Boots with a Rifle

I’m guessing some of you may be as exhausted by winter’s burden as I am. It’s right about this time every year that I begin calling out to the heavens, “I can’t take it anymore. Enough, already!” The ever-overcast sky ensures bitter coldness wrapped in seemingly perpetual darkness; these things make much of what we must endure as humans that much harder.

There are other moments in life when this phrase seems appropriate, moments when our thresholds have been met and exceeded, causing us to wash our hands clean of the situation. This happened to me recently in connection with the new edition of Luther’s Large Catechism printed by Concordia Publishing House, my Synod’s official publisher. The latest edition is subtitled “with Annotations and Contemporary Applications.” Much of the controversy concerns particular contributors and various applications relevant to current issues made throughout. Thankfully, our Synod’s president, Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, halted the book’s printing to investigate the concerns being raised by critical readers. I did not criticize the volume publicly, but I had my concerns. Did I actually read the book? Much of it, yes. I was provided a PDF copy. A few days later, President Harrison returned the book to the presses.

Staying out of the controversy (primarily because I’m far too busy with my studies right now), I posted a quick note on social media:

“I’ve read quite a bit of this volume in PDF form, notes and all. I’m glad this has been resolved. Bishop Matt Harrison handled it well. Admittedly, I still struggle to fathom Steven Paulson’s inclusion as a contributor. I can guess why he was brought into the project. Nevertheless, including him here encourages trusting him elsewhere. I fear that’s something we’re going to regret. My two cents…as useless as they might be.”

I deleted the post two days later. Here’s why.

I received two private messages asking why I was concerned with Steven Paulson as a contributor. Short on time, I wrote, copied, and pasted a reply to both:

“Not just Paulson. Some of the commentaries use language betraying woke infection. This edition clearly shows that some nasty things have infiltrated the LCMS. But you asked about Paulson. He has dangerous theology. You might think I’m repeating talking points from others, but I’m not. I’ve read Paulson. He firmly believes Christ had sins of His own. He denies the vicarious atonement. And these are just a few of the things that make him dangerous. I think it’s a bad idea to include folks like him because what they write serves as a breadcrumb trail back to their tragic theologies. I think people will read Paulson’s essay—which, admittedly, is well done—and then they’ll travel outside the volume to discover him elsewhere. When they do, the problem will become exacerbated because the words he used among us, which seem fine, do not mean the same things within the context of his own theological world. The volume “Justification and Rome” by Robert Preus comes to mind. Rome and Lutheranism used the same words, but with far different meanings, so we remain divided. Including Paulson, we have established a platform of trust in him as an expert with some pretty crucial things. In other words, we’re essentially saying, “If we consider him an authority, you should, too.” I think this is dangerous. Again, my two cents. Take the two pennies I offer or leave them.”

I only received one reply, and it was telling. He didn’t debate my concern but teetered at the edge of ad hominem, asking, “You have guys like Charlie Kirk and Dinesh D’Souza endorsing your books. How do you justify that and still criticize the new LC?”

Do I really need to explain the difference? First of all, CPH—the official, doctrinally-monitored publishing house for my Synod—did not publish my books. Secondly, they’re not all theological. Thirdly, an endorsement is not content contribution. I do not let Charlie Kirk or Dinesh D’Souza contribute essays to my books interpreting my meaning. They are readers, just like everyone else. In short, if Charlie or Dinesh like what I’ve written, they’ll say as much and endorse it. But in the end, the breadcrumbs in my writings are leading folks from their spheres to mine. That’s how endorsements work. Essays and annotations are far different. They interpret, explain, and apply. They’re catechetical. They reverse the trail’s direction. In this new authoritative volume, Paulson (and other commentators) are propped up in ways that lead our people into their theological spheres of influence—and relative to our confessional documents, no less. In my opinion, this is a dangerous move on an already slippery slope. I don’t see any reason to include them, especially when we have hundreds of capable writers in the LCMS who could have done the job and probably far better.

I have my suspicions as to why folks like Paulson were included. I’ve attempted to confirm these suspicions through direct dialogue. I have nothing to show for it.

So, I deleted that original comment, primarily because, while I understand why my Synod’s president did what he did, I remain bothered. The private messages demanding that I recant the Paulson concerns became an “Enough already!” moment that drove me to wash my hands of the volume’s benefit and walk away from it entirely. I suppose the only benefit to the private interactions was the opportunity to reflect and then put handles on my concerns, and by doing so, to realize that my social media post might enigmatically lead people to a publication I have no intention of buying or using.

That being said, you do what you want with it. It’s in print and available. If you do, think about a few things. Firstly, read it critically. Pay attention to the details—the speech’s seasonings. Secondly, when folks go on the offensive against the volume’s critics, weigh the reasons for and the arguments inherent to their attack. Are they one of the book’s contributors? Are the ones raising concerns being accosted for this or that ad hominem reason? Are they being accosted because what they’re saying is embarrassingly accurate? Remember, many of the critics are pastors. They’re in the trenches using these materials. They’re the ones who have to match the so-called “contemporary applications” with what’s actually happening in the world around them. With that, it certainly seems they have a right to share their concerns with their commanding officers.

Remember one more thing. There’s truth to the saying that soldiers win the war while the generals win the credit. If you can, watch “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I just finished watching the 2022 version on Netflix over several days. As you do, pay close attention to the character Paul. You’ll see him change from a wide-eyed, do-whatever-I’m-told participant (in what is later learned are little more than his commander’s personal pursuits) to a dreadfully burdened soldier who discovers the reality of war while losing everything left of his own will—his own ability to discern right from wrong—because he’s continually pressed to blindly accept and do terrible things that he shouldn’t. In particular, pay close attention to the dialogue around the 1 hour and 40 minutes mark. You’ll hear Paul finally confess to his friend Kat the trajectory of his confused hopelessness. But then you’ll hear Kat reply, “What do I know? I know nothing. I’m a pair of boots with a rifle.” Kat has already been entirely crushed by his commanding officers’ demands for discussion-less obedience, and he can do nothing to help Paul know why he fights or, perhaps worse, what’s truly at stake if they lose.

You are more than boots with a rifle. You are a discerning, thinking Christian. You are the soldiers that win or lose the war. Order is important. Rank is helpful. Respect in between is Godly. Still, I’ve written in other places that history continues to prove all too often that the cause of honor has always been an easily tradeable amenity to people in seats of authority. But for the rest of us in the trenches—the war zones, the places where the ideologies take shape, where they become flurrying bullets peppering our defenses and shattering the lives of real human beings—honor for the cause remains a requisite. A clear-sighted grasp of our identity and cause must dwell in the camps of the soldiery. Without it, loss is inevitable. And while the generals share after-battle drinks at the club, all agreeing that some efforts to take ground must be fought and others must be conceded, the reality is that if the soldiers ultimately lose the war, those generals will end up in shackles, too. The boots with the rifles hold the line. Pray. Discern. Hold the line.