Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Did Luther say ... ?

Apparently, ‘tis the season to debunk myths about the blessed Martin Luther, I guess. Perhaps that’s because it’s almost time to celebrate the Feast of the Lutheran Secession -- oops, Reformation Sunday. (True Lutherans do not really, I think, celebrate the further division of the Church occasioned by the Reformation -- whether unfortunately necessary or not. But one cannot often discern that truth in Lutheran services on the Sunday before All Saints' Sunday. See my earlier rant.) Or maybe it’s just an accident of my reading.

In any event, even though I’m not particularly fixated on reading Martin Luther or reading about him (aside from the usual interest of one who sees him as a seminal figure in the development of Western culture!), I have run across two articles that deal with the good Doktor’s writing and its misapplication or with the misattribution to Luther of things he didn’t say. And it results in some questions that relate to issues I've babbled about before.

The first is Timothy Wengert’s remarkable analysis of Luther on the “priesthood of all believers” and its application to church life. In this article, Prof. Wengert closely reads Luther with freshly Visined eyes and discovers that all the mythology floating around the Lutheran churches in America (at least) is unfounded. Lutheran doctrine does not hold that any old Lutheran is free to preach, preside at sacraments, and do all the other things that some people say "only pastors should do them." He carefully parses out a couple of distinctions.

The "priesthood of all believers" is a notion that is dearly held by most Lutherans to democratize life in the Church. All Christians are equal -- whether seminary trained or not -- and are capable and have the right to do all the things necessary to connect God to humanity: If that means carrying blankets to an earthquake site, then that is "priestly action." If that means that I decide I make more sense than my pastor, then I can get up and preach. In my view, that has led to a strain of anti-clericalism in the Lutheran Church. It has also nurtured "congregationalism," in which congregations feel authorized to go their own regardless of strictures or requirements of the larger Church body to which they belong. And it has encouraged individualism in thought and practice: I exist before God on my own and I can do my own thing because I, too, am a "priest."

Wengert tries to put such notions to rest. First, he argues that in his discussions of a common "priesthood," Luther attacks the notion that priests and religious are somehow "ontologically" superior to "lay people." Luther understood Rome to hold that "priests" represented a special "order" or "estate" of creation. They were the only intermediaries between God and humanity.
Wengert understands Luther to argue that there is only one "class" (or "estate" or "Staende") before God -- viz., believer. Thus, the priest can claim no special relationship to God that poor lay folk can lay hold of only through him (yes, "priests" were exclusively "hims").

But Luther also had a horror of "lack of good order" -- i.e., of Christians asserting rights and privileges for themselves to the detriment of the congreation or church. All Christians are preachers by virtue of their baptism, true; but it is disruptive -- and counter to the clear proclamation of the Gospel -- if everyone preaches at once. The duties commonly associated with pastoral ministry (and that does not include office administration or budget balancing) do indeed belong to the whole Christian community, and not just to one class. "[But just so] because all of these things are the common property of all Christians, ... no one is allowed to proceed into the midst [of Christians] by his [or her] own authority and seize for himself [or herself] what belongs to all."

Ordination, on his view, then, is the mark that the one being ordained is authorized by the entire community to minister by "teaching, preaching and announcing the Word, baptizing, consecration or administering the Eucharist, absolving or binding sins, praying for others, sacrificing, and judging concerning all doctrines and spirits". This authorization is more, however and therefore, than the "delegation" of some duties to one or two people for the sake of efficiency. The concern for good order is a concern that the entire body be served.

As we know from the Lutheran confessions, the office of the (ordained) ministry is God-established to "secure" faith in the Gospel. It is an essential mark of the Church. (One could draw a pretty good case for the necessity of bishops on the basis of that reading, too.) If the "office" is to serve its function under the Gospel, it must be administered by the whole Church, not just individuals or a clique of a few individuals. Thus, ordination roots completely in the wider Church. One may preach and teach only with the proper authorization, in Lutheran terms, a "proper call." (Note: The call comes, not from God in some inchoate and individualized way, but through the Church, the Body, the community.)

Before I draw my own deductions from this article and show the reason I recommend the article, let me direct you to another place. The Fall 2005 issue of Word & World (the theology journal published at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul) focuses on "Work and Witness." In his editor's introduction to the number, Fred Gaiser demonstrates that two very popular quotes attributed to Luther never passed Luther's lips:

The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays -- not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.

If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.
Gaiser argues that neither of these quotes even "sounds" like Luther because they sound so modern. The first is notable for its secularity -- with its consumerist picture of God who cares, not for the effect of the work on the life of the worker or those who buy the product, but rather for the quality of the end product. Where is the concern for the welfare of the neighbor that is at the heart of Christian life? The second is not "Lutheran," either, because it suggests a kind of interest in the "moment," in the here-and-now that loses its reference to Christ and his "eschatological ethic." In both cases, Luther's theology is misshapen to the extent that it loses Luther's fundamental claim about "vocation" and "vocations" -- namely, that our vocation (or call) is to serve the neighbor, even as we have been served by Christ.

Service to the neighbor is the key to both of the concerns I raise in this post. Luther was not the ultimate individualist, not the great crusader for personal "rights," not one to focus on the short-term, not the great divider of "secular" from "sacred." Christians live under the cross and, because of that, they do not assert their "rights" to preach and preside over against other brothers and sisters. Instead, they submit to the mind of the Church and accept the ministry of those who are properly identified for pastoral ministry by the Church (whether that be a congregation or a "synod" or the universal Church -- the latest not a possibility since at least 1055). It's the same insight offered in "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" -- viz., that a Christian is perfectly free and the shape of that freedom is to serve the neighbor. The name of the Christian faith game is service.

Despite corporations' wanting believers to swallow the notion that all God cares about in your trade is getting the work done as well and cheaply as possible, that is not the issue at all in Christians' discovering their vocations (here read: work lives). God's concern is whether his children are being clothed and fed and nurtured. Thus, the appropriate question for a Christian who works is not, are these great-quality shoes (and worth the $5,000 that Prada will charge)? It is rather, am I serving the neighbor by producing such expensive shoes? The answer may be -- as it has in the past been -- that there is certain work that Christians do not undertake to do.

This issue comes to the fore in a couple of relevant cases. First, it highlights the folly of those who argue that they have a "right" to be ordained to serve the Church. There is no such thing as a "right" in the Church. There may be responsibilities, but no rights or claims to justice. (As Jesus' parables often highlighted, there are times that life in the Reign of God doesn't seem fair or right.) Those who assert such nonsense as "rights" and "standing" don't understand the Cross. (To touch on a regular concern here: That is not finally to judge the issue of ordaining non-celibate gays, of course. It is simply to say that the argument for such ordination must be made on other grounds.) It also shows that the current turmoil over "lay" preaching and presiding (which may only be an issue for Lutherans, but seems to be growing larger in our tradition) is lamentably mis-framed. Because ordination is something other than a recognition of a seminary degree, arguments over "lay preaching" really miss the whole point of ordination to preaching. If someone is preaching and presiding on a regular basis, even though not granted the imprimatur of a seminary degree, that person ought to be examined and, if qualified (and I don't mean in Greek irregular verbs), ordained -- for he or she meets the "ordered" test.

(Sorry, my seminarian brothers and sisters, it is not the seminary education that "qualifies" you for ordination, either. There is nothing other than the call of the Church that "qualifies" or equips one for pastoral ministry. And before you trump me with the Holy Spirit, I'll put my cards on the table: The Holy Spirit works through the Church as through means. She can and does work outside the administrative stuctures of the Church, of course. It's just more problematic to identify what is truly her work outside the boundaries of the Church.)

Second, these works (and many more) commend to the Church discussion of how to discern (a good churchly word, eh?) where believers are being called to serve. What are legitimate concerns in deciding on a "life's work"? Are there restrictions on the range of work that Christians may undertake? For example, in the earliest church, as I understand history (see previous blogs), Christians were not allowed to be soldiers or prostitutes. Because of the idolatry involved in (or required by those in) those professions, they were deemed to be out of the bounds of a Christian's choice of (or answer to) vocation. Are there similar options today that are foreclosed to Christians?

With then-Cardinal Ratzinger's suggestion that no war in the modern era may be considered "just" because of the nature of warfare, one must, I think, question whether soldiering and sailoring is still a possibility. How about working as an assassin for the CIA (yeah, I know: it's a little TVish). How about a judge that must, under law, impose death penalties? (See this article
by the editor of First Things, that notorious left-wing rag, for a fascinating denunciation of the death penalty. In First Things of all places!)

It is a blessing, at least for those of us who bear the middle name "Lutheran," that the study of Luther goes on. (I won't get into the discussion of whether Luther's writings trump the Lutheran Confessions -- which would be a fun one to take on.) We discover almost every day that almost from the beginning, Luther has been read through peculiar prisms that bend and twist his words to match the ideologies and cultural concerns of the day. It may be time for us to rethink some of our long-cherished attitudes which we claim to have gotten from Luther.

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