Monday, July 23, 2007

Defining Don Matzat

The July 23rd issue of Christian News gave two thirds of a page to Don Matzat’s assault on the Lutheran Service Book Agenda, entitled "Defining the Center". It was a diatribe critical of one sentence on the first page of the overview of the Agenda. It reads, "Baptism is at the center of the Christian faith and life." While it is not likely anyone would take this critique seriously, little errors sometimes grow into huge problems if not addressed, so this unfortunate commentary begs a response.

First, I carry no agenda for the LSB. I am a dyed in the wool TLH sort of guy, and I have no plans to use the LSB, so I am not defending it out of devotion to the product. The attack, however, is classic liberalism and in and of itself false doctrine. This does not surprise, considering the author. Don Matzat is a former charismatic, former conservative, recently connected to Jesus First, who lately defended the gross unionism of Yankee Stadium and aggressively advanced the un-Christian notion that Muslims and Christians worshipped the same God. When Pastor Matzat asked the question: "If I reject that statement, am I still an orthodox Lutheran?", one was tempted to respond, "What ever do you mean by ‘still’?" You haven’t been orthodox in a long time, sir.

Rev. Matzat declares that offending sentence is "false doctrine". It appears from his article that the charge might be maintained if one defined their terms carefully and idiosyncratically enough. Matzat doesn’t do that, however. He simply states as fact things which he does not illustrate or support, and appears to have a unique personal understanding of several concepts over which he is anguishing.

For example, he asserts that Lutheran theologians have always taught a distinction between the baptism of infants and the baptism of adults. He does not clearly articulate the distinction of which he writes. Presumably the distinction is, as he asserts, "Baptism is simply adult confirmation." One would want to see the quotes supporting that distinction which "Lutheran theologians have always properly taught". Matzat doesn’t provide them. Even the single source he references a few paragraphs later speaks of adult baptism, according to Rev. Matzat’s own summary, as sealing, confirming, and increasing the redemption and regeneration wrought by the Gospel. It would appear from his own source to be something more than "simply adult confirmation".

Lutheran theologians of the past have spoken with greater respect for Baptism. Chemnitz, in his Loci Theologici, refers to Baptism as the "ordinary means" of regeneration "But Baptism is the regular [or ordinary; ordinarium] means, that is, "the washing of regeneration," Titus 3:5, so that those who are born of the flesh and were not in the kingdom of heaven might be born again of water and the Spirit and thus enter the kingdom of heaven, John 3:5. For they are "baptized for the remission of sins," Acts 2:38, in order that the sins in which they were born might be washed away, Acts 22:16, and that they might be cleansed and saved by God through the washing of regeneration, Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5."1 Pieper says, "Baptism, then, involves the establishment of a covenant of grace between God and the person baptized."2 "Scripture has decided this question. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper certainly do belong to the foundation of the Christian faith, together with the Word of the Gospel, for Baptism is given "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38), and in the Lord’s Supper Christ’s body and blood are imparted as "given for you" and "shed for you for the remission of sins" (Luke 22:19 ff.; Matt. 26:26 ff.). The promise and offer of the forgiveness of sins, which is the foundation of faith, is contained also in the Sacraments."3

Elert says, "Baptism is the basic and crucial event which makes a new man out of the old, and so regarded it is the event of an individual. Its purpose, however, is not private or isolated. By Baptism we are drawn into the death and resurrection of Christ and so out of the domain of enemy powers, above all out of the domain of the Law into the freedom of that kingdom where Christ is Lord. These thoughts are developed by Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechetical instruction of the newly baptized, and he finds in them the basis for the renunciation of the devil effected in Baptism as also for the koinonia of the baptized with the suffering and death of Christ. Now Paul also describes the relationship with Christ which we enter through Baptism by saying that we are baptized in one Spirit into one body, and he derives from this the organic relationship of the members of the body of Christ also with one another (1 Cor. 12:12 ff.). Through Baptism we become not only saints but also "holy brothers" (Heb. 3:1). All Christians share the same sonship, and Christ is "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8:29). Both the common bond of the ethos of an organized congregation, by which the church separates itself from its unholy surroundings, and specifically also its brotherhood rest on the fact that its koinonia is a baptismal fellowship."4 These descriptions certainly appear to go beyond "simply adult confirmation".

Matzat also declares that Baptism is not absolutely necessary. While he quotes Pieper on this point, he makes more of issue than is warranted. He appears to suggest that Baptism is not really necessary, and brings Pieper in to play seemingly ignoring the context of the quote. Franz Pieper did not argue that Baptism was not necessary, he argued that where Baptism was not possible, there Baptism is not absolutely necessary. "Whoever, therefore, comes to faith in the Gospel, has remission of sins and salvation, even though circumstances prevent his being baptized."5 (emphasis mine) It is disingenuous to argue that because one might in extreme circumstances stand in God’s grace and favor without Baptism, that Baptism is therefore not truly necessary and so not at the center of Christian faith and life.

First, "at the center" does not mean it is the center, just central, connected to the center. One has to reject the Augsburg Confession to arrive at the point Rev. Matzat seems to be making, denying its importance. View article IX: "Our churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation, that the grace of God is offered through Baptism, and that children should be baptized, for being offered to God through Baptism they are received into his grace.

"Our churches condemn the Anabaptists who reject the Baptism of children and declare that children are saved without Baptism."6

We also confess that those who are not baptized are lost: Article II. OF THE AC, [ORIGINAL SIN] "Our churches also teach that since the fall of Adam all men who are propagated according to nature are born in sin. That is to say, they are without fear of God, are without trust in God, and are concupiscent. And this disease or vice of origin is truly sin, which even now damns and brings eternal death on those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit."7 (emphasis mine)

The truly regrettable element of Matzat’s article, however, is the apparent contrasting of Christ and His work, and holy Baptism. He appears to present Baptism as a work we accomplish, which is to be understood as separate from and at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I cannot address the possible errors of thinking in the mind of that seminary field-worker from so many years ago whom Matzat references as apparent justification for this concept, I have no experience with any Lutheran teaching Baptism as saving ex opera operato or effective in distinction from and contrast to the work of Christ. The notion that we should "remember our baptism" is thoroughly Lutheran. It comes from an honest reading of the Small Catechism, on Baptism, part four; "What does such baptizing with water signify?
"Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God’s presence.
"Where is this written?
Answer: In Romans 6:4, St. Paul wrote, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." 8

Pieper clearly teaches the same idea as the Catechism, "Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs that continually admonish, cheer, and encourage desponding minds to believe the more firmly that sins are forgiven,"9 Or, lest one think that one need "cherry-pick" their Pieper citations, "Though administered only once, Baptism is to be used by Christians throughout their whole life. Nowhere do the Apostles call on Christians to repeat Baptism; however, they frequently recall to their minds the Baptism once received. This reminder is intended both for consolation and for admonition."10

When Matzat suggests that this phrase is in error or leads to "putting at risk the eternal salvation of our people" he is simply not dealing honestly with the theology he is confronting.

Baptism rests on the work of Christ, and connects us to the work of Christ, making us part of the body of Christ. If Christ is the center, Baptism is at the center for the Christian because Baptism initiates our relationship with Christ, being "baptized into Christ" and "putting on Christ" and being "baptized into His death". Walther quotes Luther: "It has been determined that God will not create any Christians unless they are baptized and called by the Gospel. He desires that all who are called Christians should be separated from the world by the Gospel and Baptism."11 The strange notion that we preach might preach "Law and Baptism" rather than "Law and Gospel" suggests that the Baptism is excluded from the Gospel, or offers something other than the Gospel. It is true, or ought to be, that we preach Christ. It should also be true that we preach Baptism, since Baptism is the ordinary means for becoming a Christian and being made part of the Church, and connects us to Christ and His work, whether we are adults or children.

Luther stresses what a precious thing Baptism is, and does not appear to distinguish between adult and infant when expressing the power or majesty of Baptism, as follows:

"This passage must be studied carefully, in opposition to the fanatical spirits who minimize the majesty of Baptism and speak wickedly about it. Paul, by contrast, adorns Baptism with magnificent titles when he calls it ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5). And here he says that all who have been baptized have put on Christ. Now, as I have said, Paul is speaking about a ‘putting on,’ not by imitation but by birth. He does not say: ‘Through Baptism you have received a token by which you have been enlisted in the number of the Christians’ ; this is what the sectarians imagine when they make of Baptism merely a token, that is, a small and empty sign. But he says: ‘As many of you as have been baptized have put on Christ.’ That is: ‘You have been snatched beyond the Law into a new birth that took place in Baptism. Therefore you are no longer under the Law, but you have been dressed in a new garment, that is, in the righteousness of Christ.’ Therefore Paul teaches that Baptism is not a sign but the garment of Christ, in fact, that Christ Himself is our garment. Hence Baptism is a very powerful and effective thing. For when we have put on Christ, the garment of our righteousness and salvation, then we also put on Christ, the garment of imitation."12

Baptism also has a place in the life of Christians daily. Hear Melancthon: "Therefore when the baptized person learns the doctrine, he should exercise his faith [and] believe that he truly is received by God for the sake of Christ and is sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Baptism is to be used in this way throughout life. It should daily remind us: Behold, by this sign God testified that you have been received into grace. He does not want this testimony to be despised. Therefore you should believe that you have truly been received and you should call upon Him in this faith. This is the constant use of Baptism."13 Or listen to Walther again, this time at the end of Lecture 34 in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: "When a person has fallen from his faith and baptismal grace, we do not tell him to construct a new ship for himself in which to continue his voyage to heaven, but to return to his faith in Baptism, which is a covenant that remains unshaken, because God does not cancel the word of promise which He has pledged to the baptized. The renegade, who has come to the knowledge of his fall and is penitent has nothing else to do than to cling to God’s promise given him at his baptism, and to rest assured that, since by Baptism he was made a child of God and has now been quickened out of mortal sins, he can rest assured that he will not perish."14

Luther also addresses how we should continue to make use of our Baptism, particularly in the context of those who might try to put their Baptisms behind them, so to speak:

"Those who presume to blot out and put away their sin by "satisfaction" are the same sort of people. They go so far as to disregard their baptism, as if they had no more need of it beyond the fact of having once been baptized. They do not know that baptism is in force all through life, even until death, yes (as said above) even to the Last Day. For this reason they presume to find some other way of blotting out sin, namely, by works. So for themselves and for all others, they create evil, terrified, and uncertain consciences, and despair at the hour of death. They do not know how they stand with God, thinking that by sin they have now lost their baptism and that it profits them no more.
Guard yourself, by all means, against this error. For as has been said, if anyone has fallen into sin, he should all the more remember his baptism, how God has here made a covenant with him to forgive all his sins, if only he will fight against them even until death. Upon this truth, upon this alliance with God, a man must joyfully dare to rely. Then baptism again goes into force and operation. Then his heart again becomes peaceful and glad, not in his own works or "satisfaction," but in the mercy of God promised to him in baptism, a mercy which God will keep forever. This faith a person must hold so firmly that he would cling to it even though everything and all sins attacked him. For he who lets himself be forced away from this faith makes God a liar in his promise in the sacrament of baptism." 15

Or Pieper (again): "Though administered only once, Baptism is to be used by Christians throughout their whole life. Nowhere do the Apostles call on Christians to repeat Baptism; however, they frequently recall to their minds the Baptism once received. This reminder is intended both for consolation and for admonition. In Gal. 3:26-27 Paul reminds the Christians that by their Baptism they put on Christ, that is, became God’s children, without the Law, by faith in Christ. In Rom. 6:3 ff. Paul employs Baptism for admonition, instructing Christians that by their Baptism they have become dead unto sin, but alive unto righteousness. Peter strikingly sets forth the consolation of Baptism. He says (1 Pet. 3:21) that as Noah and his family were saved by the water of the Flood, even so the water of Baptism now saves us, and the reason he gives is that Baptism is ‘not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the covenant of a good conscience toward God.’ Baptism, then, involves the establishment of a covenant of grace between God and the person baptized. With good reason, therefore, the daily repentance of Christians is called a daily return to Baptism, or to the covenant of Baptism, inasmuch as the believers daily confess their transgressions, by faith seize the remission of sins guaranteed by Baptism, and, thus consoled, strive for fruits worthy of repentance in a new life."16

Matzat sets two truths of the Christian faith at odds with one another, contrasting and dividing them. He sets up a straw man, and knocks it down. He seems to actually acknowledge this problem when he complains that he cannot file a complaint with the Commission on Doctrinal review, having been told by the Chairman of the Commission that "no one would agree with [him]". He addresses this rejection as demonstrating the need for theological discussion as though if one individual departs from sound doctrine their departure illustrates the need for further theological debate. Sometimes, however, departure from sound doctrine is just another example of a pattern in that individual’s life

1 Chemnitz, Martin, and Jacob A. O. Preus. Loci Theologici. electronic ed. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1989, p. 728.

2 Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953, Vol. III, p. 276.

3 Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953, Vol. I, p. 86.

4 Elert, Werner. Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries. electronic ed. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1966.

5 Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953, Vol. III, p. 280.

6 Tappert, Theodore G. The Augsburg Confession : Translated from the Latin. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959.

7 Tappert, Theodore G. The Augsburg Confession : Translated from the Latin. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959.

8 Tappert, Theodore G. The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959.

9 Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. electronic ed. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953.

10 Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953, p. 275.

11 Walther, C.F.W. Church and Ministry : Witness of the Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Question of the Church and the Ministry. Tranlsation of: Die Stimme Unserer Kirche in Der Frage Von Kirche Und Amt. electronic ed. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1987.

12 Luther, Martin. Vol. 26, Luther's Works, Vol. 26 : Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann. Luther's Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1963.

13 Chemnitz, Martin, and Jacob A. O. Preus. Loci Theologici. electronic ed. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1989.

14 Walther, Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm, William Herman Theodore Dau, and Ernest Eckhardt. The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel : 39 Evening Lectures. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, c1929, p. 360.

15 Luther, Martin. Vol. 35, Luther's Works, Vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1960, p. 36.

16 Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953, p. 275-276.


Darren E. said...

Having read Matzat's article "Defining the Center" and as someone who knows the man personally for more than a decade, I have some contention with Fish's criticism.

First, it should be noted any attempt to put Matzat in the category of unorthodox concerning baptism borders on slander. An ex-charismatic/evangelical myself, it is precisely because of Don Matzat that I was able to finally understand the value and mystery and importance of Baptism. In particular, Infant Baptism. It is because of Matzat that I was able to recognize 'decision theology' for what it is and reject it thoroughly. It is Matzat who defended infant baptism to me personally as a non-negotiable and settled doctrine. And now, thanks to his help I am one of its fiercest defenders having come to embrace my own infant baptism and reject my so-called 'believers baptism' of my charismatic days.

Fish fails to put Matzat's comments into the full context of his complaint. Not only is Matzat contending with the issue of the Agenda, but it is with the undeniable suggestion that pastors within the LCMS resort to comforting people by telling them to 'remember their baptism' rather than to remember that Christ shed his blood for you on the Cross. Fish makes much of the word 'central' versus 'the center'. But when the Agenda is taken along with this current trend of 'Remember Your Baptism' advocacy, Matzat's criticism holds weight.

Matzat's contention is that it is the Person and Work of Christ that give Baptism (whether infant or adult) its power. When you teach adults to focus on something that happened 'to them' rather than something that 'happened to Jesus outside of them' you in essence are denying the objective justification that are central to our Confessional statements.

What comfort do I derive from being told to 'remember my baptism' when I am in the terrors of sin if I do not understand the Person and Work of Christ 'extra nos'? Luther certainly did understand it, and it informs all of his statements on the issue. The same can't possibly be said of the general laity in LCMS churches.

I've been in quite a few LCMS churches where pastors have preached more from Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" than they are preaching Christ. In such a church where the congregation is not being given a clear presentation of the Gospel, what does telling them to 'remember their baptism' do aside from creating false security and stony legalism?

What Fish has done is render an incomplete and therefore unfair representation of Matzat's feelings on Baptism. So, to broad-brush him as 'unorthodox' simply because you have something stuck in your craw regarding the man, or are like others still sour over the Benke case, boarders precariously on breaking the commandment not to bear false witness against each other.

This is an important issue and those critical of the 'Remember Your Baptism' position deserve a fair hearing.

Cuda said...

Thanks for your thoughts.

Your clarifications of Matzat's theology accomplishes what Rev. Matzat did not.

By the way, the judgment that I hold issues with the man, when I addressed his theology, actually does violate the eighth commandment.

But leaving that side, my concern was with the strange notion that telling Christians to remember their Baptism is wrong. I illustrated that Luther, et al., taught the same thing.

I have never met any Lutheran who taught Baptism absent Christ and His saving work. If there are such, they are clearly wrong, but I don't find attacking theoretical enemies (setting up straw men just to knock them down) a worthwhile activity.

I am happy you have such a warm personal history with Rev. Matzat. I mentioned the details of his history that I did, only to indicate that he has demonstrated a tendency to shift his theological position. That cited history is not the reason I responded to his article. False theology was.

And, if you can lightly brush aside the gross unionism of worship with those who reject Christ, as was done in Yankee Stadium, with the facile charge of being "still sour over the Benke case", then I suspect your are not equipped to do anything other than throw stones because someone has criticized a friend. You clearly cannot comprehend the critique offered.

I also do not defend everything that is done in any and every LCMS congregation. There are a great number of those who ignore truth, and doctrine and do whatever strikes their fancy. They are wrong - just as the idea that Adult Baptism and Infant Baptism are two different things is wrong. Both are Baptism, and both work the same thing. Error is error, and we should oppose it. Matzat was in error. That was my point.

Darren E. said...


I don't know how long ago you responded to my initial comment, but on a lark decided to check in. So, forgive the late response.

When you refer to having "not met any Lutheran who taught Baptism absent Christ and his saving work", I have to believe you are referring to Lutheran pastors as opposed to laity. As you'll note from my previous post, I've been present in LCMS congregations where the Gospel is barely recognizable from the pulpit. If Rick Warren can be considered orthodox, I'm a monkey's uncle. That is not a "theoretical enemy". It matters not whether a pastor understands the doctrine if he can't communicate it clearly.

That aside, it's not just in what is preached but how baptism is understood by those who hear the message. Case in point, when Don Matzat took over pastoring Messiah Lutheran in St. Louis following in the footsteps of a highly respected conservative (to use your words) pastor, one longtime stalwart member said they were saved because they obeyed the 10 commandments! Did the former pastor fail to do his job? How is it possible that a person who sits years under the same pastor’s clear teaching of the Gospel come up with such a belief? I challenge you to go into any congregation and ask members how they know they’re saved. I bet you’ll be surprised at the results! What a person hears can be often quite different than what is preached from the pulpit. This false sense of security is Matzat's concern. Namely that by focusing on "remember your baptism" to adult believers can easily slip into legalism. I'm saved because I'm baptized! Rather than I'm saved because of Christ.

Your criticism of Matzat's separation of Infant versus Adult Baptism is unwarranted since our own Dr. Luther devoted an entire subsection of the catechism to the Baptism of Infants. It is more appropriately a ‘distinction’ not a ‘separation’. Matzat would agree with that statement. Surely you would agree that Luther had to defend the specific practice against the Anabaptists just as we do today!

On the issue of Matzat’s supposed false theology, I question your accusation. It wasn't just Matzat, for instance, who was led into the charismatic error at one time. It is unfair to accuse him of unorthodoxy for positions once held, then continue to condemn him after those views are repudiated, and even now are ones he fights vigorously to protect the church against.

And I wouldn't be so quick to try and dismiss my reference to the Benke case as a lack of understanding blinded by friendship. That’s an easy excuse. I am quite familiar with the case and hold with the LCMS decision that Shulz was wrong. If 9/11 doesn't amount to a "once in a lifetime" situation covered by Resolution 3-07A and that was given prior permission by President Kieschnick, than nothing on earth does. The fact that you still refer to this event as "gross unionism" demonstrates that you disagree with the final decision of the case and, one might fairly say, are still “sour” about it. My defense of a friend has nothing to do with my feelings on the matter.

I will be happy to continue the debate, but since I don’t keep tabs on your blog and it doesn’t send me updates to postings, you may reach me at

Thank you.

Unknown said...

I would be cautious of any teaching of Don Matzat. I sat under his teaching/preaching back in his charismatic days. After several years of passionately teaching groups of LCMS lutherans to move into the "charismatic"realms he suddenly did an about face and left a lot of us confused and hurting. When approached about his "changes" he became difficult to reach and uncommunicative. He gets very passionate about whatever his current belief is but isn't so good about follow up. Thankfully after some years of confusion I have learned to let the Holy Spirit guide me in understanding His Word and keep the teachings/traditions/doctrines of men and churches at arms length.