Sedes Doctrinae: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Previous generations of pastors and theologians did theology by sedes doctrinae, that is, they found passages in Scripture that supported or negated a particular doctrine and referred to these “seats of doctrine” in theological discourse and in teaching. The Catechism contains many sedes doctrinae, especially the Synodical portion of the Catechism with the questions and answers. A doctrinal statement is made, followed up by four, five, six or more passages from the Bible that support that doctrinal statement.

In recent years, there seems to have developed among Lutheran theologians of the confessional sort a distaste for this manner of doing theology and of teaching. The criticism, so it would seem, is that Christianity ends up getting divided up into a bunch of doctrines, none of which are really connected, and the Christological center of theology is lost. More emphasis today is placed on the Bible narratives rather than isolated proof passages, and pastors (including myself) attempt to draw people into the Biblical story more, and helping people see how this or that doctrine is related to the doctrine of Christ, the Sacraments, the Church, etc. This seems to be more of a patristic approach to Biblical teaching.

I think there is some merit to the criticism, because there does seem to be a disconnect, especially in the minds of some older Lutherans, between doctrine and Christ, if that is even possible. And I think that in large part this is one of our problems with how our people view worship. But that is another topic for a different post. If doctrine is not seen as integrally related and flowing from the Person and Work of Christ, then you end up with a doctrinally conservative, but Christ-less Christianity!

Having said that, I think we should be cautious, and before we completely do away with the sedes doctrinae method of theology should make sure we are not throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I think there is still much value in this approach, especially for the common people. I still use the Synodical Catechism, supplementing it with my own narrative approach to catechesis.

I think we need to approach Catechesis from both sides. On the one hand, we should preach the Scriptures, the Biblical Narratives, to the people and from these narratives preach Christ. On the other hand, the people need to be able to have an organized understanding of Christian doctrine.

Luther suggested doing this with children (I did this for VBS one year and it worked great!): on a chart, make two headings: Faith and Love. Under the heading “Faith” place two pouches, one for Sin and one for Grace; Under the heading of Love place two more pouches: one for good works, and another for bearing the cross. Note: this is a rough paraphrase of Luther’s suggestions. Actual instructions are found in Vol. 53 of the American Edition, page 66. Then have the children bring home Scripture passages from the sermon and teach them under which heading that verse should fall.

By doing this, says Luther, “…we would have a wealth of Christian people whose souls would be so enriched in Scripture and in the knowledge of God that of their own accord they woudl add more pockets, just as the Loci Communes, and comprehend all Scripture in them. Otherwise, people can go to church daily and come away the same as they went. For they think they need only listen at the time, without any thought of learning or remembering anything…” (p. 67).

The people need to know which Scripture passages teach which doctrines. We should not deprive them of this learning tool, nor should we do so to ourselves. I wish I were more faithful in applying this Loci method in my own studies. Even as we teach people the sedes doctrinae let us not give them doctrine without Christ. He is, after all, the center and subject of all Scripture.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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3 Responses to Sedes Doctrinae: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Lawrence says:

    “If doctrine is not seen as integrally related and flowing from the Person and Work of Christ, then you end up with a doctrinally conservative, but Christ-less Christianity!”

    {thumb up}

    A Pastor who “gets it”.

  2. Rev. Mike Grieve says:

    Great post! I wonder if the sedes doctrinae approach could be why the majority of people in the church view the catechism as a textbook, rather than as a daily prayerbook, as Luther intended it to be? I use Luther’s Catechism (not the synodical one however) with Bible stories. I think this brings the catechism to life, so to speak, because, as you say, it draws people into the story. The person and work of Christ become more real to folks, rather than simply a set of dogmas. Don’t get me wrong – we need dogma, but not at the expense of the person and work of Christ, as you’ve said so well.

  3. Rev. M. Dent says:

    I’ve come to wonder if it’s really true that earlier theologians used these texts as “proof texts” in the way we think about them. Granted, I haven’t done an exhaustive survey, but when I run across traditional “proof texts” in study, I find more and more that in their context, the “proof texts” are not so much a disconnected “proof” to the doctrine being discussed (although it does happen sometimes) but more of a handy marker for where the doctrine and its implications are more fully expounded in scripture itself. If this observation is correct, “proof texting” was never the goal (and shouldn’t be – although I think the age of rationalism and its precursor in scholasticism and the renaissance really messed us up in this regard), but it is a means to draw people back into the narrative itself and hear the voice of God speak through the Word He has delivered once, for all. Has anyone else noticed this?

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