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Reading Old Books

Today is the birthday of Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586). Known as the “Second Martin” Chemnitz helped to bring order to the Lutheran Church following the death of Martin Luther in 1546. The Treasury of Daily Prayer describes him this way, “Chemnitz combined a penetrating intellect and an in almost encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and the Church Fathers with a genuine love for the Church.” The “Second Martin” was the principal author of the Formula of Concord, one of our Lutheran Confessional documents, which helped settle a number of disputes that arose in the latter half of the 16th century.

Recognizing that this is Martin Chemnitz’s birthday I pulled one of his books from my shelf: Ministry, Word and Sacraments: An Enchiridion. I was given this text by the late Rev’d Walter Carlson, who contended for the Faith against heretical teaching here in Central Pennsylvania in the last quarter of the 20th century. In some ways Carlson gave his life to the fight.

Ministry, Word and Sacraments is a small handbook written by Chemnitz that serves as a summary of what pastors are supposed to do and be. It is wonderfully practical and rooted, as Chemnitz always was, deeply in scripture. It is one of the most significant books on my shelf as a pastor, but here is the thing: I did not read it until I was into my first year of ministry in the parish. Some might say, “better late than never,” but I was angry when I finished the book. Why? Because a book like this, written in 1593 by one of the church’s greatest theologians and teachers, was never on the reading list at my seminary (instead we had plenty of Neo-Marxist Liberation Theology with Gustavo Gutiérrez and friends). When I finished Chemnitz's work, from which I learned so much about being a pastor, I knew there were some serious gaps in my education as a Lutheran pastor. I knew I needed to take steps to fill the gaps.

What kind of Lutheran seminary does not have pastoral candidates read Martin Chemnitz or other church fathers? One not worth going to if one wants to be a faithful Lutheran pastor. This speaks ultimately to the purpose of the Office of holy ministry (the pastorate). If a seminary is seeking to produce biblically trained, orthodox, faithful pastors they will be reading and studying old books. If a seminary is seeking to produce religious “community activists” then they will be reading the latest approved books by the prevailing culture. Pro-tip: “religious community activists” destroy churches.

“For every new book (20th and 21st Centuries) you read, you should read two old books (19th century and before).” I don’t know who said it or wrote it, but there is wisdom to this quote. I think this is especially true in our own day and age when so much seems to be temporary or transient. We need to be reading and studying the things that last to the glory of God.


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