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Story Magazine

First Quarter 2003

The words are not alone: Biblical preaching and worship at Luther Seminary

by Dr. David L. Tiede

In the listening processes leading to our strategic plan, people all over the church identified preaching as the most important strength they expected from Luther Seminary. The more astute emphasized biblical preaching. Pastors and a few lay leaders went all the way to biblical preaching and worship!

To accomplish this work the church needs from us, we need four kinds of help from you.

1.  We need faculty.We are blessed with one of the finest biblical faculties in the world. Looking ahead,we are facing a succession in faculty leadership in both preaching and worship. Can you help us find the leaders to call to this work? Our faculty is also beginning a consultation on the future of worship.We will be inviting your counsel.

2. We need financial support.We must raise 45 percent of our budget every year from gifts and grants.We are grateful for the investments so many of you have made in current support and in estate gifts. Perhaps you can help us build endowments for biblical preaching and worship, or assist us in finding those who can.

3.  We need seminarians. The Apostle asks, "How will they hear without a preacher?" Please send us the women and men with the gifts and commitments to be the next generation of biblical preachers and worship leaders. And pray for them. You know well, this is challenging work.

4.  With you we also need to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.


What does it mean to be Luther Seminary at worship in an apostolic era of the church? What is the public "case" the tradition makes in its public worship?

Let me offer four convictions that undergird our witness. None is sectarian or uniquely Lutheran. But these are basic to our tradition, even distinctive in our confession. All are dynamic in their witness to the mission of the living God in a world of many cultures and religions. Together they point toward the future of biblical preaching and worship at Luther Seminary.

The convictions are simple to state because our theological tradition is clear.

I. The Scriptures bear Christ to us.
II. God loves sinners.
III. God loves the world.
IV. The words are not alone.

Scriptures bear Christ to us Biblical scholarship is at the heart of Christian leadership. Maybe the word should be simply "Bible study." Not everyone will be a scholar like Professor of Old Testament Terence Fretheim. But I use the term "biblical scholarship" because at Luther Seminary we conscript our scholarship to the service of missional leadership.

Our interpretation serves the gospel of Jesus Christ. When you hear our faculty preach or read Fretheim's passionate exposition of the suffering of Israel's God, you get it.

Biblical scholarship is also the right word because our graduates, ordained and lay, will be Christian rabbis in thousands of missional communities, turning enclaves outside of themselves,leading God's people wisely into the story.


Biblical Preaching and Worship are counter cultural. The Christian community knows about sin, death and the power of the devil.

Christian communities turned in on themselves don't really want biblical preaching and worship, because God's love of sinners may at first insult them. "Those who are well," said our Lord, "have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." 

Justification by faith is not a right or a human dogma to be enforced. It is the work of God, over, against and in spite of our sin. It calls the church to repentance, to turning toward God and God's love for outsiders. It breaks open the enclave, pressing the Christian assembly beyond itself to new neighbors. God has brought the world of many cultures and religions to our door. The mission is here.

God's love for sinners gives the church a whole world in which to serve. All who enter and leave the worship assembly are sinners, now also saints in the mercy of God. We have unity with all people, especially those in trouble, in sorrow, in addictions, in painful family systems. That's a lot of people.  Justification is the great under-developed Lutheran conviction for church growth.  God's love for sinners is embodied in communities of compassion. Whatever else the Lutheran tradition advocates, may its faith be anchored in the conviction that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."  We never get beyond that!


Some of our friends have wondered if all of our talk about "mission" at Luther Seminary means we are abandoning our Lutheran identity. We think not! But this work must be disciplined by our confession, and our public worship too!  We live in the era of the decline of Christendom, i.e.: the legal and cultural privilege of the church in Europe and North America is past. We also live in the time of the rise of world Christianity, i.e.: the new majority of Christians in the world comes from the southern hemisphere.  The old worship wars are bankrupt and self-defeating. Contemporary and traditional worship traditions alike must be judged by their capacity to bear Christ. Lutheran worship is not merely the perpetuation of European practices. The Lutheran churches of Africa and Asia point us again to our apostolic confession. Lutheran preaching and worship communicate the missionary convictions of the gospel, God loves sinners and God loves the world.


Some people have thought I intended to take a jab at the "Word Alone" movement by my title, "The Words are Not Alone, Biblical Preaching and Worship at Luther Seminary." No, I share their deep commitment to the rallying cries of the Reformation: Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone,Word Alone. But even in the polemical debates where these watch words scored their points, then and now, "Word Alone" always meant "Word and Sacrament," spoken and physical word. Thus the Lutheran Reformation never reduced the gospel to mere words. The theology of the cross testifies to the palpable incarnation. As W.H. Auden once said, "Only the unscarred and overfed enjoy Calvary as a verbal event." This is also the basis for Lutheran love of art, architecture and music-- Gregorian chants, Bach's chorales, the motets of Sch৘tz, the college choirs and the folk hymns of John Ylvisaker.We love it all, accompanied by organs, orchestras, folk instruments and percussion. Have you noticed the spectacular modification which Anton Armstrong has brought to the Christiansen tradition at St. Olaf? The missionary hymns have come back from Africa and the Caribbean with rhythm. As our Professor of Church Music Paul Westermeyer declares, "The job of the church musician is to help the people of God sing." Our musical heritage is not stingy or pinched, but we want the music to be alive, the choruses harmonic and God's praise to be melodic.

The words are not alone because this is a love story. God loves sinners, and the Messiah touches the outcasts. The compassion of God is not an abstraction, but an embodied practice.
The children sit in the pastor's lap and the hospice nurse teaches the Stephen Ministers to hold the hands f the dying and sing to them. The liquid words of the water pour over the uncomprehending infant, and the Alzheimer patient still extends his tongue to receive the Lord's Supper.  And the faithful bear these words, spoken and visible, to the world in need. As Martin Luther confessed, "God's Word is never without God's people."

Because God loves sinners and because God loves the world, the words are not alone. We are hopeful for biblical preaching and worship at Luther Seminary. The conflicts can be fierce here, too, but this seminary is a window into a vital tradition, and we are equipping leaders for an era of apostolic mission because God's love for sinners and the world is a mission worthy of praise.

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