witnesses to the faith” (88).

The historical vignettes that set the stage in each chapter are brief enough that any reader can follow along with the events, but they also whet the appetite and leave you wishing for a page or two more, because you discover how interesting the years between the confessions (1530-1580) really were.

Wengert breaks up the commentary that follows the Epitome according to paragraphs. While he doesn’t shy away from difficult theological concepts, and even terms, he consistently manages to keep the materials at a level where any reader (pastor, teacher, or layman) will understand and benefit (though he did manage to use the word “quiddities” at least three times).

To tie the bow nicely, Wengert writes in a very pleasing and engaging style. I noted a number of quotable quotes (or purloinable phrases!).  To cite a few:

  • “These Christians simply love to talk about justification! Like the bride and groom who just have to talk about the wedding weeks and months after it has happened – to the consternation of all their friends – the concordists cannot say enough about this teaching.” (48)
  • “Perhaps we do not understand that consoling a widower with the gospel is the forgiveness of sin, because we do not understand sin.” (52)
  • “…justified by right answer alone…” (58)
  • “[A]s Luther himself admitted, sometimes the sermon may miss you and leave you cold. For that reason, he said, God instituted the Lord’s Supper – God’s visible word of justification in which those distributing (to my knowledge) never miss the mouth or ears of the person receiving the good news.” (61)
  • “I often call the question about works question 6 and the question about election question 9, because Paul in Romans 6 asks…and in Romans 9 inquires…” (62)
  • “Perhaps if we tattooed them on the inside of preachers’ eyelids…. No, that would just make body decorations a new law for starving seminarians!” (71)
  • “When Jesus throws a party, he shows up.” (103)

As if that’s not enough, among the last few pages the reader finds a helpful 14-page glossary of people and terms used in the book (and Lutheran and Christian theology in general).

Such a (so-far) glowing review of a helpful resource dare not overlook some potholes and warts.  Despite the overall value of this book, Wengert reminds us why no fellowship exists between the Wisconsin Synod and the ELCA.

  • Frequently he makes positive comments in support of women’s ordination into the ministry (14-15, 100, 133, 212).
  • He evidences an overly expansive view of open questions on pages 158-161 when he classes the creation account in Genesis 1-2 as such, saying it matters more that we understand who did the creating, not how he created it.
  • Discussing Article XII, paragraph 19, where the concordists deny the Anabaptist view that someone may divorce their unbelieving spouse, Wengert writes, “There are plenty of real reasons for divorce (and even more reasons for faithfulness) without our making up idealized versions of ‘true’ Christian marriage” (209). Does Wengert speak hyperbolically? Does he mean that adultery and desertion can happen in various ways, that is, no two cases seem to be the same? Or, is he saying there are exceptions to God’s “No divorce!” policy other than the two Christ and his apostle listed in Scripture?
  • Discussing Article V (Law and Gospel), paragraph 11, which mentions the papacy, Wengert writes, “‘The papacy’ in this context is not simply some institution connected to the bishop of Rome. It is instead a designation for a way of thinking that confuses law and gospel in the worst possible way, by reducing the word ‘gospel’ to a proclamation of repentance or retribution” (86). True enough, yet when the Formula mentions the papacy, it does refer to a concrete institution, which the confessions label the true end-times Antichrist. One wonders if Wengert is minimizing the role of the actual papacy as that anti-christian force.

In a couple places he “overturns” what many think of as Lutheran conventional wisdom.  In each case, I am willing to be instructed, but I would like to be directed to the sources for this information. For example, when talking about Melanchthon’s three causes of conversion:  the Word, the Holy Spirit, and the human will, Wengert says that “scholars” have proven that Melanchthon referred to the thing the Spirit and Word work on, and that it was later taken in a synergistic sense (44-45).  Discussing the Majoristic Controversy, he speculates that when George Major said, “Good works are necessary to salvation,” he might have meant, “Good works flow from faith” (64).  It’s entirely possible, as some have said about Nestorius, that Melanchthon and Major didn’t say (or mean) what they said or meant. Others went farther, but their names were attached to the false teachings.  It’s also possible that these conclusions are the end result of historical-critical scholarship always revising accepted opinions.

Finally, and most strangely, while discussing Article IV (Good Works), Wengert writes, “Andreae is so adamant about this that he does something very unusual for the Epitome.  He quotes the Scripture. Whereas the Solid Declaration is filled with discussions of Scripture passages and citations of Luther’s sources, the Epitome, true to its name, gives a Reader’s Digest version with few frills” (71).  I’m not sure what Wengert means here.  A quick glance over the Epitome, as reproduced in Wengert’s book, finds that in nine out of twelve articles passages of Scripture are directly quoted, and that forty-seven times!  The concordists averaged almost four quotes per article (and over five where they did do that quoting). Articles V, VII, and IX do not contain direct quotations, although Article V has parenthetical references to passages. Article XII lists extra-Lutheran errors that the concordists did not wish to have called “Lutheran,” so no Scripture quotations make sense. In other words, in the Epitome, it’s very unusual when the Scriptures are not directly quoted.

Balancing the pros with the cons, we discover that perhaps we cannot add A Formula for Parish Practice to the “read it every year” pile. The author evidences too many liberal Lutheran tendencies to so enshrine this book. It remains no doubt helpful, however, if only because Wengert successfully proves that the Formula (and the Book of Concord as a whole) is not just historical theology, but practical and pastoral theology.  To know the Formula, to live the Formula, is to do theology as a habitus practicus.  This volume supplements Bente’s history and the historical introductions found in existing editions of the Book of Concord well (and for layman, this may be the first such history they read).  In addition, Wengert throws in many good, Biblical insights. With the above listed cautions, I could give this book to any member of my congregation.